LAS VEGAS, N.M. It s 8:30 on a Wednesday night. But there are no topless dancers on stage and no casinos, no sequined Elvis impersonators or freaky Cirque du Soleil shows. And Celine Dion is nowhere to be seen.
That s not to say, however, that it s dead here in Las Vegas. Far from it. Behind the bar at the saloon in the Plaza Hotel, Gerdi Frennier, a tiny German lady, holds court, serving up drinks, wisecracks, and a never-ending string of ribald jokes, told in a thick Bavarian accent.
Across the town plaza at the Victory Bar, 74-year-old Bennie Gallegos strums the gut-string guitar as patrons take turns sliding off their barstools and singing a song or two in Spanish before returning to their red cans of Tecate beer.
And a few miles outside of town, a bazillion stars twinkle in the unbelievably clear night sky high above the telescopes on the observation deck of the perfectly named Star Hill Inn.
This is the OTHER Las Vegas, some 700 miles east of that glittery gambling capital that sprouted like a giant neon cactus in the middle of the Nevada desert. But this Las Vegas might as well be on another planet.
Located in northern New Mexico at the edge of the rugged Sangre de Cristo mountain range, Nuestra Senora de Los Dolores de Las Vegas ( Our Lady of the Sorrows of the Great Meadows ) was founded as a staging area for the Santa Fe Trail in 1835 some 70 years before that other place over in Nevada. Within a decade or so, it had grown to become one of the busiest commercial and cultural centers of the Old West.
Since then, its colorful history has included Civil War battles, infamous outlaws (Doc Holliday owned a saloon here until he gunned down two men in the street outside), rowdy reunions of the Rough Riders with Teddy Roosevelt himself leading the revelers, and dozens of Hollywood movies, including Easy Rider, Convoy, and enough Tom Mix westerns to put together a cowboy film festival.
Today Las Vegas is a city of about 15,000 tiny compared to nearby tourist magnets such as Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque, but slowly building its own reputation as a handy base camp for exploring the area s many historic treasures and the stunning natural beauty of New Mexico.
Amazingly, the tiny city itself has more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They range from centuries-old adobe structures to grand Victorian houses that were built after the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad rolled into town in 1879.
We stayed at one of those historic places during a visit to Las Vegas last month. The Plaza Hotel, built in 1883, was considered one of the West s most luxurious accommodations in its day. The three-story brick building, which overlooks the town plaza, has been closed and reopened several times over the years, and efforts to restore some of its faded glory have been made at various times, most recently with a $2 million renovation about 25 years ago.
The hotel has 36 high-ceilinged, Victorian-style guest rooms furnished with antiques, and off the lobby are a full-service restaurant and a neat old saloon called Byron T s, named after the hotel s former owner and now its resident ghost. (Byron s favorite haunt is said to be Room 310.)
The saloon is long and narrow, with a wooden floor, and the backs and footrests of the barstools are fashioned to look like horseshoes. Looking sternly down from a wall at the far end is the antlered skull of an elk, donated by Gerdi the bartender s boyfriend, who downed the animal with a bow and arrow.
There was some impromptu entertainment at Byron T s our first night in Vegas: a small mariachi band called El Trio Los Gallo, made up of three old friends who happened to be passing through town at the same time. They played accordion, vihuela (small guitar), and guitarrone (a huge bass guitar), and serenaded the bar s patrons with a medley of Spanish songs, winding up the night with a surprising rendition of Elvis Presley s Hound Dog.
The next day we met up with Marcus Gottschalk, a local author and historian, who showed us around town and talked about its history. A hundred twenty years ago, if someone in New York had been talking about Las Vegas, he said, they would have meant this one, not the one in Nevada.
The city was a busy trading center on the 800-mile-long Santa Fe Trail, which ran from Missouri to New Mexico, and ruts from wagons on the trail are still visible in the area, especially at nearby Fort Union.
In the mid to late 1800s, Las Vegas was really hopping. When the railroad came, it brought an influx of businessmen from the East and immigrants from Europe. But the town also attracted less savory characters, too, including gunfighter Doc Holliday and his girlfriend Big Nose Kate Elder, as well as Jesse James and Billy the Kid.
For a time, local merchants couldn t find anyone to accept the dangerous job of marshal, so they had to rely on groups of vigilantes to maintain order. Necktie parties were common on the town plaza, Gottschalk said, where accused evildoers were strung up from a windmill.
The windmill gallows is long gone, replaced by a nicely shaded gazebo, but otherwise the plaza remains much the same as it was more than a century ago. On one side is the one-story adobe building that Gen. Stephen Kearny climbed atop to claim New Mexico for the United States in 1846.
Hollywood filmmakers have long used the town and surrounding San Miguel County as a backdrop for their productions, from Tom Mix silent cowboy movies in 1915 to Easy Rider in 1968 to Billy Bob Thornton s All the Pretty Horses in 2000.
A small museum on the other side of town commemorates a group of real-life heroes: Teddy Roosevelt s famous Rough Riders, dozens of whom came from Las Vegas. Formally known as the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, the group gained its reputation in a well-publicized series of battles fought in Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.
As museum director Linda Gegick showed a group of visitors through a collection of uniforms, saddles, regimental flags, and photos, she pointed to a painting on the wall that depicted one of the regiment s Cuban battles. But there was something odd about the painting none of the Rough Riders were actually riding anything.
That s the way it was, Gegick said. Even though the Americans were in a cavalry regiment, a shortage of boats prevented most of their horses from being shipped over to Cuba with them, she explained, so the soldiers had to go into battle on foot.
If you see paintings or other depictions of those battles and they re on horseback, you know they haven t done their homework, she said.
The first Rough Riders reunion was held here in Las Vegas in 1899, and Roosevelt, then governor of New York, joined 600 of his troops for three days of parties, parades, and rodeo events. Subsequent reunions were held in other cities around the country until 1952, when the remaining veterans voted to hold them exclusively in Las Vegas from then on.
Jessie Langdon, the last Rough Rider, died in 1975 at the age of 92. His picture is hanging on the wall of the museum.
Among the shops in the city s compact downtown area are several art galleries and jewelry stores that sell all manner of southwestern items. One out of six people in New Mexico is an artist of some type, said Leith Johnson, owner of Art & Stones gift store, which sells jewelry, artwork, and locally created crafts. And here, it s probably even higher than that.
Some local artists work on a bit larger scale than most. One of those is Christopher Thomson, an ironwork blacksmith designer whose dirt-floored studio and gallery is in Ilfeld, about 20 miles from Las Vegas. With a small crew of blacksmiths, Thomson hand-forges heavy furniture, architectural lighting, wall decorations, and other items. Outside his studio is a work in progress a customized iron gate than takes four men to lift.
Thomson s work is sold online and through dozens of galleries across the West. His own gallery, housed in an 80-year-old rock and mud-mortar building, is run by his wife, Susan Livermore, who is an interior designer and watercolor artist.
Head out from Vegas in any direction and you ll soon find yourself surrounded by mountains, canyons, forests, and vast meadowlands. The elevation here is about 6,400 feet (compared to Toledo s 615 feet), so the air is crisp, clear, and a bit thin, and it doesn t take long for visitors to get winded while trekking steep mountain paths.
One afternoon we went hiking in Villanueva State Park, and after following a rocky trail to a perch high atop a steep bluff, we could see canyons of red and yellow sandstone cliffs along the Pecos River, broad fields of wildflowers, and huge stands of junipers, pinon pine, and cottonwoods that looked as though they stretched all the way to Colorado.
Another day found us at Pecos National Historical Park, which includes the adobe ruins of an ancient five-story, 600-room pueblo one of America s first planned communities, the ranger called it and the remaining walls of an 18th century Spanish mission church. Among the ruins are two kivas, underground rooms used centuries ago by Pecos Indians for ceremonial and social gatherings. Visitors are welcome to climb down wooden ladders into the kivas and explore them.
It was near here that the little-known but pivotal Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass was fought in 1862. In a bold offensive, a Confederate force of Texans was headed through the area with plans to make it all the way to California and capture coastal cities and seaports.
But in what historians call The Gettysburg of the West, the Confederates ran into Union soldiers from New Mexico and Colorado and were driven back to Texas, effectively ending the South s plan to invade the frontier.
It doesn t take long to work up an appetite exploring the area, and Vegas certainly doesn t lack dining options. From thick steaks and Rocky Mountain pinon trout at the upscale Blackjack s Grill or the deceptively named Dick s Deli, to delicate sopaipillas (Mexican puff pastries) or hearty posole (pigs feet and red chili stew) at El Norteno or La Risa Caf , there s something for every taste.
Green chili, which is a little sweet but has plenty of fire, is a favorite in these parts, and the best in town is said to be served at Estella s Caf , a landmark third-generation eatery that operates out of an old hardware store. Estella s also serves menudo, but it wasn t hard for us to pass up the pungent stew full of spiced cow innards. We weren t that hungry.
On more than one morning, we stopped at the Super Chief coffee bar, which serves steam-powered java and power breakfasts, and has a great used book store upstairs called Don Kiyote s.
One of the highlights of the trip was a night visit to the Star Hill Inn outside of town, where amateur astronomer Phil Mahon and his wife, Rae Ann, operate the country s first year-round astronomy retreat.
Star Hill includes eight cabins scattered among 200 wooded acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Guests, who often include NASA scientists and serious students of the heavens, take advantage of the inn s 7,200-foot elevation and absence of ambient light to view the stars and planets above. An observation deck has 10 large telescopes, some of which are computerized, and while Mahon gives virtual tours of the skies, his wife serves up delicious homemade ice cream to visitors.
I squinted for a while through one of the scopes at what Mahon said was Jupiter and its moons, but I preferred to forego the lenses and just stare up at the night sky. It was a breathtaking sight, with more stars than I d ever seen at one time, the Milky Way slashing and twisting across the inky blackness.
Just as my neck was getting sore from looking up, I was rewarded by spotting a shooting star as it zipped briefly across my field of vision.
On our final day in town, we stopped at the Super Chief one last time and ran into three women who gave us another perspective on Vegas. They were grabbing a quick breakfast before heading off on a 325-mile jaunt to Denver to catch an appearance by the Dalai Lama.
Though it may look like it at first, this isn t just a sleepy little town, said one of them. It s very enlightened in a lot of ways. There s people here who are into Hinduism, tai chi, yoga, even Islam.
But we re definitely not heading the way of Santa Fe, added her friend, and we hope we never go the touristy route that they did.
Do me a favor, she said as the three of them got up to leave. Don t tell anybody about us, OK?
Oops. Too late.