Another diner shares a tip: Local St. Clair Winery sells a Hatch Green Chile wine, a semi-sweet with roasted chili aroma and spicy finish. Winemaking here started in the 1600s, when Franciscan monks planted vines nurtured by the warm, sunny days and cool nights.
Las Cruces is surrounded by places to work off chili-infused feasts. Wispy morning breezes ruffle the sand during my trek in a mountain-edged, cactus-studded pocket of the Chihuahuan Desert. In the afternoon, I thread through dusty foothills of the Organ Mountains, named for rugged spires that resemble organ pipes. At Dripping Springs Natural Area, which hugs the mountains’ west side, I spot Indian paintbrush, Mexican buckeye, alligator juniper, desert willow and ocotillo, a delicate waterfall and the remains of a century-old spa. Remarkably, the only other people here are two rock climbers attempting a vertical ascent by the namesake springs.
A drive northeast of town leads to White Sands National Monument, which is billed as the world’s largest gypsum dune field at 275 square miles. (Yes, the adjacent White Sands Missile Range was the site of the world’s first atomic-bomb explosion, but nowadays the park is closed during brief tests at the range.) One marked trail loops around treetops of cottonwood whose trunks extend deep into the sparkling sand and sumac that spills over wind-sculpted pedestals like randomly tossed Andy Warhol wigs. The dunes, rippled wavelike by breezes, are imprinted with tracks from kit foxes and pocket mice. The latter evolved white coats to survive intense sun and hungry predators, one of many curiosities revealed at the visitor center’s gallery, which mimics a trail.
Using a $10 plastic saucer from the gift shop, I go dune-sledding. Even belly-down, it’s slow-motion compared with snow, but you don’t get cold or wet. Eventually I stand on the saucer to surf . . . at turtle speed. This sport’s challenge comes in the repeated climbs up the dune, when your leg muscles burn.
I refuel in Mesilla, just south of Las Cruces, at an old-timey gas station converted into the Bean. The walls vibrate with wild paintings by local artists, but the diners remain intensely focused on their plates. Everything’s made in-house, including the bread. My saucy, vegetable-chunked chili-dilla nicely balances flavor and heat.
Energized, I walk the narrow avenues of historic Mesilla, a well-preserved Old West town where Billy the Kid stood trial in 1881. (The town’s Gadsden Museum displays the outlaw’s jail cell.) Mesilla resembles a colorized Western staged for shopping rather than shootouts. Once the site of a stagecoach stop, gunfights and “necktie parties” — public hangings — Mesilla Plaza now hosts tamer events such as craft markets and historical reenactments. It’s ringed by cheerily cluttered shops selling silver, gemstones, kachina dolls, chimes and, of course, chili goods.
Festive sample bowls form a tasty circuit around Solamente de Mesilla’s cactus jams, “frog” (fig-raspberry-orange-ginger) salsa, red-and-green chili powder and chili-shaped tchotchkes.
The chili-spiced dark chocolate-covered pecans would make a perfect gift — if only they didn’t pair so well with Wild West Express-O at nearby Billy the Kid Gift Shop.
Which suggests another reason seed packets make the ideal souvenirs: I can’t eat them.
Soslow is an arts, food and outdoors writer-photographer based in Washington and Florida. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.