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Our Land of Enchantment

New Mexico introduction


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

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At Acoma Pueblo

We love to take a US road trip exploring one (or sometimes several) of the states, and one of the ones we enjoyed the most was our 2011 visit to New Mexico.

New Mexico dubs itself the ‘Land of Enchantment’ and indeed we were enchanted! And what delighted us most was the variety. In two and a half weeks we saw natural wonders and man-made. We followed trails worn down over the centuries by the moccasin-clad feet of early inhabitants, and sat in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule (used in the first US spaceflight missions). We marvelled at the legends of those early Native Americans, and at the tales of aliens crashing near Roswell. We stayed in an historic hotel where outlaws had shot and sometimes even killed each other; in a cosy adobe casita; and in a former brothel. We saw ancient petroglyphs, Route 66 Americana, and exciting modern art in the contemporary galleries of Santa Fe.

We drove for miles, often seeing more cattle than cars, with skies, and landscapes, that seemed to go for ever. And as we travelled I came to think that there was more than one New Mexico.

Native New Mexico

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Taos Pueblo

There is ‘Native New Mexico’, seen best in the ancient pueblos such as Taos and Acoma, but throwing its influence over the whole state. Long before Europeans came to settle this area, native tribes lived here for hundreds of years. For centuries, these ancestral Indians lived a nomadic life, hunting and gathering their food throughout the Southwest. About 1,500 years ago, some of these groups began practicing agriculture and established permanent settlements, known as pueblos, while others remained nomadic. As everywhere in North America, the coming of the white settlers devastated the lives of those who called these plains and mountains home, and that too is part of their history. Today 22 tribes live in the state: Apache, Navajo, and 19 pueblo tribes (Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jémez, Laguna, Nambé, Ohkay Owingeh, Picurís, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Kewa, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, Zuni). New Mexico’s unique character owes so much to these tribes. The cuisine incorporates elements of traditional cooking, such as the blue corn tortillas and puffed-up sopapillas. The adobe building techniques were embraced by the Spanish settlers and now dominate towns like Taos and Santa Fe. Arts and crafts thrive and are dominated by the pottery, jewellery-making, weaving and painting of the various tribes.

Hispanic New Mexico

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San Jose de Gracia, Trampas

There is also ‘Hispanic New Mexico’. Wherever you go in New Mexico, the Spanish influence is apparent. The most obvious legacy is the large number of beautiful adobe mission churches, of which the oldest is variously said to be San Miguel in Socorro (built between 1615 and 1626, but currently closed for restoration following major water damage) or another San Miguel in Santa Fe (built between 1610 and 1628, thus started earlier but finished later). Very many place names too point to the Hispanic influence: Santa Fe (the city of the Holy Faith), Albuquerque (named for the Spanish Duke de Alburquerque) and smaller places like Los Cerillos, Las Trampas, Quemado – there is even a Madrid! In particular the Roman Catholic religion, introduced by the Spanish, has had a lasting influence on the state. We were fascinated by the way in which the native pueblo churches had combined their own traditional faith with the ‘new’ one, with equal emphasis placed on their adopted saint (San Geronimo in Taos, San Esteban in Acoma) and on the natural spirits that have shaped their lives for centuries. Local crafts owe much to this Catholic tradition, such as the brightly painted pictures (santos) and carvings (bultos) of saints that you’ll see not only in churches but in galleries, restaurants and homes. And parts of the state seemed to us to be dual language, with signs commonly in both English and Spanish, and the latter language heard regularly on the streets. Sometimes you might even fancy yourself in Central, rather than North, America!

Wild West New Mexico

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Sign in Truth or Consequences

Having grown up in an era when both films and TV programmes set in the ‘Wild West’ were popular (‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, ‘Alias Smith and Jones’. ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’, and many more) we were equally fascinated by ‘Wild West New Mexico’. Anyone who has ever watched a western has seen New Mexico, or something very like it. Vast plains, huge skies, and more cattle than people – it is not difficult to imagine a cowboy galloping over the nearest ridge, and indeed many locals still dress the part. And wherever you go, the ghosts of outlaws past will follow you, most notably Billy the Kid. We ‘met’ Billy in so many places. In Silver City, where he came aged just 13 and got into trouble from the start. In Mesilla, where he was tried and condemned to be hung in the courthouse, now (inevitably) a ‘Billy the Kid’ gift-shop. In historic Lincoln, where he escaped from another courthouse in a shoot-out. And in Fort Sumner, where he was shot by Pat Garrett and buried alongside a couple of his pals. But Billy of course was not the only outlaw. Perhaps our most memorable encounter with the ghosts of the Wild West was in Cimarron, in the bar of the St James Hotel, whose ceiling still bears the bullet holes of the many gun-fights that took place here, and whose halls are said to be still haunted by some of the victims.

Space Age New Mexico

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The Very Large Array

Bringing the story right up to date, there is ‘Space Age New Mexico’, because the state's wide open spaces didn’t just suit cowboys – they are also ideal for certain sorts of experiments, especially those involving space flight or missiles. The barren expanses at its heart, around White Sands, have seen first-hand the power of science, both for good and for bad. It is here, at the Trinity Site, that the world’s first atom bomb was detonated on 16th July 1945. Trinity is only open to the public on a couple of days a year, and I’m not sure that we would have visited even if one of these dates coincided with our trip, but we did see one of the ‘souvenirs’ of that deadly experiment, the fragment from Jumbo, the vessel built to contain the explosion, which is now on display near the Plaza in Socorro. On a more positive note, the amazing Very Large Array provided one of the most interesting mornings of our trip. Here, in the middle of the flat Plains of San Augustin, scientists study the heavens with the help of these huge radio telescopes. And if you’re interested in man’s adventures in space, the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo is the place to go. I loved getting the opportunity to sit in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule (used in the first US spaceflight missions), and to ‘land’ the space shuttle on their simulator.

And maybe it isn’t just human scientists who find New Mexico ideal for their experiments?! There are many who remain convinced that aliens crashed on a ranch just outside Roswell in 1947, and the town has traded on the incident ever since. Whether you believe it or not, this is an opportunity to see tacky Americana at its most glorious, with ‘aliens’ on every street corner and a whole museum devoted to proving the truth of the story.

Natural New Mexico

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Fall colours in Picuris Pueblo

But the setting for all these stories, both factual and fictional, is as important as the tales themselves – ‘Natural New Mexico’. For while humans have made their mark on New Mexico over the centuries, and in a number of ways, it remains for the most part a state of wide open spaces and natural wonders. You can peer down into the depths of 800 foot deep Rio Grande Gorge, travel mountain passes well over 8,000 feet above sea level, wander among the remarkable rock formations of the City of Rocks or the hauntingly pale dunes of the White Sands. Travelling in September and October, we were treated to displays of golden aspens and of flowers in all hues. Nearly half the state’s annual rainfall comes during July and August, and the dry dusty plains respond with a wonderful show. At lower elevations I never tired of seeing the yellows, mauves and reds alongside the road and spreading beyond in the pastures on either side. And at higher ones the vistas were often of waves of dark green and gold, the conifers and late-dropping trees setting off the early-turning aspens to best advantage.

Travelling to New Mexico

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El Paso Airport

It may perhaps seem a little odd that for a holiday spent touring New Mexico we should fly to Texas, but for a couple of reasons El Paso made real sense as an entry point. Firstly flights there from London were just a little cheaper than to Albuquerque, the only obvious alternative. But secondly, and more importantly, it suited my route planning (and route planning for these trips is always largely my responsibility!) to start in the south of the state. I knew that we would want to spend several nights in Santa Fe, and probably only one in most other places en route, so it made sense to make Santa Fe roughly the mid-point of our tour, which would have been very difficult had we landed in Albuquerque.

So El Paso it was. We flew with United, changing in Chicago where we had a five hour layover. That seemed quite long, but once we’d spent over an hour in the queue at Immigration, transferred to another terminal, and then spent a further hour in the queue to go through security, we were glad of the slack time in the scheduling. When we finally landed at El Paso it was 10.20 pm local time, 5.20 am London time, so we were pretty tired. But El Paso is a small and rather charming airport, easy to navigate and to face even when travel-weary. Furthermore we had booked a room for that night at the airport’s Microtel, an easy stagger from the terminal (less than five minutes’ walk across the car park area). Within 40 minutes of touchdown on the runway we were in our room – and there can’t be many airports where you can manage that!

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Our car number plate

We had arranged car hire for our trip with Hertz who have a base at El Paso Airport, so the next morning we walked back across to the terminal to collect our vehicle. We had to do some negotiation on arrival however as we weren’t at all happy with the car they’d allocated us, a Nissan Cube (ugly thing, with poor rear visibility and all the luggage on display however you stowed it, so not ideal for touring). But a quick discussion with a helpful lady on the counter and we were upgraded from compact to mid-size at no extra charge, with the only catch that we had to wait 15 minutes while the Mazda was brought over from another nearby lot – a small price to pay for what proved to be a comfortable and easy to drive car.

And I would defy anyone to tour New Mexico properly without the benefit of a car, except perhaps a very fit cyclist. Although there’s lots to see and do, places can be quite far apart and no public transport serves many of the most scenic routes, although in places like Santa Fe and Albuquerque there are buses.

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Our hire car on the High Road to Taos

Plus, driving here is a real pleasure. Of course it’s easy for me to say that, as Chris nobly did all the driving, waving aside my rather half-hearted offers to help! But one reason for that refusal of help was the fact that with just one or two exceptions, the roads were quiet and the driving pretty easy. We covered just under 2,000 miles in the two and a half weeks of our trip, and that felt very manageable and undemanding. Our longest drive was about 220 miles, but most days we did around 100 and on a few very little at all.

So we have our car – it is time to hit the road!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:02 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes road_trip culture history usa science space new_mexico customs Comments (6)

From outer space to the Badlands, via a pie!

New Mexico day four


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

Sunday morning, Socorro

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San Miguel Church, Socorro

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

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San Miguel Church

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

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

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

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San Miguel Church

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

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Jumbo fragment

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

Magdalena

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Main Street, Magdalena

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

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

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

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Old bank, Magdalena

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

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Ilfeld Warehouse

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Old lamp

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

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

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Santa Fe box car, Magdalena Depot

The Very Large Array

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

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The Very Large Array from afar

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

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

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

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Dish at The Very Large Array

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

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Getting close to the dishes

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A close look at a dish and antenna

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

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View from the Research Centre

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

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

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Our hire car near the VLA

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Railroad crossing near the VLA

Pie Town

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

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Pie Town sign

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

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

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The Pie-O-Neer Café

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

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

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In Pie Town

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

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Stop here for pies

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

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Cute salt and pepper pots

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

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

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

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DanCyn' Windmill Museum

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

Quemado

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Church of the Sacred Heart in Quemado

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

El Malpais National Monument

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View from Sandstone Bluffs, El Malpais National Monument

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

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

Lava Falls

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

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

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The lava field

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

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

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Daisies and lava

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

La Ventana Arch

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

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

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

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

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

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Sandstone Bluffs

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

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

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View from Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

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

Overnight in Grants

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

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Our nice big bedroom!

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

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

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Stormy Grants sunset

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Chris in the restaurant

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

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Pollo Santa Fe

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

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

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

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

The truth is out there

New Mexico day fourteen continued


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

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

Roswell

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Lamp post in Roswell

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Days Inn, Roswell

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

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Our room

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

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

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Parking for aliens

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

International UFO Museum

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How the Roswell alien is believed by some to have arrived

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

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

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'Aliens' at the International UFO Museum

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

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

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

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The alien autopsy

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

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

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

Evening in Roswell

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Moon over Farleys (it seemed appropriate, somehow!)

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

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Old sign in the bar

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

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

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

New Mexico day fifteen


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

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

On the streets of Roswell

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Street art in Roswell

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

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Shop windows in Roswell

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

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Building detail

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'Spaceship' McDonalds

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Bus shelter

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

Pioneer Plaza, Roswell

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

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Cattle King of the Pecos

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

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Former Conoco service station

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Zia symbol
(free to use clip-art)

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

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

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

Lincoln: the town that started a war

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Ammunition for sale in the Tunstall Store, Lincoln

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

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In Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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In Lincoln

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

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

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Model of Indian Scout

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

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

The Montaño Store

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

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Old stove in the Montaño Store, and sign outside

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

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

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

San Juan Mission Church

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San Juan Church

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

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Inside San Juan

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

The Torreon

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

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The Torreon

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

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In La Placita

The Tunstall Store

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

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In the Tunstall Store

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

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In the Tunstall Store

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

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Old safe

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Cash register

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

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

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The Thomas W Watson House, Lincoln

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

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Dolan Outpost land

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Dolan Outpost land

The Courthouse

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

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Old sherriff's uniform

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

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

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

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

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

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The Curry Saloon

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

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Old safe in the Courthouse

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

The Wortley Hotel

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Sign outside Wortley Hotel

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

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

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My BBQ pork sandwich

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

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

Alamogordo

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

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

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Our room at
the Alamo Inn

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

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

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

The New Mexico Museum of Space History

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Rocket to the moon?

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

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

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

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Mercury capsule

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

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Little Joe

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

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Chris in the 'Space Lab'

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Memorial to Ham, the first monkey in space

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Satellite

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

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

Dinner at Tia Lupes

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Tia Lupes

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

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

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Chicken chimichanga
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Chilli Relleno Plate

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

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

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

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

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