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Going around in Enchanted Circles

New Mexico day twelve


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After breakfast this morning we checked out of La Doña Luz Inn and hit the road again, travelling north. Our destination for the night was Cimarron and once again we had decided to follow a roundabout route on one of the state’s designated scenic byways, the Enchanted Circle. This is a popular day-trip from Taos, following Highways 522, 38 and 64, and for the most part driving is fairly easy though the road climbs pretty high in places – in the winter this is popular skiing country. By driving the byway in a clockwise direction we were able to take in most of the circle, and by adding a detour before turning off to Cimarron we saw most of the more notable sights along the route.

We were only a few miles out of Taos, however, when we took our first detour from the route to visit a couple of sights that intrigued us.

Rio Grande Gorge

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The Rio Grande Gorge

Driving north and then west from Taos on Highway 64 we found ourselves driving across an apparently flat plain. But appearances can be deceiving. After a few miles a dark line could be seen ahead of us, and a large parking lot on our right. We parked, among a number of stalls set up by opportunistic Native traders, and walked a few yards further in the direction in which we had been driving. The dark line opened up and revealed itself as the dramatic gorge of the Rio Grande, at this point crossed by Highway 64 on an elegant and somewhat unnervingly delicate-looking steel bridge.

I had seen photos of the Rio Grande Gorge online when planning this trip, but Chris had not, so he was especially struck by the sudden change in the landscape. We walked out along the pedestrian walkway either side of the highway (not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights!) to stand in one of the small areas that jut out over the river and look directly down into the gorge 650 feet below.

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The Rio Grande Gorge, looking south from the bridge

While it may not have the scale and grandeur of the Grand Canyon, this is a remarkable sight nevertheless. The gorge has been carved over the millennia not just by the rushing waters of the river but also by seismic activity, and the black volcanic rocks are starkly beautiful. I found them quite hard to photograph however. This is one place where the usual rule of photography, that the light is more attractive early and late in the day, doesn’t necessarily apply, as you need the sun to be fairly high if it’s to light both sides of the gorge. But the deep shadows that we experienced at about 10.00 am brought out the drama of the scene, even while being more challenging to photograph.

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The Rio Grande Gorge, looking north from the bridge

The views from both sides of the road are similarly dramatic, and the highway quiet enough for us to cross quite easily between them. But when a vehicle did pass, especially a large truck, I could feel the vibrations as the bridge moved beneath my feet – not for the faint-hearted! I saw at least one nervous woman cling to her companion, and another turn back just a short distance onto the bridge, but it really isn’t that bad – I soon got used to the wobbles and I suspect it’s a deliberate piece of engineering on the part of the bridge builders. This is by the way the second-highest bridge in the US (the highest is in Colorado) and was given the Most Beautiful Span award in 1966 by the American Institute of Steel Construction.

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The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

When we had had our fill of the views from the bridge, we continued to the parking lot on the far (west) side. From here a trail led across the surrounding flat scrubby plain to the edge of the gorge, giving us great views of the bridge and a different angle on the gorge itself. For us this was a great little leg-stretcher of about a kilometre, but you’re warned to look out for snakes, and I would also caution against doing it with small children as there is no fence separating you from the drop to the river far below.

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The Rio Grande Gorge from the western side

Greater World Earthship Development

Before returning to the Enchanted Circle route there was one more sight we wanted to visit in this area, so we carried on along Highway 64 for another mile and a half to the Greater World Earthship Development, today known as the Greater World Earthship Community. This is a cluster of self-sufficient ‘green’ houses built using mostly recycled materials – used tires packed with earth form the walls, while bottles stacked with cement and crushed aluminium cans make colourful peepholes. The resulting homes look perhaps more suited to hobbits than humans, but several hundred people live here and in similar houses in the vicinity. They produce their own energy, reuse grey water, manufacture their own bio-diesel fuel and grow much of their own food. All very admirable, although I couldn’t help wondering whether living in such a relatively remote location would mean a less than green reliance on motor vehicles.

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Earthships

For $5 we could have done a self-guided tour of a model Earthship and watched a video about the building process and the thinking behind the designs, but that would have taken an hour which we couldn’t really spare, so we just had a quick look around and took a few photos. For rather more dollars it’s possible to rent one for a night or a week, or even buy one for yourself! The group behind the development, Earthship Biostructure, also offer guidance to anyone wanting to build their own earthship elsewhere, but I note on their website that tours of the community now need to be pre-booked, presumably to provide some privacy for the growing number of residents.

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Earthships

Once we had taken our photos we returned along Highway 64 to rejoin Highway 522 just north of Taos Pueblo and continue on our ‘long way round’ drive to Cimarron.

The Enchanted Circle

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Autumn colour on the Enchanted Circle

This route took us over higher ground than we had driven for the most part on this trip and as a consequence the aspens were especially colourful, even though today the mostly great weather we had enjoyed so far deserted us and we drove part of the route in rain. We stopped several times on this first stretch to take photos, as the mostly green shades turned to yellow and orange as we climbed.

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Aspens on the Enchanted Circle

At Questa we reached the furthest point north on today’s drive, only a few miles from the border with Colorado. Although we were to be slightly further north on the following day, I guess you could regard this as something of a halfway point on our round trip from El Paso, although in terms of days we were already over the halfway mark. We turned east on Highway 38, passing through Red River (a slightly incongruous-looking ski town with a seeming passion for the Swiss chalet style of architecture), where we stopped briefly for a coffee and on round the circle.

The next stretch of road seemed to me to be the most scenic of all, despite the fast approaching rain clouds. The highway climbs steeply out of Red River, reaching 9,854 feet at the top of Bobcat Pass. In places the scenery reminded us of Scotland or Wales, perhaps more so because of the weather, but the views of the golden aspens on the mountain slopes were pure New Mexico. Luckily there were a few pull-outs where we could stop for photos, and simply to admire this awesome landscape.

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View near Red River

Elizabethtown

We had already visited several ‘ghost towns’ in New Mexico by the time we came to Elizabethtown, and while they were all interesting in their various ways, and all very photogenic, and while some of them had relatively few residents, none of them really loved up to the image that the name conjured in our minds. That is, none of them seemed truly to be inhabited only by ghosts. Until we came to Elizabethtown.

We arrived here in the rain, and parked up to eat a snack lunch while the worst of the bad weather passed over. A couple of horses stared at us mournfully from the shelter of an overhanging eave on a nearby hut. A solitary car pulled off the main road, passed us where we sat, and then turned back. Otherwise, we were alone.

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Old chapel, Elizabethtown

Once we’d finished eating, and the worst of the rain had abated, we drove on into the ‘town’, which is really just a cluster of buildings. One is a museum, only open between June-August, so we were unable to see its collection which, according to our Moon Handbook, ‘details Elizabethtown’s brief but lively history, from the discovery of gold in 1866 through assorted gunfights to the town’s slow fade after a dredge-mining project failed in 1903.’ As well as the museum you can see the stone ruins of the Mutz Hotel, around which the social life of the town would have revolved.

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Museum and stables

The museum may have been closed, but both it and the other structures, and a few rusting vehicles, made great subject matter for our cameras, the more so as the still-falling rain added an air of desolation.

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In Elizabethtown

Like most of New Mexico’s ghost towns, Elizabethtown owes its existence to the gold rush. It was the first incorporated village in the state, and at its peak was home to more than 7,000 people – almost impossible to believe if you visit it today. It was named for the daughter of its founder, a Captain William H. Moore, who came here looking for copper, led here by friendly Indian traders. As well as copper, he and his men found gold, and in the ensuing rush, a town was born.

Returning to the main road and continuing south, in a few miles we came to Eagle Nest. Here at a T-junction the Enchanted Circle route picks up Highway 64 again. To reach Cimarron we needed to turn left, but we had time for another detour so instead turned to the right, travelling a short distance back towards Taos.

Vietnam Veterans' Memorial

Our detour took us to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, which back then was a New Mexico State Park but I understand has since been transferred to the Department of Veteran Services. This Memorial is a labour of love constructed by the parents of one soldier, David Westphall, who was sadly killed in an ambush on May 22, 1968, during a battle near Con Thien, South Vietnam, in which 17 men lost their lives.

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Vietnam Veterans' Memorial State Park: the Chapel

And in building this memorial to their son, Jeanne and Victor Westphall also created a memorial to all victims of that controversial war. It has now become a place of pilgrimage for the many other families who lost loved ones there. For anyone old enough, as I am, to remember that time, a visit here is a moving experience even if you have no personal connection to it. For me, this is a memorial too to all those who protested against this war and whose efforts dominated the news footage, and the songs, of my formative years.

The Chapel

At the heart of the memorial is the chapel. Its elegant design, resembling a sail, inevitably draws the eye, and will draw your footsteps too. The chapel was originally known as the Peace and Brotherhood Chapel and is the focal point around which the rest of the memorial was developed.

It is never locked – one of the conditions imposed by the Westphall family on passing the memorial over to be run as a state park (another was that there should be no charge made to visitors, which made it the only free state park in New Mexico). The reason for this ‘always open’ policy is simple. When Victor Westphall was first building the chapel, he used always to lock the doors at night. One morning when he returned he found a note that had been scrawled on a piece of scrap plywood, which read, ‘Why did you lock the doors when I needed to come in?’ Since then the doors have never been locked.

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The chapel, outside and in

Inside the chapel is a small auditorium with a few rows of seats looking down to an elegant candle stick caught in a shaft of light. The impact that the chapel makes on visiting bereaved families was evident to me in the strategically placed boxes of paper tissues dotted around the benches.

Photographs of thirteen Vietnam War dead are on display in the Chapel. The photographs are rotated every month, alphabetically by state. The one of David Westphall remains on display permanently.

The Visitor Centre

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In the grounds

The Visitor Centre was built in the 1980s, largely underground so as not to detract from the flowing lines of the chapel. Its collections cover the creation of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial and also the Vietnam War itself. There are lots of old news photos and news footage of the period, as well as displays about the experiences of those fighting the war, and of the local people who became caught up in the bloodshed. It is naturally a disquieting museum – a place to inform rather that to entertain. But I found it an effective reminder of what happened for those of us who lived through that dark period of US history, and an introduction for anyone who did not.

It is all too easy to forget the impact of this war on individual lives among all the political and moral debates about whether it should ever have been fought. The displays here are a salutary reminder of this, although personally I found that they were a little too US-centric in their view of the world at times. For instance, they talked about the good work done by troops in giving the local people ‘real toilets’. I was sure that those locals thought that what they had was real, and felt that the reference would be better made to ‘improvements in sanitation’ perhaps – annotations like this and a few similar ones felt a little patronising, even ‘colonial’, to me.

Huey Helicopter

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The Huey Helicopter

In the grounds of the memorial we saw this Bell Iroquois UH-1 Helicopter, popularly known as the Huey. These helicopters are the most widely used in the world, and it was during the Vietnam War that they evolved into an essential resource on the battlefield. They were used for troop transport, ferrying cargo, air assault and medical evacuation, helping to overcome the challenges of warfare in the dense jungles. A Huey made it possible for a wounded soldier to be in a hospital within one hour, dramatically increasing survival rates.

This particular Huey, named ‘Viking Surprise’, was involved in a difficult and dangerous rescue mission in March 1967. It laid down smoke cover while other helicopters saw to the evacuation of troops. In its 13 passes over the area it was hit by 135 bullets, six of them through the pilot’s compartment. After repairs it went back into service and was brought here to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park by the New Mexico National Guard in May 1999.

‘Dear Mom and Dad’

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'Dear Mom and Dad'

Elsewhere in the grounds of the memorial is this moving sculpture by Taos artist Doug Scott, depicting a soldier struggling to compose a letter home to his parents. An inscription by the sculptor reads:

‘The words “Dear mom and dad”
are written ... now what?
He can’t tell them what he is seeing.
He can’t tell them what he is doing.
His eyes see a foreign land.
His heart sees the other side of the world.’

This may be a memorial to one particular war, but surely those words, and that dilemma, must ring true to any soldier, anywhere. For me this was the most moving thing at the memorial, as it emphasises the gulf between those who have fought, and are fighting, and the rest of us, who can only guess at (and only half-comprehend) a fraction of what they must experience.

After visiting the memorial we retraced our route back to the road junction in Eagle Nest. It was time to leave the Enchanted Circle and head further east.

Cimarron Canyon State Park

Highway 64 passes directly through this pretty state park, giving us a very scenic stretch of road for the last part of today’s drive. But this is a narrow, winding road so we made sure to stop briefly once or twice, so that Chris, as driver, would also have a chance to appreciate the scenery.

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The Cimarron River

Several pull-outs gave us the opportunity to stretch our legs with short strolls that in one case brought us to the banks of the Cimarron River that carved this small gorge. It was by now quite late on this rather damp, dull afternoon, so it was hard to capture the scenery adequately on camera, although the dark clouds gave the canyon a moody atmosphere that suited the landscape well. Steep granite cliffs overhang the tumbling river here, adding to the drama of the scene, and the rich October colours of the leaves were an additional bonus.

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Cimarron Canyon

The geology of this gorge is apparently especially complex and interesting as nearly two billion years of complex geologic history is exposed here. The Cimarron River is the only water course sufficiently powerful to have cut through the Cimarron Range. I’m sure a student of such things would want to spend time exploring the many features of this landscape, but for us, simply to marvel at the rock formations and the mountains that loomed above us was enough.

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Flowers in Cimarron Canyon State Park

New Mexico typically charges for day use of its state parks (the fee in 2011 was $5), but we couldn’t see anywhere to make our payment. I found out afterwards that some of the short trails off this road are designated for ‘free access’, so it seems that in fact there was no need to pay.

Cimarron

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Schwenks Hall in old Cimarron

To be honest, there’s not an awful lot to see in this part of New Mexico, but sometimes that’s how we like it. This north east corner of the state has none of the big draws – no arty Santa Fe or Taos, no Indian Pueblos, no striking Spanish colonial architecture. But it does have wide open skies and a spirit evocative of the Wild West days that here seem like only yesterday. And Cimarron seemed to us likely to be worth driving a little off the usual tourist routes in New Mexico, which indeed it proved to be.

While modern-day Cimarron straddles Highway 64, the old centre lies a few blocks to the south. In the 1800s, few towns had such a reputation for gun-play and violence as this – indeed, its very name, Cimarron, means ‘wild and unruly’. Today it is a peaceful backwater with enough of that history remaining to lure anyone intrigued by the ‘Wild West’, as we are.

When we arrived in Cimarron we headed straight to the Visitor Centre which is right on Highway 64 as I’d read that it provided a good free walking tour leaflet. Unfortunately, though, the office had closed for the afternoon (in October they were already on their winter timetable). So we gave up and drove over to our hotel to check in.

The St James Hotel

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The St James Hotel

As soon as I read about the St James Hotel in Cimarron, I knew I wanted to stay here, and indeed one of our main reasons for including this corner of New Mexico in our route was in order to do so. The hotel boasts an incredible history for anyone who has ever been even slightly excited by tales of the Wild West. If you grew up watching cowboy films, whether old John Wayne Westerns or, like me, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you would be as fascinated as we were by the real-life events that took place here at the St James.

It was opened by a French chef, Henri Lambert, in 1872, and soon became the place to stay in Cimarron. Given the nature of the town, it is unsurprising that many of its guests were famous or even notorious. The Earp brothers and their wives stopped here on their way to Tombstone. Buffalo Bill Cody was a friend of the Lamberts and stayed here often, as did Annie Oakley. Author Zane Grey began writing his novel Fighting Caravans while visiting the hotel, and various outlaws, including Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Black Jack Ketchum, also stayed here.

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The Lobby

The hotel offers a choice of historic rooms in the main building or more modern ones in the adjacent annexe. My choice would have been for the former, but Chris (less enamoured of history than I am) had opted for the creature comforts and lower prices of the latter, and on this (rare!) occasion, his choice won out over mine. Our room was large, with a king-size bed and all mod cons, and what it lacked in atmosphere it gained on size and price – in fact it was the bargain of the trip! When I’d called some weeks before to reserve a room (there were no online reservations back then) I was told it would be $80 plus tax, but on checking in we were informed that there was an off season deal for mid-week reservations and it would cost only half that!

We did get a chance to see a few of the historic rooms, as on the ground floor of the main building the corridor is lined with old photos and framed press clippings, and you can also view any unoccupied rooms. In my eyes the one we popped into looked lovely – but Chris was keen to point out the much smaller size of both room and bed!

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Corridor in the main building, and an historic bedroom
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Our bedroom, by way of contrast

A walk around Old Cimarron

Having checked in, we found a copy of the free walking tour leaflet we had been hoping to get from the visitor centre provided in our room. So we donned our waterproofs (it was a drizzly afternoon) and set off for a stroll around the immediate area. I didn’t take many photos on this walk – partly because of the rain and partly because many of the historic buildings are nowadays used as private residences

The first place we came to, behind the St James’ Hotel, was the old Plaza, now simply a grassy field with a 1960s replica of the original gazebo in the centre. The gazebo covers an old well, dug in 1871 and used by freighters hauling goods from the Kansas Territory to Fort Union. A branch of the Santa Fe Trail passed through Cimarron just by here, and the Plaza was used as an overnight campground for those on the Trail, while the well provided water for their horses and oxen. But in 1880 the arrival of the railroad in Santa Fe led to the decline of the Trail, and of Cimarron.

To the left (north side) of the Plaza is the Dold Brothers’ Warehouse, now a private residence. It was built in 1848 as a depot to serve stage lines operating on the Santa Fe Trail, and later became first an Indian Trading Post and later a General Store, before being used as the offices of the newly-launched Cimarron News and Press in 1875. Since 1908 it has been the home of one family.

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The Dold Brothers Warehouse

To the south and west of the Plaza, behind the St James Hotel, we came to the old National Hotel (1858, now a private residence) and the 1872 Carey Building, which was built to house a hardware store and livery stable, and is also now a private home.

But for me the more photogenic buildings were those lying just to the south of the St James, in particular the Barlow, Sanderson & Company Stage Office, which was built in 1870 according to the leaflet, but 1863 according to the sign on its gable. This had lots of colourful details, having apparently been in recent use as a gallery. It was built to serve the Stage route between Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, which operated monthly and carried passengers and baggage for a one-way summer fare of $100 for the three-and-a-half week trip. Hard to imagine travel so slow in these days of fast cars and planes! But the mail and stage route closed in 1880 with the coming of the railroad to Springer, 25 miles to the east. The building was then used as a Wells Fargo Office and later converted into a store in the early 1900s.

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Stage Office details

There were more colourful details on the building opposite the Stage Office, known as Schwenk’s Hall. This was built in 1854 as a brewery, but bought by Henry Schwenk in 1875 and turned into a gambling house and saloon.

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Schwenks Hall window

At this point the rain defeated us, as it was getting harder to take decent photos without getting the cameras too wet – and besides, the welcoming and historic bar of the St James was calling us loudly. So we decided to continue our walk the next morning.

Where the West was won (well, fought over at least)

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In the dining room

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Cimarron Chicken

We started our evening at the St James with dinner in its historic restaurant. we started with a shared appetiser of ‘Cimarron Toothpicks’, which were battered deep-fried jalapeños pepper strips served with a ranch dressing. These were fine, though nothing special. But my main course was excellent. I had been eating (and enjoying) mainly New Mexican staples such as burritos etc, but decided it was time for a change. I opted for the interesting-sounding ‘Cimarron Chicken’ which was described as ‘Plump marinated chicken breast grilled to perfection, topped with a gourmet raspberry sauce, inspired by the Salman Raspberry Ranch in Mora County, then sprinkled with pecans.’ This was accompanied by a baked potato (I could also have had mashed potato, fries or sweet potato), mixed vegetables and a helping from the salad bar. The meat was tender, and the sauce worked well, so I was very happy with my choice.

Chris too decided on a break from New Mexican dishes as his favourite food, pizza, was heavily featured on the menu. He chose the Veggie, with green peppers, onions, mushrooms, black olives, mozzarella cheese, and jalapenos on request (he requested!). This was a good size and he enjoyed it, but as it had no accompaniment, he was glad to share my salad.

After dinner we headed to the adjoining bar area, where the sense of history weighs even more heavily. Cimarron was a wild place, and fights at ‘Lambert's place’, as the saloon became known, were commonplace. Everyone carried a gun, and wasn’t slow to use it. The ceiling of the bar is pockmarked with bullet holes, bearing testament to the 26 people killed here during those fights.

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Sign in the bar, and detail of decor

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The bar

The bar itself is gorgeous – all dark wood, highly polished and well-mirrored, with a wonderful old cash register as a centre-piece. We got chatting to the barman over our Jack Daniels, and learned that this bar is however not the original, but was imported by the hotel’s owner a few years ago from a nearby town. However the old photos on the wall show that it is very similar to the one that would have witnessed those fights and at which such famous characters as Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill would have drunk – and that was good enough for us!

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The old cash register

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Chris at the bar

Posted by ToonSarah 03:28 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes trees food architecture road_trip restaurant monument history views hotel new_mexico war_and_peace Comments (8)

Big sky country

New Mexico day thirteen


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

Farewell to Cimarron

Breakfast at the St James Hotel was disappointing after the previous evening’s good dinner – a buffet with weak coffee, over-chilled fruit salad, over-cooked eggs, but partly relieved by good crispy bacon and hot salsa. But on the whole we had loved our stay here and were pleased we’d come a little off the beaten path to include it on our itinerary.

Having been defeated by the rain the previous afternoon, which made it hard to take photos, we took some time this morning to do a little more exploration of old Cimarron. We had a short stroll down the lane opposite the hotel which took us past the Colfax County Courthouse, which dates back to 1872 when Cimarron became the county seat (taking over that role from already declining Elizabethtown). The town only retained that role for ten years, so this building too has seen a number of uses – drafting office, school, residence and now Masonic Lodge, although interestingly the relatively new sign on its wall would indicate that some trials are still held here.

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Old Grist Mill, and courthouse parking sign

Carrying on along the lane we came to the old mill, known as the Aztec Grist Mill although our walking tour leaflet gave no explanation for that name. It was built in 1860 to provide wheat and corn flour for local residents and soldiers. In 1861, 1500 members of the Ute and Jicarilla Apache tribes were moved on to reservation land here and the Indian Agency previously located in Taos moved to Cimarron. The mill was put into service dispensing blankets, meat, flour, grain and other rations to Indians and local citizens. By 1864 it was producing 44 barrels of flour a day. The leaflet went on to explain:

‘However, the 1867 gold rush on Baldy led to a large influx of people and the treatment of Indians suffered. Maxwell's sale of the Grant to an English company in 1870 further aggravated the problem. Troubles came to a head in 1875 when a small skirmish occurred between the Indian Agent and a band of rowdy Indians. Shots were exchanged as agency employees quickly ducked inside the Mill. The Indian Agent and several Indians were wounded and the one Indian arrested was later killed in a scuffle in the town jail. Government troops quickly defused the situation but in 1876 the Cimarron agency was closed and the Indians moved onto reservations in northwestern New Mexico and Colorado.’

You can visit the mill to see inside and learn about its workings – but only from May to September, so we were just too late in the year to be able to do so.

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The Immaculate Conception Church

Further down the lane is the Immaculate Conception Church, which was built in 1864 as a gift to the community from Lucien and Luz Maxwell in memory of their deceased children. It was enlarged in 1909 and a new bell and bell tower added the following year. We didn’t go into the church however, as by this time the morning was wearing on and we had a long drive planned for that day. It was time to leave Cimarron ...

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On Highway 64

One of the things I love most about the US Southwest are the wide open spaces and the huge blue (mostly) skies that arch above them. The landscape to the east of Cimarron epitomises this kind of landscape and was a joy to drive through. When we headed north-east from town on the morning after our stay we drove for miles on Highway 64, rarely passing another car. To some this landscape might appear flat and featureless, but we love it, and we had to stop a couple of times just to take it all in, and to take the inevitable photos. A few wispy clouds added interest to our images, as did the distant mountains to the south and east. If you too love ‘Big Sky Country’, this north-east corner of New Mexico makes for a great contrast to the rest of the state and is well worth the detour to get here, especially as relatively few other travellers make the effort to do so.

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Big sky country

We reach I25 a few miles south of Raton. And south was our intended ultimate direction of travel for today, but first we had a detour to make, so instead we turned north on the Interstate and then east again on Highway 87. We had a volcano to visit.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

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Distant view of Capulin

North eastern New Mexico is relatively flat compared with much of the rest of the state – indeed, here you are on the edge of the Great Plains. So the scattering of volcanic mountains across the landscape here is all the more striking. If you approach Capulin from the south west, as we did, you will have descended from the New Mexican Rockies onto this flat plain, thinking maybe that you have left mountain grandeur behind you. Then on the horizon a number of hazy conical shapes appear, of which the most classically volcanic in outline is Capulin itself.

Capulin is an extinct cinder cone volcano, and if you were asked to draw a volcano, this is the exact shape you would probably draw – a perfect cone with an indentation at the top. It rises abruptly from the surrounding grasslands to a height of 8,182 feet above sea level. The rim of the crater is about a mile in circumference and the crater itself about 400 feet deep. Scattered over the plain at its feet are the signs of its past activity, with the dark scars of its lava flows interrupting the soft greens of the grassy plains.

There is a two mile road up to the top. The National Parks Service leaflet which we were given on paying our entrance fee warned about the challenging nature of the drive to the summit, and our Moon Handbook said that this was ‘only for steely drivers’. Well, maybe this has something to do with the different nature of driving on the largely straight, open roads of the US, in contrast to the winding country lanes that English drivers often have to negotiate, but we just didn’t get that ‘steely drivers’ thing! OK, you have to be a bit careful – stick to the posted speed limit, don’t stop other than in designated pull-outs, and of course keep your eyes on the road (Chris as driver had to wait until we reached the top before admiring the scenery!). But it’s all pretty much common sense, it would be a shame if the warnings put anyone off driving up and missing out on these fantastic views.

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View from parking lot at the top of the drive

Relatively few visitors to the state come here it seems; there were only two other cars in the parking lot at the top and we met only a handful of other people on the rim trail. But they should! I found this a scenic counter-balance to the busier parts of the state which gave us a strong sense of the wide open spaces that still occupy vast swathes of the United States. On a clear day (and there are plenty of those in New Mexico) you can apparently see about 8,000 square miles of volcanic field from here, and beyond to the west lie the Rockies. Today, with a little haze, we couldn’t see quite as far but it was still an amazing view!

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Views from Capulin Volcano Rim Trai

There are a number of trails of varying difficulty that you can do at Capulin. We chose the Rim Trail, described as moderately difficult due to its steep climbs and descents. This is approximately a mile long and as the name suggests follows the rim of the crater itself. It is paved, but does indeed climb and dip quite a bit, including a few steps in places, so it isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or pushchairs, and you need to be fairly able-bodied. The altitude also makes it a little harder going perhaps, but anyone of reasonable fitness will cope fine with this walk, and the views amply repay any effort required.

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The crater's rim

Along the path a series of information boards explain the geology of the surrounding Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, as well as some of the wildlife (flora and fauna) that can be found here. Unfortunately a couple of these signs were a little worn so we couldn’t take in all the facts, but we learned a fair bit from them nevertheless.

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The lava field at the foot of the volcano

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On the Rim Trail

Returning to I25 we headed south, on one of the longest legs of this road trip, and also the longest stretch of interstate driving that we had planned. Our usual preference is for the slower roads, with more stopping opportunities, but this was not only the only logical route through this part of the state but also enabled us to cover a bit more ground to reach our destination for the night. But we nevertheless took the chance to stop off at one sight en route.

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Driving south on I25

Fort Union

Fort Union lies about twenty miles north of the town where we were to spend the night, Las Vegas (the New Mexico town of that name, not the more famous one in Nevada!), and was closely linked to the development and prosperity of the town. Built to protect travellers on the Santa Fe Trail from Indian raids, it also served as a major supply depot for Union troops during the Civil War.

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Fort Union

The first fort here was built in 1851 from wood, and a second ten years later – a massive earth fortification. The present ruins are of the third fort, built in 1862 of adobe brick on top of stone foundations. It would have been an impressive structure that greeted travellers on the Santa Fe Trail, but when the Trail was replaced by the coming of the railroad, trade declined and the need for the fort with it. Fort Union closed in 1891 and was abandoned. The buildings gradually fell into ruin, until it was established as a National Monument in 1956 and efforts started to preserve what remained.

When we visited the place was almost deserted and perhaps no wonder – there was a cold wind blowing across the plains and it was spitting with rain. Determined to see at least a bit of what had brought us here we paid the $3 per person entry and had a look around the displays in the Visitor Centre. These include displays on what life was life for soldiers and civilians stationed at the fort, and a number of artefacts from when it was at the height of its activity.

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Replica covered wagon

Outside you can do a 1.6 mile self-guided interpretive trail or a shorter .5 mile one. We set off on the latter but in the end opted for just a quick look at a few things that especially caught our eye and were in the immediate vicinity – a replica covered wagon, the ruined hospital looking stark against the threatening sky, the traces of the old wagon ruts still visible in the grassland.

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Hospital ruins, and replica tents

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Wagon ruts on the Santa Fe Trail

One thing the bleak weather did give us was a strong appreciation of how life must have been for those stationed here. The climate can be harsh and unforgiving – extremes of temperature (which according to the park website can vary within 50 degrees Fahrenheit within a 24-hour period), summer storms and winter blizzards.

Las Vegas

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Bridge Street, Las Vegas

Leaving the chill of Fort Union behind us we continued to Las Vegas. When I first planned our route through New Mexico a friend who had lived in the area (the one who recommended the excellent Shed restaurant in Santa Fe) had questioned my inclusion of this town, which is nothing like its more famous namesake in Nevada. In her view it had no real sights to offer and was rather too seedy and run-down to be worth a visit. I ignored her however, and was right to do so!

Unlike its glitzy namesake this Las Vegas is an appealing mix of slightly down-at-heel with trying-hard-to-revive. We loved the photogenic old buildings of the Historic Bridge Street District, and the sleepy Plaza.

Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas

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The Plaza Hotel

But our first action on arriving was to check into our pre-booked accommodation in the grand old Plaza Hotel. If like us you prefer to stay near the centre of any town you visit, able to walk to the restaurants and bars, there is really only one choice in Las Vegas NM, and that is the historic Plaza Hotel. It dominates the north-west corner of the town’s large plaza, and its sensitively restored Victorian public spaces and rooms are a delight to visit – the more so because the less fashionable nature of Las Vegas as a destination makes them very affordable when compared to pricey Santa Fe or Taos.

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In the hotel lobby

The main hotel building was built and opened in 1882. For a while it was the place to stay, but soon after it was built the focus of the town moved a mile to the west, away from the original Spanish colonial plaza to the area around the new railway station. Eventually the hotel declined, as did the large store next door, Charles Ilfield’s ‘Great Emporium’, which at one point was the biggest department store in the Southwest,. The hotel was restored in 1882, and in 2009 the owners bought up the neighbouring emporium and converted it too into part of the hotel, linked internally. Our room was in this part, but the sympathetic conversion made it hard to see the difference apart from the change in floor levels of the corridor as you move between one part and the other.

But we didn’t linger in the room, keen to get out and see a bit of the town in what remained of the afternoon, starting in the Plaza.

Exploring Las Vegas

After seeing the plazas of Old Town Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos (among others) on our drive through New Mexico, the one here in Las Vegas came as something of a surprise. Like the others it is a legacy of Spanish colonisation, but it has retained fewer adobe buildings and has less of the Spanish air to it. Instead it feels a little like a small Victorian park, surrounded by buildings that are still historic but dating mostly from the more recent past.

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Adobe building on the Plaza

The plaza began, as was the custom for Spanish settlers, with the construction of a number of small homes around an open space that could be defended easily from attack. When the Santa Fe Trail route was established, locals were quick to encourage passing merchants to overnight here, and the resulting trade led to the city’s expansion. Over time many of the houses surrounding the plaza were converted into stores, or even totally demolished and shops built in their place. The area became the lively hub of the city, and was witness to several historical events. For instance, a plaque in the park commemorates the day in August 1846 when General Kearney stood on top of a building here and claimed the territory for the United States (sorry, no photo – I didn’t take one when we first set out on our explorations, and it was raining too hard by the time we came back to the park after our walk and a coffee!)

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Another view of the Plaza Hotel

When the railroad came to Las Vegas it arrived a mile to the east, and a new town grew up there. West Las Vegas remained as a bit of a backwater, but still thriving enough for a while for new businesses such as the Plaza Hotel and Ilfield’s Emporium to be established. But when the main railroad line was diverted south of here both parts of the city suffered, and for a while the buildings around the plaza, as elsewhere in the city, fell into decline.

In recent years the city has enjoyed something of a resurgence, and here in the plaza area this is exemplified (and was in part triggered) by the restoration of the Plaza Hotel. But there are several other buildings of note around the perimeter, with a few still retaining the old adobe (albeit now mostly covered with stucco) while the majority are Victorian in appearance.

From the Plaza we walked east along Bridge Street. When the ‘new’ East Las Vegas, triggered by the coming of the railroad, sprung up a mile to the east of the Plaza, it and West Las Vegas remained two separate towns until as recently as 1970. For years the area between them, now filled by Bridge Street and its offshoots, was semi-rural, used by settlers to grow crops. But as East Las Vegas expanded it stretched out towards its neighbour and Bridge Street was born. Lined with commercial buildings in a wide range of architectural styles, it is today a slightly kitsch (to my eyes) mix of the seedy, the small-town Americana, and the sympathetically restored.

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Italianate building on Bridge Street

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On Bridge Street

The whole area has now been declared an Historic District by the city council, and over 90 buildings in and around it are listed on national, state or local registers of historic buildings. Some of the most notable, according to the sign we saw, include the Italianate Stern & Nahm Store (1883-1886) and the ‘World’s Fair Classic’ style Romero Hose and Fire Company building (1909). But we enjoyed just as much the less remarkable buildings and the general sense of a town that is lived-in rather than on show – a great antidote to the sometimes too-studied artiness of Santa Fe or even Taos.

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Street photography on Bridge Street

But we looked in vain for a good cup of coffee on Bridge Street – a woman in the only café that was open told us that their espresso machine was broken. So we were very happy on returning to the Plaza to find that Tapetes de Luna, a weaving and textile arts co-operative on its north-east corner, had a coffee bar where we got an excellent mocha, and also enjoyed browsing the crafts on sale and seeing the old looms in use there.

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Tapetes de Lana

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Coffee table, Tapetes de Lana

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Loom in Tapetes de Luna

Unfortunately this establishment seems to have since closed down, although the Travellers’ Café which has replaced it looks equally welcoming.
Reflecting the city’s sudden boom many of these buildings were quickly thrown up, constructed of inexpensive materials. When the city declined, so did they. But perhaps ironically, the city’s economic decline during the mid 20th century helped in the preservation of these unique historic buildings as there were no funds for restoration during a period when such tasks were approached with much less sensitivity than is the case nowadays.

After our coffee we had a quick look inside a couple of the other places on the Plaza. On its north side we especially enjoyed the works on display at Zocalo Gallery (212 Plaza), another co-operative but this time featuring painters, potters, jewellery makers and more – and this one appears still to be in the same spot and thriving (see http://elzocalogallery.com/).

By now though the rain we had first encountered at Fort Union had returned, so we went back to the hotel to relax in our cosy room and take advantage of the free wifi there.

Landmark Grill at the Plaza

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Chris with his chicken enchiladas
(red chilli)

We had planned to try one of the local Mexican restaurants in downtown Las Vegas that were recommended in our Moon Handbook, but that evening there was heavy rain and we decided to eat in the Plaza Hotel’s Landmark Grill instead (nowadays known as the Range Café). From the name we feared it might be a bit posh and expensive, but it proved to be excellent value and very welcoming. We were glad to have ended up eating there. And from the snatches of conversation overheard at other tables, and the mix of customers (young couples, local families, older travellers), it was clear that for lots of people the Landmark Grill was a favourite place to eat in Las Vegas.

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My chicken enchiladas
(green chilli)

Our friendly waiter brought us a basket of complimentary bread with oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping, which I always love. Although clearly inexperienced and young (so young that he was not allowed to serve us our beers but had to ask the senior waitress to take our drinks order instead!), he made a real effort to ensure we enjoyed our meal.

From the varied menu we both chose chicken enchiladas – I with green chilli and Chris with red. We also shared a house salad, which had a nice mix of leaves and a good blue cheese dressing.

Byron T's Saloon

After our tasty meal in the Landmark Grill we decided to check out the bar across the lobby, Byron T’s Saloon. This is named after a former owner of the hotel, and former town mayor, Byron T Mills, who it is claimed still haunts the hotel – or rather, one of its rooms, 301.

We were quite surprised to find that this is much more of a local bar than we would expect a hotel one to be, and all the better for it. Whereas in our hotel in Grants we had found ourselves to be the only drinkers in the bar (!), here we found a buzzing lively atmosphere that was much more to our liking.

We secured seats at one end of the bar, and ordered our drinks – a very good margarita for me, and a bottle of Dos Equis for Chris. The drinkers around us were clearly locals, and were enjoying ribbing the barmaid, who was giving as good as she got. We got talking to the guy sitting next to us at the bar, who then introduced us to a couple of his drinking companions, including his son who was (unusually for an American) a big rugby fan. We spent a very pleasant hour or so chatting to them, and naturally ordered a second round of drinks. I think the barmaid’s hand slipped while mixing my margarita as it was even stronger than the first, and I have to confess to a bit of a hangover the next morning – but well worth it for such a fun evening! Unfortunately though, the friendly conversation, or possibly the alcohol, seem to have diverted me from my usual habit of taking photos of absolutely everything for Virtual Tourist, so I have none of the bar at all!

Posted by ToonSarah 09:31 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture road_trip restaurant volcanoes history hotel weather new_mexico street_photography Comments (6)

Of Route 66 , the Wild Wild West, and the ‘Long Walk’

New Mexico day fourteen


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

Our stay at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas included a hot breakfast, chosen from a menu of about half a dozen options, all cooked to order rather than from a buffet – the best hotel breakfast of our trip by far. A shame then that my margarita-induced hangover prevented me from making the most of it!

This morning we continued our drive south, taking I25 for a few more miles before forking left on Highway 84 and then turning east on I40.

Santa Rosa

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Sign in the
Route 66 museum

As we approached Santa Rosa on Interstate 40 the heavens opened and for about ten minutes we drove through a downpour so heavy that it was almost impossible to see the road or any other vehicle on it – scary stuff. Maybe the elements were finding a way to punish the road that almost destroyed one of the most iconic of all American cultural icons, Route 66. And we were here to visit the Route 66 museum, dedicated to capturing and preserving all that is most symbolic of America’s Mother Road.

The Santa Rosa section of Route 66 opened in 1930 and the town flourished with the business it brought. Motels, diners, gas stations lined the highway here, and you can still see some reminders of that era lining the historic route that runs parallel to the Interstate. I was also interested to read that Santa Rosa's stretch of Route 66 is part of film history. The film of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath was partly shot here, and the director John Ford used Santa Rosa for the memorable train scene in which Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda) watches a freight train steam over the Pecos River railroad bridge into the sunset. The Grapes of Wrath is one of my favourite books, and I loved the film, so our visit here sent me back to watch and enjoy it again.

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In the parking lot of the Route 66 museum

Route 66 Auto Museum

One of the pleasures of a US road trip for us is discovering the off-beat attractions as well as the major historic sites and natural wonders – and Santa Rosa’s Route 66 Auto Museum is an excellent example! Owner Bozo Cordova has amassed a wonderful collection of classic cars and Route 66 memorabilia, and has turned his passion into a great attraction.

Cordova grew up along Route 66 and this gave rise to a lifelong interest in cars. He started out with the model variety and worked his way up to the real thing, starting a Route 66 business, Bozo's Garage, here in Santa Rosa. But his collection of classic cars grew so much that he opened the museum to accommodate and show them off.

Even before we went inside the museum we discovered a number of vehicles parked outside worthy of attention and of our cameras. Unfortunately, although it had stopped raining just as we arrived, the sky was very leaden, so we only took a few pictures here.

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Outside the Route 66 museum

Once inside we found ourselves in the large gift shop / café where we paid the $5 entry fee for the museum. This lies behind the wall that separates it from the shop and is vast! Classic cars of all kinds make up the bulk of the collection, and their elegant shapes and interesting details made for great photos. Among others we saw Chevys, Buicks, Fords, a Coupe de Ville, a Mustang and more.

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In the museum

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Car details

There was also lots of smaller Route 66 related memorabilia, both in the museum and in the shop area, and some original signs, including the original Fat Man sign from the now defunct Club Café which was painted by Route 66 sign painter Rudolph Gonzales of ‘Signs by Rudy’ in nearby Tucumcari.

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Signs in the gift shop

Incidentally, a few of the cars were for sale when we visited, so if you’re looking for a very big holiday souvenir this could be the place! It wouldn’t be a cheap souvenir however – the 1970 Dodge Roadrunner that caught my eye was $45,000.

There were more reasonably priced souvenirs to be browsed through in the shop which had a large collection of Route 66 related items, including t-shirts and other clothing, model cars, shot and beer glasses, various signs and of course model cars. Although we weren’t shopping it was interesting to see the additional museum items displayed here. I particularly liked some of the old photos of the road at the height of its importance.

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In the gift shop

Fort Sumner and Billy the Kid

Fort Sumner is a fairly unprepossessing town, strung out along Highway 84, but it is home to a number of different attractions, most (though not all) associated with one of New Mexico’s most notorious characters, Billy the Kid. It was near here in 1881 that Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett finally tracked down the gunfighter and shot him, as dramatised in the 1973 film. Having seen that film many years ago (OK, when it first came out!), I was keen to see the setting for myself. The next day we were to visit Lincoln Courthouse from where the Kid had made his escape, filling in another chapter in the story of his short life.

When we were here in 2011 Billy had two museums devoted at least in part to his life (one has since closed down), and even two graves! The real grave lies some miles south of town, so the enterprising owner of the museum in town has constructed a replica for those who can’t be bothered to drive any further, thereby hoping to lure them into his museum! Luckily I had done my research and knew to ignore the sign in town and to direct Chris to keep driving – east on Highway 84 and then south on Billy the Kid Road.

We parked in front of the Old Fort Sumner Museum (the one that is now closed) and walked around the left side of it to the small cemetery behind, in which the grave lies. It is surrounded by an iron fence, after the tombstone was stolen three times since being erected here in the 1940's. William H. Bonney, to give him his real name, is buried here with two of his ‘pals’, Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre.

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The (real) gravestone of Billy the Kid

Elsewhere in the cemetery is the grave of one of Billy’s victims, and also that of Lucien B. Maxwell, who bought this property (along with much of northern New Mexico) after Fort Sumner was decommissioned. It was in his son’s house, a mile away, that the shootout between Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid took place. Although there is a theory that in fact Garrett conspired with the Kid to fake the shooting, allowing him to escape to Mexico. Several other men later claimed to be Billy, though their claim was never proven. Some years ago, investigators into the claims wanted to exhume the body buried here, along with that of Billy’s mother which is buried in Silver City, and to carry out DNA testing. But the move was blocked by the mayors of Silver and Fort Sumner, so the truth may never be known.

The Old Fort Sumner Museum

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A corner of the Billy the Kid Museum

Having bypassed the museum in town in order to see the actual grave, it seemed a shame not to check this one out (they sounded too similar to justify time spent at both for all but the most ardent Wild West fanatic). Admission cost us $4 and was worth it – not so much because the collection was great, but almost because it wasn’t!

And what a weird and wacky assortment it was! There were, as we expected, some items relating to Billy the Kid but also many that weren’t. Among the weirdest of the latter were a stuffed two-headed calf and a display showing a multitude of different styles of barbed wire – yes, really!

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Photos of Billy, and just part of the barbed wire display!

There was however an informative timeline describing the events leading up to Billy’s shooting by Pat Garrett, useful to us as we were encountering him at various places on our route through New Mexico, not necessarily in chronological order. There were also facsimiles of his surprisingly articulate letters to Governor Lew Wallace, arguing his case for clemency, and these I found the most fascinating objects on display – the two-headed calf notwithstanding!

Given our shared taste for the bizarre, we spent quite a while poking around in this small museum – it’s rather a shame it has since closed. But I guess Fort Sumner could only sustain one Billy the Kid Museum.

Bosque Redondo Memorial

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Bosque Redondo Visitor Centre

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Bosque Redondo Visitor Centre

It is easy to think that Fort Sumner is all about Billy the Kid and nothing more. But while the shoot-out with Pat Garrett was obviously a black day for the Kid, it is nothing in terms of suffering when compared with the fate of thousands of Native Americans, Navajo and Mescalero Apache, who were incarcerated at the fort during the Civil War. For many years their story went untold, but when we were here in 2011 a new state monument had recently been built to correct that oversight. When we visited it was still not complete, and we were almost the only people here (it was also very late in the season), so we were given a warm welcome by the rangers who not only gave us useful information on what we could see, but also told us a bit about future plans for the exhibits.

The design of the museum building is very striking, and was inspired by the traditional homes of the two tribes whose story is told here – the Navajo Hogan and the Apache tepee. Inside they were planning a series of exhibits telling that story, but in October 2011 most rooms were bare apart from the planned layout stuck on a wall. The rangers told us that they hoped all would be completed in about a year, i.e. the autumn of 2012, and checking the website it seems that there is certainly rather more to see there now.

In 2011 the main area of interest was outside, behind the building, where an interpretive trail helped us to follow the story of what happened here between 1863 and 1868. To properly bring it to life we were advised to hire the very informative audio guide, which gave us a really effective to the moving story told here. My account below is based on a transcription of that audio guide which I found on the memorial’s website at the time, albeit much shortened.

In 1854, the District Court in Santa Fe ruled that under the laws of Congress, there was no Indian country in New Mexico, and thus all Indian land in the state was opened to ranchers and farmers for the taking. The U.S. government believed that subduing the native population and settling these lands was their duty, their mission and their destiny. But the Native Americans viewed the incomers as trespassers on their land, while the settlers saw the American Indian as a threat to their new way of life.

James H. Carleton was a bright, aggressive officer who set his sights on putting his stamp on the Indian problem in New Mexico. In 1862 he obtained President Abraham Lincoln’s approval to establish a fort, which he initially justified as offering protection to settlers but later decided that the site of the fort on the Pecos River would be a good one for an Indian reservation.

On September 27th 1862 Carleton ordered Colonel Kit Carson [whom we had ‘met’ in Taos] to kill all Apache men and take the women and children captive. Among those captured was Chief Cadete, who was ushered to Santa Fe for peace talks and unequivocal surrender. Facing certain annihilation, and tricked into thinking they would be given a new reservation in their own country, Cadete agreed to Carleton’s terms and surrendered. But instead the surviving Mescalero Apache (almost 500 of them) were forced to leave their homeland and were exiled to Fort Sumner, more than 100 miles away.

General Carleton now turned his attention to solving the ‘Navajo problem’. On June 15th 1863, he issued the order to Carson to attack the Navajo. During the winter of 1863-1864, Carson’s New Mexico Volunteers ravaged the countryside, killing Navajo, burning crops and orchards, killing livestock, destroying villages, and contaminating water sources. This scorched earth campaign of Carson’s, designed to starve the Navajo into submission, was named by the Navajos ‘The Fearing Time.’

With no food, and nowhere left to hide, the starving Navajos were gathered at Fort Defiance, near modern day Grants in the north west corner of the state and forced to march to the Bosque Redondo reservation some 400 miles away, through dangerous river crossings and other hazards. Over several marches, between the summer of 1863 and the winter of 1866, 11,500 Navajo were sent to Bosque Redondo. Around 8,500 arrived; some others escaped and fled west, some were captured by slave traders, and many died along the way. This time of suffering is remembered as ‘The Long Walk.’

By March 1863, there were over 400 Mescalero Apache at the reservation. By the end of 1864, they were joined by more than 8,500 Navajo. The Army had only planned for 5,000 to be there, so there were shortages of food, water, and shelter. Fighting between the Mescalero and Navajo, who had never lived in close proximity to one another, was constant. The Mescalero came from a life in densely forested mountains where game and edible plants were plentiful. The Navajo had huge flocks of sheep and goats and came from a country where good grazing, and good food and water were plentiful. Here both tribes were essentially slave labourers. The Navajos would refer to this time and place as ‘hwééldi’, translated as ‘the place of suffering.’

By September 1864, the minority Apaches considered the Navajos enemies, and believed that if the Army could not provide a separate reservation from them, they should no longer be bound by their promise to stay on the reservation. Chief Cadete and his people put a careful plan into action. If everybody left at once, he decided, most might get away. By late October, before winter set in, they were ready. On November 3, 1865, all 400 Mescalero Apache deserted the fort and began their exodus back to their own country. As the normal evening campfires burned, they slipped away into the night. Only nine of them, who were either too old or sick to travel, remained to keep the campfires burning in order to fool the military into thinking that all was normal. Carleton undertook several pursuits, and accounts indicate a number of Mescalero men, women, and children were killed, but most escaped.

The Navajo remained here for three more years. In the spring of 1868, General William T. Sherman and Colonel Samuel F. Tappan arrived at Fort Sumner to negotiate a new treaty with the Navajo leaders, led by Chief Barboncito, who had been the last Navajo Chief to surrender in 1866. The Treaty of 1868 was signed in a field between the Fort and the site of the memorial. By definition, a treaty can only be signed by two nations. Thus, the Treaty of 1868 established, under Federal Law, the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo were allowed to return to their original homelands in the Four Corners Region.

I have reproduced all of this in some detail as the best way of giving you an idea of what we listened to as we walked the interpretive trail. Interspersed with the historical facts were many moving quotes from members of the two tribes, and some traditional music. It was a fairly short walk (maybe a mile in total) but there was a lot to take in and we took our time doing it. As we walked I got a strong sense of what the Navajo and Mescalero Apache suffered here, and also of a quiet satisfaction that at last that suffering and their history is being accorded the respect it deserves.

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The Navajo Treaty Memorial

As the sign on the marker at the spot where the Navajo treaty was signed says,

‘Cage the badger and he will try to break from his prison and regain his native hole. Chain an eagle to the ground and he will strive to gain his freedom, and though he fails, he will lift his head and look up to the sky which is home... and we want to return to our mountains and plains, where we used to plant corn, wheat, and beans.’

We had planned to spend the night in Fort Sumner, but with no accommodation pre-booked and plenty of time left in the day after our visit here, we decided instead to push on to the next town on our route, Roswell. But having devoted so much of this page to the harrowing story of Bosque Redondo (as it deserves, I hope readers will agree), I will save that very different place for my following entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 20:51 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip monument culture history museum new_mexico route_66 customs Comments (6)

From aliens to the Wild West and back out to space!

New Mexico day fifteen


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

The Rosswell Day’s Inn where we had spent the night included breakfast in its room rate. This was described by the motel in its publicity material as ‘luxurious’, but ‘adequate’ would have been a much better choice of word. The buffet offered eggs and grits, biscuits, mini muffins, make-your-own waffles, brown water masquerading as coffee, and juice.

We then drove into the centre of town for a final look round before hitting the road again.

On the streets of Roswell

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Street art in Roswell

Whatever the truth about the 1947 Roswell Incident, one thing is certain – today, Roswell is a town obsessed. It’s impossible to spend any time here without encountering a large number of aliens and it is clear that whatever you want to promote or sell in Roswell (t-shirts, ice cream, burgers, souvenirs) the best way to do it is to attach an alien to it!

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Shop windows in Roswell

One other thing is clear too; the Roswell Incident (which in fact took place 70 miles away!) has elevated a fairly ordinary town into a major destination for visitors looking for the unusual or quirky, like ourselves, as well as for die-hard UFO aficionados. So we had a good time this morning exploring the downtown streets, photographing our own ‘alien encounters’.

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Building detail

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'Spaceship' McDonalds

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Bus shelter

It was all rather fun, and added to our very positive impression of New Mexico as a state with a huge variety of sights and experiences.

Pioneer Plaza, Roswell

As a break from photographing the aliens, the central Pioneer Plaza proved a pleasant place to hang out for a short while. At its centre is an attractive sculpture, entitled ‘Cattle King of the Pecos’. It shows John Simpson Chisum, a cattle baron who owned a ranch (South Spring Ranch) four miles southeast of downtown Roswell in the mid 19th century. Chisum was involved in the Lincoln County War and initially helped Billy the Kid who was one of his ranch hands, before falling out with him and losing cattle to his raids. He was involved in getting Pat Garrett, who later went on to shoot the Kid elected as sheriff. He was played by John Wayne in the 1970 film of the same name.

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Cattle King of the Pecos

The two most notable buildings in the vicinity of the plaza are rather a contrast in scale and style. One is the Chaves County Courthouse, built in 1911 in the Beaux Arts Classical style popular at that time, and showing the sort of grandeur thought necessary to strike fear into any criminal to be tried here. The other is the modest Conoco service station built in the 1920s. I had read that this was one of the few remaining intact early gasoline stations in the state, so I expected it to be a gas station, complete with photogenic old pumps, and was a little disappointed to discover that it’s now an office.

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Former Conoco service station

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Zia symbol
(free to use clip-art)

The square was constructed in 1997 on the site of what was known as Roswell’s Pioneer Block, hence the name. The first adobe building in Roswell once stood on this site, but is long gone, although a square of brown paving tiles containing the red Zia sun sign (the symbol of New Mexico), on the Main Street side of the square, shows its former location. A cement square with park benches on the corner of 4th and Main Streets marks the location of the store where Sheriff Pat Garrett bought the ammunition he used to shoot Billy the Kid.

Unfortunately when the city authorities developed the square they demolished almost all the buildings then standing here, and nothing was saved for posterity apart from these marks on the ground. And although it’s a very pleasant town square, and apparently well used by residents for all sorts of events, it’s a shame that nothing now remains from Roswell’s early days.

So we left Roswell and its aliens behind us and drove west on Highway 380 to a place where a sense of history was guaranteed.

Lincoln: the town that started a war

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Ammunition for sale in the Tunstall Store, Lincoln

Lincoln is a very small place to have started a war, but that is just what it did. In the late 19th century the Lincoln County War led to the deaths of at least 19 people and terrorised settlers throughout the county, which at that time included all of south-eastern New Mexico. Not for nothing did President Rutherford B. Hayes once call Lincoln’s main street ‘the most dangerous street in America.’

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In Lincoln

Today Lincoln is a pretty sleepy place, although I imagine it gets busy with visitors at the height of the season. The whole town is operated, unusually, as a state monument. Its one street is lined with historic homes and buildings – some museums, others still private homes. There are no gas stations or convenience stores in Lincoln, and only one public telephone.

Arriving in the town we went first to the Visitor Centre, to pay the $5.00 admission fee, which included entry to the six historical properties then open at this time of year (nowadays the website says seven buildings are open to the public, but between November 1st and March 31st only five can be visited). We also spent some time looking at the exhibits here. I had seen many references to the Lincoln County War while travelling around New Mexico, and especially in our encounters with Billy the Kid, but it was only on this next to last day of our trip, when we came here to Lincoln and to this very informative Visitor Centre, that I was able to put together the pieces and understand the full story.

The war started in November 1876, when Henry Tunstall and Alexander McSween opened a store in Lincoln, setting themselves up in competition with existing store owners Lawrence Murphy and J. J. Dolan. The latter had had a monopoly on selling goods not just in the town but also supplying beef to nearby Ft. Stanton and the Mescalero Indian Reservation. When Murphy and Dolan challenged the newcomers, Tunstall was killed, forming the catalyst for all-out battle between the two sides. Tunstall’s cowhands (who included Billy the Kid) and some other local citizens formed a group known as the Regulators to avenge his murder, knowing that they could not rely on the official criminal justice system which was controlled by allies of Murphy and Dolan.

A whole series of killings on either side ensued, culminating in a three day battle here in Lincoln in July 1878. Tunstall’s Regulators were surrounded in two different positions, the McSween house and the Ellis store. Many of the key figures in the war died in this battle, including McSween himself. It was eventually halted by the intervention of the US Army. Those not already killed scattered, including Billy the Kid and other Regulators, who turned to a life of cattle rustling and other crimes. It would be December 1880 before Billy was tracked down by Sherriff Pat Garrett, arrested, and tried in Mesilla (where we were to go the next day).

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In Lincoln

In April 1881 the Kid was convicted of killing Sheriff Brady, the only conviction ever secured against any of the combatants in the Lincoln County War. He was sentenced to be executed, and held under guard at Lincoln Courthouse to await his fate. But he escaped from there, only to be tracked down again by Garrett, in Fort Sumner, and shot dead.

The Visitor Centre told us this story in a series of informative panels. It also covered other aspects of the history of this area. Chris and I were especially interested in the display about the Buffalo Soldiers. We know the Bob Marley song, of course, but didn’t really know much about who they were, until our visit here. The name was a nickname given to African-American troops by the Native Americans they were fighting against in the Indian Wars. The name may have originated in the Indian’s respect for the fierce fighting ability of these soldiers, or perhaps because their dark curly hair resembled a buffalo's coat.

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Model of Indian Scout

Other exhibits showed pueblo culture and life in Lincoln County during the early years of settlement, with items of furniture and household goods. It was all very well done, and just the right size for us to be able to take it in without feeling overwhelmed with facts.

Equipped with all this knowledge we set off to explore the town.

The Montaño Store

The first of the historic buildings we went into was the Montaño Store, almost opposite the Visitor Centre. I confess I was a little disappointed, as it had not been restored as a store but instead houses display panels relating to the history of the building, the store’s owner at the time of the Lincoln County War, José Montaño, and describing adobe construction and the Hispanic way of life. It was all fairly interesting, and there were some fascinating old photos, but I had hoped for more in the way of exhibits and was concerned that Lincoln would prove less absorbing than I had thought. I need not have worried however, as some of the other buildings had more to offer.

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Old stove in the Montaño Store, and sign outside

Meanwhile though we enjoyed getting to know a bit about Montaño. He tried to stay neutral during the War, but the store was used as a shelter by McSween gunmen during the battle that took place here. It was here that one of the most famous examples of marksmanship in Western lore took place. Fernando Herrera, using a Sharps 45-120-555 rifle, fired a shot 756 yards from the roof of the store, fatally wounding Charlie ‘Lallacooler’ Crawford. Crawford’s belt buckle deflected the bullet, but he died from the wound a week later. Eventually the US Army forced the gunmen who were holed up here to abandon the store, which led in part to the killing of McSween himself and burning of his house and store just up the street.

At the height of Lincoln’s prosperity as a town Montaño’s was one of four stores here. It sold tools, whiskey, calico, seeds, nails and everything else that was needed in a mid 19th century Western town. It hosted weekend dances and was probably also used as a bar. Governor Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, spent time socialising here.

Montaño died in 1903 and his wife sold the business to family members, who in turn sold it to another family, the Romeros. It was they that sold it to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust, in 1967, to be operated as museum.

San Juan Mission Church

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San Juan Church

Walking westwards along the main road the next historic building we came to was the mission church, dedicated to San Juan Bautista (St John the Baptist). This Roman Catholic church was built in 1887, of adobe made on site and vigas from the Capitan Mountains, and is still in use today. It is one of the buildings to which our ticket provided admission, although that admission was restricted to the first few yards inside the door, after which there was a barrier. A shame, as I would have liked to have looked around properly.

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Inside San Juan

The church was restored by the New Mexico State Monuments in 1984, hence its good condition. I wasn’t able to find out much else about the building, but I felt that it couldn’t be a coincidence that it was built soon after the Lincoln County War and the battle that took place here on the main street of the town. Maybe an earlier church was damaged or destroyed at that time? Or maybe there was no church, and that contributed to the lawlessness of the community?

The Torreon

Opposite the church is the Torreon, one of the oldest structures still standing in Lincoln. It was built in the 1850s to protect the Spanish settlers here during Apache raids. In the three-day Lincoln County War battle that took place in the town, this tower was used as a base for Murphy’s sharpshooters. It was restored in 1937, and I couldn’t see that it was possible to go inside at all.

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The Torreon

Next door to the tower we found a spinning and weaving shop, La Placita (no longer there, as far as I can tell). Inside we met a lady who was demonstrating the technique of spinning by hand, and there were several looms set up. The shop sold the wool, which is all dyed with natural dyes such as those that would have been used by early settlers – browns from the leaves of walnut trees, yellow from wood shavings, green from avocado skins, and so on.

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In La Placita

The Tunstall Store

Of all the old buildings in Lincoln, this is one of two (the other being the Courthouse) that must rate as the most historically significant and I found them by far the most interesting to visit. It was the opening of this store by Henry Tunstall and Alexander McSween, in November 1876, which triggered the Lincoln County War, as they were seen as a threat by the owners of what was until then the only store in the area, Lawrence Murphy and J. J. Dolan.

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In the Tunstall Store

Today the store is set out just as it would have been back in the 1870s. You could happily peer around here for some time, as all the shelves are stacked with everything a settler would have wanted for daily life in the home and on the land: tools, china and glass for the house, seeds, fabrics, flour and sugar, biscuits, tea, clothing and hats, and of course ammunition. These are displayed in the original shelving and cases, which are incredibly well-preserved considering their age and all that has happened here.

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In the Tunstall Store

I also loved the old cash register and rather battered safe. Photography is allowed in all the buildings, by the way, but no flash. And we were able to wander all over the shop, although visitors are asked to stay on the areas of floor laid for the purpose and not to stray on to the original floorboards, in order to help preserve them.

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Old safe

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Cash register

This is one of only two places where were asked to show our admission ticket. The lady on duty was very friendly and full of information about the store, pointing out several details that we had missed.

Next door to the Tunstall Store is the Thomas W Watson House, which was under restoration at the time of our visit. It was built in the 1880s and served as Doctor Watson’s home and drug store from 1903-1920, hence the name. It is thought to have been built either on the site of the west wing of the McSween house, or just adjacent to it.

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The Thomas W Watson House, Lincoln

The shack opposite the store, and the blue door in the wall next to it, are part of the Dolan Outpost property. The house was built in 1883 and 1884 by Elijah Dow, carpenter, and George Peppin, stonemason, who also built the San Juan Church and the Court House. During the 1920s and 1930s the house was known as the Bonito Inn and it is claimed that Lew Wallace wrote some of Ben-Hur on its porch.

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Dolan Outpost land

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Dolan Outpost land

The Courthouse

The Courthouse was the last building we visited in Lincoln and was one of the most interesting. It was once the Murphy-Dolan store, holding a monopoly in the area until Tunstall and McSween arrived to set up their rival business, and was also Dolan’s home, but was later converted into the courthouse.

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Old sherriff's uniform

Ironically, given the animosity between him and Dolan, this is where Billy the Kid was imprisoned, on the upper floor, while awaiting execution for the murder of Sheriff Brady. Pat Garrett knew that the Kid would find it easy to escape from the regular town jail, so he kept him shackled hand and foot and guarded around the clock in the room behind his own office at the county courthouse, which had been the old Murphy-Dolan store. He was guarded by two deputies, and yet escape he did.

You might wonder how he managed that, and the answer is that he pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book – the ‘I need to go to the lavatory’ one! It helped that only one of his guards was present at the time – the other having taken the remaining, less dangerous prisoners, out to dinner. Yes, you read that correctly – apparently they were in the habit of taking their meals in the Wortley Hotel almost opposite the Courthouse, and were there at the time of Billy’s break for freedom.

On the day in question Billy asked the one deputy left on duty, James Bell, if he could use the bathroom, which of course in those days was outside behind the main building. The guard agreed, allowing him to do so though still in his leg-irons and chains and with handcuffs still on.

When they returned to the Courthouse Billy made his move, shooting the deputy as he followed him up the stairs (it is not clear how he managed to get his hands on the gun, which probably came from the Courthouse’s own stock). Bell staggered outside but died from his wounds as soon as he got there. The other deputy, Bob Olinger, heard the shots from the saloon across the road and came running, to see the Kid at an upstairs window. That deputy too was killed, and Billy was free to make his escape, aided by some of the townsfolk sympathetic to his cause. Today you can still see the damage said to have been made by one of the bullets on the wall at the foot of the stairs, while plaques outside mark the spots where Bell and Olinger fell.

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Staircase down which Billy the Kid escaped, and bullet hole in the wall

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The Curry Saloon

As well as all this history directly associated with the Lincoln County War, one ground floor room here is dedicated to the former lawmen of Lincoln County, including Pat Garrett, and models show how the uniform has changed over the years. Personally though I found this much less interesting than the material on Billy the Kid, whose trail we had been following all over the state.

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Old safe in the Courthouse

Opposite the Courthouse is the former Curry Saloon, where, like the Wortley Hotel next door, the judges from the Courthouse opposite used to dine. The saloon takes its name from George Curry, a Territorial Governor of New Mexico and later Congressman, who ran the saloon in the late 1880s. It is now a deli serving light meals and cold drinks, but despite the open sign was closed when we tried it. Luckily the Wortley was not …

The Wortley Hotel

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Sign outside Wortley Hotel

The official Lincoln website said that there were four restaurants operating in the historical district at the time of our visit, but we only saw two, and only one of these was open. Luckily the Wortley Hotel proved to be a good choice for a light lunch. The décor was suitably old-fashioned for such a historic location, the service friendly and the sandwiches tasty and reasonably priced. We sat in the conservatory area at the front, which was lighter and pleasanter than the rather dark main room, but did make service a little slower as we weren’t in the direct eye of the one lady serving. Still, we weren’t in a hurry, and rather enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversation of the couple at the next table, who were evidently locals and having a good gossip about various neighbours!

Chris chose the ‘Captain Jack’s’ grilled cheese sandwich with green chilli and bacon, which he enjoyed, and I had a BBQ pork sandwich, which was packed with moist well-flavoured meat. Both came with a pickle and potato chips. We also had a large orange juice each. The meal was not at all expensive, especially considering the fact that they seemed to have a monopoly, albeit temporary, in the middle of a tourist destination.

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My BBQ pork sandwich

As well as a good meal, you are experiencing a part of Lincoln’s history when you eat here. The Wortley (albeit an earlier building) is where Deputy Olinger had brought the other prisoners for dinner one evening, giving Billy the Kid the opportunity he was looking for to shoot his way out of his Courthouse imprisonment. As the hotel’s website said back then:
~ We no longer feed prisoners.
~ The food is much better these days.
~ Carnage of this sort rarely occurs in modern day Lincoln, thus our motto, ‘No Guests Gunned Down in Over 100 Years’.

After lunch we continued our journey west through the Capitan Mountains and then south on Highway 54 to our planned base for the night, Alamogordo.

Alamogordo

One of the main sights that had brought us to New Mexico in the first place was the White Sands, and it was these that brought us in turn to Alamogordo, saving it for now, towards the end of our trip. The sands themselves were on tomorrow’s itinerary, as we wanted to be there early in the morning, so for now the priority was to find somewhere to stay for the night (I hadn’t pre-booked) and to see what else the town had to offer.

The first was soon sorted. On arriving in town we found that most places were fairly basic non-chain motels, several of which had been recommended in our Moon Handbook. So we chose one of these which looked reasonable, the Alamo Inn. It proved to be just as described – nothing fancy but clean and good value. We secured a room with a queen size bed, fridge, microwave and TV.

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Our room at
the Alamo Inn

Most motels in the town are strung out along this busy main road and traffic noise is just about inevitable wherever you stay, as are the occasional whistles from passing trains – although personally I rather like the latter and never mind being woken by them. So although you could get larger fancier rooms in one of the pricier places, to be honest if you’re just crashing for one night to get an early start at the White Sands, as we were, a no-frills place like this should suit you just fine, as it did us. And in the event I slept well, despite the traffic, as the bed was comfortable and the sheets fresh and clean, which is all you really need. Since our visit, however, the motel has acquired a new name, the Classic, and a new owner, and reviews suggest that it is no longer as welcoming and pleasant as we found it to be – what a shame!

The motel had a small pool, which had already been drained for the winter when we were there, and a continental breakfast was included in the room rates, but we were leaving early to get to the White Sands as soon as the park opened so we made use of the fridge to store our picnic breakfast overnight instead.

Now, with somewhere to lay our heads for the night sorted, we could turn to the next priority, fitting in a bit of sightseeing. And there was one obvious sight in town that was sure to appeal to us both!

The New Mexico Museum of Space History

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Rocket to the moon?

Both Chris and I grew up with the Space Race, and both of us have a clear memory of the Moon Landings, especially the first, so a visit to a museum that documents it all was a must! The museum sits on a hill on the east side of Alamogordo, and it was a very windy day so we really felt the force of it up here. We could see the effect of the wind too – it was whipping up the white sand (or more accurately gypsum) from the White Sands National Monument some miles to the south and creating a bizarre sort of sandstorm on the far side of town. We were a bit concerned about our planned visit there the next day when we saw this, although in the event the wind dropped overnight and we were to have perfect weather for it – but that’s a story for my next entry ...

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Alamogordo from the Museum of Space History
- you can see the haze caused by the 'sandstorm' on the horizon

Despite the wind we spent a little while looking at the exhibits outside the museum, and if you’re short of time and don’t want to pay the admission for a hurried visit it’s worth knowing that these can be seen for free, as well as that good view of the town and beyond. These exhibits include a Mercury capsule, which you can climb into and experience just how cramped it would have been for the astronauts who flew in it.

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Mercury capsule

I also liked seeing the Little Joe II rocket. This was used to test the Apollo launch escape system, as it could boost a spacecraft on a path which duplicated an Apollo-Saturn in-flight emergency. During this ‘emergency’, the Launch Escape system fired and pulled the Command Module containing the astronauts safely away from the booster. At 86 feet tall, Little Joe II is the largest rocket ever launched from New Mexico. Five of these Little Joe II tests were flown from the nearby White Sands Missile Range between August 1963 and January 1966.

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Little Joe

Having finished looking at these and other exhibits we headed inside and paid the (then) $5 admission fee. T thought the museum was very well-organised. We started by taking a lift up to the top floor and from there worked our way down a series of ramps passing all the displays and exhibits. There was so much to see! The displays cover the history of rocket science from early rocket experiments to the NASA programme. One display offered the opportunity to ‘land’ a space shuttle with a simulator (I was very pleased to land it safely at my first attempt!) and another to go inside a mock-up of the Space Lab (my photo shows Chris pretending he knows which knobs to twiddle!)

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Chris in the 'Space Lab'

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Memorial to Ham, the first monkey in space

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Satellite

There was information on meteorites, satellites, commercial space flights and much more. The exhibits were arranged thematically rather than chronologically, so it did seem a little haphazard at times, but most of it was very interesting and I didn’t think you needed to know a lot about the subject matter to be able to appreciate and take it all in.

As we walked down the ramps, we saw that the walls were lined with photos of all those who have been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame, which commemorates the achievements of men and women who have furthered humanity's exploration of space. I was interested to see that this is truly international – there may once have been great rivalry between the US and the then-USSR, but today the achievements of both nations, and many others, are celebrated here. And I was pleased to see five Brits here, including Arthur C Clarke whose science fiction novels I read avidly as a teenager.

Dinner at Tia Lupes

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Tia Lupes

When we had first arrived in town, one reason for our choice of the Alamo Inn was the proximity of a couple of possible eating places within a block or so. We had planned to try Si Senor, just next door, but when I looked online after checking-in I found several poor reviews – and some very good ones for a place a couple of blocks away, Tia Lupes. So in the evening we walked down there (yes, walked – we’re odd, or so the drivers in the US seem to think when we walk a few blocks along a busy road rather than get out the car to drive so short a distance!)

The reviews had said that Tia Lupes had no liquor license, so we were surprised on arrival to see beers and wines on display in a cold cabinet. Our waiter proudly explained that they had got their license just a few weeks before, so we promptly ordered two beers, only to be asked for ID. This had happened to us earlier in the trip, in Albuquerque, so we had been carefully carrying our passports each evening when going out to eat or drink, but with no license at Tia Lupes, as we had thought, we hadn’t bothered that evening. Luckily the owner here was more flexible than in the Flying Star and a quick check with her got the waiter the permission needed to serve us our beers.

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Chicken chimichanga
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Chilli Relleno Plate

Drinks sorted, we turned to the food. From a long menu I chose the ‘Chilli Relleno Plate’ – green chillies stuffed with cheese and served with a corn tortilla, rice, beans and a choice of green or red chilli sauce. I chose the latter, which the menu warned was ‘HOT’. The waiter offered to bring it on the side, to which I agreed, but although pretty hot it was fine for someone used to Indian food in the UK, so I tipped it on! I found the chillies a little over-cooked but the rice and beans were among the best I’d had on the trip. Chris had a good chicken chimichanga, which also came with rice and beans and some of the same hot red sauce.

We wouldn’t normally have dessert after a meal like that, but we were persuaded by the friendly owner to try that evening’s special, ‘sopapilla swirl’. So we shared one and it was very good, though filling – a plate of small sopapillas (the traditional puffed up breads) served with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream (almost like a New Mexican version of profiteroles).

Our bill for the two mains, two beers and the shared dessert was really reasonable. Tia Lupes had won several awards locally and I could see why – it was a good, simple family-run place producing decent food at good prices in a welcoming setting. Unfortunately however, it seems now to have closed down – I guess this sort of place doesn’t always stay established for long. Still, it had given us a good evening out, before we turned in for an early night as we planned a prompt get-away the next morning – the White Sands were calling us!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:30 Archived in USA Tagged food architecture road_trip restaurant history hotel museum space new_mexico Comments (5)

Snow in the desert?

New Mexico day sixteen


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

White Sands National Monument

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Early morning shadows on the White Sands

It was the White Sands in part at least that brought us to New Mexico, and they did not disappoint. After seeing the wonderful photos taken here by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, I was really keen to see these scenes for myself, and that was one of the triggers for planning a holiday in this incredible state.

As we were staying in Alamogordo rather than in the park itself (where the only accommodation option is back-country camping), we made an early start that day, skipping breakfast in favour of juice and muffins which we had stocked up on the previous day ready to picnic later in the park.

We were at the gates soon after the 7.00 am opening time. I knew that the best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but for non-campers like ourselves arriving at opening time is the next best option. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

We paid the $3 per person fee at the gates, skipping the visitor centre which was still closed at that time (and which in any case was much less of a priority for us than seeing the actual dunes), and entered the park. At first the landscape was much like that of the rest of this part of New Mexico, flat scrubland. But we could see the white dunes ahead of us as we drove and were soon among them.

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Driving through White Sands National Monument

Imagine a desert with dunes that stretch to the horizon, dotted with a few hardy plants and baking under a hot sun. Now imagine that the sand in this desert is not yellow, but as white as snow, and you will have some idea of what it is like here.

But despite the name, this is not sand! The white crystals are in fact gypsum, and in this part of New Mexico the dunes cover 275 square miles of desert creating the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Not all of this though is part of the National Monument, as much of it is off-limits on the White Sands Missile Range – these wide open spaces are ideal for such activities it seems. But thankfully the National Monument does preserve a large portion of the dunefield and makes it accessible for us all to enjoy.

Interdune Boardwalk

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View from the Interdune Boardwalk

Our first stop, which I had planned carefully in advance, was at the Interdune Boardwalk. This offers a short easy walk with interpretive boards describing the plant life on the dunes etc. It was just right for a pre-breakfast stroll and got us in among the dunes while the light was still good.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It led us through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here described the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explained how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. It was an interesting introduction to this fascinating environment, and the plants themselves made interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

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Plant life near the Interdune Boardwalk

Back at the car we ate our simple breakfast picnic and then it was time to explore further. There are no restrictions on where you can walk here, as long as you pull off the road when you stop, so having found the Interdunes Walk just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us.

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Panorama by the road side

Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, proving that it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.

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Lone grasses

Alkali Flat Trail

We then followed the road to the far end of the loop drive. There were several marked picnic areas here with grills, tables and seats, and these slightly surreal-looking space-age shelters to provide protection from the harsh midday sun in summer. It was still fairly early in the morning and the place was pretty deserted. I am sure it gets busier later, especially at the height of the season, but we rather enjoyed having it to ourselves as the shelters made great subjects for some rather different White Sands photos. At that time of day in October we didn’t really need their protection, but it was a fun place to relax for a short while and refresh ourselves with a drink, and we were also glad of the (primitive) restrooms provided here.

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Picnic shelters

Then we set out on our walk. The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. This trail should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy.

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Trail marker

But even if you don’t feel you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here was enough to get us into a different world – the crowds were left behind and we had the dunes to ourselves.

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Panoramas of the Alkali Flat Trail

There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking. The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure had suggested it would, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Los Cruces.

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Lone plant on Alkali Flat

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On the Alkali Flat Trail
- Organ Mountains on the horizon

After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By now it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much fuller the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. But I was amazed that some of them did set off on the trail despite being dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see

There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach with deck-chairs to sit on and children playing in the sand! – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively cool October!

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Family enjoying the dunes

Visitor Centre

When we had arrived the Visitor Centre was as I mentioned still shut. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on our way out, to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

The exhibition area wasn’t very extensive but I was interested in the information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

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White Sands plant life

I was also impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

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Footprint in the sand

Before leaving the subject of the White Sands altogether I want to share some thoughts about photography here that I first pulled together for Virtual Tourist, which I hope will be helpful if any of my readers get to visit this amazing place. This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but if, like us, you don’t want to camp out, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

So you’re here at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!

Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field.

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Exploring the White Sands

Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my photo above is Chris!

Nearing journey's end

Leaving the White Sands behind us we drove southwest across the flat plain, with the ridge of the Organ Mountains ahead of us. These mountains derived their name, Sierra de los Organos, from the early Spanish settlers, for whom the pinnacles resembled the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of Europe. Today they are a National Monument, with a visitor centre and marked trails to explore, but we were coming to the end of our New Mexican adventure and still had a bit further to drive before spending our last night right in the south of the state, handy for tomorrow’s flight home.

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The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces

Mesilla

Our last night in New Mexico was spent right in the south of the state, in Mesilla. Mesilla is really a suburb of Las Cruces, but with a very separate identity and character. Its cluster of streets are arranged in a grid patter around the central Plaza and lined with buildings that date back to the colonial Spanish era. Of all the southern New Mexico towns we visited, it was the one that came closest to the historical identity of more northern Santa Fe and Taos, albeit much smaller. It made a lovely base for our last few hours in the state.

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Hanging out in Mesilla!

Mesilla was founded in the mid 19th century and for a part of its history lay in a sort of no man’s land between Mexico and the United States. But in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location on the cross-roads of two stagecoach routes. But the town chose not to have the railroad routed through the community, so it went ‘next-door’ to Las Cruces instead. The result was major growth for that city, while Mesilla remained small and retained much of its charm and character.

Today Mesilla is a little pocket of colonial Spain on the outskirts of more modern Las Cruces. There are only a few ‘sights’ (an attractive church, a small museum). Rather, it is a place to wander around and seek the serendipity of a pretty building here, an interesting shop there ...

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Emilia's

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, but not too early for lunch! So we parked near the plaza and went in search of somewhere to eat. There are a number of good restaurants in the historical buildings in and around the Plaza, but some only seemed to offer more substantial meals than we like at this time of day. But Emilia’s (now renamed as Café Don Felix) looked promising, with several salads and sandwiches on the menu. There were also tables available in the pretty little paved area at the front, and the chance to have lunch outside on our last day sealed the deal!

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Avocado & Swiss sandwich

Our friendly waiter brought chips and salsa to accompany our fruit juices – so much for the light meal! Chris had ordered a salad with chicken and bacon (which was good), while I had the avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich which came with a small side salad. I found my sandwich a little dull (too much lettuce, too little cheese and avocado) but the blue cheese dressing that came with my salad was excellent and also served to brighten up the sandwich.

Mesilla’s Plaza

After lunch we explored the plaza and surrounding streets of the Historic District. At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.

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Gazebo in the Plaza

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Paper flowers on the gazebo

Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February 1985.

The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday so missed that.

However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!

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Musicians on the Plaza

Basilica of San Albino

The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow, and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture, as I explained in my blog entry about Santa Fe: Fanta Se.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, ‘In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, were christened and given godparents to care for them’. I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere, but it sounds a lovely one.

In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The basilica was advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows. It was also hard to get a good photo of the church as it faces south and there were cars parked immediately in front of it.

Historic district

Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.

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Shop sign, Mesilla

We browsed a few of the shops, even though we really had bought enough by this point of the trip! There was some interesting folk art in one, work by more contemporary artists in another. In Scentchips (now closed down) you could mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!

We also rather enjoyed the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. It still has the old viga ceilings and original 18 inch adobe walls.

We got a free leaflet here which detailed the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.

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Mesilla building details

Our last night in New Mexico

We had hoped to be able to stay in one of the few bed and breakfast places in the heart of old Mesilla, but one was fully booked by the time we came to make arrangements and the other very expensive. The Meson de Mesilla seemed from my research to be the next best option, and I think that proved to be the case, being a smallish hotel within walking distance of the Plaza, so that we could leave the car behind and both enjoy a few drinks on our final evening. But this hotel seems to have gone through some upheavals since our visit, to say the least!

At the time of our stay I wrote the following in my Virtual Tourist review:

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The Meson de Mesilla

It would be churlish to complain about the comfortable stay we had here, were it not for the exaggerated claims made by the hotel itself on its website. This is not a ‘boutique hotel’, nor is it any sort of bed and breakfast, let alone the ‘finest Bed and Breakfast in Mesilla’ – breakfast is not even included in the room rates. What it is, in fact, is simply a mid-range mid-priced hotel with some nice design features in its rather small bedrooms.

I had read some reviews that referred to the smallness of the rooms, and as it was our last night and I knew we would want to unpack and repack, difficult in a small space, I chose to pay extra for the middle of three room options, the Veranda Queen room. But it was still definitely on the small side. The queen bed was very comfortable, though bizarrely high from the floor. The bathroom was stylish and had lovely thick towels, but there were few toiletries provided, such as one would have expected from a real boutique hotel. We had a small TV, but no fridge or mini-bar.

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Our room and bathroom


That was in 2011. In 2014 Gordon Ramsey featured the hotel, which was struggling by then, in his ‘Hotel Hell’ TV series (see https://www.realitytvrevisited.com/2014/08/season-2-meson-de-mesilla.html). From what I can read in some rather conflicting reports, the owner appears to have accepted some of his changes and reversed others, and more recently has refurbished again and brought in someone else to run the restaurant, to largely positive reviews. Maybe the Meson de Mesilla has life in it yet! And as I said, its location certainly suited us, giving us an easy stroll back to the Plaza for our last night out in the state.

Peppers

We were keen to find somewhere nice in Mesilla for our final meal of the trip, and at first tried La Posta which got good reviews. But not only would we have had to wait for a table, we were also put off by the rather over-touristy, over-gimicky décor, and I objected to the caged birds in the entrance area (cruel and unnecessary – what’s New Mexican about macaws?) So we looked elsewhere. The equally-historic Double Eagle seemed to be more expensive and fancier than we usually look for in a holiday meal (special occasions excepted) but then I remembered reading that it had a cheaper more informal section, so we went to check that out. The menu for this part, Peppers, wasn’t posted outside but as soon as we went in and asked to see it, our decision was made – and what a good one it turned out to be!

Peppers may be the cheaper end of the Double Eagle, but we wouldn’t have known it to look at it. The tables were set out in an atrium area with lush plants and plenty of dark wood, in keeping with the décor elsewhere in the building. The rather small but very attractive bar opened off one side and was lively with drinkers, while the restaurant area was busy enough with both locals and tourists to make us feel comfortable but not crowded. Our waiter was friendly (and patience personified with the moaning group on the next-door table, who twice changed their order while claiming it was his error!)

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In Peppers

The menu was extensive, and while the steaks were perhaps a little pricey, the rest lived up to the ‘good value’ billing. Starters were a New Mexican take on tapas, and a selection of these would have made a great lunch. But we decided sharing just one would be enough, given the usual size of portions around here. So we opted for the ‘Green Chile Cheese Wontons with Pineapple-Jalapeno Salsa’ which were delicious, especially the unusual but very successful salsa. My only complaint was that there were five of them – either four or six would have made sharing easier! We also had a complimentary serving of chips and salsa, as we had had almost everywhere we had been, and the salsa was great too.

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Carne Asada Tacos

For my main course I chose the Carne Asada Tacos. The beef was excellent – very juicy and with a good amount of spicy heat. There were so many accompaniments that when I later wrote my VT review I had to cut and paste from the menu on the website:
‘Grilled, marinated and seasoned beef morsels with sweet onions, three soft corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, tomato and crumbles of Chihuahua style queso fresco cheese. Choice of black beans or refried.’

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Traditional margarita

Chris meanwhile opted for the simple Old-fashioned Burger, which he also enjoyed. He had a couple of beers – one with the meal and one for desert. I did likewise but with margaritas! My first choice was the house margarita, which was fine but nothing special. For my second I took our waiter’s advice and ordered a ‘Traditional’. He was right – it was well worth the extra $1 it cost, as it was stronger, made with freshly-squeezed lime juice, and was strained into a martini glass rather than being served on the rocks, meaning that it retained its full flavour right to the last drop!

Our total bill although not cheap, was, we felt, a very good price to pay for a delicious meal in a lovely historic setting and with attentive service. A great way to round off our trip!

Time to go home

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Chris plus muffin plus coffee

The Meson de Mesilla, despite calling itself a ‘bed and breakfast’ in some of its publicity, charged extra for breakfast in its restaurant. Besides, when travelling in the US I am always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, especially at this time of day, and that isn’t always the case with restaurant breakfasts. I had spotted The Bean in our Moon New Mexico Handbook and was pleased to see that it was just down the road from the hotel.

It sounded like just our sort of place, and it proved to be exactly that – warm (it was a chilly morning), friendly and inviting, with excellent coffee and great baked goods. They roast and grind their own beans too, so there was a wonderful smell lingering about the place. And on a Saturday morning it was very busy with a steady stream of locals – some getting take-out but many obviously using it as their regular Saturday morning hang-out.

The building that houses the Bean is an old gas station. It wasn’t fancy but it was nicely decorated with modern art and had lots of character. There was a small dining area in front of the service counter, where we managed to get a good table, and a larger one to the side, which seemed to us to have a bit less cosy an atmosphere. There were also a few tables outside, but it was a very chilly October morning – Mesilla is quite high above sea level, so nights are pretty nippy here by this time in the year!

We enjoyed our good mugs of coffee and large muffins, and would have loved to have lingered over a second cup but sadly we had a plane to catch ...

So we drove the short distance south back over the border into Texas and to the airport in El Paso. We handed in the hire car that had served us so well, checked in and were soon on our way – firstly on a domestic flight to Charlotte NC and then across the Atlantic to London Heathrow.

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Our plane at El Paso Airport

It was at Heathrow that things got, briefly, ‘interesting’. We stood at the luggage carousel watching all the bags from our flight arrive and be taken by their owners. As time passed I began to get that feeling, familiar I’m sure to all regular flyers, that ours were not going to appear. This had happened many times before (and has happened many times since), and the cases had always turned up, but not today. Luggage stopped coming down the chute, we waited in case there were more bags to come and gradually realised that this time our luck had run out. I went to the desk to report the bags’ non-arrival, handed over the necessary ID slips, and a helpful lady looked them up on her computer, quickly identifying the problem. There had been two flights leaving El Paso around the same time, both connecting with a London flight – one via Charlotte, and another via LA. It seemed that while we had flown on the first of these our bags might have been on the second. I was a bit taken aback at this information, as I’ve always understood that planes won’t take off carrying luggage that isn’t clearly the possession of someone on board. The lady at the desk confirmed this and said it was quite likely that our bags had been taken off the flight before it took off from LA, but if we cared to wait that flight was due to land in less than an hour and we could at least see if the bags came with it before filing a missing baggage report.

Although tired from our overnight journey we decided to do this and sure enough an hour later there were our suitcases, tumbling out of the chute onto the carousel with all the other bags from LA. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved to see them or disconcerted to learn that sometimes planes do take off with unaccompanied luggage in their holds. But relief won the day and we headed off home on the Tube, bags in hand. It had been a fantastic trip and a few worries over delayed baggage weren’t going to change that!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:05 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture desert road_trip history church square shopping restaurants photography national_park new_mexico Comments (11)

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