Billy the Kid is kind of like Anglocentric American history compressed into a single person. Stay with me, now: He was fiercely independent and traveled west on a journey of what some might call righteous battle, what others might call treachery. He was a romantic hero and/or a violent sociopath. Either way, his influence cannot be denied, and everyone you talk to at least knows his name and that he supposedly killed 21 people—one for every year he was alive.
Thanks to To Hell on a Fast Horse by Colorado author Mark Lee Gardner, I have a pet interest in Billy the Kid. I even went so far as to commission a pop art portrait of the outlaw from local artist Shelly Johnson (shelly-johnson.squarespace.com—check her out). But it was never enough to draw me to Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, the Kid's final resting place. Until now, that is.
Billy the Kid Museum
(1435 Sumner Ave., Ft. Sumner, 575-355-2380, billythekidmuseumfortsumner.com)
you’ll find an archive of Kid newspaper clippings, interpretive paintings, unauthenticated artifacts (these
might have been
might have been
his cooking pots—these
might have been
his spurs) and what
the rifle from his famous photograph. Continue on by following the yellow arrows on the floor, because the real draw here is actually an immense trove of historic and vintage artifacts of everyday life on the New Mexican frontier.
In addition to stuff you won't see anywhere else (like a taxidermied conjoined twin calf), the museum has become a sort of repository for bits of regional history that might have otherwise been relegated to the yard sale heap. A China cream set that was given as the prize for growing the largest watermelon (no location or year listed); chicken-shaped serving bowls donated by Gloria and Tino of Sudan, Texas; a working turn-of-the-century machine that, when you insert a dime and look through a slot, shows a succession of 15 photos of a bathing beauty on a hobby horse. The rooms are stuffed absolutely full of these kinds of curios, including what might be a mastodon skull and a stack of tin cups helpfully labeled "Tin Cups."
Seasonally, the museum opens daily from 8:30 am-5 pm. Tickets are $3-$5 and kids under 6 are free. The day a friend and I went, longtime employee Tom manned the counter and was one of the friendliest people we've ever met. He spouted plenty of trivia and offered us shiny pennies for the penny press if our own were too dull.
Ask for directions to Billy the Kid's gravesite, just down Billy the Kid Road. At Tom's recommendation, we also went to the Bosque Redondo Memorial (3647 Billy the Kid Road, Ft. Sumner, 575-355-2573, bosqueredondomemorial.com), right next to the graveyard. Expecting a plaque on the side of the road, we were pleasantly surprised to come upon a beautiful, modern building (opened in 2005), which contains information about the Long Walk and the Bosque Redondo, particularly dark spots on New Mexico's history. About 10,000 Native people died during the walk and on the site between 1863 and 1868. After an hour or two spent celebrating Manifest Destiny at the museum, this was a place to get grounded. Folks at the memorial were no less friendly—a ranger named Aaron, pleased with the relatively busy Saturday, was happy to take time to explain the memorial and its well-manicured grounds. Its website says it's $3 to get in, but for some reason it was free on the day we went.
On our way out of town, a cheeseburger, fries and a soda was the $6.50 special at Dariland (1304 Sumner Ave., Ft. Sumner, 575-355-2337), and we stopped to take pictures of creepy abandoned buildings in Vaughn.
Round Trip: 320 miles
Also Consider: A picnic at Redondo Lake (just follow the signs); weird souvenirs from the Clines Corners truck stop
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Every trip down Highway 14, for us, includes a stop in Madrid. Drop in for lunch at The Hollar (2849 Hwy. 14, Madrid, 471-4821). We love everything chef/owner Josh Novak does, including burgers on a biscuit and tender barbecue specials, but we're a little married to the chicken and grits with lavender béchamel ($13.50). Pair it with a tall glass of sweet tea ($3.50).
But don't stop there! Extricate yourself from the beautiful patio, keep on a southern trajectory and watch out for bikers until you see a sign for San Antonito. Hang a right at Sandia Crest Road, and about a mile up the hill is Tinkertown.
To say "every inch of Tinkertown is covered in art" would actually be a lie. There might be three or four square feet in the 22-room museum that don't have some kind of trinket, sign, decoration or painting. Ward started the project in high school as dioramas of Old West towns and circuses with working lights and moving parts, but it evolved into a treehouse-like structure packed floor to ceiling with folk art curios from around the world. Quotes from the Bible, Mark Twain and Albert Einstein are expertly lettered along the walls.
Coin-operated machines tell fortunes or play music. Many walls are built from stacked green bottles glowing in the light. A miniature mill operates in a courtyard with a calming trickle of water.
When we visited, Lynn McLane, president of the Turquoise Trail Association, was working the front. She called Tinkertown "the analog Meow Wolf," saying that the two interactive sensory-overload immersive art installations share a lot of the same visitors. Only this one is a fraction of the cost, and much prettier to get to.
During warmer months, the museum is open daily—this year it closes for the winter on Halloween. Admission is $1.25-$3.75, and that includes a quarter back to operate one of the coin machines. Be aware that it could be a tough place to navigate if you have mobility issues—as a nod to this, the museum does not charge an entrance fee for anyone in a wheelchair (just good luck getting around).
Round Trip: 103 miles
Also Consider: A beer and a pizza at the Lazy Lizard Grill in Cedar Crest; an additional 12-mile (one way) drive up to Sandia Peak for a low-key nature walk ($3 to park)
Head down I-25 and hang a right at Bernalillo, go past the Santa Ana Star Center and just keep going. Outdoorsy types might know it as "the way to Chaco," but going all the way to Chaco Culture National Historical Park (nps.gov/chcu) is a real commitment at about 180 miles one way from Santa Fe.
My personal recommendation would be to hit mile marker 41 or so—after that the scenery is still beautiful, just not as breathtaking as miles 1 to 40. This will get you to around San Ysidro, or where Highway 4 meets 550. You can then turn back and see 550 the other way, or hang a right on Highway 4 and take it up through the Jemez Mountains and come out at Los Alamos, then make your way back to town.
On this drive, there isn't a ton to do other than just marvel at how ridiculously gorgeous our state is, but that is way more than enough.
Round-trip: 137 miles (to San Ysidro and back); 156 miles (return via Highway 4)
Also Consider: The Jemez Historic Site or the Valles Caldera on Highway 4; brunch at The Range Café in Bernalillo (best breakfast potatoes ever)