Discovering Southern New Mexico

THINGS ARE PRETTY QUIET on what was once called “the most dangerous street in America,” main street in tiny Lincoln, New Mexico (population: 50).

 By Josephine Matyas and Craig Jones

“It’s a living, breathing town,” explains National Parks Ranger Sandy James who interprets this stretch along the Billy the Kid National Scenic Byway, explaining to visitors how the Lincoln Historic Site was once a place where disputes were settled by the Code of the West: a volatile mixture of over-proof whiskey, six shooters and testosterone.

“This little town, this small settlement – the conditions were just right for this kind of conflict,” says James. “Things just escalated and escalated and escalated.”

In the late 1800s, Lincoln County was ripe with all the elements for classic Wild West mayhem: opportunistic businessmen, political corruption on an epic scale, the prospect of fast riches through government contracts, an ethic of “take the law into your own hands” individualism and “bought and paid for” lawmen. Add one orphaned, trigger-happy teenager with a taste for violence and a talent for slipping away into the night and what follows is the stuff of legend.

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Towns all across southern New Mexico are touched by the real life history of Billy the Kid, the charming gunslinger who died at the tender age of 21 by the gun of Sheriff Pat Garrett. In this part of deepest New Mexico, Billy the Kid – a.k.a. several other names – is the iconic character of this wild and untamed territory.

The Kid and hundreds of other cowboys were recruited into what we would today call “private armies” for the purposes of herding cattle, rustling the cattle of your competitors, and – when it came to it – shooting it out in the streets. The competition exploded into The Lincoln County War, a series of violent skirmishes between business rivals in 1878 resulting in the shooting of dozens of gunslingers.

More than a dozen buildings on the one-street town are preserved as snapshots in time. At the Murphy-Dolan Store/Courthouse – known simply as The House – displays include the only known photograph of The Kid and the bullet hole in the wall that marks one of his many escapes from custody (and certain execution) to ride off into the night.

Across the street, the floorboards in the backroom of the Tunstall Store are pulled aside, revealing the hiding spot where The Kid once pulled another disappearing trick.

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“BILLY THE KID’S first arrest was right here in Silver City,” explains George Dworin with the Silver City Visitor Center. Billy moved to Silver City with his mother, was orphaned here at the age of 15 and it didn’t take him long to find trouble in the saloons and whorehouses of the frontier mining town. “This was the site of his first escape.”

The Kid may have fled Silver City but in more recent times the town of 10,000 – perched on the Continental Divide – has become a magnet for retirees, artisans and those drawn to the protected wilderness of the nearby Gila National Forest.

“Silver City has a phenomenal creative economy,” boasts Dworin. “This small town really knows how to entertain itself.”

new-mexico-townThe main drag – Bullard Street – is lined with candy-coloured shopfronts, galleries and restaurants, and more than three-dozen murals, each depicting a story of the area. Dworin describes “four gentle seasons” where snow is but a fleeting possibility.

“If you live here it has a remoteness to it. It’s kept it real. Very authentic and charming and quirky at the same time.”

new-mexico-buckhornDON’T MISS STOPS in the Silver City area:

  • It’s worth the 10 kilometres to the speck-on-the-map of Pinos Altos, home to what has been called “one of the West’s most atmospheric old bars.” The Buckhorn Saloon’s 18-inch thick adobe walls and hand-hewed wooden beams ooze authenticity and the food is to die for: try the juicy Buffalo Burger topped with green chile, a platter of artery-clogging green chile-cheese fries (Pinos Altos’ nod to poutine) and a bowl of delicious green chile stew, sopped up with warm, soft tortillas. Live music four nights a week; arrive early to get a seat.
  • The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument – a 90-minute drive north of Silver City along a twisty, narrow mountain roadway – is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings of the Southwest. It’s not to be missed. Take water, sunscreen and sturdy shoes.
  • Even if you’re not camping it’s worth a detour to the otherworldly City of Rocks State Park, south of Silver City. The pillars of rock are remnants of a massive volcanic eruption more than 34 million years ago. The remote park boasts some of the darkest night skies in the state – twice monthly they hold a Star Party astronomy night. Stop in at the geothermal Faywood Hot Springs on the way.
  • The view from the cupola atop the Victorian-style Silver City Museum.
  • A scoop of Alotto Gelato’s Gila Conglomerate (caramel gelato flavoured with crushed Heath bars and pure chocolate chips).

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OTHER MUST-SEE SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO SPOTS:

  • The town of Roswell is home to one of the nation’s quirkiest museums, the International UFO Museum, sparked by the alleged 1947 crash of a UFO known as the Roswell Incident.
  • In Roswell, Peppers Grill & Bar – a stop on the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail – offers up a delicious Fire-Roasted Green Chile Burger, a handmade patty topped with Monterey Jack and roasted Chaves County-grown hot green chiles, all on a jalapeno bun. Simply too hot for some people but perfection for our heat-loving tastebuds.
  • Kids bring their toboggans to White Sands National Monument, an island of white sand in the middle of the tumbleweed-strewn desert. The 29-kilometre self-guided driving loop crosses through the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.

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new-mexico-camperWho’s writing: Our journey continues. Travel and exploration have become a lifestyle. Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician, teacher and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and a chance to escape the never-ending winter of 2013/14. We’ve got a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” that sometimes toys with us (we prefer the maps).