Three days in southwest New Mexico

  • A storefront in Hillsboro, N.M., a former gold and silver mining settlement.

    Cally Carswell
  • A postcard picked up at Dust & Glitter, a boutique in Truth or Consequences.

  • Eastbound, the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway opens (clockwise) with a dramatic view of the Santa Rita copper mine

    Cally Carswell
  • The Very Large Array on the Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico, where scientists keep an eye on galaxies far away.

    Jeremy Zilar, cc via Flickr
  • The Daily Pie Cafe was recently renamed; it’s now the Good Pie Cafe.

    Cally Carswell

Downtown Santa Fe's uniform aesthetic is no coincidence. It's protected and propagated by city codes: Windows must be modestly sized, edges rounded, exteriors colored an earthy adobe blush. The resulting faraway mystique charms hordes of tourists. But the electric farolitos and "fauxdobe" make others groan: "Enough already!" with the "Disneyfication," one architect told a local magazine in 2008.

My Dad, a native Santa Fean, agrees, and laments the once-funky city's now perfect grooming. Which is partly why he and my Mom have taken a shine to the state's lower half since temporarily moving to Roswell last fall. "The New Mexico I grew up in was more of just a normal place," he says -- and the southern part is still like that.

Indeed, the locals welcome your business, but feel no obligation to put on a show for you. The north's unusual blend of Spanish, Anglo and American Indian cultures is less pervasive here, and the architecture trends more toward "trailer park stark" than "Pueblo chic." But the chile is still hot, the landscape diverse, and the towns un-manicured. Even those cultivating tourism economies don't try particularly hard to impress visitors by, say, keeping regular business hours. It's refreshing: You experience southern New Mexico just as it is.

"I love waking up in New Mexico," my Dad crowed this spring as we sped toward the Magdalena Mountains, a lonely huddle of hills west of Socorro. My Dad is a serious man. But since moving out here from Chicago last year, he's become oddly exuberant. "Our drive yesterday?" he went on. "There wasn't one linear mile that wasn't interesting."

At Magdalena, we were reminded of another distinction between northern and southern New Mexico: politics. The rough-hewn old railroad town is bookended by homemade "Obama: Worst President Ever" signs -- folk art, of a sort, in this part of the world.

Not eager to argue the issue, we continued on to the Plains of San Agustin, an ancient lakebed wearing a necklace of mountains. There, a collection of satellite dishes on steroids sprout from the plain -- telescopes that make up the Very Large Array, with which astronomers probe black holes and observe the birth of galaxies. Much to the disappointment of some visitors, the scientists have yet to chitchat with aliens, but the work they do will be instrumental to discovering extraterrestrial life, if it's out there.

The high-tech array's presence here is ironic, amid far-flung towns that still retain public payphones -- places like Pie Town, to which we hurried with growling bellies. At nearly 8,000 feet on the Continental Divide, it's home to 50 souls, according to one local I asked, and 186, including unincorporated areas, per the census. It got its name in the late 1920s, because one settler sold pie to passing frontier-folk. Yet, by the mid-'90s, a sign on one defunct bakery supposedly read, "There used to be pie in Pie Town, but there ain't no more -- FOR SALE." That place, now the Pie-o-neer, was closed, so we skipped down the road to the Good Pie Café.

Owner Michael Rawl rolls out dough in a tight alcove behind the dining room, next to a poster of Muhammed Ali looming over Sonny Liston and a photo of the Dalai Lama. We had a slice of key lime, a tasty cross between chiffon and cheesecake, and a subtly sweet piece of pecan. Our waitress bemoaned the region's drought -- she gets only 50 gallons of water every other day from a deep well. Employment, too, is scarce, she said: "Most people are just retired here."

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jun 27, 2012 04:54 PM
Ohh, big oversight, in my book! Where's the Owl Bar & Grill in San Antonio, which self-boast the best green chile cheeseburger in the state? Or its rival, the Buckhorn? And, going by the geographical dividers for the story, San Antonio is definitely southern, and it ain't southeastern. Also, on Silver City, a lot of people will say that it's become the next "discovered" Western town. Not quite a Taos, let alone some Colorado places, but still "discovered."
Cally Carswell
Cally Carswell Subscriber
Jun 27, 2012 04:58 PM
Hi Steve, I tried to go to the Owl and / or the Buckhorn, but BOTH were closed when I passed through San Antonio. Trust me, I was disappointed, and would have included if I'd been able to eat at either one!
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jun 27, 2012 05:44 PM
OK, A for effort, Cally! IIRC, the same folks own the Owl Cafe up in Duke City.
John & Carolyn Wilson
John & Carolyn Wilson Subscriber
Jun 28, 2012 08:21 AM
I'm from the suburbs of Magdalena (10 miles out). I told everybody that the cranky sign might brand us with the wrong impression to folks just driving through. Magdalena is a very diverse and amiable place full of all sorts of delightful eccentrics. Besides, I have heard the cranky sign was put up by a person from Datil. (I don't assume that everybody in Datil likes it either.) Anyway, we now have a great big 'Obama 2012' sign in the middle of town. Come back again for Old Timers Reunion, second weekend in July.
Tom Hester
Tom Hester Subscriber
Jun 28, 2012 05:55 PM
The Curious Kumquat's foraged tasting meals rank at the top not only of Silver City's kitchens of genius but also of all of New Mexico--north or south or west or east. A couple of days ago I had the crawfish atop a dab of polenta, with a smear of foraged plum, set off with three pickled agave blossoms. It's honest cooking that can stand up to New York, London, Paris or....Santa Fe.
Penelope Blair
Penelope Blair Subscriber
Jul 04, 2012 10:53 AM
Thank you so much Cally for the journey! I was born in Albuquerque, grew up in Gallup and then spent over 26 years in Los Alamos. I lived in Roswell for four months and wish they had had the UFO stuff going on then. I also lived in Silver City and that part of the state is my favorite! I LOVE Silver and Glenwood. I fell in love with the desert birds! Put out a little food and especially water and they will come to your yard! Going east over Emery Pass in July of 1997 a Jagarundi ran right in front of me, headed north! That was so exciting! I went owling one night...there was always something in the natural world to enjoy. FYI: The rock formation near the Santa Rita mine is called, The Kneeling Nun. There is a poem, that I found back in my teen years, that tell her story...The Legend of the Kneeling Nun. Look it up! You would probably like it. Thank you for trip!
Jeff Berg
Jeff Berg
Jul 07, 2012 09:07 AM
Thanks to Cally for the plug for our indie movie theatre, the Fountain. It is the only such venue for 225 miles in any direction, and has been around for 25 years. Hoping that other visitors to southern NM, as few as they are, will stop by and take in a non-mainstream movie. We are open 362 nights a
Hank Miller
Hank Miller
Jul 18, 2012 01:09 PM
the comment about the two LA LA ladies and why in T&C most likely could mean mules for the drugs that are pervasive in that area along with Pecos-north, sorry to say.