Beyond Santa Fe

The Inn of the Mountain Gods is a ski and golf resort in New Mexico owned by the Apaches. Other little-known tourist attractions are the cowboy town of Lincoln, the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site and White Sands National Monument.

For most of us, the word “Apache” does not immediately bring to mind snow and skiing. Or hospitality either, given the Apaches’ legendary reluctance a century and more ago to yield their homeland to aggressive newcomers. But today, on a tribal reservation in south-central New Mexico, Apaches are building a reputation in both areas.

Attractive young woman ice skating during winter

Secret Corner of the World

It is just one of many pleasant surprises in a little-known section of the state, 250 miles and fifty years away from the bustle of Albuquerque and the hustle of Santa Fe. Local people still like to refer to the Mescalero Apache Reservation and its environs as their “secret corner of the world.” On the map, the area I’m talking about embraces Lincoln and Capitan on the north, and Ruidoso, Mescalero, Alamogordo, and Cloudcroft on the south, and it reaches down to touch the dazzling White Sands National Monument. The variety and range of attractions here are exhilarating–and unexpected because for the most part popular opinion holds that southern New Mexico is a motorists’ moonscape, a flat, hot desert stretch between Texas and Arizona.

However, the area boasts two gracious hotels, each distinctive. There is expansive, spectacularly set Inn of the Mountain Gods, owned, operated, and aptly named by the Mescalero Apaches. Just over the mountains to the south is the comfortably quirky Victorian-era Lodge at Cloudcroft, built by railroaders who came to explore and exploit the region.

The Inn of the Mountain Gods is a quietly sophisticated 250-room resort set 7,200 feet into the sky, where it is overlooked by the sacred 12,000-foot Sierra Blanca. Here you can ski all day in winter, play golf or tennis in the summer, ski and golf on the same day in the spring, and hunt elk and bear in the fall. You can also swim, ride a horse, or have a descendant of the tribe of Geronimo teach you how to use a bow and arrow. And you can dance, or gamble electronically in the casino, late into the night.

Most intriguing is something intangible: the quality of the hospitality. Yes, on occasion the staff may lack the cooling efficiency you might expect in such a well-appointed place. Instead, they show a disarming shyness, more a personal than an institutional softness around the edges. “It’s like wrapping a real cute Indian blanket around you,” Fredda Draper says. She is the inn’s gentle general manager, one-fourth Choctaw, a former rodeo rider, who is possessed of a voice that can calm wild horses, not to mention the occasional unhappy guest.

When I asked Fredda what separates the Inn of the Mountain Gods from other places to stay, she didn’t talk about the big bright rooms, the ski slopes nearby, the six tennis courts, or the 6,800-yard par-seventy-two golf course, which has been rated one of the top twenty-five resort courses in the country. She didn’t talk about the man-made trout-stocked lake that mirrors the inn and the Sierra Blanca. No, she just murmured, “Go around out there with Frizzell Frizzell and you’ll know.”

golf course

“What gets me is when I come to work on the golf course, I can sit here among the ducks and the birds and see all the wildlife out there,” Frizzell Frizzell told me when I saw him later. The course’s only boundaries are forests of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, white oak and juniper, with wild roses tangled at their feet. The world was silent except for Frizzell and a gallery of birds in the branches. After a reflective pause, Frizzell continued, “The elk challenging each other to claim their harem tear up the greens so bad we sometimes can’t even mow it. And in the hot summer months, out there on the fifth hole and the twelfth hole, you can see a bear that wants to relax and take a swim. The wildlife has the right-of-way on this course. The golfers just stand and watch them and wait.”

“We’re all just competing with Mother Nature,” he added, and in the air hung the thought that trying for a tie would be enough. Born just down the road in Ruidoso (locally pronounced “Reea-doe-sah”), Frizzell is quietly proud to be the only Native American golf-course superintendent in the country, as far as he knows, just as Fredda Draper is pleased that half the thirty-six hotel departments she runs are managed by Native Americans. (For more information about the Inn of the Mountain Gods, where room rates range from $95 to $115 a night.)

Ski Apache

The tribe also owns and operates Ski Apache, about twenty miles from the inn and just 130 miles from the Mexican border. Despite its southern situation, Ski Apache gets about 180 inches of snow a year. “This mountain stops a lot of weather,” says Roy Parker, who has run the facility for twenty-five years and who helped develop the fifty-three runs lacing the slopes. There are nine lifts and the only gondola in the state. The weather is supplemented by snow-making equipment on a third of the mountain, and the facility operates from Thanksgiving to Easter.

THIRTY miles from the Inn of the Mountain Gods is the village of Cloudcroft, in the pine forests of the Sacramento Mountains, which boasts the southernmost ski area in the country. Having made that point, the villagers will readily concede that the skiing is on a smaller scale than it is at Ski Apache; Cloudcroft is more a place for family fun. Its 9,200-foot altitude helps produce about 125 inches of snow a year; snow-making equipment has just been installed. There are twenty-six ski runs, a few miles of cross-country trails laid out across the lodge’s nine-hole golf course, and ice-skating, among other winter sports, nearby.

But the leading attraction is the area’s second beautiful hotel, the Lodge at Cloudcroft, a creaky, comfortable old inn, Bavarian on the outside, English on the inside, with wooden staircases, unexpected landings, and wandering floors all choosing their levels. It also has an outdoor sauna and a heated pool with a whirlpool tub. The lodge has just forty-seven rooms, and no two rooms, stairways, or hallways are alike. The staff likes to tell visitors that Clark Gable and Judy Garland stayed here; Agatha Christie would have felt right at home. The rooms are cozy, and some cuddled up under the caves, afford a view of the sun as it sets into the White Sands. This would be an excellent place to have to endure a three-day snowfall.

Snow, rain, or sunshine, some might choose the Governor’s Suite, which is supposedly the favorite room of the lodge’s resident spirit, Rebecca. She is said to have been red-haired, beautiful, and unfortunate enough to be found by her lumberjack lover in the arms of another man. Rebecca never stayed in this suite when she was alive–but all the governors of New Mexico have done so. (For more information about the Lodge at Cloudcroft, where room rates range from $70 to $110, and suites go for $169-$179.)

IF you can bring yourself to leave these seductive settings, outside lies a varied world that, unlike many tourist areas, never offers the same kind of photo opportunity two days in a row. On a fifty-mile drive, you can browse among pre-Columbian artworks and space-age artifacts, learn legends of cowboys and criminals, witness Apache traditions, and partake of the natural beauty of white snowfields, White Sands, and wildfire.

A visit to the Apache Cultural Center, in Mescalero, offers an intimate insight into the lives and times and traditions of the Apaches. When I stopped by, Ellyn Lathan, the curator, mentioned that over the next few days a young woman’s coming-of-age ceremony would be taking place in an isolated meadow known as White Tail. The elaborate family festival involves rituals early in the morning and late at night for four days; visitors are welcome to attend so long as they do not ask questions and do not take pictures. When I turned up at the ceremony the next morning, the Apaches took no notice of me, but allowed me, like their tribal guests, to observe the ritual and even to share in the ceremonial feast that followed.

In Lincoln, there’s another culture. This one-street cowboy town was a shooting range for Billy the Kid, the patron saint of gang warfare. The five-day Lincoln County War was a clash in 1878 between groups working for rival merchants. Billy was a hired gun for one side. He killed “a number” of people, among them at least two lawmen, and then made a famous escape from the county courthouse. His path remains well marked with bullet holes and speculative descriptions. The town is quiet now, and the lore of the war is served up in an oddly non-commercialized way, the point of which seems directly to be the prompting of a visitor’s imagination.

Just up the road a few miles, at Capitan, is a lovely state park honoring another kind of American folk hero, Smokey Bear, who is now celebrating his fiftieth anniversary as the national symbol of wildfire prevention. The two-and-a-half-month-old cub that became Smokey was found here, in the Lincoln National Forest, clinging to a tree after a forest fire. When he recovered from his burns, he was drafted to represent the mythical Smokey, and a patriotic Second World War-era character invented to help protect timber needed for the war effort. The small, neat museum in the park incorporates a surprising array of material, including garnish wartime propaganda posters warning, “Careless Matches Aid the Axis.” Smokey Bear is buried here in a quiet garden.

Ruidoso, where West Texans come to escape the heat in the summer and to ski in the winter, could, if it tried, introduce the world to a lifestyle that might be called Tex-Swiss. It is full of alpine-looking motels and lodges to appeal to every budget, and cooking that is down-home, no matter where home might have been. It is also the site of Ruidoso Downs, the country’s premier quarter horse racetrack. Here the right horse can sprint a quarter mile in twenty seconds or so and earn a million-dollar purse. Next door is the Museum of the Horse, dedicated to the role that the horse has played in the evolution of the West.

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

By visiting the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, you can get an interesting view of what the West looked like before the horse got here. This desert outpost lies along a well-marked ridge where Native Americans overlooking the valley about a thousand years ago seem to have passed the time by sketching on the rocks. Archaeologists haven’t quite figured out the meanings of all the pictures.
As I stood on the ridge, I reflected that the mountains and the deserts around me probably looked much like what the earlier inhabitants saw when they sat in the same place and began to draw.

The art includes etched masks, sunbursts, animals, strange geometric shapes, and some unknown human beings’ very personal signatures, handprints, to remind us that they were here once too.
To the south, in a place called Sunspot, visitors can see a different kind of sunburst. The National Solar Observatory/Sacramento Peak is here; unlike star-watching observatories, it does most of its work in the daytime. There is a small, self-explanatory display, but more intriguing is that visitors can see what the telescope is showing–the continuously flailing activity on the surface of the sun. Then there is the International Space Hail of Fame, in the missile-testing community of Alamogordo, and, nearby, the breathtaking White Sands National Monument. (The New Mexico Department of Tourism has more information on all the various attractions of the region.)

An easy self-guided sixteen-mile driving tour will take you through the undulating dunes of snow like gypsum at White Sands. The dunes, some of which are thirty feet high, are inviting to climb, and it is fascinating to wander among the surrealistic plant life that has adapted to this strange environment. In the heart of the dunes area, the road itself is pure-white hard-packed gypsum, plowed in banks along the roadside like any winter highway. The park closes a half-hour after sunset during the winter months. But from Memorial Day until Labor Day you may picnic among the dunes at sunset and tour the park until ten at night. It is, I thought, the place God must have been imagining when He created moonlight.

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