New Mexico day three
24.09.2011 - 24.09.2011
With a somewhat longer drive ahead of us today we made a prompt start from our cabin near Lake Roberts. To start with we took Highway 35 through part of the Mimbres Valley before turning off on Highway 152. We were following the Geronimo Trail, another of the state’s Scenic Byways.
And of all the scenic byways we travelled during this road trip, this was arguably the most scenic, although in fact we only travelled half of it as it is split into two sections, north and south, and we skipped the northern part – there’s never enough time for everything!
On the road in the Mimbres Valley
Leaving the green farmland of the valley the trail climbs through a dramatic rocky gorge, crossing the Black Range Mountains. It emerges at the high point (literally and figuratively) of the drive, Emory Pass. Here there is a large parking area, and although it was still quite early in the morning we were nevertheless amazed to have it to ourselves – none of the few other drivers on the road seemed minded to stop for the chance to take in this awesome vista. Here you are 8,228 feet above sea level, and the view extends east for miles. The towns of Kingston and Hillsboro can be seen below, and Caballo Lake and Mountains, over 50 miles to the east, are easily visible. On a clear day you can apparently make out Elephant Butte Dam (approximately 65 miles away) as a distant white spot, but we had quite a bit of haze and could see no further than Caballo. Even so, it was an stunning view and one we lingered over for a while.
Panoramic view from Emory Pass
The views from Emory Pass
Kingston seen from Emory Pass
After Emory Pass, the road descended through a long series of hairpin bends, but although slow it was in good condition and not too difficult a drive. Near the bottom, we were on the look-out for a sign to the former boom town of Kingston, now home to just a handful of residents.
This is officially a ghost town, although a few people live here. It was founded in 1882 after a rich lode of silver ore was discovered in the area, and became a thriving metropolis almost overnight. At the height of the silver mining boom its population outstripped that of Albuquerque by at least 1,000. Its many hotels played host to Mark Twain and to assorted outlaws: Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Black Jack Ketchum, and Billy the Kid. Its stage lines served all major routes, and there were 23 saloons, 14 stores, a brewery, 3 newspapers, and an Opera House.
Today only a few buildings remain, and the Percha Bank is the only fully intact original building in the town. Built in 1884, it was once the largest bank in New Mexico Territory and at its richest held $7 million in silver in its vault. The bank has been restored and is Kingston’s only sight, but we found it closed for further restoration. A sign said it was to re-open in Fall 201, so it seems we may have missed it by just a week or so! But although it was closed, it was quite easy to peer through the windows and see its ornate lobby, the tellers’ windows and a small display of old photos etc.
Beyond Kingston the road passes through Hillsboro, another former mining town but with more life to it than Kingston, including some nice cafes and a great little gallery. But the warning sign that we spotted as we arrived, which said we were apparently approaching a ‘congested area’, was more than a little misleading. We live in London so we know what a congested area looks like, and let me assure you that it does not look like Hillsboro! It would be hard to find a more peaceful, tranquil little town.
Admittedly in times past it would have been rather different. Hillsboro is one of New Mexico’s many towns founded in the boom times of the mid- to late- 19th century, when silver was mined in the surrounding hills. At one time its population numbered 10,000, but the town went bust when in 1893 the price of silver plummeted, and by the mid 1890s fewer than 2,000 residents remained. Unlike some towns though (including nearby Kingston), Hillsboro managed to survive, kept alive by a few gold mines in the area, and cattle ranches dotted around this wild and rocky landscape. It was for a while the county seat, but lost that status to Hot Springs (later renamed Truth or Consequences) in 1936, and with it most of the remaining population.
Today the population is just 200, and from what we observed on this lovely Saturday morning, everyone pretty much knows everyone else. But whether they know you or not, Hillsboro folk seem quick to offer a friendly greeting. We had only planned to stop for a few minutes, but we lingered. In just a short while Hillsboro and its friendly residents had charmed us. And for the rest of the trip we were to measure the busyness of a place by how ‘congested’ it was in comparison to lovely, sleepy Hillsboro.
When we drove away from the cabin at about 8.30 that morning, the thermometer in the car had read 42 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, some two hours later, it was reading 82 degrees, a climb of 40 degrees in just two hours, driven by not only the sun climbing higher in the sky but also by our own descent to slightly lower elevations. So our first stop here was at the General Store Café, to have a cold drink.
Mural on the side of the General Store Café
General Store Café sign
Chillies drying on the porch
This lovely old building is part of a larger structure destroyed in the 1914 flood. In the past it has housed a bank, a post office, a general store and a drug store. Today it is a friendly establishment clearly popular with locals as well as passers-by like us. The interior retains much of its former character with old shop fixtures and fittings, but as it was pretty full with customers enjoying a late Saturday breakfast and we only wanted a drink, we took our orange juices out to the shady porch where we enjoyed watching laid-back Hillsboro go about its morning business.
Refreshed, we decided to explore some more. We popped into Percha Creek Traders to see if they had any nice postcards, but we found ourselves lingering for a while, there was so much to see! We found an excellent selection of local photographs, paintings in all sorts of styles, fabric crafts, jewellery, pottery and more. The sales person explained that this is a local co-operative, run by and for local artists and craftspeople. When they started there were just a handful in the area, but their members now number over 20 and they are growing all the time. Clearly Hillsboro is a place that attracts artists.
Percha Creek Traders
Although we had only intended to look for postcards, I was also on the look-out on this trip for a picture to go in our recently decorated hallway. But what caught my eye was not a picture but a piece of what I guess you would call ‘wall art’ – a ceramic horse created with a technique known as Raku. This is a traditional Japanese technique in which the glazed piece is fired and removed from the hot kiln and is put directly into water or is allowed to cool in the open air. The result is an unpredictable metallic finish, making each piece unique. The technique has been adopted by local artist Kathy Lovell for her range of ‘Kathy’s Kritters’ (I loved the work, but cringed at the name!) We were taken by the turquoise colours of some of her horses and knew that it would be a great match for our hall, so duly bought one. We later saw some of Kathy’s work in other galleries, e.g. in Mesilla, but we were pleased to have bought our horse here in her home town. And it still hangs in our hall today!
Soon after leaving Hillsboro Highway 152 reaches the interstate where we turned north for Truth or Consequences and Socorro, where we were to spend that night. Some of the views were still good, but I25 is no scenic byway!
Truth or Consequences
We broke our journey north in this oddly named small town, where we popped into the Geronimo Springs Museum – the sort of quirky place you can’t help but like, with an eclectic mix of objects covering a range of topics such as local history, geology and crafts. Checking its website I feel it must have grown since we were there, as I don’t recall it absorbing more than 30 minutes or so of our time.
Busts of famous figures from the region’s history
Recreation of the bar that once occupied this building
We did however learn the story of the town’s unusual name here. It was previously known as Hot Springs, named for the several natural springs in the area around the town. Its present-day name comes from the popular radio show of the 1940s and 50s, Truth or Consequences. In March 1950, Ralph Edwards, the host of the show, announced that he would air the programme on its 10th anniversary from the first town to rename itself after the show. Hot Springs won the prize by officially changing its name on March 31st. The programme was broadcast from there the very next evening, April 1st. Ralph Edwards and his wife Barbara adopted the town as a sort of second home, visiting during the first weekend of May for the next 50 years. The town would hold a fiesta to mark their visit with beauty pageants, parades, fishing contests, rodeos, jeep rides, and boat races down the Rio Grande. Fiesta is still celebrated here each May.
Leaving the museum we found a café for a light lunch. We had thought about visiting the nearby Elephant Butte Lake but having spent so long in Hillsboro decided to push on north instead. There was one further place which we were keen to visit before reaching our final destination for the day.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
A little to the south of Socorro lies one of the most interesting bird-watching venues in New Mexico, considered worth a visit even if you're not a ‘serious’ birder – which neither of us is. For a short while in late October/early November it becomes a focus for birding enthusiasts as tens of thousands of birds, including sandhill cranes, geese and ducks, descend on the refuge and settle into their winter home. Their arrival is met with a festival, the annual Festival of the Cranes, on the weekend before Thanksgiving. We were in the area a couple of months earlier than this but thought that the refuge would still be worth a visit as there would be bound to be some birds whatever the time of year. We were, with a few exceptions, wrong!
We were a little surprised on arrival in the parking lot by the visitor centre to see only one other car, but we figured that other visitors would be out exploring the loop drive. So we went inside, had a helpful chat with the ranger on duty who showed us on a map which roads through the refuge were open and explained that at this time of year (late September) we would be too early to see the large migrations but should see herons, cormorants and other birds out on the lagoon at the end of the loop drive. That sounded promising, so we headed out that way and were quite excited to see a large heron (I think a Great Blue) from the car as we approached, although it flew off before I could get a photo. So we parked up and followed a path that led out across the lagoon on a rather noisy metal footbridge. We got a good close-up look at the turtles that live here year round, and a more distant view of some cormorants drying their wings in characteristic pose, but otherwise it was pretty deserted, and sadly the heron never returned. Maybe a more patient birding enthusiast would have lingered longer but we decided that we would rather cut our losses, so left to explore downtown Socorro instead.
Capitol Bar, Socorro
We chose Socorro as an overnight stop primarily for its convenience, being a reasonable driving distance between several places we wanted to visit and at the junction of I25, which had brought us north from the Gila Forest area, and Highway 60 which we would take tomorrow.
We arrived here late afternoon and checked into our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express. As with the town, so with the hotel, which we also chose for its convenient location. We have found over the years that so many US towns have plenty of good-value motels, both chain and independent, on their outskirts, but few or none in the centre. And as we like to be able to walk to a reasonable restaurant in the evening (rather than drive) that can be a challenge as the better restaurants (and bars – also important!) can be in the centre, sometimes several miles away. But in the case of Socorro I had read good reviews of the Socorro Springs Brewery and spotted that the Holiday Inn Express seemed from its address to be very near – problem sorted.
Dog in the Plaza
Once we had checked in, we went straight out again to explore the town. Although not a major tourist destination it does have a few sights of interest. If you pass by on I25, or even if you leave the Interstate and drive through on the main thoroughfare, California Street, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing to Socorro apart from chain motels, fast food restaurants, supermarkets, shopping plazas and gas stations. Certainly you are unlikely to realise from this superficial glance that there is any real history to the town, let alone that some of this history is on show just one block behind the modern face that it turns to the highway.
But so it is. One block west of California Street is Socorro’s Plaza, and in its immediate surroundings you can get a sense of the small pueblo it once was. The town was founded in June 1598, when a group of Spanish settlers travelled through the nearby Jornada del Muerto, an inhospitable patch of desert that ends just south of the present-day city of Socorro. As they emerged from the desert near the pueblo of Teypana, the native Piro Indians gave them food and water. So the Spaniards renamed the pueblo Socorro, in honour of the aid given to them.
They later established a mission here, Nuestra Señora de Perpetuo Socorro (Our Lady of Perpetual Succour). But during the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the Piro Indians and Spanish settlers left for safer territory to the south, and without the protection of Spanish troops, the town was destroyed and the remaining Piro killed by the Apache and other tribes. It wasn’t until around 1800, that a small group of Spaniards resettled Socorro.
The plaza on the late Saturday afternoon when we visited appeared to be a popular hang-out for local young people, assorted dog-walkers and other locals maybe meeting up with friends prior to evening Mass at the nearby church or a few Saturday night beers perhaps. The atmosphere was quite lively but not one in which we as the (I think) sole tourists felt out of place.
The Wheel of History
The centre of the plaza is a small park, Kittrel Park, named for a local dentist who first planted the grass and trees here, and around it are a few sights such as the ‘Wheel of History’. This bronze sculpture, just to the north of the plaza itself, was created in the late 90s to illustrate the history of the town.
Around the edge of the plaza and in nearby streets are a number of interesting signs such as the ones in my photos, each depicting a feature of the town or surrounding area.
Signs around the Plaza
After our stroll around the plaza we were ready for some refreshment, and found it in the Manzanero Coffee Bar on its eastern side (now renamed as M Mountain Coffee it seems). They brewed proper espresso, made some delicious iced coffee drinks, and it was the sort of place where we felt comfortable sitting for quite a while over our drinks while writing a few post-cards.
An evening in Socorro
I have already mentioned that we chose our hotel for its proximity to a promising sounding watering hole, the Socorro Springs Brewery, which appears to be still going strong. And unsurprisingly so, judging by the pleasant evening we spent here. The restaurant specialises in wood-fired pizzas, and they were very good. To go with them we naturally chose from their selection of microbrews, which was equally good – especially, I noted, the Bridgeport’s Café Negro, with its strong espresso after-taste (created, according to the menu, by infusing ‘a specialised blend of coffee with the base beer during cold conditioning’). All in all, an excellent evening!