As we barrel down the two-lane road, historical markers tell us we are traveling along the original El Camino Real, the frontier wagon trail from Mexico City to Santa Fe. Dating to 1598, it is the oldest European-American trade route.
But we are not thinking about history.
It's the future that looms before us. We turn into the entrance of the $209 million Spaceport America, the world's first purpose-built commercial space-launch facility. The Gateway to Space terminal will serve passengers on Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceplane.
It's quiet now, but in December 2013, when billionaire Richard Branson is scheduled to take the inaugural commercial flight, the thundering noise and excitement will rattle the windows. To date, about 500 have reserved $200,000 tickets for a joy ride into weightlessness.
We enter the cavernous operations center and wander about the empty runway. We are in the middle of nothingness, exactly the reason why Spaceport America is here.
Why in New Mexico? The state has thousands of acres of restricted airspace that will be made available for the momentous space flights to come. Three other factors make this location perfect: sparse population (not a house around for miles), 330 days of sunshine a year (little chance of flight delays due to thunderstorms) and high altitude (the first mile into space is free).
Spaceport America is unique, but it is not the only attraction in the Las Cruces area.
The blue skies above southern New Mexico bear the white streaks of aviation. Fighter jets frequently break the silence. At White Sands Missile Range Museum and Missile Park, we learn that military personnel from around the world come to the 4,000-square-mile White Sands Missile Range to test experimental weapons and space technology. In 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested at Trinity Site located at the Tularosa Basin's north end. Also, this test range is the birthplace of the U.S. missile and space program. In the late 1940s, early rocket development here led to the giant rockets that carried Americans into space.
Massive white sand dunes appear otherworldly in the midst of the golden tan desert. The Tularosa Basin has the largest gypsum dune field on Earth. About 275 square miles are protected at White Sands National Monument. Winds move dunes from west to east as much as 30 feet per year. Rangers direct walking tours into this specialized habitat for owls, lizards, roadrunners and kit foxes. Even more pleasurable is riding slick plastic sleds down the glistening sand slopes.
In this region, hikes through the desert landscape under the shadow of the Organ Mountains have huge appeal. Dotted with ponderosa pine, trails at Dripping Spring Natural Area lead to remnants of an early resort hotel. Aguirre Springs Natural Area, one of the most scenic places in southern New Mexico, has opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, picnicking, camping, bird-watching and stargazing. The Las Cruces area has eight golf courses, each challenging in different ways.
Million-dollar vistas of the Organ Mountains thrill visitors to the Rio Grande Vineyards and Winery, one of 50 wineries in the state. Local chefs embrace fine wines and farm-to-table dining. The Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market shows the bounty of small-scale farming in the Mesilla Valley. The New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum depicts the traditions of crop production and cattle ranching.
Perhaps the most colorful patch of farmland is the teaching garden of the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State University. Red, purple, orange, yellow and green peppers hang from hundreds of leafy plants. Research specialist Danise Coon eats chile peppers every day. Describing her first encounter with the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the hottest known pepper, she says, "I took a bite and it felt like my head was going to explode." Even after dousing her mouth with milk, "it was really painful for about 15 minutes. Never again."
Strings of red chile peppers, known as ristas, hang in doorways in Mesilla as a way to bring good luck into the homes. Mesilla, situated on the outskirts of Las Cruces, has kept its historic plaza intact. Townspeople embrace the spirit of the Wild West and stay connected to Mexican roots. The Basilica of San Albino frames one end of the plaza, while the bar, where according to legend outlaw Billy the Kid was sentenced to a hanging, rests on the other end. Silver shops, clothing boutiques and art galleries line the plaza. A quaint adobe house is now Josefina's Old Gate Cafe and Inn. The Double Eagle Restaurant is known for its sumptuous steaks. La Posta Restaurant serves Mexican specialty foods and a large selection of tequila, including the famed Chile 'Rita.
Las Cruces, just 50 miles north of the Mexico border and New Mexico's second-largest city, exudes a lively cultural mix of music, dance, theater and art. In city center, galleries and specialty shops surround the Las Cruces Museum of Art, where a collection of contemporary works emphasizes artists of the Southwest.
The Branigan Cultural Center keeps alive the centuries of art and history through display of artifacts, photographs and other creative works. At Fort Selden State Monument, historical interpreters recall the era of unrest caused by border disputes and desperados. Las Cruces grew into a railroading center in the late 1880s and continued to prosper once New Mexico became a state in 1912.
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