Travelling Small Town America: The Other Las Vegas by David Latta


It may come as something of a surprise (or not, depending on how well you know me) if I declare an eternal fascination for Las Vegas. Not, I might add, the neon glitter of Las Vegas, Nevada (although I do love that town as well, for other reasons), but the understated historic charms of Las Vegas, New Mexico, a town of just 14,000 souls located 105 kilometres east of Santa Fe.

This is the place you’d holiday with Bill Collins (in matching salmon-coloured sports coats) rather than Richard Wilkins, where the only peacock feathers can be found on the peacocks they belong on, and finding a Busted Flush may require a trawl through the local thrift store for a John D. MacDonald novel.

The New Mexico version was the original, established in 1835 when this part of the world was the property of Mexico. It was an important link on the Santa Fe Trail and many of the Old West legends, including Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid, peopled Las Vegas at various times. Doc Holliday ran a saloon there (and killed a man in a gunfight); another bar owner was Robert Ford, who murdered outlaw Jesse James. In its heyday, Las Vegas was reputedly one of the roughest, its reputation for lawlessness far exceeding Dodge City or Tombstone.

Sudden death, at the end of a bandit’s gun or a hangman’s rope, was commonplace well into the 1890s and, if official justice didn’t manifest quick enough, the local townspeople were more than happy to form vigilante groups that routinely broke into the town prison and strung up lawbreakers.

It was the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1879 that attracted the wildest of the wild westerners as the population skyrocketed and economic prosperity made Las Vegas one of the most important centres of the New Mexico Territory (it became the 47th State of the Union in 1912). It was the railroad that split Las Vegas in two with Old Town based around the original 1835 city square while New Town was anchored by the railway station two kilometres to the east.


The glory days of Las Vegas lasted until the 1950s, when rail travel was supplanted by the automobile and the burgeoning interstate highway system. Santa Fe, that tourist-choked Disneyland of adobe, the town that launched a thousand homeware stores, became the drawcard for interstate visitors and Las Vegas went to sleep, a lucky occurrence for those who enjoy a destination with lashings of history. There are more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, most of which date from the post-railroad period, from richly-ornamented commercial buildings through to the pristine residential streetscapes of Lincoln Park, Carnegie Park and the North New Town district.

One stand-out is the extraordinary Montezuma Hotel, otherwise known as the Castle, built in the Queen Anne style as a luxury spa resort by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company. Completed in 1886, it replaced the first hotel, which opened in 1882 and burnt down the same year, and a replacement that suffered the same fate.

The first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting, it continued as a hotel until 1903, then underwent varying uses including a Jesuit seminary. In 1981, it was bought by American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of a United World College, which continues to this day.

Las Vegas also stands out as a location for film-making. In the silent movie era, it was favoured by cowboy star Tom Mix (about 30 films he either starred in or directed utilised Las Vegas as a backdrop). More recent films include the 1984 action adventure Red Dawn (Patrick Swayze loved the area so much he bought an 800-hectare ranch nearby, where his ashes were reportedly scattered following his death in 2009), Convoy (1978), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), All The Pretty Horses (2000), Wild Hogs (2007), Paul (2011) and On The Road (2012). The recent television series, Longmire, although set in Wyoming, films exclusively in northern New Mexico, particularly Las Vegas (Sheriff Longmire’s office is on the Old Town Square, adjacent to the Plaza Hotel). Movies and television provide such an economic benefit to the town that it has its own Film Commission.

There are two movies that will forever be closely associated with Las Vegas. The main street of Old Town was used in Easy Rider (1969), where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride behind a parade and are arrested, meeting Jack Nicholson in the town jail. And extensive use was made of Las Vegas in the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), especially the Plaza Hotel.


Built in 1882 in a High Victorian Italianate style, the Plaza Hotel is a stylish and comfortable base from which to explore the town. The adjacent Charles Ilfeld Mercantile Building, which opened in 1891 as the first department store in the southwest, was restored and added to the guestroom inventory in 2009.

Las Vegas is small-town America at its most striking. The locals are friendly and hospitable, there’s a good mix of antique shops, book stores and cafes, and the relaxed pace of life makes it an ideal rest stop on any road trip through America’s southwest. For architecture and movie fans, the attractions are even more compelling.

©David Latta. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

Slices Of Santa Fe by Glenn A. Baker

New Mexico - Santa Fe church by Glenn A. Baker

Paul Margetson, the personable Englishman who has run the Hotel Santa Fe for a couple of decades now, doesn’t blink when famous film stars are in his midst. John Travolta holding court by the bar. Natalie Portman at the desk negotiating a veggie burger. All as life should be in an establishment which is the first port of call for film folk working in what was recently ranked as the number two shooting location in the United States.

Yet even with all that trackwork behind him, he wasn’t all that sure about the two disheveled and, it seemed, somewhat disreputable characters in his car park back in 2007. When he asked his Duty Manager if they might be quietly moved on, the response ran along the lines of: “What, up to their suites boss? That’s Joel and Ethan Coen.”

The eccentric directing brothers were in town on what would become Oscar-winning business, filming No Country For Old Men, a novel from two years earlier by celebrated but reclusive resident Cormac McCarthy who, at that moment, was in his writing room in Tesuque penning his Pulitzer-winning, The Road. They can’t have heard of Margetson’s misreading of their status (or, more likely, couldn’t have cared less) because, a few years later, were back in residence putting together their re-make of True Grit with Jeff Bridges, who was also familiar to the town from his presence not long before shooting chunks of Crazy Heart.

In Los Angeles, there’s a roaring trade in Maps of the Stars’ Houses to gullible and star-struck tourists. If you were that way inclined, you’d likely have a better strike rate in Santa Fe, a city of just 75,000, only the fourth largest in the vast state of New Mexico. For those unable to make their own arrangements, the subsidiary airline American Eagle has one slim jet on a round trip from Los Angeles every day (another from Dallas) and securing a seat is not always easy, being as they’re often in hot demand by actors, directors, producers, cameramen and best boys. There’s a lot going on and most of it is creative; has been since the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and the actress Greer Garson started spending sizeable portions of each year on their New Mexico ranches.

Santa Fe chillies 1

Robert Redford is back in town, having recently bought a house near McCarthy’s in Tesuque, while notable residents, present and past, include Shirley MacLaine, Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Ali McGraw, Gene Hackman, crime writer Jonathan Kellerman, King of the Road singer/songwriter and Big River stage musical creator Roger Miller, and New Age music superstar Ottmar Liebert.

The Sundance Kid put Park City, Utah, on the map with his Sundance Film Festival, to the extent that its population increases six-fold during the week, but as quickened some pulses by moving the Sundance Institute to New Mexico and establishing Milagro at Los Luceros, just outside nearby Espanola, as a locale for film, fine arts and environmental training programs for Hispanic and Native American filmmakers. Big things are expected.

Of Hackman, whose two Oscars are mislaid somewhere in his house, the expectations would only be literary, he having taken up the pen to the exclusion of all else; a certain discipline being required to maintain his distance. “I will see the wagons on the side of the roads sometimes and I’d like to go talk to somebody but I don’t,” he told Time. “I did once when there was a young assistant director on a backstreet in Santa Fe, directing traffic. I pulled up next to her and asked if they were hiring any extras. She said ‘No, I’m very sorry sir’.”  

Redford, who manages to do it all, had first sighted the state in the early 1940s when his mother was driving from California to Texas to catch up with family. “It was so different. Native Americans on the streets in blankets, the streets were muddy, lots of artefacts around,” he has said. “I got fascinated by that. Years later, when I was 17 or18 and I had my own car, I was able to drive into these areas and explore on my own. I would camp out, spend time on the reservations, and the more I learned, the more I realised there was a value there and if we didn’t honour it, it would be gone. So it became a part of the fabric of my life.”

Santa Fe gas pump graveyard

That happens a lot, even if vicariously, through O’Keeffe’s enduring and celebrated art or through a diverse array of films that includes The Grapes of Wrath, Easy Rider, the Muppet Movie, The Book of Eli, Did You Hear About The Morgans?, All The Pretty Horses, Wild Hogs  City Slickers, The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Men Who Stare At Goats, Young Guns, Natural Born Killers, Thor,  the Redford-directed Milagro Beanfield War and the Redford-starring Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. For you find yourself gazing upon New Mexico more than you are aware. Since 2003 over 150 major screen projects have been shot in the State, injecting $2 billion into the state’s economy. Lawrence Kasdan, who directed Silverado and Wyatt Earp there, marvelled at how “every day the sky was putting on a show.” Oft cited is its ability to accommodate archetypical western landscapes as much as a post-apocalyptic future.

In the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at the southern end of the Rockies, the place is loftily sited – 7,000 feet above sea level (with nearby mountains topping 12,000) –  making it both the highest and the oldest capital in the United States. The air is sweet and pure, the vistas stirring and inspiring. Less than two hours drive to the north is Taos (with an easy diversion to Los Alamos, home of the Manhattan Project where the bombs that ended WWII were hatched) and, to the south, Albuquerque, with its big city skyscrapers.

Though one is closer to it in Santa Fe, nothing scrapes the sky in Santa Fe. All structures (particularly the brace of up-market hotels, including Inn of the Anasazi, El Dorado, Inn and Spa at Loretto, La Fonda on The Plaza and Old Santa Fe Inn), blend in with the high desert surrounds. The Pueblo Revival style was embraced in 1912 and, since, no building has been allowed to climb higher than a few storeys; nor to be built of anything much beyond traditional durable adobe – sand, clay, water and fibrous matter like sticks and straw fashioned into bricks and supported by large logs called vigas. One of the oldest examples of this is the Palace of the Governors, the northern side of the compact downtown square which has been the centre of activities for four centuries. Spanish officials used it for houses and barracks, making it the oldest continually occupied public buildings in the U.S. (in a city that has been, one way or another, New Mexico’s capital for 300 years).

Today, Native American craftsmen and women array their wares on blankets under the portal of the Palace of Governors – where Lew Wallace, governor of the New Mexico territory for three years from 1878, wrote Ben Hur, while at the same time leading the effort to bring Billy The Kid to justice. But then craftspeople and artists are offering their outpourings to you everywhere you look. There are well over 200 galleries in this small city, rendering it America’s third-largest art market, after New York and Los Angeles but ahead of Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Boston and New Orleans. There’s an extraordinary amount of art commerce taking place, with much of it concentrated on Canyon Road. Jammed with galleries, studios and vendors of leather goods, jewellery, home furnishings and trinkets aplenty, it was officially designated in 1961 as a “residential arts and crafts zone”.

Santa Fe art gallery 2

While it is said that more interesting people and events pass through Santa Fe than any other urban city its size anywhere else in the world, it needs be added that almost all of them are associated with the arts. In 2004, the United Nations named it the US’s first member of the UN’s Creative Cities Network. With Hispanic art breaking out of traditional moulds in the 1960s, a mounting vibrancy took hold and, by the 80s, galleries and curators were exploiting and exposing this incredibly fertile vein. Indeed, the intensity of art is something to behold. It tumbles out all over, indelibly marking the landscape. Statues, sculptures, mosaics, murals, canvasses – the full spectrum of visual expression.

Visual and aural. The Santa Fe Opera, founded in 1956 and made famous by the conducting presence of Igor Stravinsky who stuck around for six summers, is celebrated globally for its acoustically-perfect outdoor theatre in the foothills of the backdrop mountains, where over forty world premieres have been staged, including nine commissioned operas. Then there’s a leading ballet company and the treasure that is the Lensic Performing Arts Centre, an auditorium built in 1931 in Spanish Renaissance style that has played host to troupers from Rita Hayworth and Judy Garland to, the week I was passing through, Bruce Hornsby and Arlo Guthrie.

Of course, if all this artistry gets a tad cerebral for some, it’s a relatively short road or air hop to the glittering, coin-spinning Strip in Las Vegas, where an edifice complex throws up aggressively modern temples of worship. In Santa Fe they certainly say their prayers – but not over roulette wheels and craps tables. A walk through the city – an absolutely essential means of acquainting yourself with its stand-alone charm – will take you past four of the most impressive religious buildings in the American west. Santa Fe is Spanish for St. Faith or Holy Faith and there’s been no shortage of that over more than three centuries. In 1608, a Spanish governor christened the settlement Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi and, today, his Cathedral Basilica on Cathedral Place vies for attention with San Miguel Chapel, said to be the oldest standing church structure in the United States; Loretto Chapel, on the Old Santa Fe Trail, famous for a “miraculous staircase”  with two 360 degree turns held together only by wooden pegs; and the 18th century Santuario Guadalupe fronted by a 12-foot statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

They are prominent on all visitor checklists, along with the long-established New Mexico Museum of Art on West Palace, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum on Johnson Street, and the imposing and impressive New Mexico History Museum on Lincoln Avenue, where you will learn that the only successful indigenous rebellion in the history of North America was when Ohkay Owingeh medicine man Po’pay lead the Pueblo Revolt which expelled the Spanish from Nuevo Mexico for twelve years in 1680. And that the famed Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad did bring rail to New Mexico but the name was a fraud, given that it didn’t actually make it to Santa Fe, going by some 17 miles to the south, at a town called Lamy. (Trains are now seen in the heart of the city, with The Railyard area also playing host to a busy weekend market).

Santa Fe boot shop

What doesn’t seem to be on those checklists but eminently worthy of investigation is the Kowboyz store just out the back door of the majority Native American-owned Hotel Santa Fe (a rare thing outside of casino-dotted Indian land apparently) which has moved over from Los Angeles and specialises in thousands of pairs of pre-owned-finely tooled cowboy boots, and At The Ranch – Classic Cowboy Collection, where all those shirts you’ve dreamed of owning since the westerns of your (or your father’s) adolescence can be found on jammed racks.

New Mexico will have been one of the fifty United States for a hundred years in 2012 but, all things considered, that may be one of its lesser distinctions. At every turn there seems to be something that reminds you of just where you are and where you are is somewhere endlessly exotic. For starters, you are on Route 66, as it wends its way (at least in celebrated automotive history) from Santa Monica through to Chicago.

The city’s longest park parallels portions of the short Santa Fe River, an occasionally flowing Rio Grande tributary. The city itself was named after the village of Santa Fe in Granada, Spain, not just because there was a distinct similarity between the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains of Granada but because King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella were much occupied with removing Moorish invaders from Granada during the first decades of their reign the name was elevated in their consciousness.

What will be elevated in yours is the twin tonings of red and green. For that is the decision to be made at most mealtimes. Just which chili to go with? While the cuisine is not limited, many a dining establishment is dedicated to fire food of fabulous ferocity, with your appetite perpetually aroused as you wander around the streets (or even in and out of your hotel) past kebab of totem-type gatherings of the beloved staple plant, swaying in the breeze and providing a mighty motif. In matters of the plate, Tex-Mex doth rule.

As does New Mexico in scenes of the screen, a situation not likely to change until the mountains crumble and the ravines close over. The directors keep coming. One of them, Billy Garberina, responsible for Stiffed, recently explained why. “The noble tradition of the Southwest outlaw is still alive and well. An indie filmmaker can still get away with flagrant acts of high cinema on a zero-dollar budget and manage to steer well clear of the official infrastructure in doing so.  That said, New Mexico is still working hard to bend over backwards for big Hollywood money. It’s a paradise for the high-dollar Hollywood hot shot looking to make good press and also an oasis for the zero-budget auteur still needing to walk between the raindrops.”

©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.