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for people who care about the West

Three days in southwest New Mexico


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."

We headed south on Highway 32 into the heart of Catron County, passing dry streambeds, two more payphones, and the occasional home. The country's first official wilderness, the Gila, inspired by conservationist Aldo Leopold, lies mostly within Catron County. But today, the county's famous for its anti-environmental zeal. Angry at regulations protecting the Mexican spotted owl, then at the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf, county commissioners have tried doggedly to wrest control of public land from the state and feds. Wolves are especially loathed, as roadside signs attest.

So we were careful not to mention endangered carnivores while we inhaled spicy green chile cheeseburgers at Reserve's rooster-themed Ella's Cafe, right near the courthouse where ordinances asserting local authority over public land were inked. Beside us, ranchers discussed the range's meager forage; meanwhile, MSNBC played improbably in the background.

In early evening, we strolled Silver City's main drag, a colorful, only partly occupied stretch of galleries, cafes, a bar, vintage clothing shop, and a mind-boggling number of coffee shops -- not one of them a Starbucks. It reminds my parents, like few other towns, of the old Santa Fe. Our main motivation for visiting, however: It has at least one very good restaurant. The Curious Kumquat's chef, Rob Connoley moved to Silver City and ran a meth-treatment program, burned out, and opened the adventurous gastropub instead. We devoured fried rice balls stuffed with fermented cashew "cheese" and dressed in a rich red curry. I tucked into mac ‘n' cheese with toothy yet tender crawfish foraged from a "secret spot in the Gila," according to our waitress. Who knew there were shellfish to be gathered in the desert?

The next morning, eastbound on Highway 152, we were transfixed by the view of the Santa Rita copper mine, where open-pit copper mining was pioneered. The scenic byway winds in stomach-churning fashion just south of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness and descends the Black Range, passing through near-ghost towns alongside short-lived mines.

We crossed the ash-blond expanse of Lake Valley, then reached the bright green fields of the lower Rio Grande Valley, which, thanks to groundwater mining, appeared oblivious to the record-breaking drought. In these food-obsessed times, you might expect Hatch, the self-proclaimed "Chile Capital of the World," to have its face on for visitors. Not so much. It offers a hardware store, grocery, empty storefronts and a few cafes -- half of which were closed that Saturday. Even here, the quality of roadside stands' peppers is spotty. So we buy from a trusted source: June Lytle Rutherford, whose family's addictive red powder is available at her daughter's flower/video-rental/knick-knack store, The Wonder Hut, in Salem, and at Hatch Chile Express, owned by her son. (Or, grow your own: You can order seed from the family online.)

Under a canopy of pecan trees, we took the back road to Mesilla, which retains its distinctive character despite bumping up against Las Cruces' creeping sprawl. Its Santa Fe-style plaza is free of glitz and sticker shock. And the Mesilla Valley Film Society shows foreign and independent films nightly at the Fountain Theater, where the historic building's mud-and-grass guts peek through crumbling plaster. Across the street, Vintage Wines serves light tapas and surprisingly good local wines.

On our last day, suffering road fatigue, we decompressed in Truth or Consequences, which adopted the name of a 1950s game show in a publicity stunt. These days, it bills itself as "America's most affordable spa town." It is affordable and has hot springs aplenty, but spa town? Trailers occupy riverfront real estate, and instead of neighborhood watch, they have meth watch.

"It would be a good setting for an episode of Breaking Bad," my Dad observed.

We checked in to the restored Dam Site Resort lodge, offices built in 1911 during construction of nearby Elephant Butte Dam. After guzzling Buds on the veranda, Mom and I ventured to the tropical eco-lodge ambiance of Riverbend Hot Springs. We reclined in a pool, the muddy, nearly stagnant Rio Grande rippling in the wind below us.

For dinner, we ate calamari and pasta next to Los Angeles women, who discussed one's screenwriting career and name-dropped celebrities. What drew these stylish L.A. ladies to this rough-and-tumble town, I wondered?

Perhaps its rough-and-tumble edge is its draw. It feels like the rural equivalent of a tough urban neighborhood that's been discovered by artists but not yet colonized by yuppies. T or C doesn't deliver the most charming of first impressions, but its eccentric energy slowly warms you. And there's something hopeful about the  determination of creative transplants to make a go of things -- like our waiter, who also ran the movie theater, along with a vintage boutique with his wife. "If you're a snowbird on a budget," my Dad mused as we left, "I think this would be a pretty great place to come."