The Southeast quadrant of our state catches a lot of flack: It's flat and dusty for long, empty stretches, and the population is a bit more, shall we say, conservative than we’re used to up here. The smell of oil wells and slaughterhouses is a bit too prevalent, but it's also home to some of our most famous attractions, like Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands National Monument and Roswell (where Bigfoot crashed his hoverboard into the Loch Ness Monster back in 1947). The fact is the Southeast is just as important to our tourists as it is to our economy, and it isn’t really fair to dismiss it over a few stray odors.
The Obvious Attractions:
Carlsbad Caverns. Ever heard of it? As one of the most famous and accessible National Parks (it's got a frigging restaurant 750 feet below ground, for God's sake), chances are you've either been forced by overeager parents to tramp around in its overexposed grandeur, or you've been one of the parents yourself. But did you know that the park offers guided tours into the unpaved, unlit corners of this massive cave complex? Or that there are a number of other caves you can explore there as well? True, some of them require hiking out a good distance into the baking desert and then using ropes and flashlights to descend into the depths, but come on. How cool is that? And think how awesome you'll feel the next time somebody mentions Carlsbad and you can say, "Oh I've been there, but I prefer the less-touristy parts like Spider Cave." Who knew spelunking and hipsterism go so well together?
White Sands is an incredible place as well, especially in the moonlight. Camp there on a full moon for the wondrously surreal experience of seeing a desert glow all around you. And bring cardboard so you can go sledding down the dunes. Just don’t get lost or wander onto the missile range.
Of course there’s also Roswell, site of the infamous 1947 Elvis v. Mothman wrestling match. And if you’re feeling low on kitsch, a trip to one of the UFO museums—there are several—may be in order. They’re fun to visit, but more as a quick stop-off on your way to somewhere else, unless you’re particularly passionate about goofy paranormal conspiracy theories. Check out the Alien Parade on July 6 to really soak in the extraterrestrial camp.
Maybe Carlsbad and Roswell are too mainstream for you, Mr./Ms. Hipster New Mexico tourist? Fine. Try this one, then: The Flying Paperboy of the Guadalupes Monument. Frank Kindel was known for delivering newspapers to remote ranchers and hunting camps via a single engine airplane when he wasn’t riding his unicycle through downtown Carlsbad. Unfortunately in 1964 (when the paper “boy” was 72 years old), his paper route came to an end when he crashed his plane in Lincoln National Forest. This propellered monument was erected at the site of his death.
If you have a more atomic bent and enjoy driving for long distances down dirt roads—fully aware of the fact that there’s not going to be anything to look at when you get to your destination—consider a quick trip to the site of Project Gnome. Gnome was the first nuclear detonation in the Plowshares Program, a government initiative to find peacetime uses for atomic warheads. A 3-kiloton bomb was lowered into a 1,200-foot-deep tube in the middle of the New Mexico desert and then detonated. Water was pumped into the resulting cavity in the hope that heat from the explosion would create steam suitable for generating power. And it worked. Except for all the radioactive steam that started leaking out of the ground afterwards. The Department of Energy abandoned Operation Plowshares 10 years later. There’s nothing much to see except a couple of plaques, so this excursion is for diehards only.
Where to eat:
If you’re taking I-25 south from Albuquerque, you owe it to yourself to stop in at the Owl Bar in San Antonio, just east of Socorro. Its dark and cool interior presents a welcome retreat from the New Mexico sun, and the green chile cheeseburgers are incredible. It’s also got some neat historical cred: The bar itself once sat in Conrad Hilton’s first hotel (the founder of the Hilton Hotel chain and Paris’ great-grandfather, who was born in San Antonio, N.M.).
If you’re down in the Carlsbad/Roswell area, I recommend you go a little out of your way and eat in Artesia. Yes, I'm serious. I've tried the highly recommended Lucy's in Carlsbad (and it was awful) and Farley's in Roswell (not bad, if a little chain-restaurant-y), but I swear to you—at the risk of my food-editor reputation—the Wellhead in Artesia is the best damn food and beer around. My wife claimed the blackened catfish was as good as any she had while living in New Orleans, and the house-brewed porter is robust and delicious. And despite what you may have heard, much-maligned Artesia turns out to be a friendly town with a pretty little main street with fountains and public art—once you turn off the refinery-lined (and -scented) Highway 238. Believe it or not, it’s worth a stop.