Monday, February 25, 2008

Ghost Towns in the Desert Snow

We are worried as we set out this morning -- Tucson, Arizona got inches of snow dumped on it last night and here in Socorro County, everything is laced with ice crystals. The storm from Arizona is supposed to move eastward, predicting to dump 6-10 inches on Silver City, New Mexico, our final destination for the day. We're going to be traveling some mountain roads and is this unpredictable storm going to put a damper on our next few days of travel? Well, we're here, we have coats, water, food and a 4-wheel drive jeep -- let's just see what happens.

As we venture south from Socorro, the landscape is absolutely beautiful! Cactuses glitter in the bright sun, dripping as the temperature rises. As the black highway heats up under, a misty cloud forms over it. We've started early and very glad of it, because all the ice and dusting of snow is entirely gone by 11:00 a.m. There is no wind and the sun is proving that this will be a wonderful day.

We soon venture off the highway, heading westward on a stretch of the Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway to the small agricultural communities of Placita and Monticello. We are awe inspired as we reach Monticello Canyon and view the small town of Placita (meaning Little Plaza), with its snow covered fields and mountain back drop. The community, dating back to the 1840's still boasts its 1916 San Lorenzo Catholic Church and several old homes.

Just two more miles down the road we come to Monticello, a farming and ranching community dating back to 1856. The town was built in a square to protect residents from Apache attacks. Ironically, it later became the headquarters for the Southern Apache Agency before a post was established at nearby Ojo Caliente in 1874. This picturesque small community continues to sport its 1867 San Ignacio Catholic Church, the ruins of an old school that burned years ago, and a number of homes, some still lived in, and others that are succumbing to nature's elements.

Backtracking just a bit, we next head for more ghost towns, starting with 1880 mining town of Winston, which was once called home to about 3,000 people. The old settlement provides a number of photo opportunities in its old business buildings and homes. About three miles down the road is another mining community - Chloride. This ghost town has seen much restoration in the last several years and its museum was open for us to learn more of its history.

We then try to take a short cut over a forest road so that we don't have to backtrack once again. Alas, this is not a good idea, as the snow covered road is unpaved, rutted, and narrow. Ok, backtrack we do, heading south again on I-25 through Truth or Consequences before getting off the interstate once again, headed for, yes, you guessed it -- more ghost towns.

Heading westward on NM-152, we soon arrive at Hillsboro, another mining community born in 1877. Though not a ghost town today, it displays lots of interesting historic buildings. Another 9 ½ miles down the road, we almost miss the turnoff to Kingston and do a quick U-turn to this old 1882 mining town. Now, at one time this place was allegedly one of the largest and wildest towns in New Mexico Territory, with some 7,000 people. Hmmmm, sure can't tell it today -- only a old buildings and a cemetery, but still worth the stop.

We take a brief pause to take pics of the open pit Santa Rita Copper Mine and feeling pretty DONE for the day, head on over to Silver City. Nope! Change of plans when I spy the sign for Fort Bayard. Ok, one last stop as we make a quick tour through the old fort grounds. Lots of buildings left, but like Fort Stanton, is another sad case of deterioration. The site now serves as a New Mexico State Hospital.

Ok, finally really done, find the hotel and "die." It's been a very long day.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ghost Towns and the Wild Wild West

Ahh, the day I have been anxiously awaiting - a visit to Lincoln, New Mexico, with all its history of the Lincoln County War, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and more. We take off from Ruidoso - it's a cold and windy morning, not exactly what I was hoping for in southern New Mexico, but that's not about to stop us. Put on the coat, pull on the gloves, get out the camera and we're off. Whatever it is, it's still better than Kansas City, where the weather is so bad, the airport is shut down.

A walk down Lincoln, New Mexico's Main Street is a step back into the Wild Wild West. It was here that such men as Billy the Kid escaped from jail, killing two deputies, after Pat Garrett had captured him; here, that Indians, Mexican American settlers, gunfighters and corrupt politicians made themselves known; it was in this small settlement that the violent Lincoln County War erupted, which resulted in the deaths of 19 men and made Billy the Kid a legend.

From Lincoln, we head on down the road to Fort Stanton, one more of the many forts established to fight the fierce Apache Indians. From here, that Kit Carson was tasked with rounding up both the Apache and the Navajo Indians and forcing them on to the reservation at the Bosque Redondo Reservation at Fort Sumner. Over the years, the fort underwent a number of uses after it was decommissioned in 1896, becoming a tuberculosis hospital, a minimum security corrections facility, and today, a drug rehabilitation center. Today, the old fort grounds display a number of buildings; however, most are in serious disrepair. Much of the area is off-limits to the public and there are no buildings that can be toured. There is; however, a museum and visitor's center, but the hours are irregular.

Rolling on, we pass by the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New New Mexico. Did you know that Smokey Bear was a real bear? In 1950 a real baby bear became the live “Smokey” when he was rescued from certain death by firefighters in a devastating blaze in New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest. It was this tiny bear that spawned the Smokey Bear Campaign, the longest running public service campaign in U.S. history.

But, we are destined for ghost towns in the Jicarilla Mountains northwest of Carrizozo. First stop -- White Oaks, a town that became known as the liveliest town in New Mexico Territory after gold was discovered here in 1879. In no time, the population boomed as miners crawled the hills and businessmen established saloons, stores, and offices. Billy Wilson, one of Billy the Kid's buddies lived here for a time and it was here that Pat Garrett was when the "Kid" escaped from the Lincoln County Jail, leaving behind two dead deputies. Today, this formerly thriving town is but a shell of its former self, providing a vivid peek at its past through its numerous old buildings.

The pavement ends as we head northeast out of White Oaks in search of another old settlement called Jicarilla. This very small town has been called home to miners for more than 150 years. Though its few buildings are now abandoned, there is still said to be plenty of gold in the area.

Next, this unpaved road takes us to the old railroad and ranching community of Ancho. This once bustling town has been reduced to a number of tumbling homes and businesses after being bypassed by the highway. Great stop and lots of photo opportunities.
And, we're not done yet! Returning south to Carrizozo, we then head westward through the lava fields, to Socorro County and the old mining towns of Kelly and Magdalena. Of Kelly, there is very little left and Magdalena is not a ghost town, but it was still a fun drive.

As you can imagine, by this time, we're beat and head to a hotel in Socorro, resting up for yet another day on the road.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Aliens and Outlaws

Day 2 we head north once again determined to see an alien in Roswell and hopefully "bump" into the ghost of Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner. Well, all kinds of "alien" type items we did see in Roswell, especially at the UFO Museum and Research Center. Got the whole history, lots of pictures, and displays. Very interesting stuff. Plus, Dave was determined to bring home an "alien" so we poked our heads into several of the touristy souvenir shops finding just the right one. Now, those places I can only describe as "quirky," but alien in hand, we set out on a more familiar trail -- that of the Old West.

We roll through the next 84 miles barely seeing a soul through the desert plains, our only company, a few scattered cows and a brief peek at a few fleeing antelope. One lonely adobe house sits abandoned on these quiet plains. How long has it been since this quiet little place heard laughter and voices within its walls? Finally, we reach the village of Fort Sumner, population of about 1250 - friendly folks and a great hamburger at Fred's Lounge.

At a visit to the Billy the Kid Museum, history comes to life with displays of Billy the Kid's rifle, chaps, spurs and original Wanted Poster, as well as military displays, saddles, vintage photographs, antique furnishings, and old Model-T's.

Now, on to Billy the Kid's gravesite and the Fort Sumner State Monument. At the old cemetery, we see Billy's grave, along with his pals Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. Poor Billy's original grave stone has been stolen twice, so the gravesite sits behind an iron cage. Who would do that? Steal a grave marker? But, they got it back and the original marker is also in the "cage," further imprisoned within yet more iron.

Of the Fort Sumner State Monument, we learn more of the Navajo's Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. It was to "guard" these Indians, that Fort Sumner was built in 1862. However, the reservation was soon hailed as a miserable failure --the victim of poor planning, disease, crop infestation, and poor conditions for agriculture. The Navajo were finally acknowledged sovereignty in the historic Treaty of 1868 and allowed to returned to their land along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

In 1870, the old Fort Sumner buildings were sold to Lucien B. Maxwell, the former owner of the largest land grant in U.S. History. Maxwell relocated his family from northeast New Mexico and refurbished the buildings into proper housing. Lucien Maxwell soon turned over his affairs to his son Peter and passed away a few years later. When Billy the Kid arrived on the scene, Peter Maxwell and Billy became friends. On July 14, 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett found Billy the Kid in a bedroom of the Maxwell home and ended the life of the teenage outlaw.

Though all of the original buildings of the fort, as well as Maxwell's home, are long since gone, the site provides a museum and an interpretive trail which provide information about the tragic history of the site.

We're off again, destined for Ruidosa. Along the way, I am pleasantly surprised when we run into the ghost town of Yeso that I was unaware was on our route. Though we saw not a single soul, amazingly, there is still an operating post office in this abandoned agricultural community. Here, there are numerous homes and businesses standing in various stages of collapse.

As our journey turns southward, we bump into yet another ghost town -- Duran. Though this small village continues to be called home to several residents, it's obviously seen better days, as every business is closed and numerous homes are abandoned.

Finally, we reach Ruiodosa and our hotel. Another delightful day!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Seeking Heat & History

So, as this winter blew into Kansas City with a force I haven't seen in almost a decade, I knew by early December, that a respite from the misery would be required in order to maintain my sanity. Where to go? Warmer weather, buckets of ghost towns and lots of historic stops - hmmm. Looked at the southern parts of Texas, California, and New Mexico. Went to Arizona last year. New Mexico "won" and so yesterday, at the crack of dawn, we hopped on a plane from Kansas City to El Paso, Texas and by noon we were shedding the heavy coat that was required in Kansas and loading up into an SUV. Beautiful 70 degrees -- yes I feel sanity creeping slowly back into the brain. Maps in hand, GPS device hooked to the front window, cowboy hat and boots securely in place -- we're ready! And off we go! The plan is a tour of southern New Mexico, but we first head east, making an off-the-beaten-path trek to Carlsbad, New Mexico. Always on the look for those big brown signs, indicating an exit to something historic or cultural. Ah, not 15 minutes later as we travel eastward on I-10, we spy a big brown sign for the Mission Trail.

Following Don Juan de OƱate's blazing of the Camino Real through the El Paso area in 1598, a number of new missions and settlements sprang up including the Ysleta Mission, the Socorro Mission and the San Elizario Mission. Their cathedrals, built in the 1800s, continue to stand and serve their parishioners today.

We made a stop in San Elizario, a very old settlement initially formed in 1789. When the area became part of Texas and El Paso County was formed, San Elizario became its first county seat, a position it maintained until 1873. The town then began to decline in importance, but became notorious during the 1877 Salt War of San Elizario (also called the El Paso Salt War,) in which several men died in a dispute over rights to the salt deposits just west of the Guadalupe Mountains, ninety miles to the east.

The San Elizario Historic District is filled with historic buildings dating back to the early 1800s. Its historic chapel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, faces a small town plaza.

Heading eastward once again on Texas Highway 20, I feel as if we're traveling on Route 66. Like those many towns along the vintage Mother Road, there are numerous other highways that were also bypassed by interstates and suffered similar fates. This appears to be the case for the many small towns that dot Highway 20, running adjacent to I-10 to the south.

First stop -- Acala, Texas. Once a thriving agricultural community of some 100 people, Alcala is now reduced to junk cars and tumbling buildings. Further down the road is Fort Hancock. Though not a ghost town, as the "city" calls itself home to about 400 residents, a view from Highway 20 would make the traveler think otherwise. Of the fort itself, their are no remains, just a marker in front of a plowed field. Onwards to McNary, yet another seemingly abandoned town. Once called home to railroaders and farmers, the town now sports little more than a couple of abandoned gas stations.

A few more towns before we come to Van Horn, where we turn south on Highway 90 in search of Lobo, Texas. Some 15 miles later, we spy the desert remains of what was once a watering stop for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The town became popular for cotton farmers in the 1940's but declined when the water table fell in the 1960s, making irrigation costs far too expensive. The town was virtually abandoned and sat drying in the desert sun. In 2001, three German residents purchased the town with plans to make it into a "Bohemian Retreat" and providing for an annual arts and music festival. Though we found information that some restoration has taken place on the buildings and a couple of events held there in the early 2000's, by all appearances, Lobo is most definitely a ghost town today.

Returning northward we again blow through Van Horn on our way to the Guadalupe Mountains and a desperate search for Salt Flats, Texas. An interesting ghost town we were dying to see, we either got bad directions or the road is now fenced off, because we could never find the turn-off. Darn, darn, darn!

It's still all good! This is a piece of Texas I've never scene - cactus desert against the rising Guadalupe Mountains - beautiful! Northward we go when Dave spies several horses atop a mound to the west. So still are these horses, that we "city hicks" are absolutely sure some rich Texas rancher has built these beautiful statues atop the desert mound. Mad, screeching stop, turn around and stand staring at these lifeless beautiful animals for minutes. Suddenly, one moves, we're laughing so hard we're almost rolling on the ground. Ok, "city hicks" back in the truck and off we go.

Just after we pass the entrance to the Guadalupe National Park, we find a pull off to the old "Pine Spring" Butterfield Stage Station. Taking the walking trail to the stone ruins, I can only imagine the misery of those long ago stage passengers as they traversed any trail along this rocky terrain.

Determined to make Carlsbad, New Mexico by dark, Dave puts the pedal to the metal only to meet one of Texas' finest highway patrol members, to the tune of a $200+ ticket. Bad, bad!!
Our tired and sleepy heads find us in what has to be one of Carlsbad's absolutely worst hotels at the Continental Inn. Looks ok from the outside, but gross, gross, gross inside - run down, broken and stinky!. Aw, tomorrow is another day, and I'm not up for another hotel horror story. Just don't stay there!