Mesilla, New Mexico: Discovering A Different Side Of The Southwest

mesilla
Alex Briseño, Flickr

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to El Paso on short notice for a magazine assignment. I found it enjoyable, but on my final day, I was itching to get out of the city limits and explore before my evening flight. Every local I talked to gave me the same response: go for a scenic drive out to Mesilla.

Located just 44 miles northwest of El Paso on the fringes of Las Cruces, Mesilla is a historic village established in 1848. Perhaps best known as the location for Billy the Kid’s trial, Mesilla has also played an integral role in the development of the Southwest, in part because it was along the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. I’m obsessed with all things New Mexico, but despite numerous visits to the northern part of the state, I’d never been south of Albuquerque. I was an easy sell.

The drive to Mesilla presents a dramatic contrast in topography. About 30 miles past the arid plains and stark Franklin Mountain range of El Paso, the Rio Grande grows from a trickle to substantial enough to support lush vegetation. I’d never seen a pecan tree before, and suddenly I was passing thousands of acres of them, in all their towering, leafy glory (after Texas, this region – Dona Ana County – is the nation’s largest producer). There were fields of onions and chiles (Mesilla is just 42 miles away from Hatch), and vast dairy farms. As a former ranch kid, I instantly felt at home.

mesilla, new mexico
Courtesy of Cisco Photography

As you enter Mesilla off of Highway 10 West, there are indications you’re approaching someplace special. Walk a couple of blocks down to the historic Plaza, and it’s impossible not to be charmed. Despite the inevitable souvenir shops, of which there are only a few, a number of buildings are on the historic register. The vibe isn’t one of touristy kitsch, but rather, small-town Southwest. There are coffee houses, cafes, boutiques, antique stores, galleries, wine tasting rooms and museums. A chocolate shop sells small bags of dipped pecans, while Solamente!, a specialty food boutique, offers tastes of the region in the form of green chile-spiked pecan brittle and salsas.

I whiled away a few hours by strolling the Plaza and talking to the handful of vendors who sell their wares from tables around its perimeter. This is the place to buy a bag of pecans and homemade bizcochos (buttery little cookies), or a pair of earrings. The Basilica of San Albino dominates the north end of the Plaza, and is open to visitors from 1 to 3 p.m. daily, except on Sundays. Afterward, I sipped an icy horchata and read on the shady patio of a coffee house. It’s unthinkable (to me, at least) to be in New Mexico and not eat. The region’s most famous restaurant, La Posta, is around the corner from the Plaza. This stunning 19th-century compound was once part of the Butterfield Stagecoach Line, but today it’s better known for its green chile enchiladas and signature Tostada Compuesta.

mesilla, new mexico
Courtesy of Ken Stinnet

Before heading to the airport, I drove the few miles down a back road to Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. Unfortunately, it was still closed for the season, but the drive meanders past pecan orchards, crumbling adobe homesteads and tranquil farmhouses. Horses graze in verdant pasture, and fields of onion with their flowering lavender heads intersperse the orchards. It’s lovely, and a side of New Mexico I’ve never seen, used as I am to the dramatic ochre landscape, canyons and severe mesas of the north.

At the end of a business trip, I’m often content to just get to the airport early, and spend the time people watching and reading. My jaunt to Mesilla was a reminder that sometimes it’s worth the extra effort to hit the road instead.

New Mexico Tourism launches Billy the Kid-themed scavenger hunt featuring $10,000 reward

billy the kid, new mexicoThe Land of Enchantment just became the Land of Advancement. “Catch the Kid,” a new summer travel promotion launched by New Mexico Tourism Department, has turned the entire state into a “real life video game,” with the prize being $10,000 in cold, hard cash. “The Kid” in question is one William H. Bonney, aka “Billy the Kid.” Participants (it’s geared toward families) try to track down this most iconic of New Mexico outlaws by finding clues hidden throughout the state.

Now through September 24th, you can register your family online at www.CatchtheKid.com to create a “posse profile,” as well as gain access to exclusive New Mexico travel deals and weekly vacation giveaways throughout the summer. The reward money is the inflation equivalent of the $500 reward offered by Governor Lew Wallace in 1881 for the Kid’s head.

If you have a smartphone, you can download the “Catch the Kid” smartphone app. Alternatively, you can play by taking pictures or you or your family posing next to clue posters placed throughout New Mexico, and upload them to your profile page. Designated locations around the state will unlock clues that lead to the Kid’s New Mexico hideout. The more clues you collect, the more information you’ll gather on when and how to capture the wily criminal. The first posse to present the Kid with an arrest warrant will win their handsome reward.

Players using a smartphone to play can unlock additional New Mexico travel deals and win prizes, because the app allows players to find Billy’s money bag loot which is virtually placed and hidden in every county in New Mexico. You’ll have the chance to use this loot to buy vacations, deals, or meals online in the general store section of the “Catch the Kid” website. Good luck, pardners.

Watch New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez announce contest details, below


The unquiet grave of Jesse James

Jesse James, Frank James, Old West, Wild West, outlaws, Missouri
Jesse James never got any peace. He grew up in western Missouri in the 1850s, where a bitter border war with Kansas was the background to his childhood. He was a teenager when the Civil War started and got beaten up by a Union militia. Eventually he joined a group of Confederate guerrillas, and when the war was lost he was unable or unwilling to return to civilian life. His years as an outlaw were ones of constant struggle, and even after he got assassinated by Robert Ford in St. Joseph, Missouri, he didn’t rest easy.

After his death rumors started circulating that he wasn’t really dead. Some claimed he had murdered someone so he could get away from the police, but Jesse craved publicity and often sent boasting letters to the press. Giving all that up for a life of anonymity doesn’t fit with his character. Some say Robert Ford had in fact killed Wood Hite, Jesse’s cousin. There’s good evidence that he did, but this was a year before he shot Jesse James. In fact, fear over Jesse’s finding out who killed his cousin became one of the main reasons Ford betrayed him.

Other stories claim Ford killed a different man. Both versions would have us believe that Ford was part of a conspiracy to hide Jesse from the law, something Jesse had been doing successfully for almost twenty years. They would also have us believe that all of Jesse’s friends, family, and associates were in on the conspiracy and took the truth to their graves. Jesse’s body was on display in an open casket both in St. Joseph and Kearney and nobody at the time voiced any doubt that the dead man was Jesse.

This didn’t stop a steady string of impostors from hitting the carnival trail looking to make a quick buck. This infuriated Jesse’s surviving relatives and if any of the impostors dared come through Missouri they’d end up face to face with a real member of the James family, and an angry one at that.

%Gallery-108698%Over time these impostors reduced in number, but even as late as the 1930s old men were puttering around telling anyone who’d listen that they were Jesse James. In 1931 a fellow named John James claimed to be Jesse, but when questioned by family members couldn’t answer basic questions about the family, such as the name of Archie, the half-brother killed in the Pinkerton raid on the James farm. Frank James’ wife Annie brought him Jesse’s boots and challenged him to try them on. Jesse had had unusually small feet, and like O.J.’s gloves, the boots didn’t fit.

But John James continued to claim he was Jesse. It only ended when his brother signed an affidavit that John was lying and put him in a mental institution. It turns out John James really had been a an outlaw. Back in 1926, at the age of 79, he’d killed a man who tried to collect a loan of 50 cents!

Then another impersonator appeared. J. Frank Dalton was first brought to the public’s attention in the 1940s by Ray Palmer, editor of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories and perpetrator of the famous Shaver Mystery, which got thousands of Americans believing that malevolent underground robots were zapping people with mind control rays and sleeping with Earth women. Compared with that, Dalton’s story is almost believable. Well, not really. Dalton played the rodeo circuit claiming to be Jesse and told wild tales of how he was a fighter pilot in World War One at the age of 69. Stretching credibility even further, two of his gang members toured with him. All three claimed to be over 100 years old. Dalton spent his last years doing promotional work for Meramec Caverns in Missouri, celebrating his (alleged) 103rd birthday there along with a Billy the Kid impostor.

In 1950 Dalton went to court to change his name back to Jesse James. The judge made the wise ruling that: “There is no evidence here to show that this gentleman, if he ever was Jesse James, has ever changed his name. If his name has never been changed, he is still Jesse James in name and there is nothing for this court to pass on. . .If he isn’t what he professes to be, then he is trying to perpetrate a fraud upon this court.” Dalton died the next year.

Jesse James wasn’t the only person who attracted impostors. His wife Zee and brother Frank had their share of impostors too. It didn’t take much to get a media frenzy going, and there was easy cash to be taken from the gullible. This is common with important historical figures. Everyone from Bloody Bill Anderson to Hitler have accumulated stories of their survival. It seems we don’t want to let these people go, even if we actually want them dead.

All these stories caused no end of headaches for the James family. At first Jesse was buried at the James Farm in order to keep the grave safe from relic hunters. Eventually he was moved to the family plot at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. Doubts about who was really in the grave lingered, however, until in 1995 his remains were exhumed and subjected to DNA testing. When compared with the DNA living descendants, it was found that the body was, indeed, Jesse James. Descendants of some of the hoaxers were on hand for the results, and they insist the DNA tests don’t prove anything. Stories continue to circulate about how Jesse James survived his assassination.

The legend lives on. . .

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Four New Mexico gems worth visiting

New Mexico – the “Land of Enchantment.” This beautiful state is a popular tourist destination, no doubt, but there are plenty of amazing gems hidden in New Mexico’s dusty desert corners that are well worth checking out. Most visitors here come to Santa Fe for great shopping and Southwest style or head to Taos to visit one of the nation’s oldest Native American pueblos or go skiing. But the central and southern parts of the state have some amazing places worth more than just a glance in a guidebook. Here are four amazing lesser-known sights in New Mexico that are worth a visit.

White Sands National Monument
Ever heard of the alien-like white gypsum dune fields at White Sands? Few people have. But it is one of the most fantastic, unusual places to visit on earth. 275 square miles of snow white desert dunes spread across this part of Central New Mexico in a beautiful and positively lunar landscape. A circular drive takes visitors through the most accessible parts of the monument, or you can park your car and take a short (or long) hike through the more remote dunes. A fun way to enjoy the beauty of White Sands is by sledding down one of the dunes, which with their snow-like glow, will really make you feel like you’re in a winter wonderland.

White Sands National Monument is located along U.S. Highway 70 east of Las Cruces. A visitor center greets cars here and sells maps, sleds and books. Entrance fees are $3 per person.
Gila National Forest and Wilderness
Pronounced ‘hee-la’, the Gila National Forest is named for the tributary river of the Colorado River (think Grand Canyon) that flows through the area. Within the sprawling borders of this 3.3 million acre protected area in Western New Mexico, you’ll find everything from dense alpine forest to bubbling hot springs.

The Gila Wilderness was once home to ancient Native American cultures, such as the Mogollon and Apache tribes. The tribes left the remains of their settlements in cave dwellings, carved into the sides of desert mountains, and fantastic petroglyphs, giving us a glimpse into the daily lives of ancient people. Exploring the Catwalk Recreation Trail, you’ll maneuver along a series of elevated platforms once used by area miners, providing great views of narrow canyons and local wildlife.

The Gila National Forest and Wilderness is accessible from a number of entrance areas, depending on which activity you’re interested in. Camping can be done throughout the park, while the cliff dwellings, as well as a series of hot springs, are located in the southern part of the forest near Silver City, NM. The Catwalk Trail is closest to the town of Glenwood on NM 174. Entrance fees vary.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve
Unless you are a bird fanatic, you probably haven’t heard Bosque del Apache, a unique stretch of wetlands that sprawls through the central portion of New Mexico. The term ‘Bosque del Apache’ is Spanish for ‘Apache woodlands’, dating to a time early in New Mexico’s history when Spanish conquerors noticed that local Apache tribes often camped along the lush shores of this watery area. Today, the Bosque (‘bos-kay’), as it is known to locals, is a major migratory stopping point, where thousands of species of birds, including Sandhill Cranes, stop during their annual flights north and south.

A driving loop ($5/vehicle) takes visitors on a one-hour scenic tour of the Bosque, where you can stop to take in the spectacular views of flora and fauna reflected in the Bosque’s serene waters. Be sure to bring your camera and binoculars.

Billy the Kid’s Grave
Billy the Kid, one of the most infamous gunslingers of the Old West, is buried in the tiny town of Fort Sumner in the eastern part of New Mexico. Billy the Kid spent most of his short young life riding through New Mexico with a band of outlaws known as The Regulators. He participated in the Lincoln County Wars, and was arrested for murder and broke out of jail several times. Eventually, he was gunned down by local lawman Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner and laid to rest here. The Kid’s headstone has been the object of much speculation and thievery, and was stolen a number of times before finally being caged in over its current spot in Fort Sumner, on top of the Kid’s remains.

It is free to visit Billy the Kid’s grave, which makes for an easy stop when driving through Fort Sumner on NM 60/84. Don’t be fooled by the rather tawdry Billy the Kid Museum located along the main road, which charges an entrance fee to view photographs and a replica grave. Instead, just east of town, follow Billy the Kid Rd. south for about 5 miles until you see the Old Fort Sumner Museum. The tombstone is located in the graveyard behind the museum and is accessible for free.

Narco-tours in Mexico

Yesterday Brenda wrote a post about the safety of traveling in Mexico. Here’s another travel option for Mexico if you like to flirt with danger just a tad. See if your taxi driver is a narco-tour guide. A narco-tour is when a taxi driver in places like the beach resort town Mazatlán drives you past the homes and hang outs of the famous drug cartel folks. You know, to see how people with drug money wealth live. Some of the places are of the drug big shots of days gone by since they’ve been killed. Hey, it’s not easy being a drug lord.

According to the New York Times article, there are more than one narco-tour destination. Taxi drivers in Matamoros and Culiacán have also jumped into narco-tour action. So far mostly Mexican citizens have taken these tours that the Mexican government isn’t too fond of–not because of the danger, per se, but because it puts Mexico in not the best light.

Reading about the narco-tours reminded me of the taxi driver led Anna Nicole Smith tours in the Bahamas. With a taxi, a person can come up with all sorts of ways to entertain a country’s visitors.

One of the taxi drivers interviewed for the narco-tour article sees the tours as similar to the ones you take in the United States to see sites such as Al Capone’s hangouts. Think of all the Wild West gangster types who draw tourists to places in the U.S. like the Billy the Kid Museum in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. He has a point.