We crossed the border into New Mexico and immediately looked for a place to stay. We found one along the interstate in Lordsburg. It is not difficult to tell that not much happens in this part of the state. The hotel was new, but that was the only thing. It was surrounded by old gas stations and old trailers. The exit even had a ghost town.
The West is famously dotted with ghost towns, places that were once thriving but now are only empty buildings. Some ghost towns died in the twentieth century as interstates replaced highways. Other ghost towns died in the nineteenth century for many reasons. Sometimes minerals ran out, and other times railroads passed them by. As one of my favorite movie lines states, “First, the silver run out. Then, the people run out. Then, the whiskey run out. Then, the beer run out.” But no matter the reason, it always came down to economics. This ghost town was called Shakespeare.
As we packed up the car the next morning, I asked Kristi to get the directions to Shakespeare from the desk attendant. A woman in the parking lot over heard and said it was easy to find. Following her directions we went through town and veered onto a gravel road, the first gravel road of the trip. Shakespeare, which is on private property, was surrounded by a fence with “No Trespassing” signs everywhere. We could see the entire town but had to wait an hour for it to open. We determined that there was not much more to see and moved on down the road.
Interstate 10 does not offer much in the way of scenery. In fact, I do not remember much about the drive until we arrived in Las Cruces, a typical city with the same fast food restaurants as every other place. The difference began to appear as we pulled out of town. Along the highway, we spotted a historic marker designating the spot of Pat Garrett’s murder. Garrett was the sheriff that killed Billy the Kid. We were entering the territory of one of the most famous characters of the West. But first Kristi and I delved into a history both more ancient and more modern.
We entered the White Sands Missile Range, which is part of the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. It is a strange feeling to drive through a missile range because you keep looking for something streaking across the sky. In the middle of the range sits one of the West’s great natural wonders, White Sands National Monument. Driving through the monument means going through shifting sand dunes with roads almost completely covered. There is a constant cloud in the air as winds blow sand throughout the area. It has an apocalyptic feel with total desolation. I suppose that is why several bleak futuristic movies have been filmed there.
Of course, the apocalyptic feel may come from an event that happened in these dunes hundreds of miles north of the national monument. In 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated at Trinity Site. Visitors are rarely allowed at the site, but Jim Dressler, who taught history at Cumberland for three decades, was allowed that chance. The stories and photographs of his visit were very interesting.
As we left White Sands, we were immediately guided into an immigration checkpoint. It was another reminder that even on vacation the issues of the world creep into life. Once through the checkpoint, the road led to the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation. I had high hopes for the drive through this area, but those faded as we continued mile after mile. Kristi had been wanting to buy a turquoise bracelet for the entire trip, and I kept telling her that we would find better jewelry in New Mexico. On the field trip to New Mexico we see it everywhere, but the Native Americans around Santa Fe are Pueblo. Apparently, the Apache do not make jewelry. You would think that a historian of the American West would realize that a traditionally nomadic people would not practice this art. Unfortunately, this historian overlooked that fact. In short, I could not find a turquoise bracelet anywhere. We scanned the roadside and stopped at a flea market, but nothing materialized. Finally, we found a jewelry and art store. This must be one of the more thriving reservations because it was a fancy jewelry and art store. Kristi picked out a bracelet by Christian Wolf. It was not inexpensive, but I am glad she got one after I had passed thousands of them along the way.
I was intently focused on finding a bracelet and, as a result, almost overlooked the fact that we were entering one of the most famous places in the West. The signs were everywhere, literally. Signs marked the Billy the Kid Trail. Other signs advertised the Billy the Kid Casino and the Billy the Kid Pawn Shop. Funny, those businesses are always close together. We were entering Lincoln County, which was home to one of the most famous cattle wars in American history. It took place in 1878 and made Billy Bonney, one of the cowboys involved, both famous and dead. Interestingly, John Chisum, one of the cattlemen involved, was born in Tennessee.
Historic markers along the roadside told of killings and other events in the violent uprising. I recognized all of the names and went into lecture mode that I am sure greatly impressed Kristi. Unfortunately, I got so excited about telling the story that I passed by the town of Lincoln where most of the events took place. It was a mistake, and I am determined to make it back to Lincoln at some point.
We continued to another town that Billy the Kid visited, but one that has gained fame for another type of visitor. According to the story, a UFO crashed outside of Roswell in 1947. The military collected the bodies of aliens and have been covering up the event for the past six decades.
Roswell is the home of the New Mexico Military Institute and looks like a regular town with a few slight differences. There is a McDonald’s shaped like a flying saucer. Also, there is a KFC with a green alien standing by the door. The town has definitely taken on the spaced out theme, but the real treat is in the downtown area.
An old movie theater has been transformed into the International UFO Museum and Research Center. The museum section details the story of the 1947 crash and other sightings around the world.
There is also UFO artwork.
There is even a display of UFO sightings throughout history. A replica of Mayan art shows a space traveler in a cockpit. At least, they say it does.
Another display shows the recreation of an alien autopsy.
I scanned the displays quickly, as I do in most museums, and drifted into the research center. I found something that was absolutely amazing. The research center was actually impressive. There were books, primary documents and videos of sightings from all over the world. The sign-in sheet listed names of writers I have heard of and of curiosity seekers like me. I pulled a few items from the shelves and realized that I could stay there all day.
Like all tourist sites, the museum had a souvenir shop, but it had plenty of competition. There are UFO shops throughout downtown, and we looked in all of them. One shopkeeper was happy to know that we were from Tennessee. He came to Roswell from North Carolina and saw us as neighbors.
After visiting the museum and buying t-shirts, we found a hotel and ate at a locally owned Italian restaurant. Kristi began a conversation with the waiter because she will talk to anybody. I was surprised when he began talking about the UFO freaks downtown. He talked about how they are crazy and no one likes them. The people at the museum were eccentric but nice, and I could not see how they were causing a problem. Perhaps, the waiter was expressing the concern of citizens that their town has become a joke. That is one way to look at it, but there is also another. The UFO story brings people to town. People like us, who came to his restaurant and gave him a tip. Aliens have made Roswell a destination that it would not have been otherwise. The Chamber of Commerce must like the UFO people because the museum is headlined on their website. They also promote a weekend dedicated to aliens that includes a parade.
We left Roswell the next day and headed south to another natural wonder, Carlsbad Caverns National Park. On the way, Kristi kept asking me if I have been to Mammoth Cave. I have not. Since she grew up in Kentucky, she could not believe that I have never been. I replied that this one was better anyway. I do not believe she liked that very much. I was happy that this cave impressed her as well.
We entered the cave by walking into its opening, which doubles as an amphitheater created for watching bat migrations.
The walk to the floor of the cave seems to take forever, but the formations at the bottom make the trek worthy of the effort.
The strangest formation in Carlsbad Caverns is the concession stand next to the elevator. We took the elevator to the top and had lunch in the national park headquarters. With New Mexico behind us we descended into the Great State of Texas.