The Allure of Southern New Mexico
The lower half of New Mexico is an otherworldly place—but you certainly don't have to be abducted to have an unforgettable trip.
Everybody does the same thing when they come to New Mexico: They head north from Albuquerque, toward Santa Fe and Taos. But I went to school in a small town on the edge of the Navajo reservation up there, and my wife, Lynn, also once lived in that end of the state. We're more fascinated with what lies to the south, where Billy the Kid ran wild and aliens crashed.
Day one: Albuquerque to Lincoln
In Albuquerque, at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's café, we order some $4.50 mutton stew--a New Mexico staple--and spread out our maps. We've stopped by the center to steep ourselves in native Southwest culture, checking out the historical exhibits, free dance performances, and pottery and art styles from around the state. We also need to decide where to go next. "This way," Lynn says, tracing I-40 east past Sandia Peaks, then down Highway 337 to Highway 55, which zigs through the center of New Mexico, connecting a number of tiny farming communities.
The first part of our route follows a string of old missions, so we start with a mission church in Albuquerque, the Church of San Felipe De Neri, which has been holding weekly services since 1706. The interior smells of wax, and the walls, four feet thick, make the church feel like a fort.
Two hours south of Albuquerque, we stop at one of the state's grandest missions, Quarai. Maybe 600 people lived here at its peak, but the mission lasted less than a century and was abandoned in the late 1670s. Perhaps the locals just weren't ready to give up their traditional way of life--the ruins contain a circular pit called a kiva, sacred to Southwest tribes. Above the kiva, the crumbling, red mission walls rise more than 40 feet.
Another mission, Abó, is 10 miles down the road. This one's not in such good shape, with buffalo gourds growing in the road bank. We're hardly back in the car before it's time to stop at Gran Quivira, the hillside remains of a classic Pueblo village. It looks rather like a sprawling motel.
Highway 55 leads us to 54, and then, past the ghost town of White Oaks, we intersect with Highway 380. To the west is the Trinity Site, where the first atomic explosion was set off. So we turn east, into the mountains, the temperature dropping with each switchback.
America's most famous bear was born near here, in the Lincoln National Forest. Smokey weighed less than 10 pounds when firefighters rescued him in 1950, and it took weeks to nurse him to health. Although Smokey spent the rest of his life at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., he was buried at Smokey Bear Historical Park, in lovely Capitan. Lynn goes into Junior Forest Ranger flashbacks at the Smokey Bear Museum while I check us into the Smokey Bear Motel next door. (FYI, it's Smokey Bear, not Smokey the Bear; an act of Congress clarified this point.)
Lincoln, 12 miles east of Capitan, is what an old western town should be. It's where Billy the Kid escaped from jail in 1881, killing two guards. The country store, courthouse, and more are open for tours, but Lincoln is best after everything shuts down. The white stones that mark where Billy's victims fell glow in the sunset.
- Smokey Bear Restaurant & Motel316 Smokey Bear Blvd., Capitan, 800/766-5392, $50
- Indian Pueblo Cultural Center2401 12th St. NW, Albuquer-que, 505/843-7270, $4
- San Felipe De Neri Church2005 North Plaza NW, Albuquerque, 505/243-4628, free
- Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument(Quarai, Abó, Gran Quivira) 505/847-2585, free
- Smokey Bear Historical ParkHwy. 380, Capitan, 505/354-2748, $2
- Smokey Bear Museum and Gift ShopHwy. 380, Capitan, 505/354-2298, free
- Lincoln State MonumentHwy. 380, Lincoln, 505/653-4372, $6
Maybe that's why aliens thought this was a good place to crash. Northwest of Roswell, just before midnight on July 4, 1947, a flying saucer came down. The wreckage was hauled to the local military base. Then, (a) the government switched the saucer for a weather balloon and hushed it up, or (b) it was a weather balloon all along. Roswell's International UFO Museum and Research Center offers both sides of the story, though there's an obvious slant. The highlight is a tiny piece of metal found near the crash site, a metal like none other on earth. But the teenagers walking through the museum--wearing top hats embellished with bright-green aliens--aren't much like anything else on earth, either.
We turn south on Highway 285 for a two-hour drive to see what lies under all that desert. Carlsbad Caverns came to attention in 1898, when Jim White, a teenage ranch hand, saw what he thought was smoke rising from the earth. It was actually a swarm of bats streaming out of the cavern. During summer sunsets, as many as a half-million Mexican free-tailed bats--each able to eat half its weight in insects in a night--come out to hunt.