The Wild West lore of gunfights, horses, outlaws, Buffalo Soldiers and Smokey the Bear comes to life along the Billy the Kid Byway, where legends play against a spectacular backdrop of snowy peaks, rolling rivers, orchards and ranchlands. From the one-horse, one-street town of Lincoln where Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett sparred to the bustling ski-town ruckus of Ruidoso, the byway offers a legendary West both present and bygone.
At the Billy the Kid Interpretive Center in Ruidoso Downs, kids of all ages may straddle a virtual map painted on the gallery floor, complete with 3-D mountains. Next door, the Hubbard Museum of the American West boasts buggies, stagecoaches, antique firearms, Plains Indian beadwork and Pueblo kachinas inside its walls, while outside a herd of life-size bronze horses representing major American breeds gallops through the garden. Ruidoso Downs Racetrack, open mid-May through Labor Day, is home to the world’s richest quarter horse race, the All American Futurity, offering a guaranteed $1 million purse to the winner.
The trail turns north on N.M. 48 through rustic Ruidoso, Spanish for the noisy water rushing in the river along its main drag. Snowy Sierra Blanca at 12,003 feet elevation soars above the false front stores, shops and restaurants clustered in the village below. Dowlin’s Historic Old Mill is remarkable for its still-functioning water mill and once hid outlaw Billy the Kid. Continuing to tiny Alto, travelers may head west to the white-flanked slopes of Ski Apache on N.M. 532 – a road so narrow and knotted that uphill traffic is banned between 3 - 6 p.m.during ski season. The resort is owned by the Mescalero Apache, descendants of rebellious bands whose resistance to unwelcome settlers in their homeland prompted the U.S. Infantry to establish nearby Ft. Stanton in 1855.
Those of a more artistic than athletic bent may head east on N.M. 220 to the sparkling white slab of the Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts. In its cloudlike setting, the crystal and limestone monolith could be a spaceship sidetracked from Roswell rather than a state-of-the-art performance stage. It offers world-class productions year round and glass sculptures by renowned artist Dale Chihuly on permanent exhibit. View their website www.spencertheater.com.
N.M. 220 cuts across the top of the world through a pinon-juniper woodland, offering circular views of windswept peaks beyond before dropping into the Rio Bonito Valley. Here, the monument and white crosses of Ft. Stanton National Cemetery mark the landlocked final resting place of merchant marines far inland from their ocean realm. The marines were treated for tuberculosis at Ft. Stanton a few miles up the road, which metamorphosed through the years as a military post, hospital, internment camp, jail and halfway house for youth. A number of notable and notorious individuals strolled its hallways at one time: Kit Carson; “Black Jack” Pershing; the 9th Cavalry of the Buffalo Soldiers – so named by the Apaches because their wooly hair and fighting spirit reminded them of buffalo; and one William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid. While the fort is not open to the public, Ft. Stanton Museum on site provides limited guided tours and information.
At U.S. 380, travelers may head west toward Capitan, home of Smokey the Bear, or east toward Lincoln. The tiny cub Smokey was discovered clinging to a tree during a human-caused forest fire that raged through Capitan Gap in 1950. The cub, initially nicknamed “Hotfoot” for his badly burned feet and buttocks, was flown to a Santa Fe veterinary hospital by Game and Fish officer Ray Bell. Eventually the bear lived at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. until his death in 1976, when his remains were returned for burial in Capitan. The Smokey Bear Museum and Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan display the story of Smokey the Bear and firefighters of the West.
U.S. 380 heads east through Lincoln, a town whose tranquil lone street belies its unruly past as the stage for one of the last great gunfights in the Old West. The Lincoln County War erupted between warring mercantile factions after a young Englishman, John Tunstall, challenged the monopoly of the J.J. Dolan & Company general store in 1877. Tunstall was murdered within the year and Billy the Kid, a former Tunstall ranch hand, swore to avenge Tunstall’s death. The conflicting stories of Billy the Kid play out in the town landmarks, many of which are preserved to the last brick and shutter as part of Lincoln State Monument.
Continuing eastward, U.S. 380 follows the Rio Bonito and the lush rural orchards and ranches of the Hondo Valley, where it joins the Rio Ruidoso at U.S. 70 near Hondo. The orchards burst into bloom in springtime and in fall with gold and yellow leaves. Before his death, Fiberglass sculptor Luis Jimenez made his studio and workshop in Hondo, while in San Patricio the Hurd-Rinconada Gallery exhibits the work of onetime residents Henrietta Wyeth and Peter Hurd. U.S. 70 finally returns to Ruidoso Downs, where visitors may try a hand of blackjack or play the slots at the Billy the Kid Casino for a last nostalgic take on the Old West before heading home.