For years, we have heard about the high country and remote beauty of the land around Sierra Blanca, one of the four sacred mountains to the Mescalero Apaches standing at 11,981′. An artist-friend of ours had talked of the nearby little town of Lincoln calling it especially lovely and filled with a very colorful history. We decided to take a day and check out the land and learn more about Lincoln.
Heading north from Alamogordo on US 70, we climbed up 2,000’ to just under 7,000’, passing through the Mescalero Apache reservation land and down the southeastern slopes of Sierra Blanca, around Ruidoso and toward the town of Lincoln.
In the late 19th century, Lincoln County, in what was then the territory of New Mexico, was a microcosm of the tensions between the changing economy and growing population of the southwest. Both of these factors created a perfect storm which manifested as the violence that erupted in Lincoln County in 1878 and dragged on until 1881 between the established economic powers and the newcomers who wanted a piece of the financially lucrative pie. The battle was fueled by the profitable government contracts for beef with Fort Stanton, the nearby military post that served as the headquarters of the newly relocated Mescalero Apache.
The economic empire created by Murphy & Company, who were backed by the cattle barons of the Santa Fe Ring, had control of the banking and credit services and the beef contracts, all based out of their store in Lincoln. The effect was a nearly feudal system with the four men serving more like overlords to the local population with the local constabulary acting to support the establishment.
Three newcomers, headed by John Tunstall, sensing an economic opportunity, came into town and set up a rival commercial store and contracts with local cattlemen to compete for a piece of the business. No less ruthless than the existing merchants, the newcomers found their own system of “enforcers” and set up a parallel banking and commerce system.
Murphy & Co. didn’t suffer the newcomers for long and began retaliating in an attempt to drive them out of business, then out of town. The tensions increased to a boiling point and the net result was an outbreak of violence that began in 1878 and eventually left dozens of citizens dead, embellished the careers of Billy the Kid as a murderer, identified his nemesis, sheriff Pat Garrett, and ensured the outlaw reputation of the territory, delaying statehood until 1912.
You may recall the post just before this one where we went to Mesilla, the original settlement for Las Cruces. The nearest courthouse to Lincoln was located there and when Billy the Kid was arrested in Lincoln, he was taken to trial in Mesilla which is 156 miles away. It was quite a haul for a trial and must have taken five or six days to get there. The Kid was found guilty of murder, ordered to death by hanging in Lincoln but he escaped when he got back to Lincoln. Garrett tracked him down at his girlfriend’s house and executed the death sentence on his own in 1881. The Kid was 21 years old. The lawlessness finally ran out of steam and the little town slipped into a kind of normalcy, if not oblivion, by the early 1900s.
Today, a thriving tourism business centered around the superb Anderson-Freeman Visitor’s Center & Museum both entertains and educates visitors. The original Main Street in Lincoln functions as a kind of living history museum funded through a gift from the Hubbard Family Trust, the historic site now includes 17 structures and outbuildings, 7 of which are open year round and 2 more seasonally as museums. Most of the buildings in the community are representative of the Territorial Style of adobe architecture in the American Southwest. Each August, the town hosts a folk pageant, the Last Escape of Billy the Kid and draws thousands.
The other day trip we took into the mountains was to Sunspot Astronomy and Visitor’s Center, the National Solar Observatory in the Sacramento Mountains at 9,200’ behind Alamogordo. Sunspot uses its Dunn telescope to look at the Sun as both an astronomical object and as the dominant external influence on Earth. It promotes research that looks at things like solar flare (correctly called coronal emissions) activity to see if they can be predicted. This is important because solar flares interfere with communications systems here on planet Earth. The day we went there was “noise” in the atmosphere which interfered with the solar observations. This time, the technicians told us it was the heat rising from the Tularosa Basin creating what looked remarkably similar to what one might see when looking through the lens of an underwater camera. The Visitor’s Center has a wealth of information on the solar system, the history of astronomy, and a gift shop filled with grandchildren-worthy things.
Around the town of Alamogordo, we did explore the really interesting Heart of the Desert, a pistachio farm. George and Marianne Schweers planted their first trees in 1972 at Eagle Ranch after doing research and determining that the desert climate in Alamogordo was well suited to growing pistachios. Today there are over 13,000 trees and they have added a vineyard to their ranch. The Visitor’s Center is stunning, the samples of premium pistachios grown there are free and fun, the wines cool and refreshing, and their new outdoor patio is inviting. Wednesday evenings feature live music, food trucks and general New Mexico hospitality that keeps folks like us coming back.
We have enjoyed our ten weeks at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. Our time as camphosts has been very enjoyable and has really flown by. Peter wrapped up his last day of work giving one more tour of the Ranch House, a fitting way to end our time here. Notably, we’ve welcomed a young couple from Nashua, New Hampshire who are on a year-long trip across the country and another couple from Peter’s childhood hometown of Leominster, Massachusetts. The most notable observations: the remarkable number of women traveling alone in their own campers/tents/SUVs; the number of campers who came for one night and extended for a week; the reliably impressive sunsets; the general congeniality of guests who seem to be mesmerized into great attitudes by the beauty of the park. Now heading east for our next gig in Florida having enjoyed one more spectacular New Mexico sunset. We’ll be writing next from Koreshan State Park.