ONE MORNING IN TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, I leave my Twilight Zone room on what feels like a journey to another dimension. I’ve spent a quiet night at Blackstone Hotsprings Lodging & Baths, where the kitschy quarters are named for 1950s television shows. Now, like most visitors to this strange—but strangely self-aware—spa destination along the Río Grande, 60 miles north of Las Cruces, I’m headed out to soak in a hot spring.
Why do I keep coming back here? That question winds through Hannah Jayanti’s 2020 documentary Truth or Consequences, which I watched last night beside an imposing photo of Rod Serling. It burbles back into my mind as I wander the enigmatic streets of the town. Once called Hot Springs, Truth or Consequences gained its weird moniker in 1950, after TV host Ralph Edwards decided to broadcast a 10th-anniversary episode of his game show from any place in America that dared to rename itself after the program.
My main purpose in this place, which New Mexicans call T or C, is clear every time I visit: I come to take in the extra-hot waters. But Truth or Consequences has a bizarre, out-of-time allure that goes beyond its geothermal attractions. It seems to approach something like, as Serling’s intro to The Twilight Zone goes, “a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination."
On my walk, I pause to notice “WPA 1939” etched on the dusty sidewalk in front of me—a message from another time on a street that might reside in any era. A few blocks over, visitors hop on buses bound for Spaceport America’s launch complex, eager to learn about the spaceflights projected to transform tourism as we know it. The retro-futuristic contrast is jarring.
At a motel and bathhouse called Indian Springs, I pay $5 to enter a no-frills bath hut built from lava rocks in 1927 and lower myself into the hottest spring I’ve ever experienced. A 110-degree reverie conjures all those who’ve soaked before me: Mimbres and Apache people, the first to reap the benefits of the mineral-rich hot water along the banks of the Río Grande; carousing cowboys of the 1880s who came down from the Black Range; road trippers of the 1940s, when Hot Springs boasted more than 40 mineral baths; and the freewheeling types who run galleries, shops, and spas today.
Truth or Consequences is not large, but it contains multitudes: a heap of historical layers, New Mexicans who were “born there all their lives,” and transplants drawn by the healing waters, the warm climate, and a certain freedom of expression that beams out from the many murals that decorate its buildings. Outside Desert Archaic, an art gallery on North Broadway, owners and 10-year residents Kyle Cunningham and Jeannie Ortiz explain that while the small town may seem stuck in the past, it’s in the midst of a revival.
“The brewery changed everything,” Cunningham says, nodding toward Truth or Consequences Brewing Company. A few doors from the gallery, a vibrant, art-filled storefront and a backyard cluster of firepits serve as the town’s living room and craft-beer mecca. (The smooth Cosmic Blonde is a nod to T or C’s outré qualities.) Ever since the brewery nestled into the nucleus of T or C’s social life in 2017, Cunningham, a painter, and Ortiz, a fiber artist, have seen a steady trickle of new residents and businesses enlivening the old town. The pandemic brought even more new homeowners. “Now we walk into the brewery some nights and we don’t even know anyone,” Ortiz says.
The new T or C has the same small-town charm as the old, but a stronger sense of community has emerged. Turtleback Coworking, a shared, 3,000-square-foot work space that opened last year, is designed around these newbies, many of whom are independently employed or working remotely. Every second Saturday night of the month, residents mingle at Art Hop, a downtown art walk that tends to spawn jam sessions in the streets. And last year, after the 1933 El Cortez movie theater, on Main Street, was sold to a local group, it reopened to screen first-run films. Projectionist Moshe Koenick says enthusiastic audiences lined up around the block during last fall’s T or C Film Fiesta.
“T or C has these little start-stop moments,” says Jake Foerstner, the second-generation owner of Riverbend Hot Springs. “As a kid growing up in this town, you’re like: Is anything ever going to happen here?” Foerstner moved back to his hometown after the announcement of Spaceport America, aiming to grow the family business before a possible boom. After a few years he realized, “The Spaceport isn’t what’s going to make this place have its renaissance. It’s going to come from what was here all along—the hot springs.”
Inspired by resorts in California and Colorado, Foerstner’s improvements have taken Riverbend from a hippie-tastic hostel to a destination spa that offers soak sessions in scenic private or common pools right on the banks of the flowing Río Grande. “We have a really good refresh rate in all of our pools,” Foerstner explains, indicating the time it takes for a bath to fill with fresh water from the aquifer, “and 36 different minerals in our water.” The most prominent is chloride, he says, a natural antiseptic and skin balm. “The one we’re most proud of is the lithium.”
Lithium, of course, is a mood regulator—as is the prime vintage shopping at the Annex, along with compelling artworks at Rio Bravo Fine Art Gallery and delicious Italian fare at La Baracca, which chef Michael Demeo opened after the pandemic shuttered the nearby Sierra Grande Lodge restaurant.
At another new eatery, Rooster’s Giddy Up Café, I swoon over house-made biscuits with green chile gravy while chef-owner Rooster Blackspur tells me her T or C origin story. “I was a full-time touring musician, and I played a little show on Main Street. I joked from the stage, ‘If anyone has a house they want to sell me, maybe I’ll move here.’ Somebody actually chased me down on the street about it.” She laughs. “Everyone who lives here has a serendipitous story to tell.” In 2021, the New Mexico Music Awards honored the Alaska transplant as songwriter of the year.
As executive director of MainStreet Truth or Consequences, Blackspur seeks to fill as many voids as possible in T or C. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, she worried about how visitors might view a dark downtown during the holidays and purchased timers for any business willing to put up lights. “I bought like 10 Christmas trees and shoved them into this courtyard,” she says, pointing to the trumpet-vined flagstone patio at the Giddy Up. “During Art Hops, I would just set up and play for anyone who walked by.”
Blackspur opened the café in January 2021, drawing on a trove of mostly self-taught culinary wisdom and pledging to bring fans to her new hometown while Covid limited her touring schedule. On the Sunday morning we meet there, the Giddy Up is filled with locals and tourists enjoying her small but sumptuous weekly brunch menu, which shows off Blackspur’s down-home cooking with locally sourced ingredients.
Those seeking a more throwback dining experience tend to end up under the swinging 1970s archways of Los Arcos Steakhouse, where time seems to have frozen since the restaurant opened 52 years ago with a surf-and-turf-centric menu. Longtime owner Bobby Middleton says the business has its own kind of refresh rate. “We have a good local crowd, but people also just keep passing through,” he says. “We don’t really change anything around here. People like that.”
In the Truth or Consequences film, poet Olin West says, “It is not the shape or surface that gives life to a place, but the dust.” I think of T or C’s mineral-rich dust while chatting with West outside his home, built as an early-1900s bunkhouse for the men who constructed Elephant Butte Dam. It’s now a wonder house of found art, West’s books and landscape paintings (he shows work at Desert Archaic), and beautifully repurposed detritus from abandoned places nearby.
In West’s sun-drenched backyard, the creative possibilities seem endless. I start to understand something else residents keep telling me: T or C has its own way of reckoning with whoever comes to town.
“There’s a different set of values that people are judged by here,” Cunningham tells me. “It’s not a fancy yard or a nice house or a lawn. It’s more like ‘What kind of person are you? What can you make here?’ ” That echoes something Blackspur said at the Giddy Up. “Many people believe the town is an entity. I’ve been told by a lot of locals that this place will decide on you, not the other way around.”
Later, in a private tub at Blackstone Hotsprings, I watch the moon play coy behind a bank of clouds silhouetted by a palm tree. It emerges to illuminate the rippled dreamscape of the steaming water. I might as well be in the Twilight Zone, I think as a weird wave of calm settles over me. I get why I keep coming back here.
Find Your Truth—and enjoy the consequences
Soak. T or C’s hot springs have a range of prices and experiences. On the high end, enjoy the views at Riverbend Hot Springs. Guests and spa clients can dip into the baths at Sierra Grande Lodge. Blackstone Hotsprings Lodging & Baths and the Pelican Spa deliver retro vibes, while locals love the Charles Motel.
Shop. Start on Main Street and loop around to North Broadway to discover art, books, antiques, gifts, and vintage treasures. Attend the monthly Art Hop (second Saturdays) to see the latest works from a town full of artists.
Explore. The Healing Waters Trail, a three-mile loop around downtown, is a journey through hot springs history that winds through the desert, past the Río Grande, and back. Spaceport America’s guided tours depart from its visitor center in Truth or Consequences.
Learn. The Geronimo Springs Museum houses a stunning collection of Mimbres and Tularosa pottery, a miner’s cabin from the Black Range, an exhibit devoted to Apache history, and a room of game show memorabilia.
Stay. Blackstone Hotsprings pays homage to the town’s TV history with themed luxury rooms (Star Trek, The Golden Girls) that include in-room hot springs features, as well as three private outdoor baths.