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Staying in Silver

New Mexico day one


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Having collected our hire car from the Hertz office at El Paso Airport we drove north along I10 towards the border with New Mexico. And talking of borders, from the road we had a clear view of the one between the USA and Mexico proper off to our left, with a lot of high fences, the Rio Grande beyond, and beyond that the houses of Ciudad Juarez.

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Entering New Mexico

Crossing into New Mexico we swung west past Las Cruces, which we planned to visit on our return to the airport at the end of our trip, still on I10. We stopped briefly in Deming for a coffee and to pick up picnic supplies. I photographed a shiny Harley Davidson bike parked outside the coffee shop – such photos were to become a recurring motif on this trip.

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In a Deming coffee shop, and Harley parked outside

City of Rocks State Park

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City of Rocks panorama

Our first proper stop was at this small but fascinating state park some miles north of Deming. If you like unusual landscapes and photogenic rock formations, this is the place for you. A group of bizarrely-shaped rocks rises from an otherwise fairly featureless plain as if they had been placed here by ancient man, but this is a completely natural construction. The outcrop was formed of volcanic ash 35 million years ago and sculpted by wind and water into these rows and groups of monolithic blocks, which are said to resemble streets of skyscrapers (hence the name, City of Rocks). Apparently the rock formations at the park are so unique that they are only known to exist in six other places in the world – but I haven’t been able to find out what those six places might be.

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At the City of Rocks [our picnic spot on the right]

This was a great place in which to enjoy the food we had bought in Deming, with lots of tables dotted among the rocks. A helpful ranger spotted us setting up for our picnic and recommended that we try a different area on the other side of the formations where the views and light would be better – they were.

Lunch finished we spent some time exploring between the rows of rocks and taking lots of photos. It’s hard to do this place justice, but I hope my panorama gives an idea of the scale.

We also went into the visitor centre where you can see a short video about how the rocks were formed. We thought about doing the nature trail through the cactus garden too, but an approaching storm made us think twice, as we weren’t sure this would be a good place to be if the fork lightening came any closer. Our new friend the helpful ranger pointed out how the rain wasn’t actually hitting the ground – rising heat from the plains turns it to steam before it can do so. This phenomenon is known as virga.

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Storm approaching

Silver City

From the City of Rocks we continued north to Silver City which was to be our base for the night. We had pre-booked accommodation at a B&B, the Inn on Broadway, which seems now to be operating under new owners as Serenity House. It looks as if it would be just as good a place to stay now as we found it to be back then, and it certainly gave us a very well-located base for enjoying all that Silver, as locals call it, had to offer.

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The Inn on Broadway

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The Hummingbird Room

Silver City was formed in the 1870s, after the discovery of silver in and around the town. It quickly became a boom town, and like many in New Mexico can lay claim to an association with the outlaw Billy the Kid. He lived here as in his teens (some accounts say he was born here, but most that he came with his family from New York), had his first job here, committed his first crime here, and reportedly killed his first man here. He was arrested and briefly imprisoned, before moving on to wreak his havoc elsewhere, most notoriously in Lincoln County.

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Colourful street in Silver

Meanwhile the silver boom faded, and with its demise Silver (as the locals call it) faded too. But in recent years the town has undergone a revival. And unlike some carefully ‘restored’ old towns it seems unafraid to mix old and new. It has become common to use cheerful paint colours to restore and revive the old buildings, perhaps influenced by the many artists and hippies who have settled here.

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Cast iron building on W Broadway

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Another splash of colour

Shops on the main street, Bullard, are an idiosyncratic mix of appealing galleries and small-town ‘not really changed since the 1950s’ shops. Residents too seem to be a mix of ageing hippies, relaxed artists working in all genres, university students and lecturers, and assorted drop-outs. We liked Silver a lot!

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Harley Davidson detail

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Bikers outside the Palace Hotel, and another Harley

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Ice cream at Alotta Gelato

When we set off to explore Silver our host at the Inn on Broadway had mentioned that the best ice cream could be had at Alotta Gelato (also now sadly closed down) towards the north end of Bullard. So when we arrived at that end of town we decided to pop in for our first ice cream treat of the holiday. And it was a treat! This unprepossessing place served only ice cream made on the premises and the guy who served us, whom I suspected was also the owner, was very helpful and knowledgeable in describing the flavours and how they are made. It was pretty difficult to choose even though the mid-size cups we selected held enough for three flavours. In the end I opted for lemon sorbet, butter pecan and sour cherry – all were good, but the lemon sorbet in particular was a belter! Chris chose mango, blueberry and chocolate – I had a taste of the latter and it was dark, rich-flavoured and totally excellent.

Refreshed we continued our wander, heading one block east to see Silver’s most idiosyncratic ‘attraction’, a ditch. Yes, really – but not just any ditch! This is the Big Ditch. Until the end of the 19th century it was Silver City’s Main Street. But around that time there was a series of floods, and one result of these was that on the night of July 21st 1895, Main Street collapsed into a muddy chasm. Businesses on its west side ‘turned their backs’ on it and started to use their rear entrances on Bullard Street, which therefore gradually became a replacement main street without ever changing its name accordingly, and the original street was never restored.

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The Big Ditch

Nowadays the chasm has been turned into a pleasant park that runs the length of downtown and provides shade on a hot day. About halfway along, on the west side of the park, you can see Warren House which is the only one still standing intact from the pre-flood days.

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Warren House

Back near the B&B we passed the town’s museum, which is in a nice old Victorian house and is apparently worth a quick visit to see the old photos of the town (especially before the floods that created the Big Ditch). Unfortunately though we spent too long taking photos in the town, and enjoying our ice cream, with the result that we got here just after the rather early 4.30 pm closing time. So we didn’t get to climb up the cupola, which our Moon Handbook said was worth doing, and didn’t get to check out the old maps (I love maps!) and a room furnished in Victorian style.

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The museum

An evening in Silver

For dinner that evening we went to the nearby Jalisco Café at the bottom end of Bullard. Unlike our B&B and the ice cream parlour, this is still in operation it seems. It occupies a row of three or four old shops and looked welcoming with an appealing New Mexican menu. It also seemed very popular with local families and was pretty busy – both good signs, we thought, although as it turned out this was to be a somewhat mixed experience.

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Chris in the Jalisco Café

On entering we found ourselves in the first ‘shop’ in the row, now just an entrance lobby with seating for waiting customers. We were welcomed and shown to a table in the middle section, where most other tables were already occupied. Our server was friendly and explained a couple of dishes on the menu, as well as recommending a good Mexican beer (Dos Equis, which became a staple on our trip).

Our meal started with complimentary chips and salsa. We had barely started on these though when our main courses arrived. Chris had chosen the chicken enchiladas with red chilli sauce – hot and tasty. I’d gone for a slightly riskier choice but it paid off – I really loved the crab tostadas and they would be worthy of a more up-market and pricier restaurant than this. Two crispy shells spread with a thin layer of guacamole and piled high with plenty of crab meat, chopped mango, red onion etc, all drizzled with red chilli sauce – delicious!

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My delicious crab tostadas

But while we were still enjoying these dishes our waitress came over to ask if we wanted dessert. We explained that we wouldn’t know until we had finished our mains, which she accepted, but she was back again the moment we put down our cutlery. Although full, we decided that as it was our first night in New Mexico, and we’d heard so much about sopapillas, we should try one. She willingly brought us one to sample – a large puffy bread with honey to drizzle inside. But she also brought the bill, and it seemed pretty clear to us that we were being encouraged to leave, especially when the now-empty tables around us were cleared and the chairs upturned on some of them.

Please don’t think we were eating late – this was at 8.10 pm (the restaurant apparently closes at 8.30 p m which seems ridiculously early by European standards but is fairly normal in small-town America). So we got the message, paid our bill and left, assuming ourselves to be one of the last to go. Imagine our surprise when we walked past the far section of the restaurant, which had been hidden to our sight inside, to see it with tables full and meals still coming out. We couldn’t help nursing a suspicion that our young waitress had a date that evening and was super-keen to get away early! Well, never mind – we had enjoyed our meal and as the night was young we headed to the nearby Buffalo Bar ...

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In the Buffalo Bar

Our Moon Handbook on New Mexico told us that, ‘Just about everyone in town mixes at the Buffalo Bar’, so we decided to do the same. This is an unpretentious-looking (and unpretentious) bar on the main drag, Bullard, towards its southern end, and still in operation today as far as I can see.

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Beer in the Buffalo Bar

When we first went in and took seats at the bar it was fairly quiet, and it never got exactly busy, but it did liven up and we had a really nice evening here. On the bar maid’s recommendation we drank, and enjoyed, a few bottles of Sierra Blanca from Carrizozo in the middle of the state – a pleasant lager which unfortunately we never saw again on our trip. Some locals came in and started a game of pool, as well as putting some coins into the juke-box – and this was just the right setting in which to enjoy their chosen Tom Petty tracks. When we went over to pay for a few tunes ourselves, as seemed only fair, another local came over and insisted on paying, while asking us what we would like – very friendly. We ended up staying well over an hour, despite being a little tired from our first day’s driving (and being still on English time). Do drop into the Buffalo Bar for a drink if you’re in Silver – I’m sure you’ll get a warm welcome too.

But despite the welcoming atmosphere in the bar, a fairly early night was required as we still had a touch of jet lag, so we walked back to the Inn on Broadway pretty pleased with our first day in New Mexico.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:33 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes streets beer road_trip restaurant history weather new_mexico street_photography Comments (12)

On the Geronimo Trail

New Mexico day three


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The Geronimo Trail

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!

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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.

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Panoramic view from Emory Pass

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The views from Emory Pass

Kingston

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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.

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The Percha Bank

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Hillsboro

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.

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Hillsboro

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.

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Mural on the side of the General Store Café

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General Store Café sign

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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.

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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!

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Our purchase

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.

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Busts of famous figures from the region’s history

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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!

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Cormorants

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Turtle

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More turtles

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.

Socorro

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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.

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Our room in Socorro

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Socorro Springs Brewery

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Posted by ToonSarah 02:21 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes art birds beer road_trip restaurant history views museum reptiles new_mexico Comments (9)

‘Hot dog, jumping frog’

New Mexico day five continued


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Albuquerque

As we drove into Albuquerque after a fascinating morning spent visiting Acoma Pueblo, we had two things on our minds. One was lunch; the other a song by one of our favourite bands, Prefab Sprout:

All my lazy teenage boasts are now high precision ghosts
And they're coming round the track to haunt me.
When she looks at me and laughs I remind her of the facts
I'm the king of rock 'n' roll completely
Up from suede shoes to my baby blues
Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque
Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque …
[The King of Rock and Roll]

While the song has nothing to do with Albuquerque beyond the frequent repetition of the line ‘Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque’, it was naturally stuck in our heads as the only thing we had ever heard about the city prior to visiting!

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Downtown car, Albuquerque

Although it is the largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque surprises by not being the state capital – Santa Fe has that honour. The city was established as the Villa de San Felipe de Alburquerque in 1706. Initially a small farming community clustered around the church of San Felipe de Neri, it expanded rapidly when the Camino Real, the main trade route north from Mexico, was developed to run through the area just a few decades later. Later came the railroad, which triggered expansion to the eastern side of the Old Town, in what then was known as New Town but today is Downtown. This was followed by Route 66, which ran through the city on its Central Avenue, and later still further expansion out into the surrounding desert.

Thus Albuquerque has always been a city for travellers, a stopping point on a journey, and so it was for us. Despite its many attractions, we decided to spend only one night here, preferring to have more of our limited time in more scenic parts of the state. Nevertheless we had time to explore the Old Town and see something of the Art Deco style of the Downtown area too.

Perhaps inevitably we were to leave the next morning wishing we had stayed longer, but Santa Fe beckoned, and that did indeed deserve more of our time ...

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Chilies for sale

Meanwhile, here we are on I40 heading into the city with lunch top of our agenda. We found parking near the compact old town and set off to explore.

At first it seemed to us that most of the places around the Plaza were more suited to a large dinner than the sort of light meal we were after. But then we spotted the sign for the Bebe Café (now closed down, I believe) and followed the trail into a pretty courtyard surrounded by interesting little shops, and in one corner a small café with just a few tables outside.

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The Bebe Café

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Turkey wrap

There was one other customer there, waiting for his lunch, and with just the one server we had to wait a short while as all the sandwiches are made freshly to order. But we didn’t mind as it was very pleasant sitting in the courtyard with our cold drinks, and the sandwiches when they came (the day's special of turkey and mango salsa wrap) were very good. The server explained that she had to get to class (clearly a student working to pay her way through college) so would have to lock up the café, but the owner would be along soon – or if we finished our meal before then we could just leave plates etc. on our outside table – very casual and friendly.

After lunch we had a look around the little shops off the courtyard, especially a very good photography gallery opposite the café, and then set out to explore the Old Town area.

The Old Town Plaza

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Gazebo in the Old Town Plaza

As in any Spanish colonial city, the heart of Albuquerque’s Old Town is its Plaza. The town was founded in 1706 and as it grew settlers built their houses near the church and around a defensible centre, which eventually became the plaza.

Shaded with trees it is a very pleasant place in which to take a rest between sightseeing and shopping (the two main activities in the Old Town). Children play, and both locals and tourists relax on the benches. At the centre is a gazebo which apparently is a popular place for wedding photos to be taken after ceremonies in the church. Also on the plaza are two replicas of cannons which were buried by retreating Confederate troops during a Civil War skirmish on April 8 – 9, 1862. The original cannons are in the Albuquerque Museum.

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Jewellery seller, Old Town Plaza

The Plaza is surrounded by restaurants, shops with high tourist-appeal and under the porticos of some of these Native American traders sell jewellery and other crafts. We didn’t buy anything here (although were to do so a couple of days later in a similar setting in Santa Fe) but it looked a good option if you are shopping – it’s always nice to buy direct rather than pay shop overheads!

San Felipe de Neri

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San Felipe de Neri

The most striking building in Albuquerque’s Old Town is the church of San Felipe de Neri on the north side of the Plaza, the oldest building in the city. With its slightly incongruous white wooden spires gleaming against the blue sky it is very hard to miss. These spires are a later addition to the late 18th century adobe structure, which itself was built to replace the original (1706) building that collapsed after the particularly rainy summer of 1792. The spires were added under the direction of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, whom we were to encounter again later in our trip, in Santa Fe. This French bishop came to the area with very European ideas of what a place of worship should look like – and it wasn’t built of mud!

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San Felipe de Neri, outside and in

The bulk of San Felipe de Neri is adobe however, with five foot thick walls. Its cool interior would have been welcoming in the heat of the afternoon even if we hadn’t been interested to explore within. It isn’t large but is quite grand in appearance, with an ornate Baroque altar and an elaborate pressed-tin ceiling (added in 1916).

Capilla de Nostra Senora de Guadelupe

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Patio Escondido, Albuquerque

This tiny cross-shaped chapel is a hidden gem of the Old Town, and I’m sure many tourists pass by without realising that is there – we certainly would have done so if it were not for our trusty Moon Handbook, as it isn’t visible from the road and neither is it signposted. It is tucked away in the pretty Patio Escondido and is dedicated to the first saint of Mexico.

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Our Lady of Guadelupe

It is clear by the votive candles burning here, the flowers and the little prayer messages that it is an active place of devotion. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe dominates one arm of the cross, to your right as you enter, and opposite it is a colourful stained glass circular window which acts as perpetual calendar, showing the Feasts of the Virgin and the phases of the moon. Opposite the entrance is a small altar.

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Inside the chapel

After our visit I found a story associated with the chapel, which claims that it is haunted by a lady in black. She has apparently often been seen seated on the far right bench of the chapel, weeping copiously. She wears a long black dress and her face is concealed by a dark veil. She is often mistaken for a real person, until she mysteriously vanishes, at which point the observer realises that she cannot after all be real. The lady is not menacing or threatening, but those who have seen her say that there is a deep sense of sadness emulating from her.

The chapel is not old, having been built in 1975 by a Dominican nun, Sister Giotto, as part of the establishment of a school of sacred art in Albuquerque, the Sagrada. Outside the chapel a wall is decorated with a number of small ceramic tiles set in at intervals, portraying various saints.

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Decorative tile of St Francis

Meeting a medallist!

Our warm sunny afternoon spent exploring the Old Town certainly called for an ice cream at some point, and we found a few places to choose from to the west of the Plaza, opting for Romero House Ices (also now closed down) because it had plenty of seating outside. It is located in an old house, Romero House, which was built in 1915 and was the last major home built on the plaza. Today it has been converted into a sort of mini mall, with a couple of galleries/shops opening off its central corridor and this small café tucked away at the back. As well as a good selection of ice cream and frozen yoghurt, as promised outside, they also sell cakes and fast food savoury treats such as nachos and grilled sandwiches.

While perusing the different flavours on offer we got talking to the woman selling behind the counter and asked if we could take a few photos. She agreed, and suggested that her father should be in them. It turned out that he was one of two older men sitting at a table in the corner, and as she explained, he is a bit of a local celebrity, having won medals at the Senior Olympics for race-walking. Slightly bashfully he agreed to pose – to be honest, I think he really rather liked the attention even while protesting that he wasn’t worth a photo!

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A Senior Olympian and his medals!

Photography over, we turned back to the display of ices. I had a mango sorbet and pistachio, and Chris chose chocolate and strawberry. We ate them outside in the shade of the flowering bushes on the patio and they were fine – not as good as those we had enjoyed a few days earlier in Silver City, but pretty good just the same.

Staying in Albuquerque

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The Hotel Blue, Albuquerque

After our ices we decided to go and check into our hotel. The ones in the Old Town were pretty pricey so I had reserved a room in the Hotel Blue, which had been recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, Gillian. This is located in the downtown business area on a stretch of Route 66, here known as Central Avenue.

The hotel is a modernised 1930s cross between a motel and hotel – the shape, lobby, parking lot etc are more like a hotel in feel, but you access your room from an outside walkway. This may not suit everyone (I saw a few reviews expressing concerns about security) but we had no issues with it, and rather enjoyed the expansive views of the city from our fifth floor room. We were lucky to have been given one in the north east corner as these have views of the mountains beyond the city.

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The lobby of the Hotel Blue

The hotel lobby is very impressive and really reflects the Art Deco style of much of this Downtown district. Staff at reception were friendly and helpful, and there was the nice touch of a plate of cookies on the desk for guests to help themselves!

The décor in the rooms was a lot plainer and the external areas (e.g. the walkways) were not up to the standard of the interiors, but on the whole we felt the facilities and overall appearance exceeded what we would expect for this price and were very happy with our choice.

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Our room at the Hotel Blue

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View from the walkway outside our door

Exploring Central Avenue

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Signs on Central Avenue

In the early evening we had a walk along part of Central Avenue, near the hotel. Had we not been staying in the Downtown area we might never have explored beyond Albuquerque’s touristy Old Town, and that would have been a mistake. We really liked the ‘vibe’ around here, even though it might be considered a little edgy by some.

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The KiMo Theatre

We spent some time wandering up and down the road, checking out a few shops (there was a fascinating large one with a huge range of Native American items, from the kitsch to high-end crafts) and taking photos of the wonderful KiMo Theatre. This is a 1920’s cinema whose ornate ‘Pueblo Deco’ style was inspired by Native American iconography in the same way that cinemas of that era elsewhere were built in the style of Moorish mosques or Chinese pagodas. You can tour the interior, which I would have loved to have done, but it’s only open for tours during the day unfortunately. It sounds amazing, according to the cinema’s website, with ‘plaster ceiling beams textured to look like logs and painted with dance and hunt scenes, air vents disguised as Navajo rugs, chandeliers shaped like war drums and Native American funeral canoes, wrought iron birds descending the stairs and rows of garlanded buffalo skulls with eerie, glowing amber eyes.’

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On Central Avenue

This area was once the city’s ‘New Town’, developed in the early years of the last century on either side of Central Avenue (which is in fact a stretch of iconic Route 66), and was the commercial hub. But as the city grew, new shopping plazas opened in outlying districts and the centre declined and became ever scruffier, with boarded up shops and unused office buildings. Then at the turn of this century a movement started to revitalise it, following the principles of New Urbanism. These don’t seem very revolutionary to me, as a European and Londoner, but in the US possibly only New York and few other older cities would recognise what the planners are attempting here. The idea is to create mixed-use neighbourhoods where people can live, work and play without relying on cars. Everything they need – shops, restaurants, bars – should be within a ten minute walk. In a typical American city, where going out means getting in the car and pedestrians are a novelty (we know, we have been those pedestrians!), this is a radical concept – and a marvellous one.

Some redevelopment had already happened in the 1990s, with bars and restaurants springing up on Central Avenue, but the idea that Downtown could be a place to live was a fairly new one when we visited in 2011.

Downtown dining

One reason for choosing the Hotel Blue was the free shuttle service offered to take guests to the Old Town, which we thought would be useful when it came to going out for dinner, but my research had thrown up a few options in the immediate area, so in the end we didn’t take advantage of this. Instead we went to the Flying Star Café, recommended in our Moon Handbook. This is a small local chain with a handful of branches in the city. The one we visited seems to have since closed down but there are still several in the city.

The branch we visited was located in an interesting and rather striking building – which I completely failed to take any photos of! It was originally the Southern Union Gas Company and was designed in 1950 by a regionally famous architect, John Gaw Meem. The gas company stopped using it about 17 years ago and the building was restored for use by the café. It has been granted the status of a National Historic Place, and today is occupied by an IT company, Rural Sourcing (see https://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/news/2016/09/07/how-this-tech-company-turned-a-downtown-restaurant.html).

On the evening we visited the café was busy with a wide variety of diners – students making a coffee last for hours while working on laptops (there is free wifi), groups of friends evidently on the first leg of a night out, tourists like ourselves, family groups, business people etc etc. This was clearly a popular spot.

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In the Flying Star Café

We went to the counter to order (no table service here) and found several tempting dishes on the menu. We decided to keep with the casual vibe and go for sandwiches – Chris’s the Turkey and Swiss on rye, and mine the “MOO-ve Over Meat” veggie burger, which was delicious (I’m not a vegetarian but I do like anything spicy, which this promised to be: a ‘grilled, spicy southwest black bean patty with melted cheddar & Cajun dressing’). Both our sandwiches came with a choice of sides – I opted for the homemade BBQ potato chips while Chris had the French fries.

To go with our meals we ordered a couple of bottles of Santa Fe pale ale – and thus began one of the more amusing incidents of our trip. It is New Mexico state law that anyone drinking alcohol must be over 21 years of age. Neither Chris nor I are under any delusions that we look anything like that age for decades! Consequently we were not surprised to be able to buy beer and other drinks in a number of places during the first few days of our trip. The friendly Buffalo Bar in Silver City happily served us beer and Jack Daniels; the Socorro Springs Brewery had no problem with us enjoying their brews both with and after our meal; and our hotel in Grants served us without a quibble. So imagine our surprise, and initial amusement, when we were asked to show ID here. It was, even back then, a very long while since anyone questioned whether I was over 21! But the server was adamant – no ID, no beer. She did offer to see if her manager would waive the rule, but the manager too was insistent. According to her, state laws meant that anyone serving alcohol to anyone had to ask for and see evidence that they were of legal drinking age. We pointed out that no one else had so far done so, but she said that she could lose her job if the police were to raid the restaurant and find anyone drinking without ID, so Chris popped back to the hotel (thankfully only a few minutes away) to get our passports.

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Chris with passport and hard-won beer!

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Key lime pie on the house

To be fair the manager was only doing her job and we certainly didn’t want her to lose it because of us! And she obviously felt a bit bad because when I went up to the counter to order dessert (Key Lime pie to share and a decaf latte for Chris) she came over to tell the server that it was on the house – how kind!

After this incident we made a point of taking our passports out each evening, but hardly anywhere else apart from Albuquerque did we come across anyone who bothered about this law, if law it was. In the end, only one other place asked for ID, and that was a small family-run restaurant in Alamogordo which had only recently got its license and was presumably being very carefully to do the right thing.

After dinner we again strolled along Central Avenue, and saw for ourselves how the area was becoming more lively when we stopped off for a night-cap.

There were a couple of bars on this stretch of road; one had a live band and therefore a cover charge, but the other, although it had a DJ playing records in one corner, was free to enter. The Blackbird Buvette (now closed down, it appears) was quite a dark and old-fashioned bar and on this warm evening it seemed a shame to sit inside, especially as the music would also have made conversation difficult, so we were pleased to see a table available on the pavement outside. The tables though were carefully roped off and to reach them you had to go into the bar, passing the bouncer who, like the server in the Flying Star, asked us for ID – we were ready for the question this time!

We bought our drinks (a Sodbuster Pale Ale for Chris and a Jack Daniels for me) and grabbed the free table. We then passed a very pleasant half hour or so watching the late evening activity of Downtown – dog-walkers, late-night shoppers, sporty gym-goers, a few tourists, groups of girls clearly on their way home from the gym, young people and older couples on a night out and a handful of business people who had perhaps stayed late at the office that night. It felt much more urban than most US cities do to me, with their sprawling suburbs and often hard-to-identify centres, and we really enjoyed sitting there.

Posted by ToonSarah 14:35 Archived in USA Tagged churches buildings people architecture beer road_trip history restaurants city new_mexico Comments (9)

The truth is out there

New Mexico day fourteen continued


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

From Fort Sumner we continued south, cutting across country on State Road 20, with hardly another vehicle to be seen, and then picking up Highway 285 for the run down into Roswell.

Roswell

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Lamp post in Roswell

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Days Inn, Roswell

Our first task on arriving in Roswell was to find somewhere to stay for the night. There seemed to be no accommodation right in the centre of the town but we found a Days Inn in a good location for us, near some restaurants and reasonably priced (neither the cheapest nor by any means the dearest that Roswell has to offer).

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Our room

Many of the rooms were set well back from the busy main road, and we were able to secure one of these – a large room on the ground floor, with parking right outside as is the norm in US motels. We had a comfortable king-size bed, fridge, microwave (didn’t use this so can’t vouch for it), large TV and coffee-making facilities. The bathroom was clean and well-maintained, with basic toiletries and a hairdryer provided. The motel also had a pool but this had closed for the season, so I couldn’t have taken a dip even if we’d had time, which we didn’t – there were sights to be seen!

Roswell would be a totally unremarkable town were it not for a single event – an event that quite possibly didn’t even happen, or at least not in the way that many believe it to have done. In June 1947 a local man found some odd-looking debris on a ranch some 30 miles north of the town. Many of those who believe in UFOs are convinced that he had found a crashed spaceship, complete with its alien pilot who died in the crash. Sceptics are equally convinced that it was no such thing. But whatever the truth of the matter, one thing is certain – today, Roswell is a town obsessed.

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Parking for aliens

You cannot spend time in Roswell today without encountering a large number of aliens – they are everywhere! In shop window displays, on lamp-posts – the local McDonalds even provides parking for them. Depending on your viewpoint this is either an endearing example of American kitsch at its best, or a desperate attempt to attract visitors to a town that would otherwise be well off the beaten tourist trail. We fall firmly into the former group, and spent what remained of the afternoon poring over the exhibits in the town’s UFO museum.

International UFO Museum

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How the Roswell alien is believed by some to have arrived

As I mentioned above, in June 1947 a local man, ‘Mack’ Brazel, found some odd-looking debris on a ranch some 30 miles north of Roswell. Early official press releases referred to a ‘flying disc’, although these were quickly counteracted by reports identifying it as a weather balloon. The incident was soon forgotten, and it was only in the 1970s, with UFO fever at a height, that it was investigated further. By that time many of those involved would have had plenty of time to forget what had happened, but that hasn’t stopped a very detailed account being put together, albeit with many conflicting stories within it.

Many of those who believe in UFOs are convinced that Brazel had found a crashed spaceship, complete with its alien pilot who died in the crash. Sceptics are equally convinced that it was no such thing. The believers, including (naturally) those who run this museum, can find plenty of evidence to indicate some sort of cover-up by the authorities, while those who are unconvinced by tales of aliens can easily explain these cover-ups by speculation about secret government programmes aimed at getting early warnings of Soviet atomic activity.

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'Aliens' at the International UFO Museum

Whichever ‘camp’ you belong to, you have to be impressed with the dedication and attention to detail of those who have amassed this collection. It is extremely thorough. Of most visual appeal are the several dioramas of aliens, and most famously the rather gruesome visualisation of the supposed ‘alien autopsy’ that followed the 1947 discovery.

But these are just the tip of the iceberg when compared to the sizeable collections here. These are spread across a number of bays, each with a theme. The first few deal specifically with the Roswell Incident, with numerous press cuttings of the time, transcripts of interviews with those involved (and many who weren’t but were subsequently keen to air their views). There is little attempt at balance – we were left in no doubt that those responsible for these displays are convinced that the debris found on that ranch was the remains of an alien spaceship. In fact, as an open-minded sceptic I found it difficult not to get drawn into that belief myself, such was the weight of ‘evidence’ presented to me here, at least in terms of its quantity.

What seems incontrovertible is that the official story was changed a day or two after the initial press release, and the material displayed here also seems to point to the fact that this was no mere weather balloon, as the authorities claimed. But whether this was done to cover up an alien invasion, or perhaps more plausibly to correct the loose wording of an over enthusiastic individual and to conceal some sort of secret government programme, is certainly open to question. However, it is much more fun, at least while in Roswell, to suspend your disbelief and go along with the possibility at least that aliens once came here! And as a big science fiction fan, I certainly wanted to believe.

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The alien autopsy

In addition to the material about the local ‘alien activity’ there are displays about other suggested examples of evidence of alien activity (such as crop circles, images left by ancient cultures etc), other famous sightings, quotes from famous people who have some belief in extra-terrestrial life (including astronauts and even a former President!) and a section devoted to the film that was made about the Roswell Incident. It is in this last section that you will find the ‘alien autopsy’, which I have to say could be quite scary for younger visitors.

Admission cost us $5 and we easily got that amount of fun out of it. And it was OK to take photos throughout, which for us added to the enjoyment – it’s not every day that you get to photograph an alien! The museum also had a large gift shop, although I felt that you’d probably need to be either obsessed with aliens, or a child, to find anything you really wanted to buy here. I was impressed however by the number of low-cost items on sale – very helpful for the parents of young children expert in pester power! And for those who want to really immerse themselves in the subject matter there is a research library onsite too.

The museum can also claim a major role in putting Roswell on the tourist map. Its popularity has brought visitors here in large numbers, encouraged business growth and even spawned an annual UFO Festival!

Evening in Roswell

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Moon over Farleys (it seemed appropriate, somehow!)

A sports bar, ‘Farley's Food Fun & Pub’ (a name clearly chosen to ensure you know exactly what to expect!), was directly across the road from our motel and had been recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, ‘Jumping’ Norman. So that evening we crossed the road (carefully – it’s a very busy one) and checked it out. We liked what we saw – a lively pub/sports bar vibe, clearly popular with locals as well as visitors to Roswell. Most tables were full, but we secured a good one far enough away from the noisy bar to be able to talk, but near enough to soak up the atmosphere. We loved the eclectic décor, with all the pipework showing, a variety of old signs, and even an old car inside!

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Old sign in the bar

The menu was simple but appealing, and we both found something to suit. Chris was pleased to see one of his favourites, a Reuben sandwich, while I opted for ‘Viva le chicken’, which was a chicken burger with bacon, guacamole and cheese. It was a bit mean with the guacamole but otherwise pretty good, and the fries were excellent. To accompany our two mains we both drank the Alien Amber, which was pleasant and went well with the pub-style food, so we had a second one each for dessert to round off an excellent and varied day which epitomised several of the many sides of New Mexico.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:28 Archived in USA Tagged food beer road_trip restaurant hotel museum science space new_mexico Comments (9)

More wonders of Nikko

Japan day sixteen continued


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Futarasan

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Torii gate at entrance to Futurasan Shrine

Futarasan is only five minutes’ or so walk from Toshogu but it seemed to us that we were in a different world. The crowds had gone, leaving just a handful of tourists (some Western, some Japanese) and some local families. We strolled around in a much more leisurely way than had been possible at Toshogu, taking photos and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere and the rich colours of the leaves just starting to take on their autumn hues.

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Futarasan

Several local families with small children, some of them dressed up in traditional costume, were clearly here for a celebration. The festivities were focussed on a building to the right of the shrine itself and one mother there was more than happy for me to photograph her children, even encouraging them to pose for me.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

Futarasan Shrine was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko and who also founded the nearby Rinnoji Temple. It is dedicated to the deities of Nikko's three most sacred mountains: Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro (Futarasan being another name the first and most prominent of these.

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Torii gate at Futarasan

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Futarasan

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Nun at Futarasan

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Carving detail, Futarasan

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Torii gate detail, Futurasan

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Entrance to paid area

You can wander round the grounds here for free, though there was a small charge (300¥ in October 2013) to enter an area featuring a small forested garden with a couple more halls including the Shinyosha (portable shrines store) and Daikokuden where some treasures, including some beautifully worked swords, were on display.

There is also a sacred fountain, a modern Buddha statue and some old sacred trees. We found this the most peaceful part as few people other than us seemed minded to pay that small fee.

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Portable shrine

Modern Buddha statue

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Stone lanterns at Futarasan

When we left the shrine we encountered another local family group just outside and again there was no problem with us taking some photos. We then followed the rickshaw as the children were taken for a ride along the path between here and Toshogu, escorted by their proud parents and stopping at intervals for more photos, both by their own photographer and a few other tourists who had by now joined us. A woman nearby during one of these sessions, who I think may have been a family member, was kind enough to explain to me what was going on.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

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With the proud parents

She told me that it is the custom in Japan for children to be taken to a shrine to be blessed on reaching three, five and seven years of age. In the past, the lack of medical expertise and knowledge meant that to get through infancy was something to be celebrated, and each milestone on the journey was marked in this way. Today when childhood mortality is thankfully much less of an issue, the custom of thanking the spirits for the good health of a child remains.

It seems that this family must have one child at each of these ages: a boy of five and girls of three and seven. The seven year old was very solemn, like a little lady – clearly after two previous such celebrations she must have considered herself an old hand and responsible for keeping her younger siblings up to the mark!

Lunch time

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Kishino

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My soup at Kishino

At the far end of this path the rickshaw turned back to Futarasan and we turned our attention to lunch. After a long morning exploring Toshogu and Futarasan we were ready for something to eat, and in the grey and chilly weather, preferably something warming. I’d spotted a sign near the entrance to Toshogu that had looked promising so we headed over there to explore.

Kishino is part gift shop, part restaurant. You enter the latter through the former, so it was a good job they had those signs outside or we would never have realised we could eat here! It’s not very big and we were lucky to get one of only two free tables. We were promptly brought glasses of water and an English language menu which included various noodle dishes and a few other options. From this Chris chose the curry rice while I opted for soba noodles with yuba – the local delicacy made from sheets of bean curd skimmed from the surface when making tofu. The yuba in my photo is the coiled omelette-looking stuff floating on the top of the soup.

The dishes were nothing special but they were filling and warming on a chilly day. The service was brisk, understandably since they want to turn tables in such a popular location, but friendly, and we were able to use the spotless toilets here too.

Fortified, we were ready to carry on to our final sight in this part of town, Rinnoji.

Rinnoji Temple

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Protective structure at Rinnoji Temple

It is fair to say that we did not see Rinnoji at its best. The main sanctuary building, Sanbutsudoh (Three Buddha Hall), was undergoing major reconstruction at the time of our visit (October 2013) and was completely shrouded in this industrial-looking structure, within which it seems to have been almost completely dismantled. There was only an image of its frontage on the front of this to give us any idea of its usual appearance. But at least we were able to go into this structure (for a reduced fee, 400¥) and get just a glimpse of some of its treasures.

Rinnoji Temple was originally called Nikko-san, and was established by a Buddhist monk Shodo (whose statue stands at the entrance) in 766. It grew quickly, as many Buddhist monks flocked here in search of solitude among Nikko’s forests and mountains. By the 15th century there were over 500 buildings on this site; today there are just 15. Of these, Sanbutsudoh is the most significant by some distance. It has been moved several times in the past – at one time it stood where Toshogu is now located, then on the present-day site of Futarasan, and only under the Meiji regime, when it was decreed that Buddhist and Shinto places of worship should be separated (they had become very muddled over the years and were often co-located and intermingled), did it relocate to this spot. Or rather, Rinnoji relocated – it was some years before the temple, which was short of funds, could afford to rebuild Sanbutsudoh.

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Model Sanbutsu on display at Rinnoji Temple

In it are the three gold-leafed statues of Buddha: Amida, Kannnon with a thousand arms (Senju Kannon) and Kannon with a horse’s head (Bato Kannon). These were made in the early Edo period and are all 8 metres high. We were told when we paid for admission that we would only see one of these but that we would get much closer to it than is usually the case. Well, we certainly got close, just a metre or so from its feet, but as no photos were allowed in that part I can’t share it with you. The one we saw, Amida, is considered the foremost seated wooden image in Japan. I believe each of the three will be rotated in turn in this display area throughout the restoration period, which is due to last until March 2021.

We were allowed to take photos of the model Sanbutsu on display, and higher up this ten storey structure I got some photos of other elements of the temple that are being worked on by the restoration team, including (I have since realised) the one below which is, I think, one of the other Buddhas – Bato Kannon, or ‘Kannon with a horse’s head’ (so I probably should not have photographed it!).

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Bato Kannon(?) at Rinnoji Temple

As it was a Saturday, we didn’t see anyone actually at work on this immense task – an Australian lady we had spoken to outside had assured us that this was a fascinating process to view, as I’m sure it must be, so our timing was unfortunate in that respect. The relatively poor weather also meant that the views from the top were not as good as they must sometimes be, but it was still an excellent way to get a sense of Nikko’s lovely setting among the mountains, so well worth the climb.

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View of Nikko from the top of Rinnoji Temple

There are a number of other buildings dotted around the complex but we didn’t spend a lot of time investigating these (Chris in particular was suffering from temple overload and keen to leave time to see something of the town!) There is a small garden attached to the temple, Shoyoen, which was made in the Edo period and is in the style known as Chisen Kaiyu Shiki (‘short excursion around the pond’). The weather was not really conducive to garden visits so we skipped this too, but we did take a few photos in the pretty garden area immediately surrounding Sanbutsudoh.

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In the grounds of Rinnoji Temple

Exploring the town

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Statue near the Shinkyo Bridge

After leaving Rinnoji we headed into town. As we started to walk along the main street of the town we were in search of somewhere we could get a drink and a short rest after climbing the ten storeys of the Rinnoji restoration structure. We found what we wanted at Hippari Dako, a tiny place on the west side of the main street at the Shinkyo Bridge end. There are only three tables inside and a fairly limited menu (in English at least) but that wasn’t a problem for us as we only wanted a drink. I had an orange juice, Chris a coffee, and both were fine.

The most distinctive feature of Hippari Dako is its décor. The interior walls are covered with business cards, notes from happy customers, photos, banknotes etc etc. I added a VT card with my details to their collection! The owner was very happy for us to take photos of all of this, but declined Chris’s request to be in a photo herself.

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In Hippari Dako

Refreshed, we wandered on down the main street. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours exploring this and I was surprised at how much there was to occupy us here, from browsing in some shops and galleries to taking photos of quirky signs and interesting shop displays. I could have quite happily spent a fair bit of money in the shops but Chris kept me in check! I especially enjoyed the several antique shops we browsed in, and some delicate old china sake cups in particular.

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Shops in Nikko

Another thing you see a lot of here are items carved in wood, from small kitchen utensils to large pieces of furniture. The craftsmanship is excellent and it’s worth a look in these shops even if you don’t plan to buy, just to see the styles and the quality of the work.

About halfway along the street on its western side we found a lovely modern art gallery / café. You can browse the works on display on the ground floor and mezzanine above, and then have a coffee and maybe a piece of cake, also on the ground floor and surrounded by art – just the sort of place we enjoy. And the paintings on display when we visited included some lovely bird ones in a distinctive modern Japanese style that we rather liked.

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Above a door

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Shop keeper

After enjoying all the shops etc along the street we reached the bottom, by Tobu Nikko Station. We went inside to make some enquiries at the ticket office. Our return ticket to Tokyo tomorrow specified an afternoon train. But we saw that bad weather (worse than today’s occasional drizzle) was forecast and thought that it would be better to spend our last day in Japan in the city, where there were more options for indoor activities, than here in Nikko. So we enquired in the ticket office about taking a morning train instead, and were able to change our tickets and seat reservations without any problem – apparently you are allowed one free alteration, which is very helpful.

We then continued on to see Nikko’s other station.

JR Nikko Station

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JR Station, Nikko

Which station you arrive at in Nikko depends on the route you take from Tokyo. We had travelled yesterday from Shinjuku to Tobu Nikko Station, but other routes bring you to the other one, the JR Station. The reason that there are two stations so close together (about a five minute walk) is that the Tobu line is privately owned and has its own distinct station.

In most places it would be enough to know which station to use and you might then safely ignore the presence of the other. But if like me you are an admirer of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright you will perhaps want to check out this JR Station even if not using it for your journey, as he designed it. This fact came as something of a surprise to me as I hadn’t been aware that he had done any work in Japan. But what did I know?! It turns out that apart from America, Japan is the only other country where Frank Lloyd Wright ever worked and lived, and he did quite a lot here. But this station doesn’t seem typical of his work here, nor does it look like a style I would associate with him, being rather traditional in appearance (and even having, dare I say, having a little of the suburban twee aesthetic about it?!)

The station opened on 1 August 1890 and is in the typical somewhat romantic style of the Meiji period, though streamlined a little I think by the influence of Wright on that style. It apparently has an ornate and rather beautiful ‘guest room’ used by a former emperor, but this is only open at certain periods. We however contented ourselves with a quick look at the outside of the station, as it had been a long day and we were ready for a break.

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Nikkoji beer

Heading back up the main street we stopped for an early evening drink in the Little Wing café and were pleased to find that they served the local pilsner style beer, Nikkoji, as we'd been keen to try it. We found it pleasant enough though not really any different to other Japanese lagers, all of which are very palatable but unremarkable. It was maybe a little less fizzy than some of the others however, so depending on how you like your lager (personally I like a bit of a head) you may want to give this a try. The ones we tried were bottled and I’ve read that the draught is better so that’s something to look out for. You should also look out for the same brewery’s Premium Ale as I’ve read good reviews of that (it wasn’t available in the Little Wing), and I gather that they also sometimes have seasonal brews, such as dark, amber and special ales.

We had a very pleasant half hour or so here, enjoying the beer and a chat with a local guy at the next table, who had lived and worked for some years in California and thus spoke very good English. He was killing time over a coffee while waiting to pick his son up from football practice and was glad of the chance to refresh his English skills in a conversation with us.

But after a while we decided to move on in search of dinner as I’d read that restaurants in Nikko close early, as they cater mainly to the day trippers I assume. This is very true, and we were lucky to find a meal!

Kanaya Hotel Restaurant

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In the Kanaya Hotel

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Carving detail, Kanaya Hotel

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Crab croquettes

The guidebook I was using said that this restaurant was open till 20.00, unlike many in town, so we headed there for an early (for us) dinner at about 18.30, only to be told on arrival that they were about to close. I asked the waitress if she knew of any other restaurant nearby that would still be open, explaining that we were hungry and wanted dinner. She immediately offered to let us eat there after all! But perhaps for this reason, the service was probably the speediest we have ever experienced, with the waitress positively scurrying to take our order and bring us our drinks and food.

We had a table to one side of the attractive old room, which is ornamented with colourful woodcarvings, although the old world atmosphere is somewhat marred by the harsh fluorescent lighting. The menus we were given were in English and offered a choice of set dinners, with the cuisine a blend of Japanese and Western. I had the crab croquettes in a tomato sauce with rice, Chris had the hamburger in ‘Japanese style’ (which proved to be with grated radish on top). The croquettes were quite tasty and Chris’s burger was OK too. The set meal price included a cup of soup (quite nice, with strips of yuba) and a small salad, and we also had a large beer each. But we didn’t try our waitress’s good nature or patience by attempting to order dessert, so after paying the bill we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe, as Nikko had clearly shut down for the night (at about 19.30).

There we made sure of another session in the lovely onsen, listening to the river flow past outside – a great way to relax after a very busy day of sightseeing in Nikko.

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Shinkyo Bridge at night

Posted by ToonSarah 06:06 Archived in Japan Tagged people children food nikko architecture beer japan culture temple shopping restaurants shrine customs Comments (6)

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