New Mexico day twelve
03.10.2011 - 03.10.2011
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
View near Red River
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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’
'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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
Corridor in the main building, and an historic bedroom
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.
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.
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.
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)
In the dining room
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.
Sign in the bar, and detail of decor
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!
The old cash register
Chris at the bar