Thursday, November 18, 2021

Back in the Land of Enchantment

In the fall of 1966 while in Air Force basic training, I was handed a sheet of paper called the Assignment Selection Sheet, better known as the "dream sheet", and told to select the bases that I would like to be assigned to after training.  Gosh, I thought, how nice of the Air Force to ask me where I'd like to go, and being from Northeast Ohio, I wrote down my choices as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  And that is, of course, how I ended up assigned to Alamogordo, New Mexico.

During my leave at home after air traffic control school, I called a travel agent to get an airline ticket to Alamogordo.  There was a long pause, and finally she replied; "I'm sorry, but there is no Alamogordo, New Mexico".  I started to weep.....telling her "but I've got to go there!  I've got orders!".  Looking back now, I realize that like so many others in the eastern part of the country, she was looking up a location in Mexico, not realizing that there really is a state named New Mexico.  It still happens today; New Mexico magazine has a section that includes true stories of people getting confused - One of Our Fifty is Missing.

So I bought a car and drove across the country, mostly on the old Route 66, arriving at Holloman AFB, just outside Alamogordo, in the spring of 1967.  And I loved it!  So much was new to me - the desert, the mountains, the food....and so I've returned many times with Brenda, who has also learned to love the area.  

We recently spent a week in Tularosa, a small town at the base of the Sacramento Mountains and 12 miles north of Alamogordo.   It's a town that like many in the area, are struggling but it seems to be growing due to the growing number of pistachio orchards.  In fact, the RV park that we stayed is in the middle of pistachio trees, where the nuts are close to being ready to pick.

Tularosa has an interesting history.  Mescalero Apache raids kept settlers from establishing a permanent village until 1863, and hostilities went on for years and didn't come to a halt until after the Battle of Round Mountain in 1868.  The centerpiece of central Tularosa, the Saint Francis de Paula Church was built to commemorate the battle and honor the 28 local volunteers who fought there.

Tularosa Main Street
Tularosa Main Street

There aren't a host of services in this little town; most of the restaurants have closed due to COVID, but there's a main street - with a large hardware store and little else.  At one time Tularosa was over 95% Hispanic, and although the population is more diverse today, Mexican food is still the king.  I'll bet your local Kroger or Fry's market doesn't have a "Tortilleria", a large portion of the store devoted solely to making tortillas.  

Fresh Made Tortillas, Chips, and Pork Rinds
Fresh Tortillas, Chips, and Chicharrones (Pork Rinds)

But the main reason we're attracted to this area is the Sacramento Mountains which lie just east of town.  Stretching 85 miles north to south, and 42 miles east to west, the heavily forested mountains are home to the resort towns of Cloudcroft, Ruidoso, and the Ski Apache resort on Sierra Blanca which reaches 12000'.

Driving up the mountain, we entered the Mescalero Apache reservation and the tribe's schools, store, and medical facilities.  The tribe's reservation has improved immensely since I was stationed here, thanks to two casinos, resort hotel and golf course, and ski resort.  Brenda and I like to think that we contributed to this betterment of their quality of life through our "contributions" over the years at the casino.

Along the road, we passed the Saint Joseph Apache Mission, built using local materials starting in 1939.  The mission has an interesting history that you can read here.

St. Joseph Apache Mission
St. Joseph Apache Mission

The interior is rustic with a Native American theme.  We were intrigued by the "Apache Last Supper":

Continuing up the mountain, we came around a curve where Sierra Blanca came into view.

Sierra Blanca

We Continued up the mountain and took a side road that took us to Cloudcroft, a 110 year-old community that sits at a cool 8675' and boasts one of the highest golf courses in the country.  It's become a popular location for bikers, and to us on this Sunday resembled a smaller version of the Sturgis Rally.

After a stop at the Brother-in-Law BBQ for a amazing brisket sandwich, we made our way through the forest to one of our favorite places to visit, the Sunspot Solar Observatory. While the facilities are closed to public due to COVID, there an informative visitor center and at over 9000' fantastic viewpoints.  

View to the West - White Sands National Monument in the distance

Looking South towards El Paso

Finishing up our stay in Tularosa, we traveled to Las Cruces to visit some of our favorite locations.  We were joined by a visit from our friends Don and Betty, who spend their winters down the interstate in Benson, AZ.  No visit to the area would be complete for us without a visit to La Posta de Mesilla Restaurant a place we've been coming to for many years.

As a young airman in the late 60s, if you ordered enchiladas in Alamogordo, they were done "pancake" style.  Each tortilla was dipped in red or green chili, cheese, onion, and chicken or beef sprinkled on top, then another layer, and another, usually three tortillas stacked, with more chili and usually a fried egg on top.  I don't remember ever seeing a "rolled" enchilada back then, and over the years stacked enchiladas have disappeared from Mexican restaurant menus.  And that's one of the reasons I love La Posta!  Here they serve red chili enchiladas in the old style, complete with an over easy egg on top.  It may seem like there wouldn't be much difference, but believe me, the taste difference in stacked vs rolled is huge - at least to me.  

La Posta has an interesting and long history, serves great food at reasonable prices, and is visually stunning.  Each room has a different theme with paintings, sculptures, and period furniture.

Fall is the time when the chilies are harvested, and every supermarket has large bags of green and red chilies and most have a large drum outdoors roasting chilies.  And so it was the perfect time for the four of us to make a pilgrimage to Hatch, the chili capital of the world!

Hatch is filled with stores selling chilies by the bag, by the Ristra, canned, bottled, and dried.  Colorful Ristras are proudly displayed in almost every store.

Ristras and Red Chilis

A visit to Hatch wouldn't be complete without a visit to "Sparky's" home of the "World Famous" green chili cheeseburger.  Always busy (for good reason), their cheeseburgers are made with hand made patties and fresh green chilies.  They are fantastic!

Busy Day at Sparky's

Back in Las Cruces, we decided to take Don and Betty on a trip to one of the hidden gems in the area.  The Organ Mountains dominate the Eastern skyline from Las Cruces, but on the eastern side there's little vegetation, just dry desert.

Organ Mountains View from Las Cruces

But driving to the back side is a revelation - the lush desert and memorable mountain vistas are an amazing contrast to the other side:

We've been enjoying the warm weather and sunshine here in New Mexico, but soon we'll have to leave and head north to the Winnebago factory in Iowa for major repairs to our motor home.  We'll be back to posting once we've returned and resumed our journey back to Oregon.  Brenda and wish you all a happy and safe Thanksgiving!