New Mexico: Española to Las Cruces

April 26, 2018 • 10:30 am

This will be my penultimate travel post, as I arrived back in Las Cruces and will be here until Saturday,when I return to Chicago for a week. (Next: a gastronomic visit to Paris.) I did the long drive from Española to Las Cruces in one day, stopping for a few hours at the fantastic Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in the middle of nowhere.

This is what the middle of nowhere looks like, with the Ceiling Cat RentalMobile pulled over to show the ambiance. I love driving through big expanses of desert; it relaxes my mind, which is normally in a state of constant worry about what’s going to happen next. On a drive like this, what’s going to happen next is simply more driving. At such times I feel a kinship with Neal Cassady, who was born to drive.

One thing you can do is see how many “spot the animals” signs you can find. So far I’ve seen deer, elk, bighorn sheep, cows, and humans.

I had lunch at the nearly nonexistent town of Carrizozo (population about 940). Before I took off that morning, I did some Googling and found that the town harbored one good restaurant: the Carrizozo Cafe. It’s a small cute place full of locals.

I asked the man who ran it what he’d recommend, and he said the smothered chicken burrito with rice and beans.  I added green chile sauce. He asked if I also wanted pico de gallo and sour cream, and you know what my answer was.

Here it is: it’s simply the best burrito I’ve ever had, stuffed to the gills with hand-cut hunks of chicken breast. Oy, was I full! The standard of New-Mex food (i.e., Tex-Mex-style food with chiles) is very high, so that you can find a superb meal like this in the most unlikely places.

And on to Three Rivers, which I got in gratis with my “senior” America the Beautiful Pass, which gives me free admission for life to all federal recreation areas and National Parks and Forests. It cost me all of $25, a fantastic bargain. A year ago I heard they were going to raise the price, so I quickly ordered one. And, indeed, it’s gone up to $80—still a stunning value.

Here’s the Three Rivers entrance, a few miles to the east of Highway 54.

This ridge above the ranger station and campground is where most of the the petroglyphs are—there are about 21,000 in the area, making it one of the most important ancient Indian petroglyph sites in the world.

It was hot, but I was so fascinated by the drawings/carvings that I spent several hours in the sun without sunscreen, photographing the rocks. I got sunburned, but it was worth it. Here’s what Wikipedia says about this ancient art:

The petroglyphs are thought to be the product of the Jornada Mogollon people between about 1000 and 1400 AD. The site is protected and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management.

The petroglyphs at Three Rivers were recorded during a six-year project by the Archaeological Society of New Mexico‘s Rock Art Recording Field Schools.

They can carbon-date pottery shards, but they can’t date rock carvings, so these fall within a span of about 400 years.

Petroglyphs are created by either scratching away at the surface of the rock with another rock, or using two rocks to hammer away the oxidized patina that makes the rock dark (the rock underneath isn’t yet oxidized, and so is light); they are not painted onto the surface. They won’t last forever, as the etchings will be abraded and eroded away, but these have, in the dry climate, lasted for centuries.

See if you can make out what they depict. Some images are obvious; others, like the dotted cross-circle above, are problematic, and the ranger told me that scholars still argue over their meaning.

This is clearly some kind of quadruped, but what? A pronghorn? An imaginary animal?

You can see a nice gallery of the petroglyphs here; they’ve all been recorded for posterity by the feds.

A face:

Another enigmatic circle of dots:

Your guess is as good as mine:


Perhaps the most famous image in the park: a bighorn sheep pierced by three arrows.


Another bighorn sheep:

This looks like an owl to me:

These are animals and footprints; I’m told the footprint at the extreme left is of a bear, and there’s supposedly a puma footprint, too, as well as an animal pierced by an arrow. The site was, I’m told, much wetter when these petroglyphs were made than it is now.


A face:

Another face:

A human hand, which the ranger told me was genuine. Note that it has six fingers.

To me this looks like a lizard:

A geometric design:

Another lizard?

Here’s a bunch of petroglyphs in situ; this is how they appear when you’re walking down the mile-long trail:

What is this animal?

My guess is birds:

And, of course, latecomers couldn’t resist making their own petroglyphs, like this 114-year old piece of graffiti. You can generally tell the few “new” ones from the old ones by the degree of wear on the drawing.

A view from the end of the trail:

The remains of an early house at the site. I’m not sure what it looked like, but this is the foundation:

Another few hours and I was back in Las Cruces. Knocking at the door, I got no reply (Bill was in the back yard), but finally Boris came to let me in:

Boris likes to hang out next to my daypack. Can you spot the cat?

One more post to follow, including local noms.

39 thoughts on “New Mexico: Española to Las Cruces

  1. You were right. Never ate there. I did eat up the road maybe 5-10 times, though. I was at White Sands just about every week in 1999-2000, and we’d drive into Carizozo or San Antonio for green chile cheeseburgers.

    I did a quick GMaps search for the place we hit in Carizozo, but it appears closed now. Was close to the Lincoln County News, and was decorated with lots of trophy hunting heads of sheep, oryx, and elk. Maybe a jackalope or two as well. True NM character.

  2. The fifth to last picture looks like an opossum. The second to last picture of the sky and landscape is beautiful. The cat must be in the backpack.

    1. The cat’s behind the backpack, probably checking any interesting smells. You can see an ear sticking up from the left corner.

    2. I thought it could be a coati or a ringtail cat, which are found in New Mexico, but probably not. I think it’s definitely the now extinct New Mexico square-bodied opossum. Back in the day, as it were, there were evidently a number of now extinct square-bodied animals in New Mexico. Levity aside, I think your guess is a good one.

  3. Assuming the temperature must have been mild out there at this time of year. Very good photos to get the feel for the area Almost not a town is a good definition for many places out here in the great plains. We wonder what keeps many of these places going and often they do not.

  4. The first petroglyph looks like a roadrunner with a snake dangling from its beak. Roadrunners are quite adept at catching & killing snakes.

  5. There seems to me to be a distinct variation in the quality of the images portrayed on the rocks. I wonder if the more basic renderings are the work of children at play, much as modern kids will use a stone to scratch out a hopscotch frame on a pavement? There is certainly a child-like quality about some of the animals which remind me of the drawings by young children that one sees affixed to fridges or cork boards in every parents’ kitchen.

  6. Aw, this post made me so homesick. I was born in Ruidoso, and grew up in Tularosa.

    Driving those long, uninterrupted spans of road is the best!

    Looks like you’re having a wonderful trip under those sunny, blue skies. Enjoy that yummy food! I can never get enough.

  7. The “enigmatic circle of dots” looks a lot like the Aborigine symbol for water in Australia. It represents ripples in a pond when someone throws a stone in, and signifies a water source nearby.

  8. The petroglyph after “Another lizard?” is clearly an archer. Check out the size of his quiver! :o)

    On Thu, Apr 26, 2018 at 10:31 AM, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “This will be my penultimate travel post, as I > arrived back in Las Cruces and will be here until Saturday,when I return to > Chicago for a week. (Next: a gastronomic visit to Paris.) I did the long > drive from Española to Las Cruces in one day, stopping for a” >

    1. It certainly lasted longer. I wonder if Three Rivers Petroglyph site replaced Forbes Field Petroglyph Site

  9. I love the American deserts and the highways ,if i could i would spend the rest of my life just driving and staying in motels ,as long as no one has recently been murdered in the room i don’t care .

        1. Haha ,back in Sept 2005 my brother and myself arrived in Memphis when it was dark ,not the best time to arrive .
          Spotted one motel ,it was called the Lamplighter ,it was a real craphole only stood it for a few hours .

          Since learnt from the interweb that it is a place where ladies of the night do their business .

          Found another hotel which was much nicer .

          Would like to hire one of those giant motorhomes sometime .

  10. I have often found inexpensive restaurants in isolated small towns to have absolutely superb food.

  11. The only time I’ve seen petroglyphs in person was at Lake Powell. They are fascinating to look at; I can see why you got sunburned.

    I’d be hard pressed to say what my favorite burrito is since I’ve lived all over California, close to Colorado and Washington. All three states have glorious Mexican food. California Mission carne asada burritos would be in my top 3. There is a small joint in Pike Place market called La Vaca Burrito Express that has the best al pastor burrito I’ve ever had. Al pastor is a technique that came to central Mexico via the Lebanese. They combined their spit-cooking (gyro) technique with the local fare. One of the best Mexican meats imo.

    1. Ever been through Ventura back in the late 80’s? There was this little joint right on Ventura Avenue called Tepatitlan that had the best burritos I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a lot of burritos. Their breakfast burritos were really stand-out. I’ve never found anything even close anywhere else. But all their burritos were excellent and you could get anything in them. Cheeks, tongue, heart, whatever excites you. Beef cheeks were about as adventurous as I ever got. Delicious.

      I see on the internet that there is a place of the same name in about the same location, but it looks quite different. Much more upscale. Hopefully it is the same people merely making good on their well deserved success.

    2. I’ve always said that non-self conscious simple food syncretisms can be the most remarkably interesting items.

      The world’s curry traditions are fully of these, for example.

  12. Carrizozo is noted for its cherry cider.

    Beware of calling New Mexico food Tex-Mex with chiles. That could get you banned from the state. Folks here will point out that New Mexico was settled by the Spanish long before Texas and thus New Mexican food developed first. One of the big fights is about who invented the Frito pie, a bowl of fritos with chile, lettuce, tomatos, cheese, onions. Another grand fight is over spelling, chile vx. chili. I will have to go back and re-read Gustavo Arellano’s book, Taco USA to see what he says about the development of Tex-Mex vx. New Mexican.

    1. I thought these things would come up! 1. Jerry had some Carrizozo Cherry Juice today. 2. I told Jerry to call our food New Mex. He still compared it to Tex Mex!?! He is here for another day and a half. I promise he will be educated in the difference by the time he leaves. 3. We took him to Caliche’s where he could have had Frito Pie with Green Chile yesterday- but we were stuffed with our green chile cheese burgers. All is fun here.

    2. It’s always seemed to me that New Mexican cuisine is more . . . sophisticated(?) than Tex Mex. Not sure that’s exactly the right word, or enough words, but it is damn sure better than Tex Mex. I mean Tex Mex is great. But if I’ve got a choice it’s an easy choice to make.

  13. Jerry, I love watching your journey through the Southwest. You’ve got a group of fans next door – the Flasgstaff Freethinkers. Let us know if you drift this way and we can buy you a beer and show you around.
    Note – Keyhole sink is nearby and it has a Petroglyph depicting keyhole sink (a box canyon) being used for hunting… kind of a “how to” manual.


  14. The “Your guess is as good as mine” petroglyph looks, to my artists eye, like a heavily stylised cactus.

Leave a Reply