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."

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