Las Vegas, New Mexico, isn't much of a town these days. Its tumbleweed look and feel make it seem more like an afterthought than a destination. In fact, after barreling along the eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the way down I-25, most travelers settle for a quick refuel, occasionally asking "Where are the casinos?" at local filling stations. If only they knew the town's history, such a question wouldn't be far off the mark.
From 1821 to the late 1870's, Las Vegas was a major stop on the Santa Fe Trail, bringing settlers west from Missouri (the Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center, across from Rough Rider Antiques, tells the tale). But the pivotal moment in the town's history was the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad on July 4, 1879. With it came legitimate businesses, as well as a fair amount of riffraff, including murderers, thieves, gamblers, swindlers, and gunmen. Chief among them were the wily Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate,and noted desperado Billy the Kid. Indeed, the real Wild West started right here, 6,400 feet up in "the meadows" of New Mexico.
But these days, it's Las Vegas, Nevada, that gets all the ink. That got us thinking: Perhaps Vegas, Nevada, is the ersatz version of Vegas, New Mexico. Perhaps one is the reality, the other a tall tale writ large. What would a trek between these bookends of the Southwest tell us about each city, about the region, and even about America?
We'd always been interested in quests. In 1986 we left San Francisco and hit the road, publishing a public diary of our journey titled Monk, the Mobile Magazine from the dashboard of our 26-foot Fleetwood Bounder Monkmobile. We called ourselves monks because, like the Zen monks of Asia and the Christian peripatetics of Europe, we believed travel was transformative. Our quest at that time was to find the true spirit of each place we visited. This quest was similar: to travel from Vegas to Vegas in search of the real Southwest—except that we planned to complete this trip in four days, instead of 12 years.
Driving past the downtrodden outskirts of Las Vegas, New Mexico, we hit the town's dusty, historic core. Surrounded by bright blue sky and a gritty landscape exploding from rugged hills, we parked our aqua-green 1965 Chrysler Newport and walked past dirty pickups and scrubby pines. We felt like two outlaws in a spaghetti western. Like a lot of renovated towns, Las Vegas has a mismatch of landmarked buildings (more than 800 on the National Register of Historic Places) alongside drabpre-fab structures. The grande dame of the square is the three-story Plaza Hotel, which evokes the area's mining, gambling, and whoring boom. Pat Garrett and Voodoo Brown once stayed here, as did early cowboy-film star Tom Mix. Not much has changed since the glory days when the Plaza was the belle of the Southwest. The 36 rooms are still tall, quaint, and cozy. It feels like a good place to be trapped in a snowstorm.
A good hour west of Las Vegas on I-25 is Santa Fe, the epicenter of this region's philanthropic indulgence and, not coincidentally, the world capital of Native American schlock. Santa Fe, which bills itself as "the city different," is the nation's third-largest art-buying capital, even though it's really more about "arts and crafts." From the chintz and glitz of Canyon Road to the faux-Western shtick of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame restaurant, we decided that Santa Fe looked more like a theme park and less like the melting pot of the Southwest it pretends to be. So we found ourselves continuing on the Taos Highway in search of the real deal—except when most travelers to the Southwest go searching for the real deal, they mean humble potters working in quiet seclusion on one of the eight northern pueblos, or some rustic phantasm of Hispanic rural life conjured up after seeing The Milagro Beanfield War. But in northern New Mexico, Native American and Hispanic cultures are the mainstream. They form the basis of the area's huge tourism industry, including the annual Indian and Spanish markets, when thousands of locals make a handsome living off out-of-town collectors.
If you want real in these parts, you have to travel outside the Native American-Hispanic nexus. And once you do, it isn't long before you uncover a theme that unites all areas and peoples in the Southwest: the United States government. Not only are the feds the region's largest landowner and employer, but they've used the area as a vast nuclear playground, from the Trinity atomic site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to the outskirts of Santa Fe, traversed by WIPP nuclear waste trucks. Nowhere is the federal presence more apparent than in the former "secret city" of Los Alamos, New Mexico. It was here, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (better known as the Lab), that scientistscreated the world's first two atomic bombs.
We turned onto Highway 502 at the Cities of Gold Casino, our destination not the Lab, but rather an infamous repository of Lab detritus called the Black Hole, where Ed Grothus, a former Lab machinist, has spent the past several decades collecting experimental cast-offs and other non-radioactive junk. Approaching the Black Hole, we noticed a row of obsolete bombs lined up near the fence. Ed—or Atomic Ed, as folks around here call him—warily greeted us from his storefront as we examined water mines, bomb encasements, and large rectangular metal objects that looked similar to high-priced sculptures we'd seen earlier that day in Santa Fe.
Ed launched into a lengthy description of his collection, which soon segued into rants about government waste and cover-ups. But probing his wizened face, you might feel a little paranoid, too, knowing that he's been up close to what
J. Robert Oppenheimer called "the destroyer of worlds." Ed views the Black Hole as an unofficial museum of the nuclear age, a place where Lab artifacts are stored and often placed on sale. For $300 we could have driven away with a 1,000-pound bomb strapped to the roof of our Chrysler.
Leaving Los Alamos, we drove south on Highway 4 to San Ysidro, then north on 550 past Chaco Canyon, and up into northwestern New Mexico on Highway 64. At the junction of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, we found the Four Corners, a pointless (except maybe to play Four Corners Twister) tourist stop saved only by its proximity to some of the country's most stunning landscapes. Heading north from Kayenta, Arizona, as we drove past towering golden-red rocks looming like earthen cathedrals we witnessed an explosive light show from rolling thunderheads. Pitch-black clouds dumped torrents of rain in the distance while an electric storm seemingly orchestrated by Thorsent bolts of lightning across the horizon and down to earth while the descending sun shone brightly across the desert floor, flooding the valley with a near-blinding luminescence.