Trip Through The Western Part of New Mexico

George Pintar
© Copyright 2021 by George Pintar

I recently read an article about the severe traffic congestion on the roadways around the Albuquerque area, which reminded me of a trip I took from Grants to Deming. I had anything but congestion on this trip. I was lucky to see more than a handful of oncoming cars and only a few more pickup trucks.

I started my trip by first examining a brand new map of the state of New Mexico. Thus armed, it did not take me long to make my first good decision of the trip-- stopping at the Stuckey's gas station on Interstate 40 to fill my gas tank.

I traveled South and Southwest on New Mexico Route 117. The route runs on the west side of the El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area, established in 1987, and is a relative newcomer to the National Parks System. This monument preserves 114,277 acres, of which 109,260 acres are federal, and 5,017 acres are private.

El Malpais means "the badlands," but contrary to its name this unique area holds many surprises, many of which researchers have only now unraveled. Volcanic features such as lava flows, cinder cones, pressure ridges, and complex lava tube systems dominate the landscape. Closer inspection reveals unique ecosystems with complex relationships. Sandstone bluffs and mesas border the eastern side, providing access to a vast wilderness.

Next, I was lured off the highway by a sign that read "La Ventana Natural Arch." I got my camera from the back seat and followed the signs that led me to the arch. Park rangers were working (under a scorching sun) to improve the walkway. Their noisy machines echoed against the rock walls. I took the picture, and, wimp, I am hurried back to the comfort of my air-conditioned car.

I stopped at the Pearson Dude Ranch to take a quick look. This ranch is a Southwest New Mexico working cattle ranch...not your typical dude ranch. When the Pearson's purchased the ranch, the house had no water, heat, or electricity. (Today, it still doesn't have electricity.) Pearson Ranch has expanded its offerings to include dude ranch activities such as "city slicker" vacations and cattle roundups. In the fall, Pearson Ranch also offers hunting of elk, black bear, mule deer, and wild watusis. (A cow-like creature from Africa.)

I was driving southwest about 50-plus miles. I intersected with New Mexico Route 36 and followed it to the Village of Quemado. "Nobody's a Stranger in Quemado" featured story in the March 1989 New Mexico Magazine. Now I saw a sign to Quemado Lake. What is interesting about this lake is that it significantly concentrates giant goldfish. I did not take time to fish this day. So means a future trip, with my fishing gear.

From Quemado, I headed the car east on New Mexico Route 60 to the interestingly named Pie Town. Pie Town got its name in the 1920s when Clyde Norman, owner of the town's gas station and cafe, sold pies to automobile travelers on U.S. 60. In 1934 the area around Pie Town was opened up to homesteaders. Using dry-land farming, the homesteaders grew pinto beans until 1956, when the lack of snow and rain made it unprofitable. Now Pie Town is the home of the Very Large Array telescopes. A tiny hamlet of 550 residents, it lies 95 miles southwest of Albuquerque.

Pie Town's Pie Festival, held on the second Saturday of September, brings thousands of visitors to the all-day affair, which features a balloon ascension, pie-eating contest, horned toad race, old-time fiddle western pit- barbeque, and pie baking contest. Pie Town boasts two cafes, both serving pie. For the overnight visitor, camping is free in Jackson Park.

After some great pie and driving what seemed forever, I arrived in Reserve, population 600.  The town had, for me, quite a distinctive feel.  It appears to function as a regional trade center, frequented mainly by men driving pickup trucks, stopping to buy supplies, accessing the ATM, grabbing a bite to eat or drink, or visiting with longtime friends.  A fair number of the men carry their dogs in their pickups.

Sleepy Reserve, in Catron County, seems an unlikely place to foment a rebellion, and the citizens don't see themselves as revolutionaries. They are ordinary working folks who felt they were pushed against the wall and put out of work, watching their lives destroyed by over-zealous regulatory agencies and environmentalist lawsuits. So, in defense, the county leaders merely passed ordinances they believed would defend their citizens' livelihoods. It hasn't worked. Instead, federal agencies continue tightening the noose to the point of visual discrimination.

There are people in Catron County who will tell you they have had enough of the media and the "Wolfers." They will tell you that the citizens have been assailed without mercy, without pity, by environmentalists, the federal government, and biased media for over a decade. People say the county has been singled out as a testing ground for every new land-taking concept based on the Endangered Species Act. Perhaps it is even more than a random singling out. As Rancher Hugh McKeen believes, "a federal test-bed for like actions in other rural communities." The actions by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and federal courts have been so relentless, so uncompromising, that they could be interpreted as a deliberate retaliation for the Herculean independence displayed by the Catron County citizens and their government. These good people have resisted and still defy the heavy hand of the federal government on their personal lives and lands. County officials were the first county in the United States to pass ordinances resisting federal reign over national land within its boundaries. The message has been clear: "Get the federal government out of our lives." You can sense that attitude in a short conversation with nearly any Catron County resident.

Leaving Reserve, I drove another 20 miles through a beautiful, winding road and mountain scenery. The sun sank low and then disappeared behind hills to the west. As I arrived in the town of Glenwood, I noticed a scattering of houses in the mountains to the east. Glenwood, also in Catron County, is one of the last uncluttered natural recreation frontiers and is one of the finest big-game areas in the nation. Deer, elk, antelope, bear, bighorn sheep, cougar, wild turkey, javelin, quail, dove, and pheasant. Most sportsmen use four-wheel-drive vehicles, as most roads in the national forest are dry-weather roads. Facilities for camping, picnicking, boating, and access to trails into the Gila Wilderness area are plentiful.

Near Glenwood, a few points of interest include the Gila Cliff Dwellings, the famous Catwalk, the State Fish Hatchery, Mogollon (ghost town), Zuni Lake, Burning Mountain, and Cooney's Tomb. From plains to valleys to rugged mountains, the terrain makes Catron County a very interesting place for those who seek the unique in history, geology, and scenic beauty. Historically ranching, milling, mining, logging, and Forest Service activity supported the area. More recently, hunting, tourism, and recreation have added to the local economy. I didn't make it to all these sites this trip. I might visit on another day.

Adjacent to the San Francisco River, the San Francisco Hot Springs bubble up at about 110 degrees F. Several primitive, ephemeral rock-lined tubs have been constructed around the hot springs to form small baths. The hot water is mixed with the river water in these makeshift pools. During high water, the pools are generally washed out. Someone had lined the pools with rocks to avoid the seasonal washouts.

Next, I took time to visit the Catwalk, so named by the men who constructed the steep and narrow canyon's pipeline that transported water for mining operations and the community below. It is often crowded with happy picnickers enjoying the cool waters of Whitewater Creek and relaxing in the shade of the sycamore grove. The Catwalk Trail can present a challenge for backpackers with large loads; the narrow walkways connected by metal bridges are tight against the towering canyon walls. The multitude of day hikers on the Catwalk on warm weekends can produce traffic jams. The visitors enjoy the vigorous mountain stream with a deep canyon of volcanic tuff, ideal for fishing and birding.

It was now time to put the pedal to the metal because it was getting dark. I need to get to Silver City. Next, a vibrant community in Grant County, nestled alongside over three million acres of Gila Wilderness land. With historic ties to mining, ranching, and agriculture, the community has grown into a modern town with friendly people, growing businesses, a vibrant arts scene, and a "gentle four seasons" climate.

Each Saturday, May to October, Silver City boasts a Farmers' Market. You can sample the tastes of Grant County‚ with fruits and vegetables available from spring through the first frost. Included are organic growers‚ herb and flower vendors, and other specialty stalls. It's at 6th & Bullard Streets, from 8 a.m. to noon.

There is a multitude of recreation opportunities. The Silver City Ranger District has several developed and undeveloped campgrounds and picnic areas. Various trails of varying lengths and difficulty accommodate hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. Several recreation sites, such as Little Walnut, Fort Bayard, and the Gila River Birding area, make the Silver City Ranger District unique.

After this brief stop in Silver City, it was time to call it a day and return home to Deming (you know, where the Great American Duck Race reigns supreme!). It was a long day, but one filled with delightful sights and experiences. My appetite has been whetted for another trip—and more adventures—soon!

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