A Short, Strange Trip to Truth or Consequences
By Candolin Cook · Photos by Stephanie Cameron
A blend of washed out and neon colors accent Truth or Consequences’s mid-century architecture.
Dwight Yoakam’s “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” played on repeat in my head as edible owner and publisher Stephanie Cameron and I drove down County Road AO13 in the desert basin known as Jornada del Muerto or “Journey of the Dead Man.” Yucca, creosote bushes, and the occasional cow dot the rust-colored landscape that surrounds this stretch of empty two-lane blacktop.
We were taking a side trip from our explorations of the region’s food scene to search for Spaceport America, the “world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.” Typically, if you want to visit the spaceport, you need to book a bus tour that leaves from nearby Truth or Consequences (T or C), which will take you on a multi-hour exploration of the terminal hangar. The spaceport website explicitly discourages visitors from driving out to the facility. Due to safety and privacy concerns, you will not be allowed to park or enter the property on your own. The concerns are valid; the spaceport is in the middle of the desert, and there are no service stations, amenities, or cell service. However, at the time of our visit in early February, it was temporarily closed to visitors, and we were determined to see it.
For several miles, we were unsure whether or not we were even close. The only road signs were hand-painted markers signaling distant cattle ranches and private residences (Marv & Sue’s: this way). I had just begun to nervously eye the gas gauge when we saw it, a towering red crescent sculpture, welcoming us to the Spaceport America security gate. A friendly security guard—who I’m convinced has the loneliest job in America—met us as we approached the fence and informed us that we’d reached the end of the line. The terminal hangar facility stood about half a mile in the distance. It is futuristic-looking, a cross between the Millennium Falcon and a robotic beetle. The guard said we were welcome to snap a few photos before heading on our way. As I focused on 110,000 square feet of concrete, glass, and steel gleaming in the desert sun, I wondered if spacecrafts would ever really launch there.
Construction on the spaceport began over a decade ago. After several setbacks—most significantly a fatal spaceship crash in 2014—Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides insists commercial spaceflight will begin “pretty soon.” But locals are skeptical. This so-called “billion-dollar boondoggle” has already cost New Mexican taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and Sierra County residents continue to fund the facility through a sales tax levy. Although the long-promised boon to the local economy has yet to materialize, you might consider Cameron and me “space tourists.” Driving toward our hotel in T or C, we passed a small herd of cattle. I imagined the cows watching spaceships blast off from their dusty backyard. It’s an odd image, but over the course of my visit I came to appreciate the many oddities this area has to offer.
The citizens of T or C have embraced the unusual for decades, from electing to change the town’s original name (Hot Springs) as part of a promotional stunt by the radio program Truth or Consequences to favoring colorful mid-century architecture to reinventing the town as a haven for bohemian artists in the mid-nineties.
In fact, the very foundation of the town is based on something unusual: hot mineral springs running below its surface. Health spas proliferated here in the twenties and thirties, and downtown T or C currently boasts ten unique bathhouses.
The small town is also filled with galleries and art studios. From internationally known artists to hobbyists, it seems like everyone in T or C is creating something. According to Susan and Moe Koenick, owners of gallery and boutique Dust & Glitter, the art scene has faced challenges in recent years, but things are looking up. “The recession had really hurt all of us—less tourists and less interest in buying art. But like the rest of the country, the town is recovering. We feel we are currently on a slow incline.” To bring in more shoppers, downtown galleries host an Art Hop on the second Saturday of each month, in which stores stay open late and feature live music, artist demonstrations, and wine tastings.
On a Saturday morning Cameron and I walked around, downtown proved decidedly less hoppin’. The streets were virtually empty and every fine art studio or quirky gift store we tried was dark. I finally found a local and asked if many shops were closed this time of year. “Oh, I’m sure they’ll be open later in the afternoon,” she said. “You can’t always pay attention to the hours on the door. In this town, lots of people will open up when they feel like it.” Luckily, we happened upon the welcoming Black Cat Books & Coffee, located on North Broadway. Black Cat is basically everything I want in an independent bookstore. Its multicolored rooms are jam-packed with secondhand books and vintage chrome tables with mid-century chairs. Offerings of fresh coffee, tea, and pastries sit atop a long counter. The shop even hosts poetry readings on the second Sunday of the month. Most of the patrons present on our visit seemed content to sit and chat for the entire morning. Owner Rhonda Brittan told me she decided to visit T or C in the late nineties after reading about it in John Villani’s 100 Best Small Art Towns in America. She loved how funky and affordable it was, and soon relocated with her husband and their vintage Airstream trailer. Vacation-turned-relocation is a common story in Truth or Consequences.
As promised, many stores opened in the afternoon, and we worked up an appetite rifling through antiques, cowboy boots, and the kind of tie-dye and incense items synonymous with hippie towns. When we stopped by the Passion Pie Café for lunch, we discovered where the sleepy city’s residents had been hiding. Diners stood in front of the vibrant eatery’s bakery case and pointed to their decadent selections: blueberry ricotta cake, French coconut pie, date-pecan Wonder Bites. Cameron suggested I try one of their multiple quiche offerings, proclaiming them the best she’s ever had. The miraculously fluffy green chile, corn, and feta egg dish did not disappoint. Other tempting menu items included an egg salad sandwich with in-house pickled veggies; BLT tacos; “Fat Elvis” waffles topped with peanut butter sauce, banana slices, and whipped cream with bacon; and organic fair trade coffee. Like many businesses in town, Passion Pie’s walls are covered in purchasable local art. Even the café’s funky one-of-a-kind tabletops are for sale.
Top left to right: Bedroxx Bowling Alley; Black Cat Books & Coffee; Marv and Sue’s place this way. Bottom: middle of nowhere speckled with cattle.
Passion Pie, opened in 2012, represents a relatively recent upswing in the quality and diversity of dining options in T or C. Asian-fusion restaurant Latitude 33 has been delighting locals for the past three years with dishes like flash-fried shishito peppers in ponzu sauce, Fire Water Shrimp and Noodles, and a host of vegan options. And Bella Luca Café Italiano has received four Wine Spectator awards of excellence since opening in 2008. Sourcing local, organic produce isn’t easy for Sierra County restaurants. T or C hosts a Saturday farmers market in Ralph Edwards Park from Memorial Day to Halloween, but most market vendors are not producing the volume necessary to supply local restaurants and grocery stores.
One exception is Las Palomas Heirloom Farm in nearby Williamsburg. Owner Jessica Murphy told me Passion Pie has been a great CSA customer to her one-acre produce farm, and even provides her with spent coffee grounds to cultivate oyster mushrooms. Bella Luca purchases every squash blossom she can grow. Murphy started Las Palomas five years ago, after moving to the area with her husband Jed, a hunting guide. Besides selling to restaurants on a small scale, she occasionally sets up renegade farm stands, alerting her Facebook followers that she’ll be in the “parking lot across from McDonald’s” with a truck-full of watermelons. She says T or C’s Saturday farmers market is also a great outlet to feed the community. “There’s a lot of poverty here. With the farmers market’s [Double Up] program, customers are able to get double the monetary value on WIC and food stamps,” Murphy explained. “Whether you’re in a big city or small town like T or C, we all just want what’s best and healthiest for our families. It’s important to keep people empowered and independent [with their food choices].”
After lunch, Cameron and I checked into a simple but elegant room at the Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa. Built in 1929, the Spanish Colonial Revival lodge has an old Hollywood feel. It’s easy to picture Bogart and Bacall clinking martinis out on the palm tree-lined patio in the town’s heyday. Media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner bought the historic hotel after a stay in 2012, partly as a lodging option for his ecotourism outfit, Ted Turner Expeditions. These guided tours take guests on various hiking, biking, hot air ballooning, wildlife, and sightseeing adventures throughout Turner’s nearby Ladder and Armendaris ranches, which encompass over half a million acres.
In 2015, Turner opened the hotel’s Restaurant at Sierra Grande under the direction of internationally acclaimed chef Tatsu Miyazaki. The menu offers a mix of Southwestern and global influences, an appropriate homage to the establishment’s worldly cowboy owner. I joined Cameron for dinner in the upscale-casual dining room, where a stained-glass mural of Elephant Butte Dam—commissioned for the dam’s dedication in 1917—hangs over the bar. We ordered bison steak and noodle salad and the cherry port duck, which came with julienned asparagus and a generous portion of mushroom risotto—surprisingly sophisticated dishes for small-town New Mexico.
After dinner, we hit the town in search of some Saturday nightlife. What we found was Bedroxx Bowling Alley—yes, made to resemble the Flintstones’ town of Bedrock—and its adjoining Point Blanc Winery and Tap Room. The bowling alley had leopard print carpet and the winery had a drink special named the Blake Shelton. It was my kind of place. We took a seat at the bar next to a lone cowboy sipping a pale lager. Point Blanc had the largest local beer and wine assortment we encountered in town, with twenty-two New Mexico craft beers on tap, half a dozen wine selections from Deming’s St. Clair, a chardonnay from Gruet, and Point Blanc’s own sangria. The Blake Shelton (sangria mixed with Tractor Brewery’s hard apple cider) was tempting, but I opted for the D.H. Lescombes pinot noir instead. A long narrow window separates the bar from the bowling alley, and we enjoyed some tenpin and people watching while we sipped our drinks. Locals rave about the taproom’s pizzas, but the tater tots that come by the pound really piqued my interest. Saturday night in Truth or Consequences isn’t exactly The Last Picture Show, but there’s no denying entertainment options are limited. That said, I would happily visit a Bedroxx and Point Blanc in any city.
The next morning we received an exceptional complimentary breakfast from Sierra Grande’s restaurant: blue corn and piñon pancakes with whipped cinnamon honey butter and maple syrup, and bison and eggs with potatoes and fresh fruit drizzled with lavender honey. This was followed by a half-hour private soak in the spa’s outdoor mineral bath (each guest receives one per day of their stay). T or C’s hot springs are odorless, geothermally heated to 98–104 degrees, and contain high concentrations of thirty-eight minerals, including magnesium, lithium, and sodium. With our muscles relaxed from the soothing waters, we headed inside for a luxurious hour-long massage. By checkout time, I was already planning a return trip.
As we headed north on I-25 that evening, Cameron and I marveled at how radiant the stars looked out in the Chihuahuan Desert, and my thoughts returned to the spaceport and to T or C’s ambiguous economic outlook. Despite being sandwiched between the properties of two billionaires—Ted Turner and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson—Truth or Consequences is one of the poorest cities in New Mexico. Census reports on population decline rank Sierra County as eighth in the nation, with T or C’s population decreasing by six percent in the past five years. The town’s many empty and dilapidated buildings are juxtaposed with a championship golf course, high-end nature expeditions, and a potential gateway to suborbital space. Yet, I’d wager Truth or Consequences’s future economic viability lies less with wealthy businessmen and more with its creative citizens, who are slowly but surely improving food and drink options, expanding their vibrant art scene, and providing tourists with one-of-a-kind experiences. Whether Truth or Consequences becomes a space oddity or just remains a New Mexican one, I’ll be back to soak my bones, try an eco-tour, and drink a Blake Shelton.