In New Mexico, the Un-Wild West
Frontier historians know Cimarron, N.M., as one of the wildest places in the Old West -- a playground for notorious desperadoes such as Billy the Kid, Clay Allison, Blackjack Ketchum and Jesse James. In its late 19th-century glory days, Cimarron, with 14 saloons, four hotels and innumerable bordellos, more than lived up to its name, which means "untamed" or "wild" in Spanish. Such was the state of affairs in this boomtown along the Santa Fe Trail that a territorial newspaper once proudly reported, "Everything is quiet in Cimarron. Nobody has been killed in three days."
These days, however, Cimarron is the very model of serenity, especially at the Casa del Gavilan ("The House of the Hawk"), a sprawling inn that looks out over the rolling prairies and rangelands of the Cimarron Valley from the foothills of the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains. But if you think that this country inn might be just another curlicued Victorian with a cute paint job, antimacassars and wraparound porches, guess again, buckaroo. The Gavilan is 100 percent New Mexico -- a sprawling adobe hacienda all in dazzling white, with thick 18-inch walls surrounding five high-ceilinged guest rooms and public areas full of Southwestern art and Remington bronzes.
At the Gavilan, a friend and I stayed in the Nairn Room, attractively and tastefully decorated with a mix of furniture from Cimarron's Victorian-era heyday and prints with scenes of Old New Mexico. Its namesake, J.J. Nairn, a wealthy eccentric and bon vivant, built Gavilan in 1910 as a personal retreat where he spent his days riding to hounds across the prairies and his evenings presiding over formal dinners clad in kilts and sporran. Much to his credit, this former Washington bookseller also enjoyed hosting writers for extended stays, including Zane Grey, who made the casa the setting for "Knights of the Range," which opened by immortalizing the view from Gavilan as "the grandest scene in all New Mexico."
We explored that scene by walking in the Sangre de Cristos, schmoozing with the wild deer that rove freely around the inn, visiting the Kit Carson Museum on the nearby Philmont Scout Ranch and elk-spotting in nearby Carson National Forest. In town, we took in the Old Mill Museum, a former flour mill crammed with a vast collection of local crafts, historic photos and artifacts from the frontier days. And as history buffs, we enjoyed Gavilan's location on the Santa Fe Trail, which instantly conjured up visions of prairie schooners, vast buffalo herds, the crack of cavalry rifles and fierce battles with the Pawnees and Comanches.
Fortunately for us city slickers, breakfast at Gavilan didn't involve hunkering down at dawn around the chuck wagon for fatback and trail coffee. Instead, we prepared for our days on the trail by tucking into omelets and pecan French toast and watching the morning sun march across the prairie to bathe the jagged mountains in bright pink.
Dinner meant driving into Cimarron to visit the town's other hostelry, the St. James Hotel, which Billy, Clay and the rest of the gang used as their clubhouse and shooting gallery. Nowadays, the St. James is best known for its period guest rooms and a dining room that was once the hotel bar, where more than 26 men had their last drink under the bullet-riddled ceiling. Next door, in the current saloon (avec spittoon), visiting greenhorns and Walter Mitty types can toss down double shots with real cowboys and ranchers from nearby spreads.
Later, back at the ranch, we'd spend our evenings watching New Mexico's big night sky drench the mountains and prairies in starshine. And sometimes, for a change of pace from Cimarron and the Wild West, we'd head for Taos and the Mild West, just two hours away.
-- Bill Whitman
Cimarron. N.M., can be reached by car from Albuquerque or Denver on Interstate 25, to U.S. Highway 64 and Cimarron. Nightly rates at the Casa del Gavilan (about six miles from Cimarron, on Highway 21) range from $75 to $105 per couple, or $130 for the guest house for four people; breakfast included. Details: 800-GAVILAN, www.casadelgavilan.com.