THE PLAINS OF EASTERN NEW MEXICO begin bending into gentle hills and folds—grass-coated dunes, some of which are still “actively migrating,” says Brendon Asher. The archaeologist and director of the Blackwater Draw National Historic Landmark and Museum points through the car window to a pocket in the landscape. “There’s a site in that hole that’s 9,000 years old,” he says. “There’s archaeology everywhere here.”
We’re on our way to the apex of that ancient life, a 156-acre site that upended the timeline of human habitation in North America. At Blackwater Draw in 1929, a lonely five-mile drive north of Portales, Clovis rancher Ridgley Whiteman came upon evidence of people hunting animals that were far larger than anything he could have imagined. Just three years earlier, archaeologists had confirmed that ancient people killed off a species of bison near what is now the town of Folsom, some 240 miles north of Portales. That discovery pushed back the people-were-here clock to 10,000 years, and scientists were still struggling to wrap their heads around that fact.
But these were no Bison antiquus bones, Whiteman insisted. They were enormous. He eventually persuaded archaeologists to study what turned out to be the remains of mammoths, themselves extinct before Folsom people ever aimed an atlatl at their prey. What came to be termed “Clovis man” likely roamed this region as many as 13,500 years ago.
“It’s important because it links people to this landscape, and it demonstrates the ability of groups 13,000 years ago to navigate across a landscape that today is pretty barren, and return to it over time through generations,” Asher says. “How do you communicate to your child how to get here? People today have a hard time finding the site.”
Hundreds of people from around the world do find the national historic landmark, along with its accompanying museum, on the Eastern New Mexico University campus, in Portales. For a city whose entire population can’t fill the University of New Mexico’s basketball arena, that says something. But if instead you measure a city’s size in heart—as well as in the tasty fare at locally owned restaurants, the cultural offerings and sci-fi attractions of the college, and the craft brews and local wine—then Portales stands tall.
“Our town may not be the best to look at, and we’re very self-conscious about that,” says Megan Hamilton, a founder of the family-owned Enchantment Vineyards. “But the people here are a blast.”
THE LONG, COVERED EXCAVATION PIT AT THE Blackwater Draw site gives us a respite from the seemingly endless winds of the high plains. Inside, its two tiers illuminate human life in the region—mammoth bones jumbled in a rectangular pit, indicating Clovis people, and Bison antiquus bones on a ledge above it, evidence of Folsom people. None of them stayed long, Asher says. Instead, they made periodic loops to what was then a small lake in order to find food. Differences in spearpoints help archaeologists divide their eras—Clovis points versus Folsom points—as do other artifacts, including pottery, stockpiles of tools, and Folsom-era campsites.
In a small room at the museum, Asher pulls a variety of spearpoints and butchering tools from boxes held in a series of cabinets. Made from stone that comes from as far away as Utah, Wyoming, and Texas, they range in size from the length of a thumb to a large hand.
“People think you need a big point to kill a big animal,” Asher says. “That’s not necessarily the case.”
Besides mammoths, Clovis people would have seen ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, pronghorn, and small camels—the prehistoric Camelops hesternus, one of which Asher hopes to excavate this summer with students and volunteers. That type of ongoing research is critical to understanding just what was going on all those years ago. “The Blackwater Draw site shows us two kill events separated by about 2,000 years,” Asher says. “Each represents, in their lifetimes, a single day, maybe a single afternoon. We’re missing so much of the picture.”
Drone photography has helped identify other potential sites, but many of them are on private land. East of Portales, near the Texas state line, the Grulla National Wildlife Refuge has yielded the grave of a young woman from about 11,000 years ago. The beads, ocher samples, and stone tools buried with her hint at what might have been a structured social order, one that held her in high esteem.
Comanche and Apache people later roamed throughout the region, which Spanish explorers dubbed the Llano Estacado, commonly translated as the Staked Plains. Among the most colorful naming theories is that the explorers had to hammer stakes into the mostly treeless plains in order to find their way back. Other theories contend that the name has to do with the geological escarpments that nearly ring the area.
The grassy plains represented manna to cattle ranchers, who put the first agricultural stamp on what became Portales. Later, peanut farms dotted the open lands, and most recently, dairies have grown into an economic force, thanks in part to favorable climate conditions for cows. Just beyond the town square, a set of grain silos emphasizes the lasting impact of the fruits of the land. Recently, one of the more decrepit silos could no longer age in place; residents lament its loss, says Jodi Diaz, executive director of the Roosevelt County Community Development Corporation.
From her office, we walk across the square, passing the handsome New Deal–era architecture of the Roosevelt County Courthouse, to pop in for cups of coffee at the Courthouse Cafe. It holds an array of coin-operated horses, cars, and spaceships—the kind that once bedecked grocery stores—along with a video-game arcade and the Happy Place, a gift shop that specializes in knitting supplies, teas, and herbal tinctures.
In the kitchen, owner Mary Newell hustles out another sheet of oversize cookies while I make a mental note to return later for one of the lunch rush’s freshly grilled sandwiches. Down the street, the Do Drop In whips up breakfast and lunch in a space with rustic-lodge vibes. Legend has it that the building’s basement was once used to store the first artifacts pulled from the Blackwater Draw site.
A few empty buildings pockmark the other small businesses on the square, but Diaz takes an optimistic view of that. “There’s opportunity here,” she says.
Just off the square, the Roosevelt Brewing Company pours a Clovis Point IPA, among other quaffs. Signs of entrepreneurship crop up in an array of restaurants serving Jalisco- and/or Chihuahua-style Mexican food; at the Peanut Store, which sells locally grown peanuts and New Mexico–made salsas; and within the expansive walls of the Portales Fun Center. Inside the onetime Gibson’s Discount Store, a high-tech bowling alley now nudges up to an arcade room, a roller-skating rink, golf simulators, shuffleboards, and pool tables, along with an outpost of Dickey’s Barbecue Pit.
Almost Home Bed & Breakfast owners Gary and Judy Piepkorn joined the local business community in 2007, when they transformed their property’s outbuildings into three comfy casitas, each with a full kitchen. Before then, Gary says, “We didn’t know what to do with the spaces. But since then, we’ve had visitors from everywhere—academicians, musicians performing at the university, and people building wind farms who stayed here for months.
MEGAN HAMILTON AND HER FAMILY WERE enjoying a Napa Valley vacation when the wine began speaking to them. It told them to start a winery. Five years later, they bottle enough Enchantment Vineyards varieties to have expanded into a spacious tasting room built around Hamilton’s grandfather’s old peanut storage room, which now holds tables with inviting firepits. An upstairs meeting area features occasional shows by the High Plains Art Collective, and this spring and summer the owners plan to offer tango and salsa lessons. Last Christmas, they held a dance that included mechanical-bull rides.
“We want it to be very family-friendly—bring your kids, bring your dogs,” says Hamilton’s sister, Cassidy Self.
Hamilton walks me through an area that currently holds the family’s private pickleball court but will soon be filled with steel vats for their growing menu of varietals. “This is the passion project, which it has to be because it’s not the profit project,” she says with a laugh, alluding to the family’s more stable ownership of hardware and furniture stores. “This brings us together as a family to do something crazy.”
For “crazy” on display, I head over to the ENMU campus, where the archives center holds all the books and materials gathered by nationally noted science-fiction author Jack Williamson, a Portales native. The books alone fill 10 long rows of shelves, including a massive collection of Star Trek tomes with titles like The Vulcan Academy Murders. Most visitors ask archivist Regina Bouley Sweeten to pull out the first-draft script that eventually became The Empire Strikes Back, considered the best in the Star Wars opus by die-hard fans. (Pay attention when you’re at the Blackwater Draw Museum, Bouley Sweeten advises: A pair of 15-foot-long spears there came from the “Galileo Seven” episode of Star Trek, when Mr. Spock declared that they “look like a Clovis spearpoint.”)
I end my visit by dropping into that evening’s basketball doubleheader by the ENMU men’s and women’s teams. Courtside seats are a snap to grab, and while I watch the Greyhound women wipe the floor with that night’s opponent, the new university president, James Johnston, wanders down to join me. “I absolutely love it here,” he says. “When the game is over, the kids will walk around and thank everyone in the stands. It’s a family feel all around.”
Before the game ends, he recommends that I try the homemade ice cream at Sweetwaters at Landalls and the green chile cheeseburger at Taco Box. Then he begs off to complete a personal mission. He heads to a corner of the arena’s bleachers, near the athletes’ exit. The victorious women’s team makes its rounds, thanking each fan. The final words of praise they hear will come from him.
Explore. The Blackwater Draw Museum, on the Eastern New Mexico University campus, speaks to ancient life in the region and holds a bounty of artifacts. Ask about warm-weather hours at the Blackwater Draw site, which rely on the availability of students to work there. Tours can be scheduled. The Roosevelt County Historical Museum, also on campus, tells the stories of early settlers through artifacts like vintage farm equipment. (Other campus museums, including the Miles Mineral Museum, will reopen after an ongoing renovation.)
Find a deal. The New Deal, that is. Download a self-guided walking tour of New Deal–era art and architecture at theclio.com/tour/2138. It includes the Roosevelt County Courthouse and buildings on the ENMU campus. Stop in at the college’s administration building to see an enormous mural by Lloyd Moylan that depicts the 12th chapter of Ecclesiastes, which, puzzlingly, says that “much study is a weariness of flesh.”
Stay. Portales has a variety of chain hotels. For a cozier experience, book a suite at the Almost Home Bed & Breakfast, where the proprietors will prepare your morning meal or let you DIY it in your casita’s kitchen.
Eat. On the first Friday of each month, food trucks cluster in the C&S automotive parts store parking lot for Foodie Fridays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Cattle Baron maintains eastern New Mexico’s standard for steaks and a robust salad bar. Grab freshly made breakfasts and lunches at the Courthouse Cafe and Do Drop In. Sate your chile desire at Oralia’s Taqueria, a local fave for sit-down breakfast burritos.
Shop. Load up on stocking stuffers at the Peanut Store, starring roasted Valencia peanuts grown by Hampton Farms.