IT'S SATURDAY EVENING IN TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, and the band is kicking it up. That’s Robbie McFarland on rhythm guitar. She used to be a trick roper in rodeos. And talk about rough rides: As a girl, she was once swooped up by a tornado—“I flew without an airplane!” she likes to joke. Manion Long is on guitar, too. As a hobby, Manion restores old fiddles, including one that still carries the impression of its former owner’s palm worn into it. Berry Cox, tonight’s fiddler, sometimes plays for his horses while they gather around him to listen. And the keyboardist is Merlein Keller, who goes by Snooky. She learned to play when she was so young she couldn’t reach the pedals and the keys at the same time.
Music fills the room, classics like “Faded Love” and “Yellow Rose of Texas,” and couples spin around the floor, smiling. Others sit along the wall, tapping their feet and socializing. Snippets of conversations I hear around me become the lyrics to the songs: a two-step about the ingredients in a raspberry-coconut poke cake, a schottische about a sick cat, a waltz about the weather we’re having. The evening feels like something that was once almost lost but is now being reclaimed, a time when neighbors gathered to enjoy one another’s company, to bicker and banter and be together.
1. The New Mexico Old Time Fiddlers Association
Put this on your calendar: The New Mexico Old Time Fiddlers Association hosts a dance with live music every Saturday evening (Fiddlers Playhouse; 710 Elm St., 7–9 p.m.). It’s also the No. 1 entry on this list of 20, because it’s a good example of Truth or Consequences today: a place where time-honored traditions mix with interesting new ventures, where residents tending the best legacies of the past are joined by an up-and-coming cadre of creative cool kids committed to helping the town explore new horizons. It attracts health seekers and snowbirds, as it has for decades, but this town of about 6,300 holds hopes for a new era of visitors, aided by a possible Spaceport boom and carried out amid a quirky blend of hippies, artists, entrepreneurs, and two of the richest men in the world: Ted Turner and Richard Branson. With its varied history, its friendly and welcoming nature, and even its abiding eccentricities, Truth or Consequences is a seeing-is-believing destination for travelers who don’t mind taking a slight detour from the mainstream.
I have my own traditions here. Almost everything in Truth or Consequences invokes a memory in me—some as richly detailed as if they happened the day before yesterday, others weathered to the point that only impressions remain, like the faded outline of a palm on an old fiddle. This is where I lived the seminal years of my childhood, inserted here from cold Vermont in 1973, at the age of nine, with my equally frostbitten family. This is where I learned those things that new New Mexicans must all learn sooner or later. Like not to pick up a cactus with your bare hands, and what an arroyo is, and that the towns of Arrey and Derry don’t rhyme (the former sounds like “array,” the latter like “dairy”).
Here, then, are 19 more things to love about Truth or Consequences—or T or C, as many locals call it. And some memories along the way.
2. That Name!
The whole thing began when radio and television producer Ralph Edwards, who emceed a game show known as Truth or Consequences in the 1940s and ’50s, sought a town that would change its name to that of his show. From the handful that applied, little Hot Springs, New Mexico, was chosen. The change became official on March 31, 1950, although not everything changed names. I attended Hot Springs High School, for example, not Truth or Consequences High School, sparing me jokes about studying at the School of Hard Knocks. For decades, Edwards came to town as host of the annual Fiesta, which carries on without him the first weekend in May, with a parade, a fishing contest for the kids, and a junk boat race down the Río Grande. They named a park for him that you can play in, at Riverside and Cedar.
3. To Bare is Human; to Soak, Divine
The National Park Service has designated a large chunk of Truth or Consequences as the Hot Springs Bathhouse and Commercial Historic District, recognizing the long history of geothermal mineral baths that gave the town its original name. Today, 10 bathhouses are in operation, each offering a unique experience. At La Paloma Hot Springs and Spa and the adjoining La Paloma Too, you can soak in warm mineral water that, because of the sunken grade of this historic bathhouse, seeps naturally from the ground. On a recent visit, I perfected my soaking technique: wade in to knees, then waist, splash water over shoulders to adjust, then neck. After which, joy. A sign in the outside room sums it up: PLEASE WHISPER. OTHERS MAY BE IN MEDITATION. La Paloma Hot Springs, 311 Marr; La Paloma Too, 300 Austin St.; (575) 894-3148.
At Blackstone Hotsprings Lodging and Baths, most of the baths are in the guest rooms themselves. And each mid-mod, urban-industrial room is themed around a classic television show, in the spirit of how the town was named. The As the World Turns room has a globe on the shelf and photos of the soap opera’s actors on the wall. Superman has a phone booth that doubles as a closet. There’s a Jetsons, a Golden Girls, and even a Twilight Zone. The epicenter here, though, is surely the Wet Room, a shared spa that boasts a mineral bath and a hot-water sauna, each with its own waterfall. 410 Austin St.; (575) 894-0894.
A curve on the river where Pierce’s Minnows stood when we lived here has been reborn as Riverbend Hot Springs, T or C’s newest resort spa. Riverbend has a variety of public and private soaking options—including my favorite: a dip in the renovated tanks that once held those minnows. I chose to indulge recently in one of the outdoor pools that line the banks of the Río Grande. It was like being suspended in some warm netherworld, with the river drifting past below and the clouds floating above, the water caressing my skin, the sun tickling my face. 100 Austin St.; (575) 894-7625.
4. Something Old, Something New
My parents ran the Montgomery Ward store in town. It was a catalog store, so you placed your order and then you waited while the product didn’t come in, eventually getting notice that your washing machine was a “Ship Later,” which is exactly what it sounds like and induced exactly the frustration you’d expect. Ward’s is gone, but there’s plenty of interesting shopping in T or C—and no ship-laters. These days, independent shopkeepers along Main and Broadway have filled their stores with retro furniture, consignment clothing, souvenir crafts, and here and there a doodad. There’s even Hot Springs Barber Shop (619 N. Broadway St.; 575-322-4502), one part old-style shop, one part museum, where you can get your hair cut while admiring the historic seats that were once in the old movie theater (see No. 8). Park the car and take a stroll: T or C has a high walkability factor.
5. Something Borrowed, Something Blue
A stop along the migration route for snowbirds, health seekers, and travelers since its founding, T or C has its share of historic tourist courts. In recent years, new owners have renovated some of these properties to blend their historic character with more modern tastes. In 2011, Val and Cydney Wilkes purchased the former Red Haven Motel, a property originally built in 1948. Val, a general contractor, did much of the restoration herself. Today, the red bricks of the renamed Rocket Inn shine in the morning sun, and the cozy rooms offer a calming ambience. The name nods to the history of rockets in the state; the room names expand on that promise: among them, Apollo, Jupiter, and—defiantly—Pluto. 605 N. Date St.; (575) 894-2964.
Parts of historic downtown T or C have become a kaleidoscope of color, thanks to the rental properties operated by Sidney Bryan, including a renovated motel painted purple, the two-story pink building known as the Pink Pelican, and the wonderful red Pelican Spa, a historic bathhouse built in 1939. The rooms come in a vibrant palette, including persimmon, aqua, and, of course, pink. My favorites might be the Asian-themed rooms that open onto a simplified courtyard pagoda. 306 N. Pershing St.; (575) 894-0055.
6. Be Merry—Eat, Drink
Every Thursday evening, my family would try to best the all-you-can-eat enchilada casserole at the old Turtleback Inn and Restaurant. The server miscalculated our check every time and thanked me when I corrected her math. Years later, I realized she was doing it on purpose so that I’d look smart. While the Turtleback Inn is no more, I now get to look smart by touting these places:
Latitude 33 specializes in “pan-Asian eclectic,” owner Joseph Schmitt told me, with a menu that mixes traditional Asian dishes with locally grown South-western ingredients. I recommend the Kitchen Sink Stir Fry, a heaping mix of rice, vegetables, and a protein, flavored with a red chile sauce. 304 S. Pershing St.; (575) 740-7804.
The award-winning BellaLuca serves wild-caught seafood, rich pasta plates made with local and organic ingredients, and an “exceptional paradigm of hearty Italian food made à la minute,” according to owner Jessica Mackenzie, who opened the restaurant on Valentine’s Day in 2008 and has won Wine Spectator awards for five years running. 303 Jones St.; (575) 894-9866. (Note: This business has closed since this story was originally published.)
The baked goods at the Passion Pie Cafe are so fresh from the oven that the staff keeps the doors of the cases open so the insides don’t fog up. The Pie, as it’s known locally, opened five years ago, the creation of four women who noted the absence of a coffee shop in town and did something delicious about it. Today it’s “all about love through food,” co-owner Judy Reagan says. 406 Main St.; (575) 894-0008.
Along with nutritional supplements and a wide selection of spices, the Turtleback Oasis Natural Market and Café cooks a fresh menu of skillets, sandwiches, and smoothies for breakfast and lunch, with vegetarian-friendly and gluten-free options. 520 N. Broadway St.; (575) 894-0179. (Note: This business has closed since this story was originally published.)
Grapevine Bistro owner Mario Portillo tells me that if one guest orders the Dynamite Grilled Cheese Sandwich, the kitchen gets ready for similar orders once other patrons see it. I tried it, and, yes, resistance is futile. 413 N. Broadway St.; (575) 894-0404.
7. What the Cool Kids are Up To
Sometimes you walk into a building in T or C and see an angel twirling from a roof beam. Or so it seemed, when I stuck my head into the former ice house building and saw Jeannie Ortiz, who performs aerial silk—dancing and moving acrobatically in the air while suspended by two long pieces of silk. She was practicing for a performance at an upcoming reggae dance party. Both the venue and the event are the creation of the Goat Heads, a group of energetic young people who are amping up the town’s hip factor. Their vision, founder Wendy Tremayne told me, includes concerts with performance art, tech-based art, lectures, and other events that will, Wendy promises, “inspire the community.”
8. Movie Night
When the movie Earthquake played at the old El Rio Theater in 1974, it came with something called Sensurround: a row of giant speakers that shook the seats with low-frequency bass. I was sure the whole thing was going to kill us. (It didn’t, if I remember correctly.) While the El Rio is gone, the El Cortez Movie Theater is old-school movie night at its best. You’ll sense the 1930s ambience with a sweet neon marquee, classic movie posters in the lobby, and concession items still affordable to the middle class. The theater was one of the last in the nation to switch from film to digital—but the old film projection equipment is still intact, projectionist Moshe “Mo” Koenick told me, in case we ever revert. But the best part happens before the movie, when Mo or the owner, Mark Giardetti (often accompanied by his four children), stands before the screen, makes announcements, and welcomes everyone. Being personally asked to “enjoy the show” makes it easy to oblige. Showtimes are at 7 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturdays. 415 Main St.; (575) 894-4914.
9. Spacing Out
Someday our bucket lists will all include the entry “visit space,” and we’ll have Spaceport America, along with its major tenant, Richard Branson, to thank. Until then, there’s the Spaceport America Experience. Start-ing at the Spaceport Visitor Center in T or C, you take a shuttle to the Spaceport, about a half hour out into the desert. There you’ll visit the awe-inspiring terminal and hangar facility, along with Gateway Gallery exhibits that include a “Magic Planet,” which can simulate Earth or other planets in the solar system. You can also ride a centrifugal trainer, provided the name, G-SHOCK, doesn’t intimidate you. A walk down the Astronauts Walkway will make you think you have the right stuff, even if you never make it farther than that. 301 S. Foch St.; (575) 267-8055.
Retro trailers never goes out of style in T or C.
10. Secrets in the Sidewalks
When my history teacher in junior high first mentioned the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, I suddenly understood the strange messages embedded in sidewalks around town, like “WPA 1939” and “FERA 1935” (the Federal Emergency Relief Administration). Until that class, I’d thought a nefarious vandal named Wpa and his girlfriend Fera, whom I considered like Bonnie and Clyde but in graffiti terms, had left those signatures. They’re still there. So if someone here tells you to watch where you’re going, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. When you’re finished looking down, go to the post office (400 Main St.) and look up: The uppermost portion of the east lobby wall holds a beautiful and somewhat haunting mural by WPA artist Boris Deutsch, The Indian Bear Dance. Die-hard WPA aficionados will also want to admire the stonework on the old stadium entryway, now tennis courts, just east of the library at 325 Library Lane.
11. A Dam Site Better
The New Deal is also represented in the nearby town of Elephant Butte. Along with trails and community buildings, the Civilian Conservation Corps built casitas on the lakeshore in what is now the Damsite Historic District. Neal Brown, whose company is contracted to operate the property, is bringing these 1940s rental casitas back to their original allure. As we toured, two workers gently pulled a layer of stucco from the façade of one, revealing the original stonework beneath—the craftsmanship of an era once hidden. 77 B Engle Star Route, Elephant Butte; (575) 894-2041.
12. Elephant Butte Dam
While you’re at No. 11, pay your respects to Elephant Butte Dam and its popular lake, both of which turned 100 last year. The dam spurred development of the town of Hot Springs back in the early 1900s, and without its presence today, control of the Río Grande for irrigation and flood control downstream would be next to impossible. It’s closed to all traffic now—even hoof: Power-plant operator Jesse Higgins told me that his wife’s grandfather in the 1930s drove cattle across the dam to the railhead at Engle. Catch the best view of the spillway, dam, and reservoir from the pullout atop NM 51, at its intersection with NM 177.
13. Turning the Page
The day after we bought a house and had a permanent address, my mother marched my brother and me into the library and secured our library cards. I’ve never been without one since. Books are a big part of my memories here and, with some great bookstores in town today, probably those of many other local residents as well. For 26 years, Xochi’s Bookstore and Gallery owner Stan Sokolow and his co-founder and ex-wife, Anne Foster-Sokolow, have amassed more than 30,000 titles from estate sales and book shows. “I’ve even crawled through dusty barns,” Stan told me. They specialize in Native American and Western-heritage books, as well as art, science, New Age, school yearbooks, geology, military history, and religion. This is the place all of us dream of being when there’s a blue rain falling outside and we have the whole day off. Children are especially welcome: They get to pick any book priced under six dollars and keep it for free. 430 N. Broadway St.; (575) 894-7685.
Some of T or C’s finest poets read their work every second Sunday of the month at Black Cat Books and Coffee. They’ve been doing so for 11 years now, long enough that three couples have met and married in the group. I listened as a welcoming group got poetic over topics ranging from love to politics to the politics of love. All this happens because bookstore owner Rhonda Brittan fell in love with Truth or Consequences when she first visited in 1997 on a cross-country tour of small art towns and opened a bookstore and coffee shop a few years later. While everyone is welcome, laptops are not so much: Rhonda prefers that people snuggle with a book or chat with other patrons. 128 N. Broadway St.; (575) 894-7070. (Note: This business has closed since this story was originally published.)
14. Walking the Walk
The three-mile Healing Waters Trail wraps around Truth or Consequences and hits pretty much every highlight in town. The southernmost portion traverses the brown hills near the river, which offer the best view of Turtleback Mountain. If you can’t see the namesake turtle right away, you’re either (1) trying too hard or (2) looking at too much of the mountain—his shell comprises the peak, and his front leg and head extend out from that. Trail brochures are available at the Geronimo Springs Museum. 211 Main St.; (575) 894-6600.
15. A Place to Remember
The Diane Hamilton Military Museum and the adjoining Veterans Memorial Park have an air of respectful stillness. The park features a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.—one of the four original replica walls that traveled the world, after which the founders of the museum purchased this one. Inside, the focus is on New Mexicans who served. Displays highlight individuals from the local area and include their ribbons, service history, life stories, and photos. “Honor those who served” is the message, and it’s never more poignantly conveyed than when it comes in such a personal, low-key way. 996 S. Broadway St.; (575) 894-0750.
16. Artful Lodgers
“It’s colorful and ever changing,” Sue Soaring Sun, of the Sierra County Arts Council, told me in characterizing the T or C art scene. And you don’t have to look hard to find it: Hotels, restaurants, stores, and even spas display art by local artists. Galleries line Main and Broadway streets, and the expansive RioBravoFineArt Gallery displays top-tier works of local and regional artists (110 N. Broadway St.; 575-894-0572). Look for the public art piece Joy—a steer made of recycled metal by assemblage artist R. William Winkler—at the corner of Main and Pershing. Time your visit right by coming on the second Saturday of any month, when Art Hop ignites the evening hours.
17. Gateway to Adventure
The elegant Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa was the best place in town to trick-or-treat when we were kids—they gave whole candy bars! Today, in addition to being a luxury hotel and spa, Sierra Grande is owned by Ted Turner and serves as the starting point for Ted Turner Expeditions—eco-friendly tours on his nearby Ladder and Armendaris ranches (see “A Turning Point in Turner Country”). If it’s outdoorsy, there’s a tour for it: horseback riding, photography, birding, hot-air ballooning, geocaching, mountain biking, fishing, and one just for desert sunsets. 501 McAdoo St.; (877) 288-7637.
18. The Play’s the Thing
The entertainment of choice growing up was flipping metal balls in the pinball machines at Ray’s Drive-In while “Afternoon Delight” played on the jukebox. Hard to top that, but the Truth or Consequences Community Theatre manages to do so. I attended a rehearsal for the one-man show entitled Vincent, based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Seasoned actor P.J. Waggaman’s voice rose full and strong, his hands conscripted to emphasize points, his face transformed with joy, anger, hope. Director Carol Anton has overseen plays for the theater since 1992, one year after it was founded. An all-volunteer crew builds the sets, makes the costumes, hosts mystery dinners, and often writes the scripts. Performances are at the Civic Center. 400 W. Fourth St.; (575) 740-2174.
19. Travels in Time
The mastodon skull at Geronimo Springs Museum has always been a favorite of mine. Besides that, they have pioneer stories, displays of arrowheads, Mimbres pottery, saddles, and barbed wire, a whole room dedicated to the history of the town’s name change, and a log cabin from the 1930s, dismantled from its original site in the Black Range Mountains and reassembled here. Look for the Old Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame display, lauding fiddlers from around the state and country. 211 Main St.; (575) 894-6600.
When I was learning to drive, back in high school, the roads leading to communities around T or C were my practice courses. They’re safe now—I got my license years ago. To the west is Hillsboro, a peaceful village in the foothills of the Black Range Mountains that was the seat of Sierra County before Hot Springs claimed the title. Go south from there to visit the BLM-managed ghost town of Lake Valley, then drive a short distance to answer the siren song of Hatch green chile. The historic towns of Cuchillo and Monticello lie to the north. Or you could visit Chloride and its Pioneer Store Museum, showcasing the inventory of an authentic 19th-century mercantile.
Despite all these great things to do, see, eat, and enjoy, and despite all the ways this town has rewarded me over the years, my favorite memory of T or C isn’t from childhood. It happened a couple of years ago, when I was hurriedly driving through town to outrun a storm. I saw two men sitting on a bench downtown, kicking back and enjoying that precursor to New Mexico storms when the air steeps itself in the fragrances of the desert. The sight reminded me that there might be good reason to slow down here. Some of the best things this town has to offer can be found in its smallest moments. Like the way your whole body quivers when you first dip your toe into the hot mineral waters, or the way Snooky lifts her hand so gracefully off the piano keyboard during quiet passages at a Fiddlers Dance, or the way a poem read on a Sunday afternoon at Black Cat Books connects you with another person’s intimate truth. These are T or C moments. They’re moments of simple joy, a joy without consequences.