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Unscrubbed New Mexico

An odyssey through campgrounds and canyons

June 02, 1996|JOHN MUNCIE | Muncie is special sections editor for the Travel section

LINCOLN NATIONAL FOREST, N.M. — Smokey the Bear thinks I'm a jerk and so does Wayne Dunsworth.

Dunsworth swings out of a dinged-up Ford and walks over to my campsite armed with a safety lecture. It seems my campfire was still smoldering when I left for a hike this morning and he had to douse it.

Dunsworth and his wife, Oleta, help run Westlake, a woodsy, 71-site campground adjacent to Bonito Lake. This spring, the surrounding Lincoln National Forest is bone dry; every Smokey the Bear sign proclaims the fire danger "extreme." The whole state's dry, in fact. (Because of the fire danger, in the last two weeks some of the state's campgrounds and trails have been closed, including several in Lincoln.) When I left Albuquerque a day earlier, a 15,000-acre wildfire was burning through Bandelier National Monument northwest of Santa Fe.

I make a groveling apology. But the damage is done. Dunsworth has written me off as knucklehead from The Coast. He looks at my fire pit, filled with drowned ashes. "How long are you staying here?" he asks.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 16, 1996 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to an editing error, a photograph of a desert plant was misidentified as a yucca in a June 2 article on New Mexico. It is, as a number of readers correctly pointed out, a desert agave, sometimes called a century plant.

Not long. I have just six days for a hiking-camping-nosing-around-country-towns trip in southern New Mexico. In order to beat the heat already building in late April, I've decided to stick mostly to two mountainous national forests: Lincoln, to the southeast of Albuquerque, and Gila, to the southwest. Both rise out of surrounding deserts like cool, green islands. (At 3.3 million acres, the Gila National Forest is more like a subcontinent.) For the rest of my trip, I'm on my best campfire behavior. And I discover two advantages to the drought: Everybody wants to talk about it, and hiking conditions are perfect.

This is a five-hike camping trip. I drive to Westlake from Albuquerque on a Sunday afternoon. The next morning is hike No. 1, starting just three miles from the campground. As I drive to the trailhead, about 20 miles northwest of Ruidoso, six shaggy elk lope across the dirt road--an omen, I hope, of outdoorsy adventures to come.

The nine-mile loop of Big Bonito Trail starts in pines, but aspens soon appear, along with aspen graffiti. It looks like "Tish" has done some trunk-carving here. After an uphill 90 minutes, the peaks of White Horse Hill and Elk Point come into view. They're covered in dry alpine grass the color of wheat.

From switchbacks high on White Horse, I can see the barren Tularosa Basin to the west. The basin's 40-mile-long El Malpais lava beds look like tar spilled on a dirt road.

*

The next day's itinerary is full: drive down to Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site for a hike; drive up into the Sacramento Mountains to camp near the old logging town of Cloudcroft. So I don't mind too much when my wake-up call--dueling hoot-owls above my tent--comes at 5 a.m.

As I leave Westlake, fire fully doused, Oleta Dunsworth tells me the drought is New Mexico's worst in 30 years. "Have a safe trip," she says cheerily.

Southern New Mexico feels Old West. The high plateaus are dotted with longhorn cattle, former boom towns and rock shops. Scratch a mini-mall and find mining, logging or cattle rustling. Country music dominates the radio dial. El Paso is closer than Albuquerque. A camping trip here becomes a fun visit to Frontier Land.

In the town of Lincoln, for instance, the main brag is that Billy the Kid once escaped from the local courthouse/jail, gunning down two deputies in the process. Billy was a character in the infamous Lincoln County War between rival merchant-cattlemen in the 1870s.

The state of New Mexico operates seven of Lincoln's two dozen Billy-era buildings, including the courthouse where park ranger Deann Kessler and I discuss the town's defining moment. When the telephone rings, she puts the caller off, saying: "I'm in the middle of The Escape. I'll call you back."

Billy, still shackled, had gotten a revolver and was aiming for deputy Jim Bell. Apparently, he only missed once. Kessler shows me a bullet hole in a stairwell wall. I look skeptical. Kessler grins. "Well, it's a legendary bullet hole. Nobody knows if it's Billy's."

When I get to the petroglyphs at 3:30, it's 87 degrees. John Gerrish doesn't care. "Look at this," he says, spreading his arms to embrace the warmth and cloud-free sky and predictability. "You could have a cookout right now. If you wanted to have a cookout four days from now, it'd be the same."

For the privilege of caretaking the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site, Gerrish and his wife get to live there in a fully equipped trailer and diss their native state. "Winters here," says Gerrish, "are nothing like New Hampshire."

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