One morning 150 million years ago, a thirty-foot-long, meat-eating dinosaur walked to the edge of a large inland sea for refreshment. It was to be his last drink of water. He would have been forgotten forever if his remains had not been discovered long after his death in Quay County. He would come to be known as Allosaurus. Mesalands Scenic Byway is about dinosaurs.
The banks of the sea Allosaurus walked along are now the edges of the mesas in northeastern New Mexico. The term mesa implies something square and straight-sided, but up close mesas are anything but tidy. Huge tabular rocks project out from their rims; their slopes are littered with big rock slabs.
Dinosaurs roamed Quay County during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, and bands of color in the mesas represent these periods. The red rocks and soil at the bottom are Triassic. The most dramatic example of this period is to be seen driving north on NM 129 from Newkirk. Huge red boulders are strewn over the red ground. The layer from the Jurassic Period varies from cream to gray, and the Cretaceous Period is the cream-colored stratum on top.
South of San Jon, NM 469 climbs to the top of the mesalands. The entrance to the Caprock Amphitheatre and Ralph Stanfield Memorial Nature Trail is to the left at the top of the mesa. A paved trail leads to the edge of the caprock, where the modern Tertiary topsoil covers the Cretaceous sandstone. At this transition point, you may see marine fossils. There are piles and piles of fossilized oyster shells on some of these mesas.
The story of this area's ancient history is told at Mesalands Dinosaur Museum in Tucumcari (222 East Laughlin Street; call 505-461-3466 for seasonal hours; admission, adults $5.50 adults, children $3.00, seniors $4.50). The Museum is part of Mesalands Community College and casts dinosaur remains in bronze at the school's Fine Arts Bronze Foundry. Bronze shows every detail of the original bone. Even the tiny serrations on a Tyrannosaurus Rex tooth are clearly visible. The museum houses the world's largest collection of bronze dinosaur replicas.
Mesalands Scenic Byway is about exploration.
In May 1541, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his expedition camped along the west bank of the Pecos River for four days while building a bridge across it. A small community, Puerto de Luna, was established there by the early 1860s. Its name, "Door of the Moon", is as enchanting as a drive through it. Driving south on NM 91 from Santa Rosa, small mesas point their noses towards the road, hovering protectively over the Pecos River Valley. The road winds inconspicuously through the valley, following the contours of the land.
What makes Puerto de Luna so charming? The winding Pecos River Valley lined with big, gnarly cottonwood trees, the acequias, the illusion that life here is as it was 100 years ago, the old adobe and stone buildings. Puerto de Luna was the Guadalupe County seat from 1891 until 1903. The courthouse still stands but has lost its roof. Alexander Grzelachowski, a merchant in territorial New Mexico, ran a store here. His plastered stone home still stands in the middle of town. On the east side of the river is Nuestra Senora de Refugio Catholic Church, constructed in 1882. On the west side is tiny Santa Inez church, next door to a house whose windows are set deep in thick, bright turquoise walls. Buttresses support its corners. Places like this contribute to the magic of Puerto de Luna.
Colonias, nestled in the mesas northwest of Santa Rosa, is also a small town lost in time. The yellow stucco on the San Jose church has fallen off to reveal the melted contours of red adobe bricks. There are more dead cars than houses, and more empty houses than inhabited ones.
The Spanish explorer Antonio de Espejo passed through the Santa Rosa area in 1590. He may have passed by Tucumcari Mountain, long a landmark for travelers along the Canadian River. Pedro Vial mentioned it in 1793, while opening a trail between Santa Fe and St. Louis, and Captain Randolph Marcy led an expedition past it in 1849.
Mesalands Scenic Byway is about Comanches.
Having acquired the horse, the Comanche Indians started moving into this area in the 1700s. For over a century, they were involved in conflicts with Indian, Spanish, and Anglo settlers. Fort Bascom was built in 1863 to protect settlers from raids. A sign on NM 104 marks its location, but the fort no longer stands. The Tucumcari Historical Museum (416 South Adams; 505-461-4201; admission, adults $3.00, 50 cents for children 6 to 15) has an exhibit of artifacts from the Fort.
Kit Carson and General Philip Sheridan led campaigns against the Comanches in the 1860s. Fort Bascom was abandoned in 1870, but the Comanches were not defeated until 1874. A permanent settlement, Liberty, was finally established in the area at about this time. With the coming of the railroad in 1898, Liberty moved eight miles south to form Tucumcari. Driving south on NM 104, Tucumcari's classic railroad depot is visible to the west as enter town. A block south of the depot is the community's vintage downtown.
Mesalands Scenic Byway is about outlaws.
Black Jack Ketchum, the last of the train robbers, frequented this area. In the 1880s, Black Jack killed two men south of Tucumcari (a sign on NM 209 commemorates the deed) and hid out near Saddleback Mesa. Black Jack was wounded in the 1899 robbery of a train which had been held up twice before. The fed-up conductor shot the outlaw in the elbow, almost severing his arm. This led to his arrest shortly thereafter and his hanging in 1901.
Billy the Kid had many friends in Puerto de Luna and patronized Alexander Grzelachowski's general store. He ate his last Christmas dinner at Grzelachowski's house as Pat Garrett's prisoner in 1880. On July 14, 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett killed him in Fort Sumner. A street in Puerto de Luna, Kid Lane, commemorates his connection with the village.
Mesalands Scenic Byway is about lakes.
Ute Lake, Santa Rosa Lake, and Conchas Dam state parks are all located on this byway. They offer fishing, camping, and picnicking. (Day use $4 per vehicle; camping $8 for primitive sites, $10 for developed sites; Ute Lake 505-487-2284, Santa Rosa Lake 505-472-3110, Conchas Lake 505-868-2221). Santa Rosa, known as the City of Natural Lakes, is famous for scuba diving in the middle of the desert. Blue Hole, a natural, 80-foot deep pool, is a mecca for divers. Santa Rosa is also home to Janes-Wallace Dam Lake, Park Lake, and Perch Lake.
Mesalands Scenic Byway is about solitude .
As I drive north on State Road 278, the setting sun highlights the brilliant bands of red, cream, and tan on the mesa slopes. New Mexico has many roads like those that make up Mesalands Scenic Byway - paved or unpaved, through miles and miles of open land. Each road is a new experience and a new gift - of beauty, solitude, and adventure.