We re-traced our path back to Ruidoso. Earlier I had called a few RV parks. Many of them were closed for winter, but Circle B, purported to be the largest, was open for business. A gruff voice told us to drive on over. Circle B was in Ruidoso Downs just across from the racetrack and the Billy the Kid Casino. Despite how that might sound, it was still rural and the hills were covered in trees; pines, mesquite and juniper.
The proprietors of Circle B were Rip and Judy Van Winkle. How can you not like a guy called Rip Van Winkle? Gee, wonder how he got that nickname… Rip was somewhere in his 70’s. It was hard to tell. He had a wiry frame and weathered visage. He sported a billed cap declaring himself a Navy veteran. Vietnam perhaps? Affixed to his cap was a button, “I’m a deplorable…”
We got a site high on the hill at the back of the park with mountains on all sides. The sound of the road was distant. The air was cool and we were transcendently happy to be away from the heat and dust and to be perched on the hillside.
Ruidoso is a tourist area. A place for Texans and other New Mexicans to escape the desert heat in summer and the best southern NM ski destination in winter. It boasts the aforementioned race track and also features several casinos some of which are on the nearby Mescalero Apache Reservation. There are shops and galleries and all the accoutrements of a tourist area. Rip had given us a very helpful visitor guide from the previous summer’s season which became our bible.
Rip had suggested we drive the Billy the Kid Byway and see the old western town of Lincoln. The Billy the Kid Byway is a somewhat triangularly shaped route which begins in Ruidoso, continues along Route 70 following the Rio Hondo to Hondo where it takes a left onto Route 380. We were just under way when we spotted an historical marker. We pulled over to take a look. The John H. Tunstall Murder Site, now who was that? It was an appetizing teaser to all that we were about to see and learn.
The road runs through lovely valleys flanked by brown hills spotted with cottonwood trees, pines and brush. It is incredibly pretty and the constant fluctuations of the hills make for successively remarkable views. We traveled past ranches and horse farms and reached the town of Lincoln.
Lincoln was the original seat of Lincoln County, once the largest county in the country. It is known as the best preserved western town and also was one of the most violent. Back in the mid-1800’s one sheriff alone covered the entire county which meant there was essentially no law. This lawlessness gave rise to the Lincoln County War from 1878-1881.
Sparked by the murder of John Tunstall, a wealthy British man who had arrived in town to establish a store to compete with the monopolistic Murphy/Dolan store, the two factions burst into conflict over control of the town. Gunfights, murder and assassination marked the next years as outlaw groups battled each other. Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, the Regulators—these are some of the infamous names from the period.
The main street of old Lincoln town is bounded on each end by museums. To the east is the Anderson-Freeman and on the west end is the Courthouse Museum.
The Anderson-Freeman is not a large museum, but it has a beautifully curated collection. Moving through the circuit of rooms, the first holds a collection of apache clothing and weapons. There are beaded shirts, moccasins and quivers with arrows and bows. The beaded apache mocassins and clothing were incredibly exciting to see. I could not imagine creating that embellishment with the tools they had at hand.
There is an exhibit on Buffalo Soldiers from nearby Fort Stanton with photos, artifacts, weapons, uniform items and a tent. The next room has a replica of a contemporary store complete with cash register.
The final room is dedicated to the Lincoln County War with representations of the key figures, archival photos, weapons and letters. One of these key figures, of course, was Billy the Kid. Was he simply a ruffian or popular hero? In this geographical area, he is considered a popular hero, but I must confess, he seemed more outlaw than hero. There is an excellent twenty-minute video documenting the events which led to the Lincoln County War and ties it all together.
After our visit to that museum, we gathered Dakota from the truck and strolled the main street. Along the street were many well-preserved buildings including the Tunstall store, the old hotel and dwellings of key figures. It was all so well-preserved. Closing your eyes, you could imagine yourself back in a time when gunshots rang out all too frequently in the dusty street.
We took turns visiting the Courthouse Museum—one of us waiting with The Dude outside. This was once the Murphy/Dolan store known as “The House.” The store had a monopoly on commerce in Lincoln until John Tunstall turned up. After the hostilities ended, Murphy died, the store went out of business and was re-purposed to become the courthouse—an ironic transformation given its history.
The museum featured more exhibits on the town, an old stagecoach and a chronological retrospective of the Sheriffs of Lincoln County. The second floor was preserved as the courthouse. Here Billy the Kid was tried and sentenced to hang to death. A large hole in the plaster wall at the foot of the stairway is purported to be the bullet hole from Billy’s pistol as he made his successful escape.
When we finished with Lincoln, we were hungry and literally down to our last dollar bill. The next stop on the Billy the Kid Byway was Capitan, home to Smokey Bear. We all remember Smokey (the) Bear and the “Only you can prevent forest fires” campaign. Seeing this country and the history of devastating fires, it is easy to comprehend the seriousness of fire danger. Smokey, of course, was rescued in 1950 in the wake of the disastrous Los Tablos and Capitan Gap fires. He was found clinging to a tree. We stopped at a marker for the Capitan Gap and Smokey Bear to consider the ravages of fire.
Fortunately, Capitan had a bank and a cash machine and, reinforced with greenbacks, we headed to the Oso Grill for some lunch. This welcoming corner restaurant had an excellent chef. I ordered a Green Chile Corn Pancake with Red Beans for lunch and it was one of those meals which will live in my memory for a long time. I will be trying to recreate it when we get home.
After our delightful meal, we headed to the Smokey Bear Historical Park. Having had a photo-op with Smokey en-route to Capitan, we skipped the park. It was not dog-friendly and we didn’t want to put Dakota back in the truck alone.
The last leg of the Billy the Kid Byway triangle was Route 48 leading from Capitan to Ruidoso. We motored past more ranches, hills studded with trees, and then we hit a terrifying vastness of burned and gutted trees and barren scorched earth. We had caught the edge of the devastation from the Little Bear Fire in 2012. The fire began in early June and was almost contained when the winds came up. It raged out of control and wasn’t contained for another three weeks. Altogether it scorched more than 44,000 acres and destroyed almost 250 homes. I can’t quite imagine how terrifying it would be to have this fire as a neighbor for three weeks. Smokey Bear is still a much-needed reminder.
Wednesday was what we call a home maintenance day. We visited the ranger station to get some hiking information. Due to the Little Bear fire not all of the local trails are open. We also hit the grocery store and the car wash. The big event Wednesday was finding our own Smokey Bear.
Not surprisingly, there were bears everywhere on signs and as statues decorating stores, motels—pretty much everything. Jim and I lusted after our own bear. We wanted to take Smokey home with us. Many of the figures were sort of tacky, but we found the perfect spot. “Grizzly’s” offered hand-crafted bears and other sculptures created with chain saws. We met Bob, the artist, and found our perfect Smokey. He will ride along with us as our new, 4th roommate.
Thursday we were ready to hike and headed out to an area called Cedar Creek Trail System in the Smokey Bear Ranger District of the Lincoln National Forest. The Lincoln National Forest is enormous. It covers more than 1.1 million acres and was named for our 16th president. It includes four separate mountain ranges. If you drive through southeastern New Mexico, you encounter the Lincoln National Forest over and over again.
Ruidoso lies at an elevation of 6400 feet. We were slowly getting used to the height, but our hike would take us up over the mountains as high as 7400 feet. The trail was extremely well-maintained and the weather perfect with sunny skies, a reasonable wind and a temperature just about 70 degrees. We were bushed after our arduous hike, but it was excellent.
Watching the news the night before, the weatherman had warned of an impending storm. High winds and a cold front were predicted to sweep through the area. After our hike, we headed to the trailer for lunch and a rest. Suddenly, the sun and the mountains disappeared. The wind blew furiously and a dense fog of dust and moisture engulfed the world. It was truly unsettling.
Despite the ominous weather, we headed out to visit the Hubbard Museum of the American West. Everyone else seemed to take this storm as a normal occurrence so we did our best to ignore it.
This museum is housed in what once was a giant skating rink. Almost all of the museum features the private collection of Anne Stradling. This is an extensive collection of Native American artifacts and art. The museum also featured historical photos of Ruidoso and the Old West.
For us, the high point of the museum was the collection of various buggies, carts and stagecoaches including a Conestoga Wagon in amazing condition. Like seeing the town of Lincoln, these artifacts fired our imagination.
The wind blew strongly all through the night. Friday the wind was still raging. We had intended to go for another hike, but the strong gusts of wind made it seem much nicer to hole up in the trailer and putter on office projects, knitting and other tasks.
Earlier in the week, I had found a veterinary practice in town which had good reviews. Dakota needed some routine tests and it seemed like a check up after two months on the road would be a wise undertaking. I was really curious to know if he had lost any weight with all of our activity.
Ruidoso Animal Clinic was a sunny, wooden-beamed building and the staff were very proficient and friendly. Sitting in the waiting area, we fell into conversation with a man holding his chihuahua on his lap. The dog had a leather collar decorated with three silver conchs. The man was there to get an anti-rattlesnake venom shot for the dog. He explained they rode out on the mountains and he wanted his dog safe. He and his wife had moved to Ruidoso thirty years before. His face was deeply etched with lines and it was easy to believe he had been riding the hills for so long.
Dakota got a thorough checkup and was pronounced “a healthy dog for one his age.” He got all of his tests, which were negative, had a pedicure and was weighed. Our svelte boy had dropped from his November weight of 29 lbs 4 ozs to 27 lbs 6 ozs. It felt incredibly good to know he was tolerating the stress and change of travel.
Needless to say, we really loved our five days in Ruidoso. It was beautiful and engaging. Our friend from the vet had arrived thirty years ago and opted to stay. It was tempting to consider doing the same, but we had already extended our stay once and it was time to head down to Carlsbad.