In one 200-square-mile rectangle of southwestern New Mexico, a traveler can find a thousand years of America's past. And there will be few tourists to get in the way: If northern New Mexico is chic and cool, southern New Mexico is hot, local and unexplored.

Just east of Legal Tender Hill sits Silver City (at the northwest corner of the rectangle), near one of outlaw Butch Cassidy's hideouts. A wild region, the Gila Wilderness, separates Silver City from Truth or Consequences (the northeast corner), where Apache Indian Chief Geronimo used to relax in the hot springs. South of Truth or Consequences, across the desert the Spaniards called the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man), is Las Cruces, where the fiercest chili peppers in the world hang innocently in a hundred doorways. And west of Las Cruces, along the route of the old Butterfield Stage, is Deming, in the homeland of the Mimbres Indians, considered by experts to be among the finest artistic designers of pottery of all the pre-Columbian native Americans.

I set out to drive this rectangle not long ago, beginning in Truth or Consequences. They call it T or C -- it sounds like "Tiercy" -- a three-mile bowl in the scrubby mountains. Little lines of green trees run down to the center like cracks in a pottery glaze. Geronimo really did come down here from his SOUTHWEST, From E1 Gila hideout to bathe in the springs. Today, tired ranchers from Nebraska and Montana trickle down in the winter to warm up in the hot pools.

Truth or Consequences always sounded to me like the real West. But the truth is that the town was called Hot Springs until Ralph Edwards brought his radio game show here for a live broadcast in 1950. The Hot Springers liked the publicity so much they named the town after his show -- and named the green park by the Rio Grande the Ralph Edwards Park. (Edwards still comes back in May to lead a big parade down Main Street.)

This is a calm place, both population and elevation around 4,200. And tourism has not seemed to touch it since 1940.

The biggest draw in T or C is still the hot springs. They are tucked inside one-story adobe buildings with names like Yucca Gardens and Sierra Grande.

Tillie Sanchez runs the Yucca Gardens baths. She's a trim, tanned woman in her fifties, who got up from the afternoon soap operas to show me around. For $70 a week, you can stay at the Yucca, in a simple room with doilies on the armchair, and get rejuvenated. Tillie did. She came here with a bad hip years ago and says the baths fixed her right up. Applied for the manager's job when it came open, and now, three years later, would not dream of leaving. The hot water helped her arthritis so much, she says she's a regular at the bowling alley again.

Down the hall are the pools: several small ones and Sanchez' pride, a 20-foot-long natural bath built right over the spring. The water is about four feet deep, lined with fist-sized river pebbles. It is clear and bubbly, filled with a brew of bicarbonate and sodium and chlorine and half a dozen other chemicals. And it is hot, 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

At each end of the large pool is a curtained dressing room. For a moment I anticipated the vision of half a dozen ranchers from Casper or Kearney in their birthday suits, pink and breathless from the heat, cavorting in the water. But no. Sanchez says for $2 you get 15 minutes of absolute privacy.

A block away, Jesse Eades runs another bathhouse, the Hot Spring Baths. Each pool here is a separate spring, and the temperatures vary slightly. Like Sanchez, Eades is a true believer in the pools' curative properties. "I give you 45 minutes in the pools for a dollar. Most places give you a quarter or half an hour. But it takes me 40 minutes to work up a sweat in the pools, so I give you 45. Throw in an extra five minutes. It's good for you."

Though the hot springs are the heart and soul of T or C, there are a few other wonders. Like the murals at the post office. The cornerstone says "built in 1939," when Henry Morgenthau was secretary of the treasury. That staunch liberal would have loved the mural in the corner. It shows a group of figures striding across a mountain landscape, pioneer bodies with Hispanic faces, deer antlers poking up from the background. As if Thomas Hart Benton had gone to sleep at the easel and dreamed about Jose Clemente Orosco.

The Sierra County Courthouse, up the hill from the post office, is nice to look at, too. It's whitewashed and flat-roofed with red-tile coping. But once you're warm and happy, it's easy to leave T or C.

The road west to Silver City touches I-25 a dozen miles south of town. The exit says Hillsboro, and at the base of the exit ramp you cross a metal cattle guard -- the first warning of the rough country ahead.

The road west is State Rte. 90, ruler-straight for half an hour. I was preparing to burrow smack into the flanks of the Gila Mountains when the road slowly began to rise and bend left. First I saw the peeled earth of a strip mine. A sign said "The Copper Flats Partnership." Then I saw officer M.D. Moon, U.S. Immigration, flagging me to a stop. "U.S. citizen, ma'am?" I think my Alabama accent convinced him, and he seemed glad to talk a bit.

Immigration agents consider this lonesome road 100 miles north of the border to be their last chance to catch folks from Mexico before they blend into the Hispanic population of Albuquerque.

This area is west of the Rio Grande. There's no river to cross between the two nations, and Moon says families walk across the desert and just keep coming. They pass up the first road they come to and choose this second one as safer. It was hard to look at the desert around us and imagine any family surviving long on foot. Beyond Moon, the mountains grew hypnotic. Golden gray sand mounds were covered with green polka dots -- cedars, I could see as I got closer, growing in perfect circles.

The road climbed a few miles and entered the little hamlet of Hillsboro, at 5,200 feet. The Robber's Roost General Store is a good place to find a cold drink, but otherwise this hot little town looks like a mistake. Cool adobe houses have been abandoned for shiny new mobile homes.

Out of Hillsboro, the road really climbs. Soon pine trees, even sumacs, are crowding the road cuts. I passed the six houses that make up Kingston (Home of the Spit and Whittle Club, a sign says) and started climbing through an evergreen canopy that could be New Zealand or Nepal.

At the very top -- 8,228 feet -- Emory Pass affords a spectacular view back onto the crumpled mountainside. In it I could read the principles of mountain geology. Something once grabbed up handfuls of the valley floor and shoved them together, leaving startling red sandstone edges silvered with lichens in the cracks.

The descent was fast, flashing past camp sites at Iron Creek and other early settlers' cabins. There are no guardrails on the switchback curves, and I wondered uncomfortably about travelers' cars crashing out of sight over the edge. I got my answer at the flat bottom, where the town of San Lorenzo sits on the banks of the Mimbres River. Terry Oliver reigns as Queen of the Valley in the San Lorenzo General Store. She's the fire dispatcher, the postmistress, the notary and voter registrar, and she helps rescue those drivers who've gone over the edge.

Oliver can recommend a campsite, sell you crackers and sardines, or show you the finest pottery now being made in the valley, based on the old Mimbres designs. If she doesn't have too many other customers, perhaps you can get her started on her friends at the Mimbres Hot Springs Ranch up in the hills near San Lorenzo. Some of the Southwest's best artists live there, calling it a "consensual corporation," a commune for the '80s. They've cleared out one of the hot springs, lined it with rock and planted mint all around it. In the moonlight it is an enchanting place. But Terry Oliver just can't bring herself to skinny dip outside.

I must have had a dozen talks with Terry Oliver in the week I spent camping on the banks on the Mimbres River. She is a real treasure of the region. The Mimbres is full of older treasures, though. The Mimbres tribe flourished here from A.D. 200 to about 1200, and then mysteriously disappeared. But in that thousand years they developed an astonishing style of painting black designs on the inside of white-slipped bowls.

I joined a group of Earthwatch volunteers and archeology students from Texas A & M digging the remnants of a large Mimbreno pueblo. Most of the pots have been systematically looted in the past 50 years, but we found shards that are still alive with curving lines and figures. There is no feeling quite like throwing buckets of black dirt at a high blue sky, sifting with eager fingers for pottery pieces and holding a thousand-year-old fragment of another life.

The Mimbrenos buried their dead in the dirt floor of their living rooms, the bodies curled into fetal positions, with these stunning bowls over their heads, a tiny "kill hole" chipped in the bottom.

On my day off from digging, I took a winding road north of San Lorenzo into the Gila Wilderness, the first wilderness area designated by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1920s, and still the nation's largest. Except for the entrance road, cars are forbidden here. Only travel on foot or horseback is allowed now, and the road in is full of trucks leading swaying horse trailers up to the corrals where adventurers begin horseback trips into the Gila.

I crossed the Continental Divide and left my car at the foot of a side canyon. Above me was a half-mile climb to the cliff dwellings of the Mimbrenos' ancestral neighbors. Bands of Mogollon Indians lived here for perhaps three generations, leaving tidy rooms with cool walls of stone in caves hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. The air was cool, and full of the scents of pin on pine and wild berries.

The two-hour drive back down to Silver City is a headache of twisting turns, the road mercifully prohibited to trailers longer than 20 feet. It was even harder on the first silver prospectors who picked their way through the Gila Wilderness in the early 1870s. Henry Ailman was one of the first, and in his "Silver City Diary" remembered the fight to stay alive:

"As these streams were our only guide, we naturally followed them, no matter how hard the going might be . . . By this time we had almost nothing to eat. Here is the menu: Breads made of flour and salt, with nothing to make it light and spongy; tea and gravy as we still had a little lard. Before reaching town even this was cut down as both lard and salt gave out . . . There was plenty of underbrush to fight our way through with worn-out pack animals, but pulling off packs frequently was only part of our trouble. At one point we came to a precipice of all of 10 or 12 feet to the top, and so steep it was almost impossible for a burro or a horse to climb it . . . "

Ailman finally did reach Silver City, sank a silver mine so profitable he soon sold out and started a bank. And unlike the other silver ghost towns that dot the Gila, Silver City expanded into ranching and lumber, spreading out across several low hills, and continues to thrive.

I found it a pleasant town in which to squander a few days. The Gila Theater shows first-run movies, and the Random House Antiquities Store on Main Street sells Victoriana and a few pricey Mimbres Indian bowls. Part of the delight is the feeling of a low-key artist community. Long-haired men wearing Firestone Tire caps stop on the corner in front of a pottery studio to debate the merits of an arcane glaze. Silversmiths and coppersmiths sell jewelry out of storefronts, and students from Western New Mexico University wander up the streets to find quiet corners for reading.

The town has always been frankly capitalistic. They named the very first silver deposits, on the mound near where the town would rise, "Legal Tender Hill." Then an aspiring builder found clay deposits, and quickly sold brick to the growing town. Henry Ailman, that successful silver miner, took his bank profits and built a house with proper Victorian turrets. It is now the Silver City Museum, home to a fascinating collection of silver lore, early Indian pottery designs and relics of Ailman's troubles with capitalism. A rumor started a run on his bank that closed it down in 1887 and sent him to Los Angeles to start over.

Much of Silver City is on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can read its history in the different styles of architecture: Mexican adobe, early brick, cupolas, mission-style infirmaries for a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1905. There is evidence of a little environmental naivete, too: Free-range cattle-grazing nibbled away at the Gila Mountain vegetation, and soon there was trouble. One night in 1895, a flood rolled down the mountains and a 12-foot-high wall of water and boulders tore through Main Street. The next morning the street was 35 feet lower than the storefronts.

Today Main Street is a city park called the Big Ditch, which extends 15 miles out of town.

The road south to Deming (Rte. 180) leaves Silver City through the copper-mining towns of Bayard and Hurley. Out of the mountains by now, the road is flat and full of mirages of water. Off on the left, about halfway to Deming, is the City of Rocks, now a state park. What must the Mimbres Indians have thought of this place? Acres of boulders the size of houses -- volcanic tuff eroded by the sandy winds -- are canted against each other. It is a spooky enough place in the daytime, and the locals tell wild stories of moonlit games of hide-and-seek between the stones.

And then there is Deming. To like this town, it helps to be the kind of person who enjoys driving through cemeteries and reading the tombstones. There's nothing much to do here, but a lot to see that is funny or odd or instructive.

The Mimbres Drive-In shows PG classics. Can there be any other drive-in surviving on PG? Every bar in Deming is called a saloon, every flea market is a "rock swap." The settlers were wishful thinkers. They named the streets Elm, Ash, Oak going south; Silver, Platinum, Diamond headed east. But this is a treeless plain, and only silver was discovered.

In the old armory is the acme of civic pride: the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum. It is living proof that no Deminger ever threw anything away. Laverne Browne's size 2 rubbers are behind glass, along with "Classroom Bell used by Mrs. Smith." My favorite is a painted pitcher labeled "very old milk pitcher."

The town's favorite Native Son exported Deming's wishful thinking on a global scale. Nacio Herb Brown, son of a Wells Fargo agent, left Deming to write the tunes to "Singing in the Rain," "All I Do Is Dream of You" and "When Sadie Was a Lady." The sheet music to prove it is all in the museum.

Why would anybody stop in Deming to discover all this? I did because the Gila Wilderness took the starch out of my left rear tire. Ernie at the Exxon pointed it out to me: a ridge between the tread that looked like the rift between two tectonic plates. "All you self-serve customers ignore your tires," he said cheerfully. "Lady, I think I'm gonna save you a blowout!"

While he replaced it, I waited at the La Fonda Restaurant, entertained by one of the best juke boxes west of the Rio Grande. Each booth had those little selection leaves you can flip through, and I did. Lots of country swing, "Houston Means I'm One Day Closer to You"; lots of cheatin' songs, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls"; and one that even I know is a big hit, "I Want a New Drug."

The best drug out here is hot coffee to get across the desert to Las Cruces. But Las Cruces is worth it. The International Connoisseurs of Red and Green Chili are holed up in New Mexico State's campus. You can barely see the school for the 14,000 acres of chili fields around it. These folks are serious about red and green chilis: It's a $19-million-dollar industry here. And they serve a relish that's a side dish everywhere else; here it is the main event.

Green peppers, the stuff of salsa, are simply red peppers before they ripen. These folks call the long green peppers Big Jim, or simply Variety 6-4. They pick them green in the field, skin them, stuff them with cheese and fry them in a batter.

There's more to see here. Mesilla, a little town across the river, is an Old World oasis where I went to recover from all this new New Mexico. It's a quiet town where the Gadsden Purchase signed away New Mexico from Mexico in 1853 for $10 million. It was cool under the eaves of the Snake Bite Hotel, and I liked the wrought-iron window guards across the square that suddenly looked like New Orleans.

Perhaps Billy the Kid was not killed after his trial here. Perhaps the old Butterfield Stage from St. Louis to San Francisco will come rolling back out of the past and drop off some more passengers. Perhaps this is the best place of all to end this trip, and think about life and history compressed into 200 square miles of New Mexican desert.