There’s an episode of The Shadow on XM82 Radio Classics; Orson Welles having fun. Then Jeff Regan, Investigator with the great Jack Webb (the town was “a service station and a few signs full of buckshot” / “he looked real pleased, like a fat lady locked in a cream puff factory”) to take us through El Paso, and border checks, what with Mexico just over there in much-troubled Ciudad Juarez. Jeff Regan was a welcome distraction from thinking too much about the last time I was in El Paso; that time with someone else and buying a Ford pick-up to drive to Chile, although we stopped in Costa Rica for six years instead. Young, happy, poor. I sometimes wonder whether I’ve finished the program and am now just going round in circles, albeit big circles.
Anyway, I hadn’t been to New Mexico. Many things to like about the place: the shape – it’s square; it’s got proper Indian history – Navajo, Apache, Geronimo, cave dwellings, petroglyphs, well-worn trails, pathos and complications; it’s got cowboy and settler history lingering as bars and trading posts, ranches, The Alamo, pictures of pistols . . . pathos and complications. It’s had its share of bandits and bandidos – Billy the Kid is buried here, and it has great names that sum up its past: Wagon Mound, Sitting Bull Falls, Chloride, Radium Springs, Silver City, Gallup, Socorro (Help!), Cuchillo (knife). Loads of Westerns have been shot here (cue boulder ricocheting down mountain, circling eagle, horse hooves) including Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and Brokeback Mountain and the Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp, currently in production – as well as Easy Rider (and there’s lots of them around, note the bikes outside the Blue Moon bar in Radium Springs). Also, in the area west of I-25, not far (in relative terms) from Elephant Butte, is Trinity, site of the world’s first atomic bomb explosion, and also the chosen spot for Spaceport America, with the first Virgin Galactic blast offs due next year.
I’ve found a place to stay, a room in a house at the Old Cuchillo Bar and Hotel, an abandoned trading post in a ghost town close to Truth or Consequences. All of that sounds just right. We’d have got there sooner if we hadn’t been lured into the weird world that is Hatch, a small town of 1,500 people and a giant chicken, pig, and Yogi Bear, 30ft Uncle Sam and the Muffler Man, lined up randomly in parking lots, and staring out above the buildings by the road. They’re part of Teako Nunn’s growing collection. He owns an RV sales business (looked around, once again felt the pang), and Sparkys, famous for its burgers – or rather the green chilli sauce that goes on them. In fact, it’s these fire chillies, not the giant chickens and freaky fibreglass people that are officially Hatch’s main attraction. The fields around Hatch are full of chillies, the food is full of chillies, and dried red chillies hang in bunches, Mexican style, from virtually every store door. Someone should do a cilli word count – they manage to get it in everything. There’s even an annual chilli festival with tastings, horseshoe tossings and the crowning of a chilli queen. It’s a nice town, that started as a railroad flag station and post office, and hasn’t changed much. Well worth a lunch stop.
I spent longer than I meant, making Dave sit next to Ronald MacDonald, then Colonel Sanders, then Ronald again, so by the time we took the curving, hilly road from Truth or Consequences down into Cuchillo, the sun was already low in a navy sky and the world had turned deep orange. Ghost towns are very quiet places, and rolling up at the old, abandoned bar for the night as the temperature was dropping and the light was going made me think: Hmm.