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On the Geronimo Trail

New Mexico day three


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

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The Geronimo Trail

With a somewhat longer drive ahead of us today we made a prompt start from our cabin near Lake Roberts. To start with we took Highway 35 through part of the Mimbres Valley before turning off on Highway 152. We were following the Geronimo Trail, another of the state’s Scenic Byways.

And of all the scenic byways we travelled during this road trip, this was arguably the most scenic, although in fact we only travelled half of it as it is split into two sections, north and south, and we skipped the northern part – there’s never enough time for everything!

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On the road in the Mimbres Valley

Leaving the green farmland of the valley the trail climbs through a dramatic rocky gorge, crossing the Black Range Mountains. It emerges at the high point (literally and figuratively) of the drive, Emory Pass. Here there is a large parking area, and although it was still quite early in the morning we were nevertheless amazed to have it to ourselves – none of the few other drivers on the road seemed minded to stop for the chance to take in this awesome vista. Here you are 8,228 feet above sea level, and the view extends east for miles. The towns of Kingston and Hillsboro can be seen below, and Caballo Lake and Mountains, over 50 miles to the east, are easily visible. On a clear day you can apparently make out Elephant Butte Dam (approximately 65 miles away) as a distant white spot, but we had quite a bit of haze and could see no further than Caballo. Even so, it was an stunning view and one we lingered over for a while.

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Panoramic view from Emory Pass

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The views from Emory Pass

Kingston

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Kingston seen from Emory Pass

After Emory Pass, the road descended through a long series of hairpin bends, but although slow it was in good condition and not too difficult a drive. Near the bottom, we were on the look-out for a sign to the former boom town of Kingston, now home to just a handful of residents.

This is officially a ghost town, although a few people live here. It was founded in 1882 after a rich lode of silver ore was discovered in the area, and became a thriving metropolis almost overnight. At the height of the silver mining boom its population outstripped that of Albuquerque by at least 1,000. Its many hotels played host to Mark Twain and to assorted outlaws: Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Black Jack Ketchum, and Billy the Kid. Its stage lines served all major routes, and there were 23 saloons, 14 stores, a brewery, 3 newspapers, and an Opera House.

Today only a few buildings remain, and the Percha Bank is the only fully intact original building in the town. Built in 1884, it was once the largest bank in New Mexico Territory and at its richest held $7 million in silver in its vault. The bank has been restored and is Kingston’s only sight, but we found it closed for further restoration. A sign said it was to re-open in Fall 201, so it seems we may have missed it by just a week or so! But although it was closed, it was quite easy to peer through the windows and see its ornate lobby, the tellers’ windows and a small display of old photos etc.

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The Percha Bank

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Hillsboro

Beyond Kingston the road passes through Hillsboro, another former mining town but with more life to it than Kingston, including some nice cafes and a great little gallery. But the warning sign that we spotted as we arrived, which said we were apparently approaching a ‘congested area’, was more than a little misleading. We live in London so we know what a congested area looks like, and let me assure you that it does not look like Hillsboro! It would be hard to find a more peaceful, tranquil little town.

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Hillsboro

Admittedly in times past it would have been rather different. Hillsboro is one of New Mexico’s many towns founded in the boom times of the mid- to late- 19th century, when silver was mined in the surrounding hills. At one time its population numbered 10,000, but the town went bust when in 1893 the price of silver plummeted, and by the mid 1890s fewer than 2,000 residents remained. Unlike some towns though (including nearby Kingston), Hillsboro managed to survive, kept alive by a few gold mines in the area, and cattle ranches dotted around this wild and rocky landscape. It was for a while the county seat, but lost that status to Hot Springs (later renamed Truth or Consequences) in 1936, and with it most of the remaining population.

Today the population is just 200, and from what we observed on this lovely Saturday morning, everyone pretty much knows everyone else. But whether they know you or not, Hillsboro folk seem quick to offer a friendly greeting. We had only planned to stop for a few minutes, but we lingered. In just a short while Hillsboro and its friendly residents had charmed us. And for the rest of the trip we were to measure the busyness of a place by how ‘congested’ it was in comparison to lovely, sleepy Hillsboro.

When we drove away from the cabin at about 8.30 that morning, the thermometer in the car had read 42 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, some two hours later, it was reading 82 degrees, a climb of 40 degrees in just two hours, driven by not only the sun climbing higher in the sky but also by our own descent to slightly lower elevations. So our first stop here was at the General Store Café, to have a cold drink.

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Mural on the side of the General Store Café

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General Store Café sign

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Chillies drying on the porch

This lovely old building is part of a larger structure destroyed in the 1914 flood. In the past it has housed a bank, a post office, a general store and a drug store. Today it is a friendly establishment clearly popular with locals as well as passers-by like us. The interior retains much of its former character with old shop fixtures and fittings, but as it was pretty full with customers enjoying a late Saturday breakfast and we only wanted a drink, we took our orange juices out to the shady porch where we enjoyed watching laid-back Hillsboro go about its morning business.

Refreshed, we decided to explore some more. We popped into Percha Creek Traders to see if they had any nice postcards, but we found ourselves lingering for a while, there was so much to see! We found an excellent selection of local photographs, paintings in all sorts of styles, fabric crafts, jewellery, pottery and more. The sales person explained that this is a local co-operative, run by and for local artists and craftspeople. When they started there were just a handful in the area, but their members now number over 20 and they are growing all the time. Clearly Hillsboro is a place that attracts artists.

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Percha Creek Traders

Although we had only intended to look for postcards, I was also on the look-out on this trip for a picture to go in our recently decorated hallway. But what caught my eye was not a picture but a piece of what I guess you would call ‘wall art’ – a ceramic horse created with a technique known as Raku. This is a traditional Japanese technique in which the glazed piece is fired and removed from the hot kiln and is put directly into water or is allowed to cool in the open air. The result is an unpredictable metallic finish, making each piece unique. The technique has been adopted by local artist Kathy Lovell for her range of ‘Kathy’s Kritters’ (I loved the work, but cringed at the name!) We were taken by the turquoise colours of some of her horses and knew that it would be a great match for our hall, so duly bought one. We later saw some of Kathy’s work in other galleries, e.g. in Mesilla, but we were pleased to have bought our horse here in her home town. And it still hangs in our hall today!

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Our purchase

Soon after leaving Hillsboro Highway 152 reaches the interstate where we turned north for Truth or Consequences and Socorro, where we were to spend that night. Some of the views were still good, but I25 is no scenic byway!

Truth or Consequences

We broke our journey north in this oddly named small town, where we popped into the Geronimo Springs Museum – the sort of quirky place you can’t help but like, with an eclectic mix of objects covering a range of topics such as local history, geology and crafts. Checking its website I feel it must have grown since we were there, as I don’t recall it absorbing more than 30 minutes or so of our time.

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Busts of famous figures from the region’s history

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Recreation of the bar that once occupied this building

We did however learn the story of the town’s unusual name here. It was previously known as Hot Springs, named for the several natural springs in the area around the town. Its present-day name comes from the popular radio show of the 1940s and 50s, Truth or Consequences. In March 1950, Ralph Edwards, the host of the show, announced that he would air the programme on its 10th anniversary from the first town to rename itself after the show. Hot Springs won the prize by officially changing its name on March 31st. The programme was broadcast from there the very next evening, April 1st. Ralph Edwards and his wife Barbara adopted the town as a sort of second home, visiting during the first weekend of May for the next 50 years. The town would hold a fiesta to mark their visit with beauty pageants, parades, fishing contests, rodeos, jeep rides, and boat races down the Rio Grande. Fiesta is still celebrated here each May.

Leaving the museum we found a café for a light lunch. We had thought about visiting the nearby Elephant Butte Lake but having spent so long in Hillsboro decided to push on north instead. There was one further place which we were keen to visit before reaching our final destination for the day.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

A little to the south of Socorro lies one of the most interesting bird-watching venues in New Mexico, considered worth a visit even if you're not a ‘serious’ birder – which neither of us is. For a short while in late October/early November it becomes a focus for birding enthusiasts as tens of thousands of birds, including sandhill cranes, geese and ducks, descend on the refuge and settle into their winter home. Their arrival is met with a festival, the annual Festival of the Cranes, on the weekend before Thanksgiving. We were in the area a couple of months earlier than this but thought that the refuge would still be worth a visit as there would be bound to be some birds whatever the time of year. We were, with a few exceptions, wrong!

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Cormorants

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Turtle

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More turtles

We were a little surprised on arrival in the parking lot by the visitor centre to see only one other car, but we figured that other visitors would be out exploring the loop drive. So we went inside, had a helpful chat with the ranger on duty who showed us on a map which roads through the refuge were open and explained that at this time of year (late September) we would be too early to see the large migrations but should see herons, cormorants and other birds out on the lagoon at the end of the loop drive. That sounded promising, so we headed out that way and were quite excited to see a large heron (I think a Great Blue) from the car as we approached, although it flew off before I could get a photo. So we parked up and followed a path that led out across the lagoon on a rather noisy metal footbridge. We got a good close-up look at the turtles that live here year round, and a more distant view of some cormorants drying their wings in characteristic pose, but otherwise it was pretty deserted, and sadly the heron never returned. Maybe a more patient birding enthusiast would have lingered longer but we decided that we would rather cut our losses, so left to explore downtown Socorro instead.

Socorro

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Capitol Bar, Socorro



We chose Socorro as an overnight stop primarily for its convenience, being a reasonable driving distance between several places we wanted to visit and at the junction of I25, which had brought us north from the Gila Forest area, and Highway 60 which we would take tomorrow.

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Our room in Socorro

We arrived here late afternoon and checked into our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express. As with the town, so with the hotel, which we also chose for its convenient location. We have found over the years that so many US towns have plenty of good-value motels, both chain and independent, on their outskirts, but few or none in the centre. And as we like to be able to walk to a reasonable restaurant in the evening (rather than drive) that can be a challenge as the better restaurants (and bars – also important!) can be in the centre, sometimes several miles away. But in the case of Socorro I had read good reviews of the Socorro Springs Brewery and spotted that the Holiday Inn Express seemed from its address to be very near – problem sorted.

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Dog in the Plaza

Once we had checked in, we went straight out again to explore the town. Although not a major tourist destination it does have a few sights of interest. If you pass by on I25, or even if you leave the Interstate and drive through on the main thoroughfare, California Street, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing to Socorro apart from chain motels, fast food restaurants, supermarkets, shopping plazas and gas stations. Certainly you are unlikely to realise from this superficial glance that there is any real history to the town, let alone that some of this history is on show just one block behind the modern face that it turns to the highway.

But so it is. One block west of California Street is Socorro’s Plaza, and in its immediate surroundings you can get a sense of the small pueblo it once was. The town was founded in June 1598, when a group of Spanish settlers travelled through the nearby Jornada del Muerto, an inhospitable patch of desert that ends just south of the present-day city of Socorro. As they emerged from the desert near the pueblo of Teypana, the native Piro Indians gave them food and water. So the Spaniards renamed the pueblo Socorro, in honour of the aid given to them.

They later established a mission here, Nuestra Señora de Perpetuo Socorro (Our Lady of Perpetual Succour). But during the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the Piro Indians and Spanish settlers left for safer territory to the south, and without the protection of Spanish troops, the town was destroyed and the remaining Piro killed by the Apache and other tribes. It wasn’t until around 1800, that a small group of Spaniards resettled Socorro.

The plaza on the late Saturday afternoon when we visited appeared to be a popular hang-out for local young people, assorted dog-walkers and other locals maybe meeting up with friends prior to evening Mass at the nearby church or a few Saturday night beers perhaps. The atmosphere was quite lively but not one in which we as the (I think) sole tourists felt out of place.

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The Wheel of History

The centre of the plaza is a small park, Kittrel Park, named for a local dentist who first planted the grass and trees here, and around it are a few sights such as the ‘Wheel of History’. This bronze sculpture, just to the north of the plaza itself, was created in the late 90s to illustrate the history of the town.

Around the edge of the plaza and in nearby streets are a number of interesting signs such as the ones in my photos, each depicting a feature of the town or surrounding area.

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Signs around the Plaza

After our stroll around the plaza we were ready for some refreshment, and found it in the Manzanero Coffee Bar on its eastern side (now renamed as M Mountain Coffee it seems). They brewed proper espresso, made some delicious iced coffee drinks, and it was the sort of place where we felt comfortable sitting for quite a while over our drinks while writing a few post-cards.

An evening in Socorro

I have already mentioned that we chose our hotel for its proximity to a promising sounding watering hole, the Socorro Springs Brewery, which appears to be still going strong. And unsurprisingly so, judging by the pleasant evening we spent here. The restaurant specialises in wood-fired pizzas, and they were very good. To go with them we naturally chose from their selection of microbrews, which was equally good – especially, I noted, the Bridgeport’s Café Negro, with its strong espresso after-taste (created, according to the menu, by infusing ‘a specialised blend of coffee with the base beer during cold conditioning’). All in all, an excellent evening!

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Socorro Springs Brewery

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

Around Santa Fe

New Mexico day eight


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

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In the courtyard of the Burro Alley Café

Although we had enjoyed yesterday’s breakfast at Café Pasqual’s, it was quite pricey, so we looked elsewhere today and found the Burro Alley Café, conveniently located a couple of blocks from our casita. Today it appears to have been turned into a burger restaurant, but back in 2011 it was a bakery and café, perfect for breakfast time. It had a really pretty courtyard opening onto the lane that gives it its name, with some small trees which would have given welcome shade in the heat of the day. This morning though we were happy to sit in the sun. The courtyard walls were adorned with brightly painted wooden shutters which were very photogenic and kept our cameras busy while we waited for our order.

The bakery produces excellent pastries served fresh for breakfast. Chris had a chocolate one while mine was a huge almond one, both served still slightly warm from the oven. With two glasses of orange juice, a cappuccino for Chris and a double espresso for me (hooray, real caffeine!) we paid roughly half the cost of previous day’s breakfast.

Bandelier National Monument

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Tsankawi, Bandelier National Monument

One reason for our planning to spend several days in Santa Fe was to do a day trip to Bandelier National Monument. I had read a lot about it on Virtual Tourist and elsewhere, and knew it was just the sort of place we would enjoy visiting. Then a few months before our visit a wildfire swept through the area, devastating over 146,000 acres, including about 60% of Bandelier’s area. Almost all of the monument was closed to visitors. But fortunately for us one small part remained open, and it sounded like one of the most interesting – Tsankawi. So that was our planned destination for today.

Getting to Tsankawi is impossible without a private vehicle. It lies twelve miles from the main section of Bandelier National Monument and isn’t the easiest place to find. The park’s website gives the following directions:
‘Coming from Santa Fe you'll turn from State Highway 502 to State Highway 4. Less than 1/4 of a mile past this turn Tsankawi will be located on the left hand side of the road. There are no signs for Tsankawi on Highway 4. If you get to the stoplight, you've gone too far. A large gravel parking area adjacent to the highway and a sign on the fence will indicate you've found the place.’

We followed these directions and had no problem finding the place, although even so we overshot the parking area and had to turn around.

There was an honour pay post in the little hut at the start of the trail, with a permit to be displayed in your car. The only two other cars parked there when we arrived didn’t appear to have bothered, perhaps feeling it was unnecessary with most of the monument closed, but we paid – they were going to need the funds to repair the fire’s damage, after all. We should also have been able to buy a 50c leaflet describing the trail at the honour pay post, with about 20 numbered points along it, but they had all gone, apart from a slightly tatty one which could be borrowed for free and returned to the leaflet holder after the walk. We took this, and were very pleased to have done so, as it was very informative and also helped to keep us on the right path at one point where it seemed to fork.

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Near the start of the trail

Armed with this leaflet we set out. The trail is advertised as being 1.5 miles in length, although it seemed a little longer than this to us. It is also advertised as easy, but that is a relative term, as while it isn’t strenuous I did find a few parts tricky going, mainly because you are, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of the ancient inhabitants of this land, in the deep grooves worn in the rocks over the centuries. In places that path is worn very deep (as much as 30 or more centimetres) and is only one foot wide, by which I mean the width of your foot, not the measurement! You have to put one foot directly in front of the other, and lift each one high so as to clear the side ‘wall’ of the path.

But if this trail demands any sort of effort, it is a worthwhile one, as the views and the sense of history amply repay you for taking the trouble to walk where the ancients once walked. And remember that they would have done so in sandals, or even with bare feet, and I am certain would have been far more sure-footed than any of us, even the best of walkers, on this rocky trail.

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Ancient stairway, and the first of several ladders

The first part of the trail led up the side of the mesa, with a ladder at one point. The leaflet pointed out the location of the first of several petroglyphs (rock carvings, as opposed to rock paintings which are known as pictographs).

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Petroglyph

We then followed the well-worn path of the ancient inhabitants of this land up to the mesa top. From here we had an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape, including several mountain ranges. To the west lie the Jemez Mountains, with Los Alamos at their foot. To the east are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (named for the Blood of Christ) and the Rio Grande Valley. About 70 miles south are the Sandia Mountains, which dominate the skyline above Albuquerque.

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View from the mesa top

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Looking towards Los Alamos

Here the ancient Pueblo Indians (sometimes known as the Anasazi) built their village or pueblo: Tsankawi. They lived on the mesa top from some time in the 15th century until towards the end of the 16th. It is thought that the village may have been abandoned due to a severe drought in the region. The pueblo at San Ildefonso, eight miles away, have the tradition that their ancestors lived at Tsankawi, while other pueblos also claim ancestral links.

The village was built out of tuff stone plastered inside and out with mud. It was roughly rectangular in shape with about 350 rooms and an enclosed central courtyard or plaza. Today almost nothing visible remains, and there has been no archaeological excavation. Consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo has revealed that the people prefer that the homes and belongings of their ancestors remain untouched. Using new technology, a variety of information can be gathered from an archaeological site without ever uncovering it. That means however that to the uninitiated there seems to be little here, although the imaginative can discern the shape of the plaza as a clearing in the scrubby bushes that grow here. To imagine it properly though, it helps to have visited one of the still-inhabited pueblos in the area, so we were glad we had been to Acoma a couple of days previously. The village would have been a hive of activity: women cooking or grinding corn, or maybe making pottery, men carving tools from flint or skinning animals, children playing, dogs darting underfoot and so on.

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The site of the pueblo

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View from the pueblo

The people who lived in these houses would have descended each day to the valley floor below to farm their crops, following the same well-worn trails that brought us up here. On the way they would have passed the cavates where some of their fellow villagers lived, and that is where the trail now took us.

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Cavates

We had seen the cavates dotted along the face of the mesa quite early in our walk, but the trail at first had led us away from these to climb up to the village above. It is only when we descended from there that we got a close look at the other places the ancients called home.

The inhabitants dug these caves out of the soft rock, extending the walls where needed with stones and mortar, and adding timber roofs. These have of course long since disappeared, and the caves that remain look almost natural rather than man-made. But if you peer inside (there are no restrictions on access other than your own capacity to reach them, and as several are right by the trail it is easy to enter them) you will see the ceilings and walls of some blackened by the smoke of long-extinguished fires, evidence of the human impact on this apparently natural environment.

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Ladder down from the mesa (you can see the ancient staircase beside it), and looking our from a cave

It’s important to take care when exploring the caves not to touch any walls, as even light contact can cause damage. And of course you must never remove anything from a site as historic as this, nor from any national park or monument.

A few of the caves apparently have traces of paintings or petroglyphs inside, but we didn’t find any here, although we did spot some at several points along the trail.

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Petroglyphs

Many have been damaged by exposure to the elements over the centuries – and no doubt by exposure to people too.

The trail leaflet explained more about them:
‘Today through consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo descendants, we know that these marks upon the rocks have deeper meanings than mere art. They may someday even be classified as a written language. The meanings of some petroglyphs are known to many present-day Pueblo people. The exact significance of others may have been lost through time.’

But not every petroglyph here was carved by the ancestral Pueblo people who once inhabited Tsankawi – some are later additions created by Spanish settlers. Their shepherds kept their herds in small pens built under the rock outcroppings here and are thought to have carved some of the shapes and symbols, such as arrows, during Colonial times (between the late 1800s to early 1900s). But just because the Spanish shepherds did so, there is absolutely no excuse for any of us to try to add to these carvings. As always on National Park land (or indeed anywhere else of historic or natural significance) the rule must be, ‘look but don’t touch’!

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Lone tree at Tsankawi

Towards the end of our walk, as we were on the final stretch back towards the parking lot (but with still maybe half a mile or so to go), clouds started to gather to the east of us, behind our backs, and they were clearly moving faster than we were – especially as we kept stopping to take photos. We remembered then the warnings we’d read about the dangers of being caught out in this exposed rocky landscape during a storm, so we quickened our pace to make sure we were safely back at the car before the clouds came directly overhead. In the event, no storm ensued, but we thought it better to be safe than sorry in this unforgiving environment.

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Storm clouds gathering

We ate a picnic lunch while planning where to go next. I realised that we were quite near Española and as I’d read about an interesting sight there, we drove over to check it out.

Chimayó Trading Post, Española

Española is an unprepossessing town a few miles north of Santa Fe, but is home to a little gem. To step inside the Chimayó Trading Post is to feel yourself transported back around a hundred years, when the pace of life was slower and nothing was ever thrown away, because it might just come in handy one day. And it seemed to me that many of those un-thrown away items have found their way here, to Española. The location of the Trading Post, marooned on a small triangle of land surrounded by busy roads, is somehow apt, because the place itself feels like a perfect slice of history marooned in the 21st century.

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The Chimayó Trading Post

And if you’re wondering why a trading post in Española should be named for a neighbouring town, well apparently the building was originally built in nearby Chimayó in 1926, but was moved to this location in the 1930s. Behind the store is the Trujillo House, dating from around the same time. Both it and the store have been in the Trujillo family ever since, as we were to find out when we met Leo Trujillo inside.

We parked our car next to the trading post – the only car in what was quite a large lot. After taking a few photos of the appealing exterior, we pushed open the door and entered. Immediately a wavering voice to our right announced, ‘This place is going to be in a book you know. But you’ve come too early; it won’t be out for a month.’

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Leo Trujillo

This was our introduction to Leo, the owner of the trading post. The trading post has, as I said, been in this location since the 1930s, and it seemed to us that Leo must have moved here then too, and possibly been sitting inside behind the counter where we met him ever since, as his age and that of many of the objects for sale here seemed about the same, and he seemed as much of a fixture as they did too. From old brass beds to china dogs, kachina dolls to copper kettles, wooden santos to porcelain tea-cups, National Geographic magazines from decades past to antique furniture – even a fairground horse! This place is a treasure trove / junk shop / total dump, depending on your perspective, and all three perspectives are valid in fact – it just depends what your eyes light on next. You could browse here for hours, if so inclined, or give it all a cursory glance and dismiss it as being too chaotic to face the search.

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Items for sale

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Our purchase

As we rootled around, and took our photos (having asked and been given permission), Leo continued to chat, even when we were more or less out of earshot. Mainly he talked about the objects, telling us to be sure to look in this corner or that. But he also mentioned that someone he referred to as ‘the girl’ had gone to buy his lunch, and that when she returned she would show us the house if we would like. We had no idea what that might involve but it sounded interesting, so we agreed.

Meanwhile we picked out a few (old) postcards, and as a memento of our visit I also chose one of the samplers of Native American weavings (they can be seen on the bed in my photo above, and ours now hangs in our kitchen). Leo carefully hand-wrote our receipt in lovely old copperplate, and threw in an extra postcard as a gift.

Just then ‘the girl’ returned with his lunch and agreed that she could indeed show us the house. So she led us to the back of the shop and through a half-open door into the house behind. This was Leo’s home, and had been so for many years. Our ‘tour guide’ explained as we went from room to room that Leo had worked as cabin crew for Pan Am, meeting his wife there, and settling down here in retirement. But before retiring their jobs had taken them all over the world, and wherever they went, they collected the things that most appealed to them, with the result that the house is as much a treasure trove of antiques as the trading post itself.

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Inside the house

So it was perhaps not surprising to see some things that would look more at home in an English country house or Chinese pagoda than in the western US. The kitchen too was fascinating, and more or less unchanged since the 1930s I suspect. We also enjoyed meeting Leo’s cat, named by his owner as Obama (because he’s ‘black and white, like the President’).

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Obama (taken by Chris)

Sadly I have learned from an interesting article I found online while updating my Virtual Tourist notes for this blog that Leo died in 2017 – his nephew Patrick now runs the store (see Chimayó Trading Post is Española landmark). So it seems that the house may well be very different these days (Patrick is planning to open it as an art centre where visitors can meet and buy directly from the artists) even though, thankfully, the store seems little changed.

Eventually we said our goodbyes to both ‘girl’ and Leo and left. Back outside we walked round to the side of the building to see the house’s exterior, and found that to be almost as fascinating a hotch-potch of items as the rooms inside – our eyes being particularly caught by an old street sign from Shoulder of Mutton Alley, a tiny side street in London’s docklands! We also learnt, from a sign on an outside wall, that this house, known as the Trujillo House, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

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The Trujillo House

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Outside the Chimayó Trading Post

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Trujillo House detail

If you are interested there are lots more pictures of the house (including some interiors) and store on the Historical Marker Database website http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=34205], as well as one of Leo taken in 2010, not long before we met him.

Abiquiu

From Española we then drove further north up Highway 84, keen to see something of the landscape that had inspired Georgia O’Keefe after our visit to the museum yesterday. Unfortunately the weather chose that moment to turn rather overcast (maybe the clouds we had spotted from Tsankawi had finally driven away the blue sky), but nevertheless the landscape was very impressive and well worth the drive.

Once beyond Española the drive was pleasant enough, but it was after we passed the small town of Chili that it started to get more dramatic. At first the drama came from the contrast between the lush green valley of the Rio Chama and the more barren hills on either side. Then as we neared Abiquiu the rocky outcrops got more eye-catching and the colours richer, with reds and whites predominating.

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Cerro Pedernal from near Abiquiu Lake

The village of Abiquiu, home to O’Keeffe for more than 40 years, tends to keep itself to itself, and visitors are not really encouraged, much as is the case with many of the pueblos. You can tour the O’Keeffe house, but only with a prior reservation. We hadn’t planned that far ahead, so decided to give the village a miss and instead headed for Abiquiu Lake a few miles further up the road. This is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the approach road is a little less scenic than you might hope, as you pass a small power station beside the road, but once beyond this you can park up by the Visitor Centre and stroll up the slope behind it to the point known as the Overlook.

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Abiquiu Lake panorama

Here we had a magnificent view of the lake, and beyond it the distinctive flat-topped of Cerro Pedernal, the mountain that found its way into so many of O’Keeffe’s works. It was rather windy on this somewhat exposed ridge overlooking the water, but in better weather it would be a marvellous place for a picnic. The path leads past labelled examples of local shrubs and flowers, and I was able to identify a couple that I had been admiring during our travels round the state.

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Rock formations at Abiquiu Lake

Because of the wind and rather dull skies we didn't linger long here, and instead headed back to Santa Fe to relax in our casita for a short while before dinner.

Back to the Shed

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Chris at the Marble Brewery

We had reserved a table for dinner at the Shed, having been impressed when we ate lunch there on our first day in the city. Beforehand though we went to a bar we had spotted on the previous day, the Marble Brewery, which had a terrace overlooking the Plaza I say ‘had’, because like several of the bars and restaurants we enjoyed on this trip it has sadly since closed down). There were a number of ‘house beers’ to choose from, all available in three sizes (pint, 10 oz or 5 oz), making it easy to try several different beers in one visit, and the waiting staff were also happy to bring a small taster if you wanted to try one before committing. Chris favoured the India Pale Ale while I rather liked the Marble Red which had loads of flavour.

Then it was on to the Shed for our 8.30 reservation. We actually arrived a little early, but got seated by 8.20 or so. Our table was inside, in one of the smaller rooms off the main one, which was very cosy with only a few tables and less noisy than the larger space where we’d had lunch the previous day.

Having rather bigger appetites than we had come with yesterday lunch-time, we were keen to try the New Mexican dishes for which they have such a good name. So we shared some chips and salsa to start with, which Chris followed with the ‘layered enchiladas’ – two blue corn tortillas layered with cheddar cheese, onion, covered with red chilli and baked – a sort of New Mexican lasagne! I had the taco plate, made with two soft blue corn tortillas filled with cheddar cheese, onion, tomato, lettuce and a choice of meats – I opted for chicken (I could also have had ground beef) and green chilli (I could naturally also have had red). These were served with pinto beans and rice.

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Salsa, chips and a 'Shed Red'

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Taco plate

Both meals were excellent, but mine especially so – one of the best I had on the whole trip! To drink I had a ‘Shed Red’, a margarita with pomegranate juice, which was very good, without reaching the dizzy heights of my green chilli version of the previous evening. Chris had a beer, we shared a cheesecake for dessert, and found the bill to be really reasonable. I can see why this restaurant is a favourite with Santa Fe locals – it would be a regular haunt for us too if we lived here!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:16 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes lakes people food road_trip restaurant culture history views shopping national_park new_mexico santa_fe Comments (4)

Arty Santa Fe

New Mexico day nine


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

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Autumn colour, Cathedral Park

Where the locals go

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Waiting for breakfast

When we were exploring the small park next to the cathedral on our first morning in Santa Fe morning some local women, who were working on a small archaeological excavation there, recommended breakfast at Tia Sophia’s, saying that it was where the locals would choose to go, so we decided to give it a try one morning. We found a cheerful, bustling, traditional Mexican-style homely sort of a place, with a steady stream of diners eager to try its legendary breakfasts. We were lucky only to have a wait a couple of minutes, and to get a nice booth near the counter. The service was friendly, with the staff coping well with a full café and managing everything with good humour.

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Omelette

The menu has all the regular breakfast items, some with a New Mexican twist, and all the local favourites. We were both in the mood for omelette, and chose the one with cheese and guacamole. It proved to be a generous size, well-stuffed with its spicy filling. We both opted for a side of potatoes (we could have had the local stew, posole, beans or tomatoes instead) and drank juice (orange for Chris, cranberry for me) and coffee. The latter was the only disappointing part of the meal – after a couple of days when I’d been able to get good espresso, here I was back to the ‘brown water with a hint of coffee flavour’ filter stuff that passes for coffee in too many US establishments. Despite that though Tia Sophia’s certainly delivered an excellent local-style breakfast in one of the more casual and friendly places in downtown Santa Fe.

New Mexico Museum of Art

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New Mexico Museum of Art

This morning we decided to see more of Santa Fe’s devotion to art, starting with one of its major museums, the New Mexico Museum of Art, which back in 2011 was known as the Museum of Fine Arts. This proved to be possibly the best of the museums we visited in Santa Fe – not that we managed to get to anything like all of them!

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New Mexico Museum of Art

To start with, I thought it was worth a visit for the building itself, which is a beautiful example of what is commonly known as ‘pueblo revival architecture’ (a style based on a mix of Native American mud buildings and Spanish mud-brick churches). It was built in 1917 and originally designed to be the New Mexico pavilion for a world expo in San Diego two years earlier. The wonderfully curvaceous building ‘borrows’ motifs from pueblo mission churches, such as the bell towers seen in several of my photos. It has a lovely tranquil inner courtyard, festooned with ristras (the distinctive strings of chillies).

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Chilli ristras in the courtyard

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New Mexico Museum of Art

The museum hosts both permanent and temporary exhibitions. We were originally lured in by posters promoting a major photography exhibition, ‘Earth Now’, with a focus on photographers who highlight environmental issues in their work. But with a few exceptions we both found these more didactic than inspirational. However there was plenty that appealed to us more, in particular another temporary exhibition of New Native Photography 2011. There were some really excellent images here, by 19 photographers from across North America.

The other exhibition that I really liked was ‘How the West is One’, which was described as a more or less permanent one. Although it no longer seems to be running in that form, I imagine many of the art works have since found their way into the permanent collection.

The website explained that the exhibition,
‘organizes key objects from the museum’s collections so that they outline an intercultural history of New Mexico art, from the arrival of railroads in 1879 to the present. This long term exhibition presents 70 works by Native American, Hispanic, and European-American artists which illustrate the changing aesthetic ideals that have evolved within southwestern art over the last 125 years. The exhibition allows viewers to discover the one-ness of New Mexico Art. Unique, unpredictable, often contradictory unity developed from the interactions of the Native American Hispanic, and mainstream American aesthetic traditions.’

Gallery hopping

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Outside a Santa Fe Gallery

We devoted the second part of the morning to some gallery hopping in the smaller establishments in the streets immediately around the Plaza. Our favourites included the stylish Blue Rain Gallery on Lincoln Avenue, with a fascinating mix of paintings, sculpture, pottery and more, and the Galerie Züger on W San Francisco Street which had devoted most of its space to an awesome display of bronze sculptures by Gib Singleton (who also did the Stations of the Cross which we were to see a few days later at the Sancturio de Chimayo). Gib Singleton was the foremost Western and Biblical bronze sculptor in the late 20th and early 21st century in America and his pieces can be seen in many of the major world museums. Have a look at the gallery’s website to see some examples of his work and read more about him.

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Blueberry crepe

After visiting several galleries we decided it was time for an early lunch before moving on to the next part of our plan for the day, and for a change visited the French Pastry Shop, part of the historic La Fonda Hotel complex. While Santa Fe’s buildings are a homogenous group of light brown adobe structures, the interiors occasionally surprise, and none more so than this cosy little place. Step through the doors and you might almost be in an English, or at least European, tea shop, with dark wood furniture and a glass case displaying tempting pastries. Chris had a grilled cheese sandwich, but unusually for me at lunchtime I decided that the dessert menu was the more tempting, especially the sweet crepes, so I chose the blueberry one to go with my very good cup of coffee.

Now, having spent most of our time in the centre of Santa Fe, it was time on this last afternoon in the city to go slightly further afield and see another aspect to the city. So we returned to the casita to pick up our car and drove south, stopping on the way to check out one more of the city’s churches.

Santuario de Guadalupe

This church, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe to give it its full name, lies just south of the downtown area. It is the oldest shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in the United States and was built in the 1780s; the exact date uncertain, though some guidebooks appear to think that they know! Certainly our Moon Handbook let us down on this point, and on its description of the church, which it says in the late 19th century ‘got an odd makeover, with a New England–look wood steeple’ and ‘tall neo-Gothic arched windows’. This is not strictly true, as we discovered that there were in fact two church buildings on the site – one the original (and now restored) 18th century adobe one and one more modern (although not really New England style) church which was built as a new parish church and opened in 1961.The 18th century church was restored in 1976 as part of the US Bicentennial celebrations. Although decommissioned for a while, the church was reintegrated into the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in February 2006 and is now used again for a monthly Mass and for choir performances etc.

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In the Santuario de Guadalupe

Inside the church is relatively plain in some respects, with its three foot thick adobe walls painted white and hung with simple paintings of the Stations of the Cross. The dominating features are the beautiful viga ceiling and the large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe above the altar. is considered one of the finest oil paints of the Spanish Southwest. It is dated 1783 and signed by Jose de Alzibar, who was one of Mexico's most distinguished artists. It is the largest painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the United States and presents a central, full-body image of the Virgin surrounded by four illustrations of the main events of the 1531 apparition story. The painting made the journey north by cart and in sections, up the Camino Real from Mexico City to Santa Fe.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe, and another of the church's paintings

Elsewhere there are some of the typical New Mexican santos, carved images of the saints. To the left of the altar a small doorway led us to a little museum, which was well worth visiting. A series of old photos shows the various appearances of the church over the years. This is where I learnt the facts about the neighbouring white-steepled building (maybe the author of the Moon book should make a visit here?!) I also learnt that the church was built originally as a mission church, to mark the northern end of the Camino Real from Mexico City, and only later became the parish church for this part of the city.

The Railyard

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The Railyard

And now it was time to see a different side of Santa Fe. The railroad came to Santa Fe in 1880, with an 18 mile spur from Lamy to the south (named for the eponymous bishop who left such a mark on the city’s cathedral). On February 9th of that year, the very first train of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company pulled into the Santa Fe depot, accompanied by grand speeches and much celebration. No longer would people have to travel the Santa Fe Trail by stagecoach or wagon; at last the city was properly connected with the rest of the world. And connection meant tourism – the city has the railroad to thank for the boom in visitors at the end of the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Artists came to see and to paint its distinctive adobe buildings; holiday-makers came to wander its picturesque streets and buy souvenirs of Native American crafts, much as they do today. The railroad also brought growth to the city, as it expanded southwards to surround the depot with new buildings to service the needs of those arriving by train. For decades this was one of the liveliest parts of the city, but just as the railroad had meant the end of the old Santa Fe Trail, so the explosion in car use in the 1950s meant the end of the railroad. The trains stopped coming, the depot fell into disuse and the area around it declined.

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In the parking lot

In the 1980s the city council developed a plan, in partnership with residents, for its revival. The concept was to reflect the original rugged, industrial look of the old rail complex while at the same time provide local business opportunities. Visiting the area we could see that they have achieved this. The tracks still dominate, and indeed are still used – for tourist trips on the Santa Fe Southern Railway, along the old spur to Lamy and back, and for commuters (and visitors) to and from Albuquerque on the Rail Runner. But around them are a number of carefully restored and modernised buildings which contain shops, galleries, cultural spaces and cafés. There is also a park laid out alongside the tracks at the southern end.

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Graffitti on old train

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Santa Fe Railroad train

We spent an enjoyable hour wandering round here – taking photos of the old trains, checking out one of the galleries and enjoying an iced coffee in a café. With more time in the city we could easily have spent longer – we didn’t get to ride the Southern Railway or to check out the modern art in the Site Art Space (these days there are many more galleries in the area, including the Blue Rain Gallery which we had visited this morning and which has since relocated to the Railyard area).

But even in that hour or so we found it a refreshing change from the undeniably attractive but at times a little artificial adobe (and pseudo-adobe) world of downtown Santa Fe.

Canyon Road

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Gallery on Canyon Road

After spending a bit of time exploring the Railyard area we returned to the car and drove over to Canyon Road to the south east of the centre, the acknowledged heart of Santa Fe’s art scene. If you think there are a lot of galleries in the downtown area (in some streets, every other building it seems), wait until you see Canyon Road, where just about every building in a half-mile strip is one! And even though we enjoy visiting galleries, we did find it all a bit too much – there are only so many you can go in on one trip, or at least in a single day! But we did spend a pleasant couple of hours popping in and out of some of the galleries near the northern end, without ever making it down the full length as we had originally thought we might.

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Canyon Road art

We had deliberately chosen to come here quite late on the Friday afternoon, as I’d read that many galleries have openings then or in the early evening. Often you get a chance to meet the artists and there are also sometimes refreshments on offer to lure you in. We were a little early for the latter but did enjoy chatting to one gallery owner who had just finished hanging and was happy to tell us about the various artists who were exhibiting.

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Canyon Road kinetic art

My favourite gallery was probably Karan Ruhlen, at 225 Canyon Road (now known as Owen Contemporary). This was showing some striking abstract landscapes by Kurt Meer. There’s no way I could afford the price tags (between $2,440 and $5,250) but I did bring away a free postcard from the gallery to remind me of the works. Checking the gallery’s website (https://owencontemporary.com/kurt-meer) I see that they still have some of his paintings, and the prices have gone up considerably, so maybe I should have invested!

Last evening in Santa Fe

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Appetisers

While enjoying our pre-dinner drinks yesterday at the Marble Brewery we had spotted the Rooftop Pizzeria, part of the same complex. Chris loves pizza, and we thought it would make a change from the (excellent) New Mexican food we had been enjoying most evenings. The same menu is served in the bar at one end on the first floor of the shopping complex where the two properties are located, and in the restaurant at the other, but we decided to eat in the latter as its interior looked very attractive with stylish furniture and art work on the walls. Both bar and restaurant also have an outdoor terraces but after dark in late September it was a little chilly for us to want to eat outside, although plenty of others were doing so.

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Pizzas

Our meal started well as we shared the excellent antipasto of ‘Mediterranean vegetables’ and a selection of very good breads. Unfortunately though, the pizzas didn’t live up to the hype bestowed on them by the menu: ‘It has been said that the label “Pizzeria” is not adequate to describe the culinary experience awaiting you at the Rooftop ... From the first bite of our thin crust gourmet pizza you will be one step closer in your quest for pizza perfection.’ But no, this was not pizza perfection, although mine was not at all bad – a very good crust made with blue corn (a speciality here) and a reasonable topping of sundried tomatoes, goats cheese, artichoke hearts and olives. But Chris found that his mushroom pizza had far too many garlic cloves, even for someone who does really like garlic, as they totally overpowered all the other flavours. Maybe if we hadn’t been looking forward to our pizzas so much, and if they hadn’t been so over-hyped, we would have enjoyed them more, but as it was, we came away rather disappointed and wishing we had instead returned to one of our favourite restaurants from earlier in our stay for this last evening in Santa Fe.

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San Francisco Cathedral at night

For an after dinner treat we decided to have a drink in the lounge bar of the rather upmarket La Fonda hotel, situated on the south side of the Plaza, to experience its sense of history. We were carrying a box of left-over pizza as, although they had been disappointing, it seemed a shame to waste the remaining slices which we thought would do for lunch the next day. It didn’t seem appropriate to take these into the rather smart bar, so for some reason we decided to ‘hide’ them beneath a seat in the lobby. We enjoyed our Jack Daniels (our customary night-cap when touring in the US, although we never drink it anywhere else!) and returned to retrieve our pizza box, only to discover that it had gone – presumably tidied away by one of the very smart-looking security staff on duty there. We scuttled away, hoping that no one who saw us go would associate us with our disreputable baggage!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:04 Archived in USA Tagged art food road_trip restaurant church museum new_mexico Comments (8)

Going around in Enchanted Circles

New Mexico day twelve


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

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)

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