Renegade Roads

Trailing Billy

Looking back at 21 years on the trail of a 21-year-old Kid.

Last October I made my umpteenth trip to New Mexico from Arizona where I live.

Like the preeminent Billy the Kid scholar Fred Nolan and master collector Bob McCubbin, I blame a book for leading me back to New Mexico. Not just any book, but the same book: The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns.

Of course, Bob and Fred read it long before I did, but the outcome has been the same. We are all addicted to trailing the Kid across the Southwest, but mainly at ground zero in Lincoln County where the Kid amassed the lion’s share of his legendary fame.

I took my first research trip to Billy the Kid Country in 1991. So basically I have been hunting the kid in earnest for the past 21 years. One year for every year of his life. Wow! Kind of amazing. This odd connection only means something to Kid Krazies like us.

In a concerted effort to walk where he walked and see what he saw, I have been down almost every road and trail the Kid took from Bonita, Arizona, to Seven Rivers, New Mexico, and Old Mesilla, Las Vegas and Puerto de Luna.

Not satisfied with the general public sites (warning: many of the historical markers are off by more than a little bit), the aforementioned Fred and Bob, along with numerous locals and Billy buffs, have helped me get to the sites that are on private property.

The late Joe Bowlin took me to Stinking Springs. Paul Northrop took me to Cook’s Canyon and Tunstall’s ranch (where we chartered an airplane and flew over the trail of Tunstall’s last ride). Lew Jones showed me William Antrim’s personal outhouse in Mogollon (Lew even salvaged a piece of the structure and made a plaque out of it, which hangs at my front door).

To say I’m a little Kid Krazy about this stuff is to channel Dave Barry’s cogent observation, “There is a fine line between hobby and insanity.”

But on down the road we go. And if you follow my advice, you too can see everything I’ve seen, with the possible exception of the Luceros dragging a dead horse (read on).


The Kid Zone Highway

I have always approached the Kid Zone from Arizona. As the years have gone by, I have gravitated away from the freeways and almost exclusively to the back roads. My favorite route is to drive into New Mexico from Springerville. This road is serene with little traffic and plenty of high and lonesome grand vistas. Red Hill, Quemado, Pie Town, Datil and Magdalena glide by like a montage of classic Westerns scenery.

After a stop in Socorro for gas, I take a quick  10-mile dip down I-25 and then exit at San Antonio, which, ironically, is the hometown of the founder of the Hilton Hotel chain (hard to believe Nicky Hilton grew up in this small Mexican community). Early on, my family discovered the Owl Bar & Restaurant, famous for its green chile cheeseburgers, and we have made it a family tradition to stop here on our way to Lincoln. About five years ago, the Buckhorn opened up catty corner from the Owl, and they are fierce competitors. The Owl is owned by Republicans, and the Buckhorn is owned by Democrats, which gives new meaning to green vs. red chile.

Virtually every trip I see the same old windmills, worse for wear, but still standing. Meanwhile, the jagged landscapes, like Trinity Flats and the Malpais (Badlands), never fail to jog my memory back to previous trips. Invariably I’m haunted by the fact that the Kid saw these same ridges and valleys, rode through them with the Boys, laughing and shooting up the landscape.

I love to stop at all the roadside attractions. Of course, my own father rarely stopped on our annual summer trips to Iowa to visit the family farm, but when he did stop, it made a huge impression on me as a kid. A rare stop at the Longhorn Museum, 43 miles east of Albuquerque, in 1959, resulted in me buying an alleged photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett standing side by side. I paid a quarter for it. When I found out it was a fake (in the pages of this magazine), I went on the warpath to find the real Billy the Kid.

I’m still looking.

It was 1984 before I made it to the Kid’s grave in Fort Sumner. By then, I had kids of my own. After hitting hail at Vaughn, we arrived too late to get into the Old Fort Sumner Museum. I went outside to the cage that surrounds the Kid’s alleged last resting place. As I stood there, trying to take it all in, I had the...

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