Las Vegas, NM is about an hour from Santa Fe. Santa Fe is a town that I’ve been through numerous times over the years and each visit, I love it. So, after my tour of Central America (which I’ll be posting about shortly) I thought it would be a good place to spend the holidays.
After getting back to the States, I picked up my car and started driving. North from the Gulf Coast, to the cooler weather! Texas rolled by. I stopped in Amarillo only to realize that I didn’t want to dally. Something within pushed me forward. I wanted to get to New Mexico.
But I was a few days early for my AirBnB reservation.
I’ll figure out something. I always do.
Route 40 is long and straight. Across the Texas panhandle, I start to count the miles. Surely New Mexico must be close.
I ask Siri how many miles to the New Mexican border.
She gives me the mileage to Mexico City. 1,280 miles due south.
Siri is not the best navigator. I decouple the navigation between my phone and my watch. I don’t want to be zapped because I am heading to Santa Fe, not Mexico City.
I continue west. The road goes by.
There, in the distance, I believe I see a line of purple. My heart skips a beat. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains. New Mexico.
It’s rather like spying the line of hills that define Napa as you approach from the east. The vast Sacramento plain seems endless until the promise of wine country is seen on the horizon. One’s heart quickens with the promise of wine and food, beauty and peace.
I pass the New Mexican border and nearly miss the turnoff for the information center. But I manage to make the exit. Barely.
I always like stopping, to chat and investigate. The rangers that often staff the areas are always polite and helpful. Today, a woman greets me. She seems rather stern, but we start chatting.
I tell her how much I’ve always enjoyed New Mexico. I feel deep emotion well up as I say this. I’m not sure where it comes from. Perhaps it’s just a need to be someplace after the nearly constant travels of the last six months. Perhaps its a need to be someplace where it’s not 100 degrees with 100 per cent humidity.
I try to contain my unexplained emotions. I think I am feeling rather homeless. And I’m thinking back to the past.
New Mexico is not new to me. Nearly twenty years ago, during my Whiskey Oscar foray, I house sat for a renown artist Alvaro Cardona-Hine in a small town called Truchas. He and his wife Barbara (a noted artist in her own right) were off to a showing of his work in New York City.
How had I wandered into their gallery? I try to recall the details now, twenty years later.
The ranger interrupts my recollections.
I refocus my attention on the now.
“Where are you going?” she asks
“Santa Fe,” I respond.
“But I have several days before I have to be there.”
“Have you ever been to Las Vegas?”
“You should give it a try.” She pulled a map and a few brochures.
“The Plaza Hotel,” she suggested.
That seemed to be the end of her desire to interact, so I decided I’d give Las Vegas, New Mexico a go.
I returned to the car and called ahead for a reservation at The Plaza Hotel. I should be there by nightfall.
Now I have a game plan.
West of Cuervo, just past Santa Rosa, New Mexico Route 84 heads north. I head north with it.
Immediately, the sun steps from behind the clouds and pours its radiant light on the surrounding land. The grasses on either side of the two lane road glow golden and move with the stiff cross wind. The pinion trees pop throughout the landscape. And the mountains appear, mysteriously, majestically, beckoning, not too far ahead.
The moment is almost surreal; other-worldly. I almost have a chill in the warmth of the sun. There is something about the beauty of New Mexico that always touches me deeply. Something welcomes me here.
My soul is happy.
Las Vegas, NM
Las Vegas, NM is home to numerous film and tv shows. Its classic Spanish style plaza shows up in silent films during the 1913-15 period and later in numerous productions including Easy Rider, Speechless and Wyatt Earp, and more recently, Longmire.
The locals are non-plussed by the fuss. But the sheer volume of films filmed here is incredible. The film below captures some of the essence of this unique town. Be a bit patient with the slow start; it’s worth the watch:
Las Vegas owes its founding to its position on the Santa Fe Trail and to the railroad which came to town on July 4, 1879. This brought with it business and development, not to mention a few outlaws. Legends such as Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Mysterious Dave Mather and others poured into the eastern side of town.
The railroad brought business, but it also divided the town, with east Las Vegas (“New Town”) near the tracks, with west Las Vegas (“Old Town”) located near the square. Today the municipality is one, but with two separate school districts.
The Las Vegas, NM Plaza
Las Vegas isn’t posh like Santa Fe and it’s a very small town. It has a coterie of arts, some of which are available at el Zocalo, the Cooperative Art Gallery on the square in town. I really enjoyed the work of Sarah Frazier who had a number of items that could have found a home with me!
And nearly next store is Plaza Antiques, a wonderful jumble of possible finds. Everything from jewelry to old silver to rugs cover nearly every square inch. There is a find waiting for you in this shop!
Also on the square is the The Plaza Hotel, a regal building finished in 1882. It’s grand facade is decorated with elaborate scrolls across the roofline and the spacious rooms have fourteen foot ceilings. Like the rest of Las Vegas, it has a victorian flair. The pueblo style that is associated with New Mexico is notably absent in most of this town.
The Plaza is notable for variety of reasons. The staff is friendly; the rooms spacious; the dining room and bar food excellent. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
And it also has two resident ghosts.
The more well known ghost is that of Byron T. Mills, the original builder/owner of the hotel. He is said to haunt his former office, room 310, as well as the saloon. One of the innkeepers tells the story of a cleaning person who was in Byron’s old office. She left briefly and when she returned, the pillows on the bed had been thrown to the floor. Numerous other stories persist, as, apparently, does Byron’s ghost.
The other ghost is less well known and it is that of a small girl. Once again, people report brushes with someone or a feeling of a presence on their legs and there is even a picture of the girl in the lobby, sitting with a woman. But when the woman was asked about the child next to her, she said there was no child.
For the ghost chasers in the audience, this place is worth checking out. For the rest of us, it’s a great place to enjoy this wonderful small town in spacious, well restored rooms.
The bar and dining room offer good food at a good price. After months on the road and the vagaries of road food, I was so delighted at the site of a good kale salad, I ordered it two nights in a row.
My stop in Las Vegas wasn’t really planned, so I was curious to see what was around. And I have to say that the warmth, friendliness and kindness of this small town was absolutely restorative.
Speaking of restoration, Las Vegas boasts over 900 properties on the National Historic Register, including the Plaza Hotel. In its heyday Las Vegas was bigger and richer than any other town in New Mexico. And the architecture reflects it.
“New Town”, Las Vegas NM
Elaborate Victorian homes populate the town. Some are restored, some need some work. But the sheer volume of buildings with historic value is stunning. I stopped down at the train station where The Casteneda is being restored. The Casteneda was part of the Fred Harvey Company’s chain of restaurants, hotels and hospitality services that grew alongside the railroad.
During the early days of the railroad, there was little in terms of food or amenities for rail passengers. Fred Harvey changed that. His restaurants and hotels boasted great food, large portions and pleasant service in the form of the Harvey Girls. The chain which traces its routes to 1875, was later popularized by Judy Garland in the 1946 movie of the same name. But today, at least in Las Vegas, this beautiful building is but a ghost of its former self.
Allan Affeldt –who also renovated La Posada, located off Interstate 40, old Route 66, along the Amtrak railroad tracks in Winslow, Ariz.–acquired this historic Mission Revival property and is in the process of renovating it. His efforts have spurred redevelopment interest in other nearby properties.
I pulled up to the property, curious. Mr. Affeldt had also restored The Plaza Hotel where I was staying. There wasn’t much to see, other than a lot of construction paraphernalia. Across the street I noted another building under renovation, the Rawlins Building, circa 1898. Parts looked beautiful; parts run down. A man waved at me; I waved back.
I got out and shot a few pictures.
“Would you like to see the building”, he asked.
But of course!
I think my interest in architecture and renovation dates back to my early exposure to European architecture. Paris left an indelible imprint on the aesthetics of this six year old girl, as did the many, many months I spent in and out of Paris and environs over the years. In New Orleans I took a year long history of architecture class. In Pennsylvania, I was active with the Historic Preservation Trust, and even helped fund a survey of area architecture, presented in a beautifully bound book.
Architecture reflects the economics and times of a locale, and I always find that association interesting. Here in a town like Las Vegas, the vast amounts of wealth that founded the town moved on, leaving behind a most unusual architectural legacy in northern New Mexico, where most buildings are adobe/pueblo/Spanish mission or some combination thereof. Not in Las Vegas! This is not your typical New Mexican town.
I crossed the street and met Thomas Clayton, the Chief Deputy District Attorney and the grandson of the owner of the Rawlins Building. The building is partially restored. The beautiful facade facing the street has been lovingly refreshed. Inside, much of the work to date has been structural.
Tom was kind enough to take a bit of time off his work and show me around. Partly in anticipation of the re-opening of the Castaneda across the street, Tom and his wife will also be re-opening this family building, with retail below and either apartments or AirBnB’s above.
It’s a beautiful building, with fabulous space. I can’t wait to see the finished product.
I’m frankly stunned that this town hasn’t been “discovered” gentrified or whatever verb you want to apply to apparent progress. Tom explained the locals don’t really want any change. And Santa Fe is just an hour away, with all its adobe charm and all the tourists as well.
Las Vegas, NM and Environs
Stopping in Las Vegas was great travel serendipity. I am simply not a heat person and I was exhausted from the constant heat and humidity of Central America. All in all, the open, unending beauty of New Mexico coupled with friendly people, high altitudes and dry air was just what the doctor ordered.
And of course, the kale salad.
My room at The Plaza overlooked the plaza and every morning I was greeted with a beautiful sunrise. I’d pull back the heavy victorian style curtains and their lace underlay and watch the explosion of color in the sky.
Las Vegas is small and quiet. It was a perfect refuge for three days, but I started wondering what was about. Fort Union wasn’t far away. I decided to check it out early one morning.
The drive takes you north and east into the flat plains. The site sits near that geographic divide where flat plain becomes the Sangre de Cristo Mountains .
Fort Union’s importance grew out of the need to protect the Santa Fe Trail. This major highway was a 900 mile trail from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe. Travelers faced brutal weather with no place for shelter, rattlesnakes and Indian raids. Over time, larger caravans helped provide better protection from raids, but issues of exposure, uncertain food and water remained.
Fort Union was actually a succession of three structures. The first outpost was built in 1851-61. The second structure (1861-62) was traditional star shaped fort built with defense in mind during the Civil War. This second fort had 28 cannon platforms and a central magazine.
“With 30,000 Indians in or near the District and a native population very hostile to them and continually giving rise to quarrels, it is obvious that a permanent military force is necessary in the Territory.
–George W. Getty, Commander, District of New Mexico
The third fort, built in 1863-91 was simply massive, encompassing a military post, a quartermaster’s depot and an arsenal. Each had its own commander.
By 1879, however the railways had replaced horses, wagons and stagecoaches, trade replaced much of the hostilities, and Fort Union became unnecessary.
The remains of the fort are remarkable for their sheer size and scope. One can imagine the magnitude of the operations at their peak, as soldiers, traders and travelers converged on this outpost. This National Park is worth visiting simply to realize the massive size and scale of its former operations.
A final architectural note: Las Vegas is the location of not one, but two Fred Harvey buildings. The Montezuma, built in 1881, six miles west of Las Vegas was originally built to accommodate those that came for the hot springs. It’s now the US campus of the United World college and a stunning building:
You can visit Las Vegas in the movies, but it’s so much more charming in real life. If you go, stay at The Plaza Hotel, wander and enjoy the small town ambiance of this delightful little town. There aren’t many places like this. I just hope this small town continues to survive and prosper just the way it is.
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