Monday, September 12, 2011

Our New Mexico Vacation and Field Trip

The Burkes and Jeri in Mesilla, New Mexico
By Randy De La O

Jeri and I recently returned from our "Short but Sweet" trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico to see my cousins the Burkes; Rocky, Louie and their beautiful and gracious mother Elba. They all made Las Cruces come alive for us. Las Cruces and the surrounding towns and villages; Dona Ana, Mesilla and La Mesa, as well as Silver City, is where our family is from, We visited regularly when I was a kid. During our visits my father would load up on green chile and for several months afterwards, green chile was a main ingredient in our meals, usually in the form of Chile Verde or Chile Rellenos. As we were growing up, our father would talk about his days growing up in Las Cruces with his brothers and sisters. Over the years, New Mexico became sacred ground for our family, almost a mythical place. It is with that frame of mind that I approach New Mexico. Our last visit, a trip to Albuquerque, my father's birthplace,  to visit my late friend Steve Wallace was 15 years ago, so we were long over due a trip.

De La O Road in Scottsdale, Arizona

On the way to Las Cruces we made an overnight stop in Arizona, where we stayed in Scottsdale and visited with my sister Evelyn at the Maryland Gardens Care Center in nearby Phoenix. It was a difficult visit due to her condition and one that I'll write about at another time. We did manage to find De La O Road in Scottsdale before we left for New Mexico and took some photos before jumping onto the interstate 10 freeway.

The Organ Mountains overlooking Las Cruces
This photo is courtesy of Phillyintheduke at

The first thing you notice when approaching Las Cruces are the majestic and imposing Organ Mountains, there is no escaping it. They loom like giant guardians of the city.After we got settled in our hotel (The Marriott's Fairfield Inn) we went to the Burke home and then on to La Posta restaurant in Mesilla, a legendary and famous New Mexican eating spot. It was jam packed, loud and had a great vibe. I had the fajitas with some green chile on top and Jeri had the Chile Rellenos, her favorite. The atmosphere at the ancient La Posta is great and everyone seems to know each other. According to legend, the famed U.S, Army scout, Kit Carson ate here.

La Posta in Mesilla, New Mexico
This photo courtesy of MacSmith on Flickr
After the meal we walked around the village of Mesilla,  Mesilla is an old town, made up of old adobe brick buildings and includes several historic buildings but the one that caught my eye was the old jail and courthouse building that once housed Billy the Kid. The oldest bar in New Mexico, El Patio, is also in Mesilla. We didn't go in but it looked like a pretty happening place. Maybe next time.  After the walk and a short drive around town we went back to the Burke home for some coffee and a visit before heading back to the hotel.

The Burke's Home

The next day, Saturday, we went to the villages of La Mesa, La Union and Dona Ana. In La Mesa we stopped for lunch at another legendary New Mexican eatery, Chope's, on Highway 28, in La Mesa. Chope's was outstanding but is probably just one of many really good restaurants in the area. I had a combination plate with chile verde con Carne, an enchilada and a chile relleno. Jeri again had the chile relleno plate. Everything was first rate, including the service and the company (the Burkes). Chope's is one of those places where you don't want to leave. The food is simple, tasty and real. The atmosphere is old school.

Elba Burke and Jeri De La O at Chope's in La Mesa, New Mexico

Continuing on Highway 28, we stopped at La Vina Winery in La Union, New Mexico's oldest winery, for a wine tasting. I'm not much for wine, a beer tasting is more up my alley but I didn't mind the wait, it was a nice place to visit. Jeri bought a bottle of White Riesling. All around us were Pecan trees, not just on highway 28 but virtually everywhere. Turns out Pecans are one of New Mexico's biggest agricultural products, right up there with green chile. Driving back from La Vina we stopped at Stahmann's Country Store for some ice cream. It was another, slower paced world for Jeri and I and we loved it. Seems like everyone knows everyone in New Mexico and they make time for some good old fashioned conversation.

Pecan Trees along Hghway 28
This photo courtesy of Samuel Gaytan and Gateway El Paso

We took Dona Ana Road to Dona Ana and the De La O Visitor Center. The village of Dona Ana dates back to the 17th century. This is where the bulk of our family history can be found. The visitor's center is the former De La O Saloon which was owned and operated by Roman and Guadalupe De La O., The saloon opened during or just after  the Civil War. As far as I'm concerned, to be standing anywhere in Dona Ana but particularly at the Saloon/Visitor Center is to be standing on sacred and hallowed family ground. The center was closed, I figured it would be, since it was the Labor Day weekend. Still, just being there; seeing, and touching the building, and walking where my ancestor's walked was enough for me. That was all I really wanted and I accomplished that. I felt connected.

The De La O Saloon 1907

The De La O Saloon and Visitor Center 2011

Driving back to Cruces,  Louie showed us some of the sights, including Fort Selden. Fort Selden was built in 1865 and was home to the famed 125th US Colored Infantry Regiment, more famously known as the "Buffalo Soldiers".

Fort Selden State Monument

The Remains of Fort Selden
This photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Somehow, when you're having a good time, the time goes by too quickly. Evening came and after a walk through Mesilla and a tour through the Double Eagle Restaurant, "The Crown Jewel of Old Mesilla", we all went back to the Burke home for some coffee and some Green Chile Stew whipped up by Elba. It was a good way to wind down the day.

Jeri at the Hatch Festival sign just before entering Hatch
Chile roasting at the Hatch Chile Festival

On Sunday, after breakfast with the Burkes, we gave everyone a break and decided to drive ourselves to the Hatch Chile Festival in the town of Hatch, the epicenter of green chile in New Mexico. The smell of roasting chilies permeated the air and we could smell it as we approached the town. I was salivating. The sun was bearing down on us and it was hot. I found a nice shady spot to park the car on a dirt lot and we began our walk through Hatch. This was my first time at the Chile Festival, so I didn't really know what to expect. All I knew was this is the place for green chile and really, that is all you need to know. That being said, there is so much more going on, a little further up the road was the fair, and there are several shops in town that sell souvenirs, collectibles and other New Mexico food products, such as pecans, corn, pinto beans and various spices such as oregano and cumin, as well as dried, crushed, and powdered red chile. There's a little something for everyone, including clothing.

Shopping at the Festival

I wasn't exactly sure how I would store and transport roasted or fresh chilies back to California in the hot sun, especially since I still had a few days to go before heading home. I stumbled onto a vendor that was selling five pound bags of frozen green chilies, both mild and hot, I bought two bags of the hot chile but not before I walked over to the local hardware store and bought an Igloo ice chest and two bags of ice. This was on a Sunday. The chile was still frozen when I emptied the ice chest the following Wednesday. Can't go wrong with an Igloo ice chest. I bought a 20 pound bag of pinto beans on the advice from my friend Carlos Arriaga, a coworker at Boeing, Long Beach. He swears they're better than anything we can get in California. I'll let you know how that turns out. After another quick trip to Dona Ana in hopes of finding the De La O Visitor Center open (it wasn't), we headed back to Cruces.

The pace in New Mexico is slow and relaxing and yet I swear it seemed to pass quickly. I had volunteered to make dinner for everyone that night (Sunday) at Rocky's house and time was slipping away. We stopped at a local supermarket, Albertson's, to buy what we needed. As luck would have it they didn't have exactly what I needed, including the meat that I typically use, pork shoulder. We made a quick stop at another market and then onto the Burkes. Louie, a firefighter for the city of Las Cruces, was working that night so he wouldn't be there with us. I was speeding to get to the house. I hate to keep anyone waiting. It was after 7:00pm by the time we got there. The clock on my truck was still on California time and this is what I wa habitually going by.

Rocky's Home

Rocky and Vincente

I did my best to make my version of Chile Verde but I don't think it was my best. Still, everyone seemed to enjoy it and we had a good time with everyone, and in the long run, that's what matters. About 10:00pm or so, we headed back to the hotel.

Waffles at the Fairfield Inn

The next morning, Monday, we got up early, went downstairs for some breakfast - I should mention here that the waffles at the Fairfield Inn are the best I have ever had. I'm not trying to shill for anyone, especially a hotel chain, but when I find something this good, I just feel the need to share it. The waffle batter is Carbon's Golden Malted. There is a commercial waffle maker at the Fairfield Inn, you have to make your own waffle's. It was well worth the extra trouble. Anyway, we got up early, had breakfast and drove to Silver City to visit our cousin Tony Garcia, about 110 miles east taking the interstate 10 and Highway 180. Louie was going to meet up with us in Silver City.  I'm a good one for missing off ramps and going in the wrong direction but we finally made it to Silver City. We had left Las Cruces a little later than we had intended and didn't reach Silver City til noon.

Silver city, New Mexico

Silver City, as you might guess from the name, is an old silver mining town, founded in 1878 and sits at almost 6000 above sea level. The cooler weather was welcomed. My father's mother, my grandmother, Gumesinda Salazar was from Silver City. My father also lived there, with an aunt, for a short time when he was still a young boy. Taking the Interstate 10 and Highway 180, Silver City is about a 115 miles east of Las Cruces. We found Tony's home, courtesy of Google Map, though once we hit town, it did take us a little out of the way before we found his home. Still, we did find it. We all introduced ourselves and we met Tony and his wife "Mo", short for Modesta. right off the bat Jeri and I felt as if we had known them both for years. Salt of the Earth types. Tony mentioned we were going to a nearby park to meet more family members, cousins; the niece and nephews of my grandmother Gumesinda.

Tony and Mo's Home 

At the park we were met with an overwhelming sense of family and lots of good food. it was more than I could have expected. Louie arrived a few minutes later and was greeted with the same warmth. I couldn't help but think of all that I missed by not knowing all these good people. We all ate, got to know each other a little better, shared old photos and took some new photos. One of the topics that brought a lot of reminiscing and laughter was the misadventures of my uncle Larry, known by his original birth name, Lorenzo, in Silver city. Larry was a professional gambler and had many narrow escapes back in the day. All of the older cousins remembered my aunts and uncles, as well as my father. The people from my father's generation are thinning out and I enjoy speaking with someone that actually knew him.

La Familia de Silver City

Posing for the camera

The women folk

A little later in the day, after exchanging addresses and pone numbers and saying goodbye to everyone at the park, Tony and Mo took Louie, his son Vincente, Jeri and I on a tour of the town. From Tony I learned that my great, great grandfather Urbano Bermudez, owned much of the land in the old section of Silver City. He subdivided it an left or gave the land and homes to his descndents, where many of them live to this day. We also visited the old St. Vincent de Paul Cemetary, where I saw for the first time, the grave site of my great grandparents, Antonio and Josefa Salazar. It is  from Antonio,Salazar that my father, as well as his brothers and sisters came by the middle name, Salazar. Josefa was the daughter of Urbano Bermudez. We ended the day with a meal at The Jalisco Cafe, on Bullard Street. Bullard Street became the Main Street when the original Main Street was washed away by a flood in 1895. Once again, the food was fantastic. this time Jeri had the green chile chicken enchiladas and I had the huevos rancheros, with green chile of course. Both were excellent choices. The Jalisco Cafe is a great little restaurant and I recommend it to anyone going to Silver City.

The Jalisco Cafe in Silver City

We went back to the Garcia home, looked through some old photographs and talked for  a while. It was getting late now and night time was approaching. None of us wanted to leave but it was time. I won't soon forget our day in Silver City with my new found cousins. It was back to highway 180 and the Interstate 10 to Cruces and a final goodbye to Elba, Rocky, Louie, and Louies kids, Samantha and Vincente. It was hard for us to say goodbye. We miss them as I write this.

I had three goals when I left for Las Cruces. The first was to reconnect with family. Secondly, reconnect with .the past, and thirdly to eat as much green chile as I possibly could. I accomplished all three and got to share it with my wife. This was as good as it gets.

To all my primos that made this a vacation to remember Jeri and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Tony Bennett may have "Left his heart in San Francisco" but my heart is still in southern New Mexico, meandering down Highway 28 amidst the pecan trees, or heading north on Dona Ana Road toward the De La O Saloon, or sitting in Elba's kitchen eating her green chile stew. God Bless them all!

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