Published: December 17th 2012November 1st 2011
Lincoln County Courthouse
The courthouse where Billy the Kid made his famous escape from the second floor.
Smokey Bear State Park
All drives through national forests, and I have been doing quite a bit on this trip, pass wooden signs of a bear wearing a forest service ranger hat and levis, holding a shovel [see The best raft trip in the United States
The signs state the fire risk in the forest.
Statues of this bear also appear outside many forest service ranger stations.
The bear, of course, is Smokey Bear
, the forest service mascot.
(FYI, his middle name is NOT
‘The’, no matter how many tourists state otherwise.)
People of a certain age remember that Smokey was once an actual bear.
I drove to Smokey Bear State Park
in Capitan to learn his story.
In the years after World War II, the forest service had a huge problem.
Large numbers of people starting camping in the woods.
Many of them were quite careless, starting a wave of forest fires.
To combat this, foresters decided on an educational campaign.
They wanted something involving cute animals to appeal to families.
The first version used characters from the Disney movie Bambi
, which had recently premiered.
The real Smokey Bear
That campaign was less than successful due to copyright problems.
Disney licensed the characters.
The forest service wanted their own.
They hired an ad agency in New York City to create one.
Many people liked the idea of a bear forest ranger, because kids think bears are cute but they are strong enough to be a realistic fire fighter.
The name Smokey came from the nickname of a deputy chief of the New York City fire department known for his education work.
The campaign launched in 1946.
Two years later a forest service crew was battling a human set blaze on Capitan Gap near the park.
They noticed a bear cub
running through the burning woods.
Their job was fighting the fire, so they left the bear alone.
One of crew did tell the local wildlife supervisor, Ray Bell, about it.
Bell told them to bring him the bear if they saw it again.
The next day, they found it, half burned to death clinging to what had once been a pine tree.
Bell sent it to an animal hospital in Santa Fe.
A small sampling of Smokey Bear items over the years
At this point, the state of New Mexico found itself the proud owner of an orphaned bear cub from a forest fire.
What should they do with it?
The head of the state forest service Elliot Barker had an idea.
He figured the Smokey Bear campaign would have a much greater impact if it featured an actual bear.
The federal government ultimately agreed, adopted the bear, renamed it ‘Smokey’, and sent it to live at the Smithsonian Zoo.
Over the next twenty five years, Smokey Bear became famous.
The forest service featured him, in both real and cartoon form, in advertising campaigns
, TV programs, and school specials.
Kids wrote Smokey letters by the millions.
The service started a junior ranger program
, based on those at National Parks, encouraging kids to learn about the forest and be careful with fire
Those who passed and took an oath of forest stewardship got a certificate from Smokey himself in the mail!
In 1975, Smokey Bear officially retired and moved to another zoo in North Carolina.
For a brief period the forest service
How rangers plotted smoke plumes in the 1950s.
tried to replace him with a new bear, but quickly discovered there could be only one real Smokey.
All of the campaigns since have only featured the cartoon version.
Smokey himself died four years later (very old in bear years); he was subsequently buried in Capitan, near his birth place in the park now named for him.
The park itself contains two sections.
The first covers Smokey Bear’s history.
It’s absolutely filled with memorabilia.
One wall is just posters from campaigns over the years.
A memorable poster features a little bear cub trying on an enormous ranger’s hat, an advertisement for the junior ranger program.
Monitors show programs where Smokey appeared over the years: news programs, talk shows, guest spots on Saturday morning cartoons, and everything in between.
One panel talks about the Smokey Bear balloon
, which has appeared in multiple Albuquerque Balloon Fiestas [see Is Ballooning Just a Bunch of Hot Air?
It’s very first flight ended with an ignominious crash
into a radio tower.
The section also features a single plush toy of another character that will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1970s: Woodsy Owl
, Smokey Bear’s
counterpart from an anti-litter campaign.
The second section covers forest fires
Until fairly recently, the forest service had a policy of suppressing all forest fires.
That allowed a dangerous build up of dead wood, creating the conditions for enormous fires that nobody could contain.
Yellowstone dramatically demonstrated the problems with this policy in 1988 [see Those peaks
Now, the forest service only fights fires that are either man made or threaten built up areas.
Unfortunately, the United States has plenty of those, and they are appearing more frequently
To stop a fire, fire fighters must break something called the fire triangle
Fire needs three things to survive: Fuel, oxygen, and heat.
Remove any one, the triangle breaks and the fire goes out.
Dumping water or other liquid on a fire removes heat.
Digging trenches removes fuel.
Smokey’s shovel was one of the main trench tools in the 1940s.
Setting smaller controlled blazes near the main fire also attempts to burn out fuel.
In a kitchen fire, spraying foam or other extinguisher on it removes oxygen.
That doesn’t work in a
Lincoln Main Street
Downtown Lincoln, once the most dangerous spot in New Mexico
forest thanks to the porous soil. Fighting forest fires
has always been tough dangerous work.
In the old days people mostly used axes, shovels, and portable water pumps.
Now firefighters have high tech clothing, oxygen masks, earth moving equipment, and much else
They still remove lots of fuel using axes and carry water pumps.
The park has a rare copy of a 1940s spotting scope used to locate smoke plumes.
It pivots around a map of the area around a lookout tower.
With the scope aligned, the map shows the location of the plume.
Two panels near the end talk about a phenomenon veteran fire fighters call the “zone of stupidity”.
Many people like to build houses in the woods.
Most of them like to have trees close to their house to create a rustic look.
None of them give a thought to the fact that if the woods caught on fire, their house quickly would as well
In these zones, houses are close enough to each other that a fire originally spreading tree to tree quickly spreads house
John Tundstall's player piano
Tundstall was fairly wealthy, as something like this shows
to house instead, becoming that much larger in the process.
These zones exist all over the west, most notoriously the outer suburbs of Los Angeles
Smokey’s gravesite sits outside the museum.
A short walkway passes samples of native New Mexico plants.
It leads to a large boulder with a plaque proclaiming it the final resting place the famous bear.
Nearby, a carved version clings to a tree.
The path also has one of the Smokey Bear signs from the 1950s.
Ironically, the one place people would expect to have Smokey Bear junior ranger kits has none at all.
The kits are produced by the national forest service, and Smokey Bear Park is a state park!
Instead, the information people hand out the address in Washington DC where people can write to get one.
Lincoln County War
Afterwards, I headed east to Lincoln
, the site of one of the bloodiest outlaw wars in the history of the wild west.
It brought fame to one William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid
Although the entire town is
Lincoln County War artifacts
Items used by participants in the Lincoln County War
authentic to the period, it looks quite underwhelming these days, a set of buildings along the highway.
The entire town is now a state park
The history is what makes it important, so I headed to the history museum first.
The blood soaked story of Lincoln starts with an army fort, Fort Stanton
It was established in 1855 as a base for soldiers trying to subdue local Apache Indians.
Lincoln grew up near the fort, and became the county seat of Lincoln County.
The fort needed supplies, including a steady supply of beef cattle.
The Circle, the group of businessmen that ran New Mexico as a personal fiefdom [see The Reality Behind a Myth
], ensured that lucrative contract went to one of their affiliates, Lawrence Murphy
In addition to ranching, he owned Lincoln’s one general store, making him a one man local monopoly.
To enforce his control, he assembled a private police force called “The House”.
They proved very effective in scaring off potential competitors.
In 1874, Irish immigrant Alexander McSween
moved to town and started a ranch.
He decided to challenge Murphy’s
Interior of the Murphy Store after the war. Nearly everything is original.
monopoly by forming a partnership with another recent arrival, Englishman John Tundstall
, to open their own store.
The House responded as they responded to previous challengers, by burning down McSween’s ranch multiple times, and harassing both men in the streets.
Unlike previous men who took the hint and hightailed away, Tundstall decided to retaliate.
He gathered his own group of gunfighters, cattle rustlers, and other shady characters, The Regulators
, to take on The House.
One of those gunfighters was the eighteen year old outlaw Billy the Kid.
The House responded by shooting Tundstall dead in 1878.
The Regulators then retaliated by killing multiple House members, including sheriff William Brady.
It escalated into a series of daily gun battles now called the Lincoln County War
The unusual part here was the scale; many other areas had battles over grazing land or mineral rights.
The war finally ended when The House managed to surround The Regulators when they were meeting at McSween’s house.
The House set the building on fire with a cannon from Fort Stanton.
The Regulators came out shooting, launching a desperate three
Billy the Kid shackles
Leg irons allegedly used by Pat Garret to hold Billy the Kid
day gun battle.
McSween was killed in the melee.
Regulator members that survived fled town, and the war was over.
One of the war’s more mythologized moments actually happed after it was over.
The new Lincoln County sheriff, Pat Garret
, tracked down and arrested Billy the Kid in April 1881.
The town had no jail at the time, so Garret shackled the Kid and locked him in the second floor of the county courthouse.
While still shackled, Billy the Kid managed to overpower his guard
, steal his gun, and escape.
He killed two deputies along the way.
After Billy fled Lincoln, Garret vowed to hunt him down and kill him on sight.
Several months later he did, in Fort Sumter New Mexico.
Like most western history museums, this one has notable artifacts.
It has the player piano that once belonged to John Tunstall.
Owning one on the frontier showed his wealth.
The museum has saddles and uniforms from cavalry officers once based at the fort, including a company of buffalo soldiers.
It has copies of letters written by several participants,
Billy the Kid kill number one
Billy shot a deputy on the grass below while still shackled
including one from a Regulator member indicating he will die soon.
Those lead to a room containing portraits and biographies of many participants.
Most share a similar theme, drifting through the west living by their guns.
Many suffered gruesome fates.
The last section covers the war in popular culture.
The Lincoln County War, and Billy the Kid in particular, has become part of the myth of the wild west.
It was a popular subject for western pulp novels in the 1920s, which inspired a few movies
The question becomes why this particular outlaw war become famous while others faded away?
The section contains the answer, although a museum docent had to point it out.
Pat Garret, the sheriff who shot Billy the Kid, wanted to become a politician.
To bolster his reputation, he had journalist friend Ash Upson ghostwrite a history of the battle
for him, with the sheriff and Billy’s importance rather exaggerated.
The museum has a copy.
Garret lost his bid for office, but the book became a bestseller, and the war was well on its way to becoming a
Billy the Kid kill number two
Billy shot a second deputy at the foot of the stairs. Note the grey spot, where people chipped the wall around a bullet hole.
I walked through the town after the museum.
Lincoln is amazingly well preserved, and looks much like it did during the war.
When a railroad reached the area in 1899, it bypassed Lincoln and most residents moved away.
Ironically, that authenticity makes the place look underwhelming to modern visitors.
that caused the entire fracas still exists.
After winning the war, Lawrence Murphy moved his own business into his rival’s building.
The state has restored it to its appearance in the late 1800s.
Glass bottles, tinware, and canned goods sit behind Victorian counters.
By this point it looks familiar, from similar stores in places like Columbia California [see A Miner, Forty Niner, and his Daughter, Clementine
After the war was over, McSween’s house was not rebuilt.
Its former location is now an empty field along the main street.
A sign marks the spot.
Billy the Kid's Escape
The far end of town contains a two story wood and adobe building, the county courthouse
where Pat Garret held Billy the Kid.
The first floor contains the fully restored courtroom.
High mountain valley in the Sacremento Mountains
By modern standards, it’s incredibly plain.
The judge sat on a high chair on a platform, with lawyers and jury on smaller chairs around it.
Nearby rooms tells the story of the Kid and his famous escape.
That leads to the stairwell, where Billy famously shot deputy James Bell on the stairs.
The wall at the bottom contains a bullet hole from one of his other shots.
The hole is larger than it should be, thanks to people chipping the wall for souvenirs.
The stairs lead to the room where Billy was held, now set up as another courtroom.
A glass display case holds a pair of shackles, supposedly the ones that held the famous outlaw.
A sign marks where Billy shot through a window to kill deputy Robert Ollinger outside after grabbing a gun.
After Lincoln, I drove south through the Sacramento Mountains.
This area is quite pretty, with lots of rolling slopes covered in pine trees.
The roadway followed a stream for a while through a wide mountain meadow.
It reminded me quite a bit of the Jemez Mountains
Reconstruction of the Cloudcroft Railroad station
to the north [see The Secret City
The beauty came to a quick end when I reached the town of Rusidio
Thanks to high elevation, this area is notably cooler than the sweltering deserts around it, and the town has become a big resort area.
The surrounding hills vividly illustrate the “zone of stupidity” discussed at Smoky Bear State Park, with expensive houses tightly packed in the pine forest.
Cloud Climbing Railroad Trail
Things improved further south at Cloudcroft
It’s also a resort area, but it’s higher, colder, and smaller.
It was once a huge lumber camp.
To get the trees to the valley below, the timber men built a steep railroad filled with switchbacks and elaborate trestles across ravines.
Workers called it the Cloud Climbing Railroad
The old railroad bed is now a hiking trail.
starts next to the restored station just outside Cloudcroft.
It’s a small Victorian building with a huge pitched roof.
The outer walls are painted yellow and brown.
Oddly enough, soon afterward the path splits from the old railroad grade.
It goes to an
Overlook of the route of the Cloud Climbing Railroad, ending at a barely visible Almogado
The view shows rounded mountains surrounding a very steep valley.
The valley leads to a large flat area in the distance with another mountain range behind it.
The flat area is brown and white, a desert.
The white part is the White Sands Desert, one of the most famous features of this part of New Mexico.
Past the overlook, the trail descends steeply down the mountain side.
It reaches the top of a rock ledge with a very narrow cut in it.
The cut was made for the railroad, and it’s called the Nose.
Soon afterward, the trail descends to the old railroad bed and follows it downward.
The trees in this stretch are all second growth pine.
The path finally reaches the former location of one of the railroads unique engineering feats, the S bridge.
Most railroad trestles are perfectly straight.
The railroad builders reached a very steep ravine that would be expensive to cross.
They curved the bridge around the side of the ravine instead, forming a layout that looks like the letter S.
Sadly, the bridge
All that remains of the S Tressle, once one of New Mexico's more impressive engineering feats
fell down in the 1940s, so only portions still stand.
Pine trees grow in the gaps.
One end of the former bridge has a signboard showing what it used to look like.
Daylight now fades early, so I turned around after the bridge.
Back at the railroad station, I had a long drive down through the valley I saw from the overlook.
It’s continuous and steep, at 6% grade.
After descents like the 12% Moki Dugway [see Cedar Mesa: Southeast Utah’s Wonderland
], that part was easy.
The road passes through dramatic changes in vegetation.
As the overlook showed, the valley begins in mountain pine forest and ends in empty desert.
The first stretch is all pine trees.
The roadway then passes a large fenced off parking lot, which is under construction.
I just got a glimpse of the reason, another railroad trestle near the road.
This one is restored, and looks directly out of some western movie.
The trees get smaller as the highway descends, and bushes start appearing.
The vegetation still looks like the mountains as the highway enters a tunnel near a
It exits into a world of bare rocks and bushes, open desert.
The valley ends soon afterward.
The highway ends in Almogado, the largest city in this area.
It was founded as a ranching center, but now caters to people working at nearby military bases.
The city will not win any awards in the beauty department; its central feature is a long strip of mall stores, fast food restaurants, and chain motels.
That strip holds a road trip nugget, though, a blast from the past.
When auto travel exploded in the late 1940s, people built independent motels along the major routes.
Towns along US 66 such as Gallup [see Rocky Mountain Highs
] became famous for them.
Sadly, most of these motels in the west have either closed or become fleapits.
Almogado holds one of the survivors, the White Sands Motel
It’s worth seeing for the blue neon sign alone.
The place is not fancy, but it is kept up and authentic.
I finally got the nostalgia trip I missed out on in Gallup and Grants by staying here.