Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Turning South

Early the next morning, we awoke to the sound of trucks idling in the parking lot. They seemed particularly loud, then we realized that our motel room window had been open all night. With our heater on high, we'd attempted to warm the northern third of New Mexico. The drivers of the trucks appeared to be long term residents here, in town on some sort of work project. They stood beside their vehicles in the morning sun, breakfasting on bad, complimentary coffee and donuts. Then they were off. It wasn't long before we followed suit.

We filled our tank at a rare full-service gas station, then left the highway where a homeless man stood obviously crazed beside an off-ramp, his skin black with the sun. This road had once been called Route 66, and it led us through low rocky hills before depositing us once again on the open plains. Compared to the flat and featureless nature of yesterday's scenery, this land was covered with low shrubs that rose from the tall grass which glowed yellow in the early morning sun. A group of antelope ran up a hill and watched us pass. The air around Santa Rosa was misty, the town's church spire rising from the haze toward the sun like a flower.

We spent the morning in Fort Sumner, working through the Billy the Kid museum here. The proprietor, Don Sweet, showed us a few of the exhibits that flanked the front desk, before returning to his rocking-chair perch beside his wife who merely rocked and said nothing. Despite the name, only the front room of the museum is dedicated to The Kid. The rest is filled with artifacts dated to the first half of the 20th Century. It was these artifacts that kept Miki and I here for a couple hours. Looking at the old cars and buggies, I could imagine the terror of riders of the latter type of vehicles, as they wound down the steep and rutty trail of Mills Canyon.

We moved along to the Fort Sumner's other museum, located a few miles south of town. Where the earlier museum had been a thorough look at the facts surrounding Billy the Kid, this latter place seemed more interested in promoting the legend. The exhibits were sparse, with a handful of nice oil paintings and far too many movie stills from Young Guns 2. Most memorable were a couple of mannequins dressed in old west garb, nearly covered with signatures. This had forced the museum's owners to hang a sign asking visitors not to write on them. Unlike the hours spent earlier at the other museum, we were here less than 15 minutes. Out back was the grave of The Kid, flanked by his "pals." Beside these three, there were only a few other grave markers. Don Sweet had earlier told me that someone had removed the gravestones in order to trim the grass, then couldn't remember where the markers went. He said that this was something that could be done with a bit of research, giving me a look like he expected me to do it myself.

A short drive away was the Bosque Redondo site, where in the 1860s the Navajo and their Apache enemies had been housed in order to keep them from causing trouble with the white homesteaders who were busy stealing their land. Many people from both tribes had died during their forced marches here. The Navajo, traditionally being farmers and having strong spiritual connections to the land had adapted slightly better than the nomadic Apache, who refused to be tied down anywhere. All this was during the American Civil War, and as the battles grew more heated back east, rations at the Bosque began to thin out. Incredibly, one night, 200 Apache lit out en masse, making their way on stolen Navajo horses. Only 9 Apache had stayed behind, keeping the cooking fires going to fool the US soldiers keeping guard, until they too disappeared a few nights later. Even more incredibly, the entire tribe had eluded recapture for two whole years. Miki and I walked the grounds here, which where bare but for the rays of the sun now growing hot, and the call of insects.

Roswell was another hour south. Driving in was like moving through a mall for cars. On the northern end of town were signs erected by the local chamber of commerce advertising the town's food options, but all the ads were for the ubiquitous big chain shops. I wondered if local restaurant owners were angered by this, but after a few minutes in town, I doubted that there were any local shops left. Almost everyone I know who's been to Roswell is unanimous in their dislike for the town, and I could quickly understand why. Aside from the beautiful domed courthouse, there was little of interest for the eye. We had a quick lunch at a (local) Italian place whose excellent food was nearly overwhelmed by a bland decor. Under a circa-80's TV set that blared the day's soaps, there was a sign on the wall that said that the restaurant owners now longer took checks as of March 1. Beside this date, someone had handwritten "2008."

Despite what the townspeople want you to believe, Roswell's main attraction is of course UFO's. A defunct movie theater now houses the UFO museum, the chairs all torn out and incredibly thorough displays hung unimaginatively on removable walls. The old timer who took our money was of the generation of the 1947 sightings, possibly one of the main eyewitnesses, who I'd heard sometimes hangs out here. The sheer amount of photos and news clippings was overwhelming, of interest mainly to die-hard UFO buffs. Or for those who love irony. There weren't too many visitors today, but those that were seemed, and I don't mean to be uncharitable, damaged somehow. People who have the odds stacked against them but have never lost the ability to dream. In fact, due to the surrounding landscape, it is little wonder that UFOs were seen near here. Driving across these wide and empty plains, the mind does its best to fill the landscape. It stands to reason that people growing up here would have vivid and active imaginations. Yet as I ponder this, I also remember the late 1940's nuke tests that were conducted not far to the south, and the fact that one of the earliest rocket pioneers did his best work in Roswell during World War II. Either of these events could have attracted the attention of a more advanced society curious to see what the Joneses were up too.

More interesting than the museum to me personally was seeing the town's kitsch. Outside was UFO wirt large, on Coke machines, in the shape of street lights, on the pattern of the iron bars serving as security for a loan company. The old neighborhood around the museum was now filled with shops selling UFO-related
paraphernalia. We poked around in a few shops before making a longer stop at a slightly posh wine-tasting den. I had long wanted to try the town's local ale, but hadn't found any at lunch. Happily, this shop had free samples on tap. I chatted with the woman on the other side of the bar, a Chilean woman who'd been in the US for twenty years. We discussed the nature of being an expat, and the strange nature of my feeling an expat here more than I did in Japan. As we pulled out of town I regretted that I didn't ask here why she'd moved to this remote location of Roswell in the first place.

The plains we'd been traveling through finally dropped into canyonlands. As my eyes traced the twists and turns of valley and arroyo, it was easy to see how the Apache could elude their government pursuers for 2 whole years. The land leveled off to follow the Rio Hondo, a gorgeous stretch of landscape the home of artists stretching back to the famous Wyeth family. Near Ruidoso, the road curved south, then we suddenly cut abruptly over the mountains of the Mescalero Apache, before arriving at our final destination of Cloudcroft, and the hilltop Lodge. The hotel has hosted moviestars (Judy Garland, Clark Gable) as well as the ghost of a chambermaid stabbed to death by a jealous lover.

After checking in, Miki and I poked around a little bit before heading back down to town.
Cloudcroft is of a size and an age when everything shutters at five. We walked the boarded walks, peeking into shops and reading fliers taped to their glass doors. A few real estate agencies seemed to do good business here, and the quaint nature of the town made it obvious why moneyed Texans would buy second homes in the surrounding forested hills. There were a few more ads for homes in the Western Bar & Cafe. As I waited for yet another in a long chain of 'famous burgers,' I scanned a few and dreamed.

After dinner, I sat awhile at the bar in The Lodge, one formerly owned by Al Capone. Sipping my long awaited pint of Alien Ale, I was distracted by my reading of a Gary Snyder essay by some overheard conversation, the locals giving a pointillist picture of life up in these mountains. Afterward, I heated the cold beer in my belly in the hot tub out back, with a field of stars overhead. Sleep came easy...

On the turntable: Wire, "Pink Flag"
On the nighttable: Rudolfo Anaya, "Jemez Springs"

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