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From outer space to the Badlands, via a pie!

New Mexico day four


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

Sunday morning, Socorro

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San Miguel Church, Socorro

It was Sunday, so we started the day by attending mass at the historic church of San Miguel in Socorro. Or rather, in the church’s very functional parish hall, as unfortunately the church was closed for what is apparently much-needed renovation, as past neglect of the adobe structure has led to extensive water damage. It was a lovely service nevertheless, as one local couple were celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary (their 65th, if I remember correctly) and a big fuss was made of them by the priest and community.

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San Miguel Church

But it was a disappointment not to be able to see inside the church, as it has a lot of history. The first mission was built here between 1615 and 1626, as Nuestra Señora del Socorro – Our Lady of Succour. But during the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the local Piros and the Spanish settlers fled south, and it wasn’t until around 1800, that a small group of Spaniards resettled Socorro and rebuilt the by-then ruined church.

According to a small leaflet about Socorro’s history which we picked up at the local tourism board, ‘There are 4 sub floors under the church. Records show that four priests & General Manuel Armijo, the last governor of the Territory of New Mexico, are buried under the church. Some descendants of the early settlers say that in the early 1800s, an Apache Indian raid was halted when they saw a man with wings and shining sword hovering over the church door. Shortly afterward, a petition was made to the Bishop to change the name of the church to San Miguel (St. Michael), the Angelic Protector of the people.’

The local history website http://socorro-history.org/HISTORY/smiguel/church.html has a more detailed history and also mentions that the church reopened after extensive work in 2015, in time to celebrate its 400 year anniversary.

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San Miguel Church

Before leaving this pleasing small town we checked out one more sight. Just south of the Plaza is this odd-looking memorial.

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Jumbo fragment

This is a fragment from Jumbo, a rather cute name for a rather sinister object. Jumbo was the huge steel vessel designed to contain the explosion of the first ever nuclear device, which was detonated at the Trinity Site 35 miles southeast of Socorro on 16th July 1945. It was 25 feet long, 12 feet in diameter and weighed 214 tons. It was not actually used for that first explosion but as it was just 800 feet from ground zero it did suffer some damage, and in later experiments had its ends blown out. It is thus a slightly disturbing souvenir of those early experiments in atomic warfare. Even today a number of townspeople apparently remember the light of the first atomic blast at White Sands Missile Range.

Magdalena

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Main Street, Magdalena

In planning our route I could have opted at this point to carry on north up I25 to Albuquerque and the northern part of the state, but their were several sights to the west that had grabbed our attention, so instead we left Socorro on the much quieter Highway 60, heading out onto the Plains of San Augustin. A few miles west of Socorro we stopped at the only real town (albeit a small one) on this stretch of road, Magdalena.

It would be quite easy to miss Magdalena, but we were very glad we had stopped to explore a little. There’s nothing in particular to see but the handful of old buildings scattered along the highway are a photographer’s dream!

Although it is a sleepy place today, like many in the state Magdalena was once a bustling town. A spur of the Santa Fe Railroad terminated here, to serve mines and ranches in the surrounding area. Lead, zinc, and silver miners would ship their ore out from Magdalena, and ranchers throughout western New Mexico and eastern Arizona drove their cattle here. These miners and ranchers bought their supplies from the many mercantile establishments in the town and stayed at its several hotels. During its most prosperous years, 1884-1925, many fine buildings and houses were built in Magdalena, and several can still be seen.

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Old bank, Magdalena

The former Bank of Magdalena sits on the corner of North Main Street and US 60. This commercial building was built between 1908 and 1913 and has ornamental brickwork in its arches and along the cornice of the parapets. The old signs, and the tourism website (http://magdalena-nm.com/trails-end/walking_tour.html), suggest that it has also served as a café (and possibly still does?) although when we were there in September 2011 it appeared to be in use as the offices of the local newspaper.

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Ilfeld Warehouse

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Old lamp

Another brick building of note is the Ilfeld Warehouse in North Main Street, built in 1913 in the Mission Revival Style. Charles Ilfeld owned one of the largest mercantile companies in New Mexico, having begun his career supplying general merchandise from his store in Las Vegas, NM, during the 1870's. As he expanded, Magdalena became a central warehouse serving ranchers and small businesses across southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Mercantile outlets such as this were essential to ranchers because they were allowed to buy supplies against receipts from the sale of cattle and sheep each year.

Opposite the Ilfield Warehouse is at the old Santa Fe Depot in North Main Street. The old (1915) railroad building is listed on the National Register and now serves as the Village Hall and Library. It was perhaps unsurprisingly closed on our Sunday morning visit, as was the small Box Car Museum also on the site, but you don’t need to go inside the museum to see this old box car from the Santa Fe Railroad which is on permanent display here.

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Santa Fe box car, Magdalena Depot

The Very Large Array

Further west along Highway 60 we reached one of the main sights that had drawn us to this part of the state. The Very Large Array, or VLA as it is commonly known, is an amazing sight, and one not to be missed if you are anywhere near this part of New Mexico, in my opinion! The huge radio telescopes, 27 of them, rise majestically out of the huge, otherwise almost empty, Plains of San Augustin like visitors from another world altogether. But these are not visitors from another world, but searchers for such a world.

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The Very Large Array from afar

These massive dishes (25 m/82 feet in diameter, and weighing 230 tons) are antennae, arranged in a Y formation and set on equally massive tracks that allow them to be bunched fairly close together (just a kilometre apart) or spread out over 36 kilometres. I don’t pretend to fully understand the science, but the broad principle is that by combining the signals picked up from several antennae scientists can map radio sources from across the universe. Quite apart from their scientific significance I also found the dishes rather beautiful, and incredibly photogenic.

We did the self-guided walking tour which allowed us to get really close to one of the dishes and also taught us all we ever wanted to know (possibly more!) about radio astronomy. The tour was free (I note they now charge $6 which is very reasonable for what you get to see), although we were invited to make a small donation for the accompanying leaflet.

We started in the Visitor Centre, where a short video explained the principles of radio astronomy and the workings of the VLA. Other exhibits covered some of the same ground but also expand on the explanations, and there were some beautiful images of outer space made with the telescopes.

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Dish at The Very Large Array

But for us the main attractions lay outside, so we quickly headed out of the back door, collecting one of the leaflets to guide us. The walking tour covers about half a mile, I would say, and is clearly signposted. There were a number of stops along the way, with information about each in the leaflet, but the main highlight for sure was arriving right at the base of one of the antennae and getting a powerful sense of its huge size. We were in luck as it adjusted its position while we stood there, turning to point towards some new, unseen and distant object.

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Getting close to the dishes

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A close look at a dish and antenna

From here we looped around to arrive at the main research building, where a terrace gives a general view of the whole array. Photos taken from here show just how tiny people appear next to the dishes.

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View from the Research Centre

Back at the Visitor Centre we bought a couple of postcards and revisited a couple of the exhibits that had taken on fresh relevance after our walk, and got some cold drinks from the vending machine.

On our way back to the main road we stopped at the point where Highway 52 crosses the railroad, as there are good distant views of the VLA and of the railroad stretching into the distance across the plains.

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Our hire car near the VLA

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Railroad crossing near the VLA

Pie Town

When I saw Pie Town on the map I knew we had to go there! Any town named after food has to be worth a visit, yes? And while getting to Pie Town involves a long drive across empty plains, for us the effort was well rewarded.

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Pie Town sign

The town really is named after the humble pie! It got its name in the 1920s when an entrepreneur got the idea of opening a restaurant and serving pies to homesteaders and to early cross-country motorists. But the coming of the interstate (I40 cuts across the state a little to the north of here) meant that the traffic dried up and the pie market collapsed.

It was only revived in 1994 when a disappointed visitor to the town took matters into their own hands and opened the Pie-O-Neer Café. Soon afterwards a second pie-selling establishment followed, the Pie Town Café, and today pies are firmly back on the menu in Pie Town; there is even an annual Pie Festival (http://piefestival.org/).

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The Pie-O-Neer Café

In truth, calling Pie Town a town is a bit of a misnomer. It has just 45 inhabitants and a handful of other buildings in addition to the two cafés. But it’s a quirky, photogenic spot, just the sort of place that epitomises back-roads Americana. Old rusting cars, equally rusty signs, the aforementioned windmills, the fading paint-work on the cafés ...

These may not be exactly beautiful but they have a certain faded charm and are very photogenic.

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In Pie Town

We couldn’t come to Pie Town and not eat pie! The cornily-named Pie-O-Neer Café is closed at weekends, but fortunately we found the Pie Town Café open for business and doing a roaring trade with passing tourists like ourselves, bikers and a few locals. Luckily there was a small table free on one side of the room, which was simple but welcoming in appearance, dominated by a large counter displaying, naturally, a large selection of pies.

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Stop here for pies

It was lunch-time and the menu had a variety of tempting dishes, both New Mexican (burritos, tacos) and classic US staples. But we’d had a fairly meagre ‘complimentary’ breakfast at our hotel in Socorro, so we both decided a second breakfast was in order – eggs, great fried potatoes with a touch of chilli (this is New Mexico!) and crispy bacon, plus an orange juice each.

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Cute salt and pepper pots

Then it was time for pie. The slices looked very generous, so we decided to share one, and of the many on display opted for cherry. We had to wait a little while to taste it however. The one negative about this café was the slow service – there was just one harassed waitress (possibly the owner) and a girl bussing tables, who helped out a bit by carrying out plates of food but didn’t seem up to the task of taking orders. With all the tables full inside, a few outside, and people coming and going all the time it was perhaps not surprising that we sat for quite a while after our eggs and bacon waiting for the plates to be cleared and our pie order taken. We were enjoying watching all the bustle, but we still had a long way to drive, so in the end I got up and placed our order at the counter, which worked fine.

Apart from eating pie the main sight here is the DanCyn' Windmill Museum. This is one of those eccentric personal projects that dot the roadsides of the US and make touring here such a delight! Dan and Cyndi Lee apparently created their DanCyn' Windmill Museum (get the pun on their names?!) in order ‘to capture the rich heritage of the area’. There are seven vintage windmills standing on the site, and since our visit they have developed the museum further by erecting an old log cabin on the plot. Although they seem to no longer have the website I consulted at the time of first writing about this trip on Virtual Tourist, I am confident that this is the cabin referred to there, which they were in the process of restoring and which was Dan’s boyhood home:

‘Dan's father worked on the York Ranch north of Pie Town, too far away for the children to attend school, so Dan's mother stayed near town in various houses so that she could keep the children in school. She drove the school bus and each day they hauled water in a large milk-can for the family. Dan was let out on the road before reaching home to gather firewood for the evening. At the time they stayed in the cabin, there were six in the family. Weekends were spent on the ranch with his father.’

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DanCyn' Windmill Museum

The museum is open ‘when Dan and Cyndi are home’ but we didn’t like to bother them on a Sunday and in any case were able to get plenty of photos from the roadside. I hadn’t read about the cabin before our visit or I might have been tempted to disturb their Sunday in the hopes of finding it now installed!

Quemado

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Church of the Sacred Heart in Quemado

From Pie Town Highway 60 continues westwards towards the border with Arizona, and twenty miles down the road is the next little town, Quemado. Here the small stone Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, with its tiny graveyard, is very photogenic, from the outside at least. I would have loved to have seen the inside too, but it was Sunday and a Mass was in progress, so I didn’t enter.

El Malpais National Monument

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View from Sandstone Bluffs, El Malpais National Monument

Quemado was the furthest point west that we came on this trip, as here we turned north on Highway 36 and branched off on Highway 117 which runs through one section of the El Malpais National Monument – the other lies further west and was a bit too far off our route. But although we were only here for an afternoon it was long enough to do a couple of short walks and to drive up to the Sandstone Bluffs to see the awesome vista above.

El Malpais is Spanish for Badlands, and you can easily see how the area got this name, as much of it is formed from the outpourings of lava from McCartys Volcano. It is bleak in a way, but also ruggedly beautiful, and that view from Sandstone Bluffs is one that will stay with me for a long while.

Lava Falls

Entering the park from the south we weren’t able to stop off first at the Visitor Centre, which is on the outskirts of the city of Grants (where we would spend the night) so we relied on the information in our Moon Handbook to New Mexico and my pre-holiday research.

Our first stop was at the Lava Falls trail-head, just inside the park, where a trail leads across the McCartys flow, the result of a series of eruptions of nearby McCartys Volcano around 3,000 years ago. Here you can pick up a leaflet about the trail. We decided against doing the full length of it as we had only limited time in the park. Although this trail is only a mile in length you do need to take your time here as the route is marked out by cairns and you have to navigate carefully, only leaving one cairn when you are sure you can see the next ahead of you.

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The lava field

But we did walk the first few hundred yards in order to really appreciate this unreal landscape. As soon as you get beyond sight of the small parking lot you are surrounded by lava and it can seem quite disorientating. The lava here is relatively ‘young’ in geological terms, having been deposited just 3,000 years ago. Even in a short stretch of the trail you can see various formations which are described in the leaflet – Ropy Pahoehoe (smooth basalt with lines like rope), Lava Toes (small lobes of lava formed when hot lava breaks out of semi-hardened lava), A’a (rough broken basalt), pressure ridges and more. As the leaflet explains:

‘Cracks, ripples and bubbles tell a more intricate story. When lava spilled out of McCartys crater, it did not just settle over the ground in a smooth, even layer. It was a dynamic force that took on distinctive features as it flowed over the land. Pressure ridges collided and cracked; collapses sunk into empty cavities; squeeze-ups pushed their way to the surface through weak spots.’

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Daisies and lava

What fascinated me more than the different formations, however, was the way in which plants had made a home in what seemed to be a totally inhospitable environment. There was no sign of soil, yet grasses and flowers peeked from every crevice, and lichens crept across bare rocks. These also served to make my photos more interesting (I hope!) as black lava alone can look very dull.

La Ventana Arch

La Ventana is the second largest natural arch in New Mexico, at 135 feet, and was eroded from sandstone deposited during the age of the dinosaurs.

It actually lies not in the National Monument (incidentally, as a Brit I always find it odd that a large area of land can be called a ‘monument’, which to us is usually a statue or other stone structure!) but in the neighbouring El Malpais National Conservation Area. The arch is very accessible (just a short walk along a gently climbing trail) and is a very impressive sight, although having seen the arches in Arches National Park some years ago we were a little disappointed that it wasn’t possible to get to a position where this arch can be seen silhouetted against the sky. Well, maybe it is possible, but it would involve a lot of scrambling across a rocky hillside dotted with warning signs about not going off the trail!

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La Ventana Arch from the trail - the last photo taken at the closest accessible point

The first part of the trail was paved and could be easily followed by someone in a wheelchair. After a while however, the paving turned to a rougher stony track, but not before we had seen the arch in the distance. From here it ascended slightly but it was a very easy walk which most people will manage in about 10 minutes or so.

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

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Sandstone Bluffs

This was probably my favourite of the three stops we made in El Malpais, towards the northern end of this section of the park. An easy drive on a gravel road (fine in a 2WD) brought us to a ridge of sandstone high above the lava flows. From here we had a magnificent view of the El Malpais lava flows below and the sweeping expanse of the landscape beyond. Standing here our feet were on 200-million-year-old sandstone formed by ancient seas, while below us were the beds of much younger (3,000 year-old) lava that swept through and around the bluffs when McCartys Volcano erupted, and beyond lie the distant range around Mount Taylor.

There are no marked trails here, you simply park in the large parking lot and explore wherever you want to. We just walked along the edge of the bluff to get a variety of views, but you can, if you don’t mind heights and have the time that we lacked, walk further out on to the jutting peninsula of sandstone. You need to be aware though that there are no rails or walls here separating you from a very steep drop here, wherever you choose to walk.

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View from Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

Unfortunately, soon after our arrival here the sun decided to dip behind the late afternoon clouds, and showed no sign of revealing itself again (we were to have a storm later in the evening). This made the landscape a little flatter than I would have liked in the photos, especially my panorama shot above which really doesn’t do justice to the amazing vista. But it does give a really good sense of the scale from the tiny figures just visible on the outcrop on the right. In the distance in this photo you can see a range of mountains, with Mount Taylor towards the left-hand end of the range and Gallo Peak towards the right. Taylor was named for the 12th American President, Zachary Taylor. It is the highest point around here at 11,301 feet and is known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people, who believe it to be the home of the Rainmaker of the North. Gallo is also known as Ram Peak by the Acoma and is 8,664 feet high.

Overnight in Grants

That disappearing sun was our cue to leave the park in search of accommodation for the night. We hadn’t pre-booked accommodation in Grants and had originally intended to look for something near the centre to take advantage of a local restaurant or bar, but when we drove into town everything looked pretty quiet, late on this Sunday afternoon, and the Mexican restaurant recommended in our guidebook was very decidedly closed, so there seemed no point in staying here.

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Our nice big bedroom!

While we’re not enamoured of the motel strips found on the outskirts of US towns as a general rule, on this occasion it seemed to be the most obvious choice, and with what looked like a storm brewing we opted for a motel with its own restaurant, the Best Western. It proved to be a good choice, starting with the undeserved discount we received on check-in – the receptionist asked if we were AAA members, we said not, and she gave us the discount anyway!

Our room was one of their standard ones but was more than adequate for our needs – a good size, with two queen beds and located at the back of the building in a quiet corner. We couldn’t really hear any traffic at all here, and although we could hear the trains whistling now and then during the night, I had no complaints as I love to hear them blow. We also got a great view of that approaching storm, as a bonus!

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Stormy Grants sunset

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Chris in the restaurant

We ate in the motel’s restaurant that evening, the New Mexico Steakhouse, and I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food here. The décor wasn’t bad for a hotel restaurant either, if not particularly imaginative: faded textiles, large booths around the edge, and lots of old Western paraphernalia attached to the walls. There were saddles, stirrups, rifles, but also assorted household items such as jugs and enamel bowls – the sort of stuff we’d been seeing piled high in so-called ‘antique’ shops (aka junk no one else had a home for) but which worked well in this setting. The service was friendly, and the sole waiter coped well with a reasonably busy room. We were pleased to be shown to one of the booths even though there were just two of us, and he immediately offered to bring beers from the bar across the lobby if we wanted a larger selection than the few on the menu, which we did!

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Pollo Santa Fe

Chris decided to keep things simple and went for the traditional cheeseburger (he could also have had one served New Mexican style with green chilli). I chose the Pollo Santa Fe, a chicken breast covered with melted cheese and green chilli sauce, served with rice and beans, and in a fit of guilt at how unhealthily I had been eating, added a house salad. This latter came with a good blue cheese dressing (yes, I know I said healthy, but ...) and was a generous enough size for us to share. My chicken dish was delicious and I really enjoyed it.

We then decided on a night-cap in the sports-themed Rookies Bar which was very large and very empty – just us and the barmaid! It seemed that most of the people who’d been eating in the restaurant were staying in other nearby motels and had come over to eat here as it was probably the best choice in this rather uninspiring strip. So after one drink we left and relaxed in front of the large TV in our room before another fairly early night. It had been a busy day, with our longest drive of the trip so far.

Incidentally the Best Western seems now to be a Red Lion Hotel, and both it and the steak house restaurant get much less positive reviews than I gave them eight years ago on Virtual Tourist.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:12 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes buildings architecture road_trip history views church photography national_park science space new_mexico Comments (8)

History and art in Taos

New Mexico day eleven


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

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Chris in the breakfast room

Our B&B in Taos, La Doña Luz, fell short of some of the other bed & breakfast places we’ve been to in the US in one respect – the breakfast part. There was absolutely nothing wrong with what we got, but it was self-service from a counter and didn’t offer much more than we had got in some of the chain hotels where we stayed on the trip, except that the waffles were made for us by the young girl in attendance.

However, it was served in a lovely room hung with some of the owner’s eclectic collection of art works, and there was fresh fruit to go with the waffles (though I discovered you had to move quickly to get some, as there wasn’t quite enough, unfortunately, to go around all the guests).

Taos Pueblo

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North House (Hlauuma), Taos Pueblo

After breakfast we picked up our car from its spot at the end of the road and drove the short distance north of town to Taos Pueblo. This is an incredible place, and a must-see when you are in the area in my opinion. It’s the only living Native American community to have been designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. Its multi-storied adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years and are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA.

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Walking tour map - Taos Pueblo

We arrived soon after nine to find the pueblo just opening for business. We were directed to a parking place and went to pay our admission fee at the ticket booth to the left of the gate. When we visited (October 2011) the fee was $10 for adults, and we also paid a further $6 each to use our cameras. Unlike at Acoma, you can take video here as well as still images, but you have to pay for each camera you plan to use, including your mobile phone if using the camera on it. I decided one was enough!

Also unlike Acoma, you are free to wander around on your own, following the map you’ll be given when you pay, although some areas are off-limits to tourists. But we decided to take a tour (free, although tips are of course welcome) and were very pleased that we had done so. Our young guide was excellent and shared more about the culture here than we had learned at Acoma, although she was still a little guarded on the subject of traditional beliefs. We heard lots about the way of life here in the Pueblo and elsewhere on Taos tribal lands, and about her own life growing up here. A university student, she was paying her way through college by working here as a guide over the weekends and in college holidays, but it was clear from how she spoke about her home that she also sees this work as her way of giving something back to the community – she would not dream of taking work outside the Pueblo.

She also told us something about her hopes for the future, about the balance between traditional and Catholic beliefs, and about relationships (and marriages) between different tribes. I really felt I got to know so much more about the people here than at Acoma and the place came alive for me as a consequence, rather than seeming to be mainly a historic curiosity.

San Geronimo Church

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San Geronimo

Our tour of Taos Pueblo started here, at the church that sits in the heart of the village. And isn’t it a stunner, with that combination of adobe and white against the blue sky? I could have photographed it for hours! Only the exterior though, as photographing the interior is strictly forbidden.

This church, the third in the pueblo to be dedicated to Saint Jerome (I have also read four in some sources), was built in 1850 to replace the previous church which was destroyed by the U.S. Army in 1847 in the War with Mexico. That church, whose evocative ruins still stand near the entrance to the Pueblo, was first built in 1619, but destroyed in the Spanish Revolt of 1680 and rebuilt on the same site.

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San Geronimo

St. Jerome is the patron saint of Taos Pueblo and a santo of him can be seen in the church, as well as one of the Virgin. It is the custom to change the clothing of the santos several times a year, according to the seasons and festivals. When we were there Mary was dressed in a gold-coloured cloth, for the autumn and harvest.

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San Geronimo

The church has the traditional heavy viga ceiling and is very much in use as a place of worship. About 90% of the Pueblo Indians describe themselves as Catholic, although the majority of these practise that religion alongside their traditional beliefs. Our young guide explained that they saw no contradiction in doing so and that the two belief systems were quite complimentary in their eyes.

The old church and cemetery

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Old church and cemetery

As the Spanish conquered the area now known as New Mexico, they brought with them their religion, which they imposed on the defeated inhabitants. Thus the first Spanish-Franciscan mission was built here in Taos Pueblo by Spanish priests using Indian labour in about 1619, and was dedicated to St. Jerome – San Geronimo. It did not last long. Worsening relations between conquerors and conquered gave rise to the Pueblo Revolt. This uprising was co-ordinated by several different pueblo communities, through a series of secret meetings held here at Taos Pueblo and covert communications between tribes. In August 1680 more than 8,000 Pueblo warriors attacked a number of Spanish settlements, killing 21 Franciscan friars and over other 400 Spaniards, and they drove around 1,000 settlers out of the region. During this uprising, the San Geronimo church at the pueblo was also destroyed. Some accounts also tell of a previous uprising, in 1637, when an even earlier church was destroyed, but the official Taos Pueblo website only mentions the 1680 one.

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The old church

Twelve years later, in 1692, the Spanish re-colonized the province. There were on-going skirmishes with the inhabitants of Taos Pueblo, who were repeatedly attacked for refusing to provide corn for starving settlers in Santa Fe. However by 1706 things had settled down enough for the San Geronimo Mission to be rebuilt. This is the church whose ruins can be seen here today. So why is it too now in ruins? We have another revolt to blame for that – one which our young guide talked about still with bitterness in her voice.

In 1846 the United States conquered this territory, which at that point still formed part of Mexico, and installed a governor, Charles Bent. The Mexican loyalists plotted to oust the conquerors, and enlisted the support of pueblo peoples. In early 1847 the uprising began, centred on Taos and led by a Mexican, Pablo Montoya, and a Taos Puebloan, Tomas Romero. The latter led a group of Native Americans who broke into the home of Governor Bent, shot and scalped him in front of his family. Further attacks followed in the area, and the US army retaliated. They moved up from Santa Fe and pushed the insurgents back as far as Taos Pueblo, where they barricaded themselves into the church, thinking that its thick adobe walls would offer sufficient protection. During the battle that followed however, the US military breached a wall of the church and fired cannons into it, killing about 150 rebels and wounding many more. As our guide told it, women and children were also taking shelter there and were killed in the fighting, although other accounts that I’ve read don’t mention this. The US also captured 400 more men, while only seven of their own troops died in the battle. The next day they tried some of these captives in a very one-sided trial and hung those convicted of murder and treason on the Taos Plaza. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the fighting, it seems clear there was some questionable use of violence of both sides.

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The old church bell-tower

The ruined bell tower and walls of the church still stand, as a reminder of that bloody battle, and around them lies the burial ground that holds the remains of those died in it. It is thought in fact that this cemetery dates right back to the very first church, and as at Acoma it holds several layers of graves. Unlike Acoma, there are no restrictions on photographing the cemetery, but you are not allowed to enter it, nor to climb on the crumbling walls that surround it. Our guide explained that even the Pueblo residents only enter twice a year – once on the Day of the Dead, and once on the anniversary of their loved one’s death. On these occasions they go to visit the grave, not to mourn but to celebrate a life well lived.

Multi-storey living

The most distinctive structures in Taos Pueblo, and the ones you will see in every photo, are the multi-storied, multi-home North House (Hlauuma in the native Tiwa) and South House (Hlaukwima). These are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA and are really an early example of an apartment block, though built in this manner as a form of defence.

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The North House (Hlauuma)

The North House consist of five storeys and the South of four. They are built entirely of adobe, with walls several feet thick in places. These walls are regularly re-plastered with mud to keep the structure sound. Originally, the buildings had no doors or windows and entry could be gained only from the top of the buildings by means of ladders, but gradually openings have been added over time as the need for defence declined and the need to have easier access took over.

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The North House

The UNESCO World Heritage listing states that the:
‘Pueblo de Taos is a remarkable example of a traditional type of architectural ensemble from the pre-Hispanic period of the Americas unique to this region and one which, because of the living culture of its community, has successfully retained most of its traditional forms up to the present day. ... The multi-tiered adobe dwellings still retain their original form and outline, but details have changed. Doors, which traditionally were mostly used to interconnect rooms, are now common as exterior access to the ground floors and to the roof tops on upper stories. Windows, which traditionally were small and incorporated into walls very sparingly, are now common features. The proliferation of doors and windows through time at Taos reflects the acculturation of European traits and the relaxing of needs for defensive structures. In addition to ovens located outdoors, fireplaces have been built inside the living quarters.’

My photos are all of the North House, by the way, because the South was in shade and harder to capture.

Red Willow Creek

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Red Willow Creek

A small stream runs through the heart of the Pueblo, known variously as Red Willow Creek or Rio Pueblo de Taos. The stream begins high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, at the tribe’s sacred lake, Blue Lake. A traditional belief among the Taos Pueblo people is that their ancestors originated from the waters of this lake. The land that surrounds it had been taken from them to create the Carson National Forest early in the 20th century but was restored to them by President Nixon in 1970. They regard this restoration as the most important event in their recent history, so clearly Nixon got some things right!

It flows gently through the Pueblo, providing the water essential for life here – for drinking, cooking, bathing and for religious activities. Even in the depths of winter, which is harsh at this height above sea level, it never completely freezes. Because the water is the main source of drinking water visitors are asked not to paddle in it – but clearly nobody told the dog in my photo that the stream was off limits!

Pueblo homes

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A pueblo street

As well as the multi-storey homes of the two main houses, there are several streets of smaller individual ones. These are also built from adobe, in the traditional style. Many still have mica windows instead of glass, as you can see in some of my photos. In some you can also clearly see the viga beams that support the roof jutting out through the adobe wall.

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Traditional ladders

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Mica window, and chillies drying

Although all these houses are owned and cared for by a Pueblo family, only a few are inhabited full-time, with most being used more as holiday homes for festivals and special family occasions. The small number who do live here permanently live as their ancestors would have done, without electricity or plumbing. Those that live elsewhere will have ‘all mod cons’ in those properties. The rationale for not doing so here is to preserve a traditional way of life in this sacred spot, not through a more general aversion to modernisation such as that practiced, for instance, by religious groups such as the Amish.

Traditional ovens

After our visit to Acoma we were quick to recognise these ovens shaped like beehives which sit outside most homes here too.

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House with horno

Known as horno, they were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors – so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked.

Traditional crafts

Several of the homes in the Pueblo have been adapted to serve as small shops, selling a variety of traditional crafts. Even though we didn’t especially want to buy anything we did go inside a few for the opportunity to see inside the ancient dwellings.

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Pueblo shops

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Outside the Morning Talk shop

We particularly liked the Morning Talk shop, which had an interesting mix of pottery, drums, dream-catchers, jewellery and more. And I also enjoyed talking to the owner of the Summer Rain Gift Shop where the jewellery looked especially good. We didn’t buy anything at the Pueblo (I was sort-of all shopped out at this point) but I was tempted by the ‘smudges’ – small bundles of cedar and sage bound with grasses that are traditionally burned in ceremonial cleansings. They have a lovely scent and would be wonderful to toss on a fire at Christmas, or simply to leave in a bowl like pot-pourri. I did afterwards rather regret not buying a couple, especially as they only cost a few dollars.

La Hacienda de los Martinez

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La Hacienda de los Martinez

I had read about another out of town sight that sounded interesting, La Hacienda de los Martinez, so before returning our car to its parking place we detoured to visit it. This is an historic house from the late Spanish Colonial period, dating from 1804, and was the home of Severino Matinez and his wife Maria who raised six children here. Their eldest son was Padre Antonio Martinez, a forward-thinking priest and educationalist who argued for Native education, founded the town’s first newspaper, and resisted the attempts of Bishop Lamy to enforce Western European principles on Hispanic New Mexicans.

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At the hacienda

Touring the hacienda’s twenty one rooms is said to ‘provide the visitor with a rare glimpse of the rugged frontier life and times of the early 1800s’. Note I say ‘is said …’ – on arriving here we found that contrary to the information in our Moon Handbook it was closed on a Sunday morning. And although we considered returning later in the day, as it turned out we found more than enough to occupy us in the centre of town and never did so. I had to be content with a few photos of the exterior and surroundings, before we drove back into the centre to park and look for a late-morning coffee.

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In the grounds of the hacienda

World Cup Coffee

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Display in World Cup Coffee

You couldn’t get a better location in Taos than this for a friendly local coffee shop, and it would be hard to find a better selection of coffee drinks too, so the only thing this place really lacks is space. There are just a few seats on a bench outside, and a few more at a counter inside, and if we hadn’t been able to secure one of the latter we would have had to opt for ‘coffee to go’ – although with the Plaza just a few steps away that wouldn’t have been too bad an option. But we managed to grab a couple of those inside seats and enjoyed a relaxing brew – an iced latte for me and a cappuccino for Chris – while watching the world go by.

The Kit Carson House

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The Kit Carson House

We hadn’t been able to go inside the Hacienda de los Martinez, but in town there was an historic house that was open on a Sunday morning, the Kit Carson House. I confess that I didn’t know a lot about Kit Carson before visiting his house, and our motivation for doing so was not so much to find out more about him as to have an opportunity to see inside a historic Taos home, but we did also learn quite a bit, and enjoyed the various displays here.

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In the Kit Carson House

Our visit started with a video about Carson’s life, which I thought was well-made and carried just the right amount of information. In fact, this video was described as ‘award winning’ (I don’t know what award!) and was made for the History Channel, so was of broadcast quality. From it we learned that Carson lived in this house for 25 years, having bought it as a wedding present for his bride, Josefa Jaramillo. His work as an army scout, Indian Agent and army officer kept him away from home a lot of the time – the period of time that Kit he actually lived in this house was during the time he served as Ute Indian Agent from January 1854, to June 1861, when he had his Agency headquarters in Taos. Meanwhile Josefa raised the family here – seven children born to her and Carson, and several more Indian children adopted by them after he had freed them from captors.

Carson was a member of the Masons, and it is they who purchased the by-then dilapidated house in the early part of the twentieth century, restored it and now open it as a public attraction. This gives the presentation of the family history a slight slant perhaps, as naturally they put more emphasis on Carson’s activities as Mason than you might expect, but on the whole I thought it provided an interesting insight into life in a frontier town in the mid nineteenth century.

I especially liked seeing the kitchen, which is sparsely furnished with objects of the period. Each room had an informative notice detailing how it would have been used in Kit and Josefa’s time here, and inviting visitors to imagine the activity around them – with so many children, and regular visits from many of the important men of those times (including Generals and Congressmen), it must have been a lively household.

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In the kitchen of the Kit Carson House

Doc Martin's

When we left the Kit Carson House we were ready for lunch and decided on a return to the Taos Inn where we had eaten last night, mainly because we liked the look of the little patio at the front of the building.

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Grilled apple & blue cheese salad

But we discovered that only the limited bistro menu was being served here, and as we were looking for salads which only appeared on the main brunch menu, we were directed to the restaurant, Doc Martin’s. This is quite a formal place by Taos standards, and more so than we would usually choose for lunch, but we’d been on the go all morning and were ready for the break it offered.

The brunch menu was extensive and with larger appetites I think we’d have found it difficult to choose. But we rarely eat a large lunch, so we focused on the salads. I opted for the grilled apple and blue cheese salad, which was a good plateful and pretty tasty, while Chris chose the Cobb salad, which was OK though nothing special.

Taos gallery hopping

Some of our greatest day-time pleasure in the town of Taos itself was in simply strolling the streets, people-watching in the Plaza, and visiting some of the numerous shops and galleries.

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A Taos weaver

Of the latter, the one that impressed us the most was Lenny Foster’s Living Light Studio. Lenny is an incredible photographer (you can see for yourself on his website) and we were lucky enough to meet him in the gallery and enjoy a long chat – about his work, his general approach to photography and the possibility of him exhibiting in London one day (which we strongly encouraged, although I am not sure that he has yet done so).

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Lenny's calendar

I especially liked his images of New Mexico, while both of us were moved by his ‘Healing Hands’ series. After our chat he kindly gave us a copy of his 2011 calendar, which, although it had only a few months left to run, made a lovely memento of our visit. Sadly however, the prints themselves were a little outside our budget for holiday souvenirs.

In the Plaza

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Plaza bench

We spent the last part of the afternoon in and around the Plaza. Perhaps surprisingly, it would be easy to drive straight through Taos and miss this, as it is tucked away to the west of the main north-south artery, Paseo Del Pueblo. But to do so would be a real shame. The Plaza was intended by the Spanish settlers who created Taos to be the heart of their community, and such it remains today.

Guadalupe Plaza, to give it its proper name, is surrounded by shops and galleries, with its south side dominated by the historic Hotel la Fonda de Taos. We popped in here briefly hoping to see the collection of D H Lawrence’s so-called ‘Forbidden Art’ – paintings by the author which were considered obscene and banned in England, and under threat of destruction until Lawrence removed them from the country and brought them here to New Mexico. Unfortunately a private function in the room where the paintings are displayed prevented us from seeing them, but it was worth going in to see this Taos landmark.

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Statue of Martinez

In the centre of the Plaza is a gazebo which was donated to the town by heiress and long-time resident Mabel Dodge Luhan, a famous patroness of the arts scene here (it was she who encouraged Lawrence to move here). On its south side, in front of La Fonda, is a large bronze statue of local hero Padre Antonio José Martinez, the son of Severino Matinez whose hacienda we had been unable to tour this morning.

Much of the Plaza was taken up by a craft fair (I don’t know if that’s usual at the weekend or if it was a special occasion). We enjoyed browsing the stalls, even though we didn’t buy anything here. But we did shop for ice creams in a shop just next to La Fonda (part of the same building, in fact) which we enjoyed sitting on one of the many benches in the Plaza while people-watching.

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Plaza craft stall

In the south east corner, we found an interesting shop selling Native American crafts, clothing etc. which was well worth a browse. And down the little alley to the right of this we discovered a surprisingly good view of the hills that surround the town.

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The mountains around Taos

Eske's Brew Pub

Eske’s came well recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, and was also just across the parking lot from our bed and breakfast, so it was a natural choice for an evening out, and a great one! This is a casual spot that seemed popular with locals as well as visitors to Taos, and with good reason, as both food and beer were very good. There are a couple of linked rooms, and the only tables available when we arrived were in the first room, so that’s where we settled. There are also tables outside, but October evenings in Taos are too chilly for us to have contemplated that option!

We shared some good hot salsa and chips to start with, while we sampled our first beer (the Artist Ale for both of us) and perused the menu. The beer was fresh-tasting and went well with the spicy flavour – a good meal accompaniment. From the tempting menu I chose the Green Chilli Burrito, which was stuffed with beans and cheese and smothered with a vegetable and green chilli stew – yummy! Chris was pleased to see a German favourite so went for the bratwurst with sauerkraut and mash, which he also really enjoyed.

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My burrito, and Chris's Bratwurst with Sauerkraut

We had no room for dessert, but of course hung around to sample more of their beers. After a taster of the Green Chilli Lager I decided that this was surprisingly good, so had a full one – and another! Meanwhile Chris was drinking, and enjoying, the Seco Stout – described as ‘Irish style’. A super evening to end our too-brief stay in Taos.

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Eske's at night

Posted by ToonSarah 04:11 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art culture history statue restaurants houses museum photography new_mexico taos customs 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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