USTravel

Wandering New Mexico

Sunset on the mountains behind our RV, Alamogordo, NM

Happy first blog of 2023! I haven’t gotten back to blogging as quickly as I would have liked after the holidays. Blame it on the flu, and traveling, and also having some nonexistent Internet. We are now in a good spot with great Wi-Fi for awhile, so it’s time to flip the calendar back a couple of months…

Entering our RV again after 3 months away in Europe was truly like coming home. It even still had a little of that “new RV” smell. No mice had settled in and nothing catastrophic happened to any of its mechanics. The lithium batteries hadn’t even lost much of their juice. We looked forward to getting back to our nomadic life, even as we still missed some of the aspects of life that we’d had in Europe. First, though, was two weeks in Denver and a happy reunion with our family there. We would be returning at Christmas. So, for the weeks in between, we headed south to New Mexico.

Our time in this state was a comical musical chairs-style switch up in plans and RV reservations. A five-night stay in a state park was canceled by the park for maintenance issues. A clueless RV park owner who takes reservations only by phone lost our reservation and had a full park during the dates we were to be there. And, unexpected: it often got cold at night, sometimes with below-freezing temperatures. We ended up canceling three other stays because the temperatures were dipping too much. RV life sometimes calls for some flexibility!

One of our “substitute stays” took us to a KOA park in Las Vegas. No, not THAT Las Vegas…remember, we are in New Mexico. While there, we took a drive 35 miles down the highway to visit Pecos National Historical Park. The Pecos Indians had a pueblo there, four to five stories high, home to about 2,000 people for several hundred years until the Spanish came along. What the Spanish didn’t destroy, the Americans did: later, it was a stage stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Situated in a fertile valley between two mountain ranges, it was a major gathering and trading place. The warriors were known to be fierce and undefeatable.

Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

The pueblo is in ruins. This is all that remains of a once-great people. Once upon a time, there were 20 kivas here, which were places for ritual ceremonies. I climbed down inside of one of them.

The park service is slowly reconstructing some of the park based on archeological finds. The Spanish mission was in a partially ruined state and they have rebuilt some of it and the surrounding pueblo.

The remains of the Spanish Mission church and layout of surrounding buildings that were here

We drove around Las Vegas a couple of times. It was once a stop on the Santa Fe trail during its Mexican past. Later, the railroad arrived. I read that there are 900 historic buildings in this town, dating back hundreds of years. There are things to see another time when it’s warmer. We had dinner in the Buffalo Hall and Cowboy Cafe, another old building. Their barbeque was delicious.

For me, KOA parks are usually just an overnight stop off the highway. Some are practically on the highway, and come with traffic noise and small sites. We stayed here for two nights, and I must say it wasn’t bad. They gave us site #1, which meant a full sprawling yard and no RV’s in view from our front porch. Susan, in the office, fried us up some delicious pancakes with vanilla and cinnamon for breakfast. However, this park sits near the Hogback Mountains, and Las Vegas itself is at 6,424 feet elevation. I didn’t think it would be so chilly this early in November, but we had snow on the morning of our departure. We needed to get further south!

The view from our porch in Las Vegas, New Mexico; time to flee!

Northern New Mexico is mountainous and is very beautiful. Santa Fe, Taos, and Angel Fire are all nearby. But we’ll have to save our exploration of it for a time when it’s a little warmer.

Our next stay, in Fort Sumner, was also a last-minute replacement find. It was a small mobile home and RV park, usually the kind of place that would be at the very bottom of our desired place to stay. But the permanent residents were to the back, us transients to the front, and all places were neat and tidy. Our site was very wide, and we were right in town. Well, such as town was. What this place lacked in amenities, it made up for in character.

The owners of Valley View RV also own the “Billy the Kid” museum up the street. Ed & Jewel Sweet opened the museum in 1953 as a repository for all the stuff they had collected in their life, and naming it after New Mexico’s famous outlaw is what drew people in. Their son, Donald (who is no spring chicken himself, but gets around well) is running the family business and together with his son, Tim, they run a tight ship.

Billy the Kid’s Rifle

I wasn’t much drawn into the Billy the Kid stuff. Stuff of lore though he may have been, he was still a criminal. Allegedly, he killed 21 men before he himself was killed at the age of 21 in 1881. But this is BTK territory: where ever we went around these parts, a sign would proclaim “Billy slept here!” or “Billy shot someone here!” and I couldn’t see one redeeming thing that he ever did. I guess it helps with tourism dollars, but I would say the heyday on these events has come and gone.

I loved looking at all the stuff the Sweets collected and had on for display in the museum, though. Besides these farm implements, there were collections of various household items, lots of old buggies and some covered wagons, and of course more BTK ephemera.

Whenever there is a fort to be seen, and we’re looking for something to do, we usually go see it. They’re all different, and some have been amazing for the surprises they hold. Nothing could have prepared me for Fort Sumner, though. Rather than normal western fort-looking buildings, this beautiful museum greeted us:

Recently completed, the Bosque Redondo Memorial tells the story of how 8,500 Navajo and Apache Indians were rounded up in January of 1864 and made to march almost 300 miles to this place. Called “The Long Walk”, under the leadership of Kit Carson, 200 of them died of cold and starvation on the way. The site was to be a reservation to “civilize” them by going to school, practicing Christianity, and becoming corn farmers. Once they got here, they were made to construct their own dwelling places. Unfortunately, the nearby Pecos river was brackish and caused intestinal problems and disease, armyworm destroyed the corn crops, and the wood supply was soon depleted. Most of the Apache escaped the next year, but it would be three more years before the Navajo simply walked home. The whole venture was a miserable failure.

The memorial was built at the request of some Navajo teenagers who, when visiting Ft. Sumner, wanted to know why their story here wasn’t told. Until just two years ago, you would visit the fort and simply not know what happened at this place. The events were certainly not included in any of my history books.

I didn’t have much of an appetite for visiting the fort after that, but we followed the trail out. There isn’t much left of it anyway. Walking about the grounds, I pondered the atrocities that occurred here under the direction of our government. It is a silent, windswept place.

A partially reconstructed layout of some of the buildings

I’m continually astounded at man’s inhumanity to man. I came away with a feeling that I, we all, need to travel and see these places and to learn their stories. Otherwise, how can we learn not to repeat them?

As a side note, after the fort was abandoned in 1869, a rancher purchased one of the old barracks buildings and turned it into a grand house. It was there that a local sheriff ended the life of Billy the Kid. He is buried in the military cemetery nearby, but we did not visit it.

Ready to get back to nature, our next stay was at Valley of Fires Recreation Area, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. It looks over part of a 44-mile lava flow that happened 5,000 years ago. It was not the result of a volcano. Instead, the Carrizozo Malpais Lava Flow was the result of volcanic vent openings in the valley floor. Our site also looked out over the lava field and provided us with several grand sunsets. From our perch, the only man-made thing that we could see was the nature trail and, occasionally, cars on the road far off in the distance to our right. Ahhhhh…excellent.

It is a quiet and peaceful place and was our favorite stay during this time.

When we hiked the nature trail, we discovered that the lava field is very much a living place. There are cactus, trees, and bushes common to the Chihuahuan Desert that we were in, as well as some late-blooming flowers. Animals live here too but we didn’t see any. Seeing lava rock again almost made us feel like we were back on the Big Island of Hawaii.

As a fill-in for our lost RV reservation, we stayed for several days in Alamogordo, right across the road from the world’s biggest pistachio.

It’s best not to try to eat this pistachio! It’s 30 feet tall.

McGinn’s PistachioLand and its neighbor, Heart of the Desert, were both great places to sample pistachios, pecans, and wine. It was very handy, after having all that wine, to just be able to walk across the road (carefully!) and go home. At McGinn’s we also took a little tram ride through the orchards and vineyards for an interesting tour. We liked McGinn’s best, but that was probably because Heart of the Desert was a smaller operation and were very busy with a wedding when we visited.

Also behind our RV park in Alamogordo was a little country road which I enjoyed walking on a couple of times. There was a large pecan orchard to look at, mountains ahead of me, and friendly horses to pet.

A pecan orchard

The highlight of our stay in Alamogordo, though, was a visit to White Sands National Park. Although it was designated a national monument in 1933, it became a national park in 2019. We took a guided walk by a park ranger, where we learned that recently they have found a set of ancient footprints here. The footprints date to 24,000 years ago, placing humans in North America sooner than was thought, but this date seems to still be in dispute. Although the gypsum sands seem dry, there is water only a couple of feet below the surface.

We also hiked a short nature trail – and it was easy to lose the trail!
The sand pack on the road looked exactly like a snow storm had occurred here.

The sun going down made for great effect, casting its long shadows over the sandy hills. We were here in the late afternoon so as to catch the ranger’s tour, but it was a great time of day to visit.

Our last stay during this time was in Las Cruces. From our park, we were able to walk to Old Mesilla, a village that was settled over one hundred years ago. Red chile peppers adorn the plaza and the thick adobe-walled buildings contain art galleries, shops and restaurants.

A mural on our walk to Old Mesilla
Chile peppers and Christmas lights on the plaza

I cannot help but point out that there was once a courthouse here where Billy the Kid was tried for his crimes and sentenced to hang. He escaped before that could happen.

A historic home in Old Mesilla

We had excellent fajitas in a restaurant called La Posta in Old Mesilla. It had been a Butterfield stage stop and inn, and in 1935 it became a restaurant. Parrots and a piranha fish greeted us when we entered. La Posta had rooms upon rooms, and we ate in what was once was the blacksmith and harness room, with a fireplace that kept us warm. While we enjoyed our delicious dinner, we could look at an immense Christmas tree in an adjoining room.

The state of New Mexico overall has much to offer, but we will have to return at a time when it is warmer. The entire state is at elevation, which means it isn’t a great place to be in late fall and winter. Las Cruces itself, while in the far south of New Mexico, sits at 3,900 feet elevation. It was 27 degrees on our last morning in Las Cruces and it wasn’t the first time we’d had a freeze. Daytime temperatures usually warmed up into at least the 50’s, but nighttime freezing temperatures means that the RV mechanic (that’s Cal) has to disconnect hoses and turn on tank heaters. It’s always a worry that a connection might freeze and crack.

We were continuously keeping an eye on the Weather Channel, trying to figure out where would be the warmest place to sit for awhile. What did we find? That is the subject of my next post!

Next time – looking for sunshine in the southwest