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Unscrubbed New Mexico

Rambling the back roads from town to town


LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Hoss and I are on a road trip. We have five days, a rented sport utility vehicle, an appointment with the late Georgia O'Keeffe, and a few million acres of vast, underpopulated, tinder-dry New Mexico waiting down the highway.

We have come for the unscrubbed Southwest of pre- and post-Columbian ruins, of towns with names like Wagon Mound and Cuba. We're looking in the north, at a safe remove, I hope, from the density of Albuquerque and the designer adobes of Santa Fe. With some reluctance, we will pass through Taos.

We begin on a brilliant Monday. The earth is red and orange and, in the distance, blue. Dry winds rip through the sagebrush, and every time we exit the car, an atmospheric electrical charge jolts our fingers. The highest peaks of the Sangre de Cristos are thick with snow that will last into the summer.

Hoss is in the passenger seat because I called him a couple of weeks before with a question: Would he, a known gambler with time on his hands, like to join me on a travel-writing assignment through Las Vegas? He made affirmative noises, then I disclosed that this would be Las Vegas, New Mexico--see it on the map there, northeast of Albuquerque?

I am at the wheel, and shall remain so, because once our tickets were bought, Hoss disclosed that he couldn't actually share the driving, because he'd been ticketed on a drive through New Mexico in the mid '80s. Now the warrant, unpaid, is 10 years old. I wouldn't want him jailed, would I? It was about this time that I resolved to protect my friend the fugitive by nicknaming him Hoss for this story, without his consent.

Miles roll by. At a lonely, otherwise empty pizza joint outside Galisteo, we stop for meatball sandwiches, and Hoss confronts the counterman with a question seized from the dry, clear, blue sky:

"I've always wanted to know this, and, ah, it seems like you have time," says Hoss. "How long does it take to cook a pizza?"

Five minutes at 560 degrees. Hoss' curiosity is a vast and indiscriminate thing.

Shortly before sunset, we rumble into Las Vegas, a Las Vegas with 16,000 residents and not much doing on a Monday evening. In the main square, a pack of high school skateboarders take turns careening off curbs beneath buildings that are locked up tight.

They are handsome buildings. About 900 of them, in fact, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When the Santa Fe Trail emerged as the main trade route between Missouri and Mexico in the early 19th century, Las Vegas was the first city on the southbound route after hundreds of miles of unsettled territory. When Gen. Stephen Watts Kearney claimed New Mexico as a U.S. territory in 1846, he did so from a Las Vegas rooftop. Butch Cassidy tended bar here, we are told, and Doc Holliday pulled teeth, and Billy the Kid watered his horse.

We take a $44-a-night room at a site on the historic register, the 114-year-old Plaza Hotel. We inspect the Old West storefronts, and chat with bookseller Pete DuMont, a refugee from upstate New York who now runs the Bridge Street Books & Coffeehouse.

The next day, after an evening and morning of adequate food and lodging at the Plaza, we flee north, past Fort Union National Monument (where a goose unaccountably perches on the ruins of a 19th century adobe wall); through the tiny town of Wagon Mound; through the larger town of Springer. Passing the Philmont Scout Ranch outside Springer, we jerk to a halt and look on as a pack of jay-walking antelope, white tails bobbing, dawdle across the two lanes of State Highway 21, then bound easily over the 4-foot fence.

We follow a dirt-road detour past a conglomeration of half a dozen farmhouses, just so we can say we've seen Miami, N.M. We fall into conversation with the manager of a soon-to-open Sports Bar in Raton, and Hoss gets the guy to say he cooks his pizza for 13 minutes at 475 degrees. Hoss thinks maybe a theme is emerging for my story.

I think I'm ready for a hike.

Leaving the main road, we slip into Sugarite Canyon State Park, climb into the hills and wander for miles on the Ponderosa Ridge trail, until it becomes clear we're never going to reach the top of that long, rocky ridge that rises from the scrub. We are defeated, but happily so--there's all this clean air to breathe, and now we have burrs in our socks and dirt on our shoes to prove we've been somewhere.

Last stop for the day is the St. James Hotel in Cimarron--from outside, nothing special. But inside, we find worn red carpets, musty halls, sepia-toned photos, mounted animal heads and groaning floorboards. In the restaurant, one local rancher is warning another that someone's bulls got loose today. It's all so durned Western that I'm willing to forgive the place for its doodad-filled gift shop and its employees' insistence on regaling us with tales of various alleged resident ghosts.

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