Looking back at 21 years on the trail of a 21-year-old Kid.
- Written by Bob Boze Bell
- Published December 10, 2012
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 strange feeling of finally making it home. It was dusk, and the wind was howling from another summer storm rolling in. I didn’t want to leave, but my wife and kids wanted to go. Coincidentally, we were on our way to Iowa to visit the family farm. Some things never change.
Pretty Pecos Plazas
The beauty of this Renegade Road is that most of the Southwestern towns the Kid frequented are still small enough to get a genuine feel for his time and place.
None more so than Anton Chico. Pat Garrett got married in the church here. Locals joke that when the first Mrs. Garrett was asked if she would take the long-legged pig farmer and future lawman for her wedded husband, there was a long pause. Then she said, in a small, squeaky voice, “Sí.” (For the full humor, you have to hear it told by the locals.)
Another untouched-by-time plaza is Puerto de Luna, where Billy the Kid had his last Christmas dinner at the Grzelechowski adobe (still standing, proudly, but on private land). While you are in this area, I highly recommend you make it a point to visit Old Mesilla, Tularosa, Mayhill, Monticello, Pinos Altos, Mogollon, Hillsboro and Orogrande. While all of these towns may not have been directly involved in the Kid’s history, each one has the spirit of his time. I guarantee you will discover an insight to his life just by being there and experiencing the rich adobe history of each and every place.
The Center of the
Lincoln is the hub of the wheel, or “ground zero” for all things Billy. Make no mistake, you will find a ton of history soaked into the narrow, main street of this tiny town. It sits here, a century plus later, almost exactly as the Kid saw it in his time. No gas station, no video stores, no modern signs of any kind. It is my favorite Old West site, period. In fact, it is one of my favorite spots on the planet.
Fred Nolan has called it the “deadliest street in America.” Beyond the Kid and his illustrious shoot-outs on this street, numerous killings before and during the Lincoln County War happened here. It’s all hard to imagine today in this peaceful and idyllic spot.
As you travel through these towns, you’ll start hearing the Billy family connections. Almost everybody in New Mexico has one. A gas station attendant near Cubero offered this: “See that cabin back there. That was the hideout of Billy the Kid. When things got too hot over in Lincoln, this is where he came.”
When I politely tried to tell the pump jockey that no evidence supports the idea that the Kid ever made it this far west, the homegrown “expert” waves me off with, “How do you know? Were you here then?”
I’m always tempted to say, “You sure know a lot for being so damned dumb,” but I never do. Besides, as my friend Leon Metz so succinctly puts it, “What people choose to believe is a fact in itself.”
In Ruidoso, an antique shop owner, a pleasant Hispanic woman, asked what brought me to the mountain. “Billy the Kid,” I told her.
She smiled and immediately related a family story that one time, while the Kid was trapped by a posse, her grandmother had hid the Kid under her skirts.
At the time it seemed an odd story to me. I tried to imagine just how big that skirt was to hide an outlaw. As it turns out, this is a common story in New Mexico, and I’ve since heard it a half-dozen times. Often, in a variation on a theme, the Kid is hidden in a flour barrel, while the grandmother throws off the posse, but the message is the same: The native people loved the Kid so much, they would lie to the authorities for him.
Climbing up to Cloudcroft is a steep endeavor. It is hard to imagine any horse-drawn transport making these steep grades. These rugged mountains have swallowed up plenty of men. The cowboy brother of Sophie Poe, wife of the lawman who succeeded Pat Garrett as sheriff, was murdered by unknown marauders somewhere up here at a line shack. He was not the first, nor the last. These mountains hide many bloody secrets, from the Lincoln County War to the Apache Wars, right on down to the present border troubles.
As crude as it may sound, that brutal legacy makes these steep canyons much more appealing to me than the more touristy parts of northern New Mexico. These are true outlaw mountains. A palpable sense of Ride the High Country hangs in the air here. Don’t linger long, if you know what’s good for you, the wind says, loud and clear.
More Wild Tales
Every location in the Kid Zone has Billy the Kid folklore. In 1991, I was at a trading post near Vaughn, when an old women leaned over the counter and confided in me the following: “Old Johnson [a black man from Texas, and she didn’t use the term “black”] told me a rider came through here, ridin’ on a ridge out yonder. The rider told ol’ Johnson to go into town and buy him some breeches, tobacco and lemon drops. He did. Came right in here and bought ’em. Then he took it all out to the ridge. Later he found out it was Billy the Kid.”
Maybe the Kid really did favor lemon drops, or maybe the originator of the tall tale is the one with the sweet tooth.
What I do know is that you can find credible history in quite a few museums along these roads.
For starters, the entire town of Lincoln is a walking museum that you have to experience to believe. The Tunstall Store, the courthouse and the Montaño Store are all perfectly kept and restored. Also stop by Casa de Patron and marvel at the “prison” where the Kid was held for a time during the Lincoln County War. This used to be my headquarters when I landed in Lincoln; it was a popular B&B for several decades, but Cleis and Jerry Jordan have since retired.
The Wortley Hotel is an excellent place to stay; in addition, it is about the only place open for breakfast and lunch (try the green chile). Down the street, the Ellis Store is quite a treat. Tell them True West sent you, and they will pull out several artifacts to regale you with the history of their storied property. Every meal I’ve had there is wonderful, and the setting is quite historic as well.
One of the saddest losses to our history is the complete eradication of Old Fort Sumner, washed away by several Pecos floods in the 1930s. But the museum in new Fort Sumner is a must see, as is the gravesite museum. Stinking Springs is east of town about 12 miles and is on private property, but if you join the Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang, I’ll bet you will get a personal tour of the site.
Numerous sites around Lincoln could keep you busy for weeks. The fine folks at the museum will steer you right. Also, check in with our friend Drew Gomber, who gives tours of all the spots and is a fountain of knowledge about the area. Just for grins, ask Drew to tell you about his own gunfight in Lincoln, which he wants us to feature as a Classic Gunfight.
In Ruidoso Downs, stop by the Billy the Kid Casino. For one thing, the real Kid is probably prouder of his name on a casino than anything else on the trail. In Fort Sumner, he and Pat Garrett were known as “Long Juan” (that would be Garrett, being so tall) and “Little Casino” (the Kid). Ruidoso also has a nice museum, the Ruidoso River Museum, which exhibits some worthy Billy the Kid items.
The Plaza in Mesilla is another wonderful little gem on the Billy the Kid trail because it’s so unchanged. Here, you can easily see how this place looked when the Kid was being tried and convicted for the 1878 killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady in the adobe building on the corner of the plaza. You can imagine the Kid seated in a war wagon for the long ride to Lincoln where he was to be hanged. The Kid escaped that fate, of course, when he broke out of the Lincoln courthouse. Sheriff Pat Garrett got him in the end, though, shooting him dead at Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881.
Many believe the Kid cursed all the towns he operated in, but the bad luck of towns like Lincoln and Anton Chico is what makes them treasures to us today. Check them all out. You’ll be glad you did.
Bob Boze Bell is the executive editor of True West Magazine and the author of numerous books, including The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid.