“Fear and Learning in Las Vegas, New Mexico”: Episode 13 of The Rocky Mountain Rubber Tramp

Kurt Buss
9 min readNov 14, 2020
Storrie Lake State Park Campground just outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico, from my camper, Cochise.

“Looking out the camper window at sunshine bouncing off of snow. I’m here again at Storrie Lake State Park in Las Vegas, NM. Nice! Overcast and blizzarding all day yesterday. Very blustery. Southern California seems like it was a long time ago, and far, far away…

But today it’s time to jump back into a writing regimen and get some things posted. Then I’m gonna try my hand at making posole for the first time. Warm this camper up with some good smells, I hope…”

— Journal entry: Monday; December, 3rd, 2018; 9:09 am. Back in this cozy, little camper-trailer, which I like to call Cochise.

“Sunshine this morning was very welcoming. Gets damn cold at night but warms quickly with the sun. I’ll take it. Lots to do today — out and about: shower, haircut, library, and try to find out how to stiffen up BroBo [my Nissan Pathfinder — the Bronze Bomber] so pulling the camper doesn’t always make me sick. Maybe I’ll drive out to Montezuma and check out the hot spring baths.

I’m beginning to like this grimy old town. I feel strangely at home here…”

— Journal entry: Next morning, same place.

“Another glorious morning of sunshine and the hope for warm weather. Supposed to get up into the mid-50s. Like me — sort of.

I’m gonna go back to the Carnegie Library (I love that place!) and then knock around Old Town a bit — The Plaza and Bridge Street — where the Gallinas River separates West from East Las Vegas, Old from New.

I’m getting quotes on getting BroBo tightened up — it’s proving to be more difficult than I’d thought: airbags are expensive because the mounting brackets would have to be custom made; overload springs aren’t available because they’re coil and not leaf, nor are overload shocks because there’s no extra room in the wheel well; putting a higher-performance chip on the engine isn’t going to give me any more towing power…not very encouraging news. Everyone says to just get a pickup truck with a V-8 and leaf springs. Sure, I’ll get right on it…”

— Journal entry: Next morning, still same place.

BroBo and Cochise, face to face, realizing that they were not made for one another.

Yes, yes, yes. I guess I’m just getting settled as a rubber tramp, trying to figure it all out. Certainly not as easy as I had imagined in my romantic notions of living on the road as a carefree, stumble-bumbling storytelling vagabond; but, it’s certainly been more rewarding than continuing to spin in the slimy ol’ mud as a cruel, broken cog stuck in an uncaring wheel rolling roughshod over others for another man’s fortune. To hell with that, I say! Gracias, no!

Forty-some years of busting arse for “Da Man” and little more than a bad back to show for it. I gather that’s what happens when you party your way through college and, finally, end up with a Liberal Arts degree in English. More’s the pity; but no tears here, dear reader. No lagrimas, amigos y amigas! No llores aqui! At least I can work on my Spanglish…

So, I hunker down at this semi-abandoned campground on the edge of town, where the Sangre de Christo mountains come down to kiss the wind-blistered prairie of northeastern New Mexico, stretching toward the Panhandle region of Texas in what was once the Land of the Comanche, now the Land of Enchantment — and enchanting it is as I discover the layers of history here, everywhere present in architecture of times better seen but preserved nonetheless, because Las Vegas didn’t have the money to tear it all down and rebuild with ugly, “modern” boxy commercial buildings in the 1970s as so many other Western boomtowns did during the heyday of the oil and gas bonanza.

Good thing, too. This place feels poised to pop with a revitalizing resurrection as old buildings get renovated and restored to their original majesty, and the shine comes back to luster on the dust of history’s richness. Las Vegas, NM, has more architectural treasure than any other place in the country (according to local lore), with more structures — at over 900 — on the National Register of Historic Places than any other municipality per capita (with Las Vegas having a diminishing population of about 13,000 souls). I believe it, and I’ll bet you would as well.

The Plaza Hotel in West (Old Town) Las Vegas is one of the town’s prize architectural gems, having been splendidly renovated and richly decorated. Room prices are surprisingly reasonable.

It’s got every building type from the old Spanish Colonial Mission style in Old Town to the more modern adobe pueblo design with canales, vigas, Talavera tiles, placitas, entradas, nichos for Santos and latillas for coyote fences — collectively known as New Mexico Vernacular and Territorial Revival architecture. It’s like Santa Fe on acid with a time-tripping ticket, blasting through the past to bygone times of pre-European invasion. Yeah, it’s just like that…

But it can seem a bit scary here, too. Las Vegas is somewhat rustic in terms of how it appears to embrace out of towners — or, in my case, out of staters — and it isn’t overly hospitable. Not that I’m expecting the Welcome Wagon to roll up and throw me the keys to the city or anything like that. This is America in the 21st Century, after all.

I’d been warned by people who’d been here not to assume any such nonsense, and having grown up in an even smaller town I know from experience that outsiders are often viewed with suspicion and even contempt, thinking that these strangers might look down upon the local denizens and do a silly little superior dance in their minds.

Well, I certainly don’t feel that way. Not at all. If anything, I’m a bit in awe of my surroundings, having never experienced this sense of culture tied so deeply to its history before. This place feels outlaw. You can feel it in the way big dudes look at you when you climb out of your sporty little SUV with Colorado tags and go into the grocery store, neck tattoos and exposed arms the size of howitzers clocking you from bodies that could easily crush yours.

And when you finally utter something you get that confused stare that often begs the question, “Where you from?” to an unwitting audience around you; so you smile and wonder whether you should say “Colorado”, since that’s where you actually came from before migrating here and have lived there for most of your life; or do you say “Wisgonsin”, which is where you were born and raised and therefore “from”, and knowing that most people west of the Mississippi don’t know diddly-squat about places East — and vice versa.

It doesn’t really matter which, though. If you were actually from Vegas, they would know who you are already… Small towns seem to work that way.

So, I just don my scariest badass facade and don’t smile or eyeball anyone, and try to act like I just got out of prison for something heinous — except I don’t know what prison life is like except for what I’ve seen in movies such as Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke. That really doesn’t help much, I must say…

New Mexico’s State Park system has dozens of campgrounds throughout the state offering very affordable stays in some truly enchanting places.

But I feel relatively safe in my camper, at the semi-abandoned campground 5 miles out of town, with an armed Parks Ranger named Manny there during the day and a locked gate after 5 pm during winter hours (9 pm during the summer). I have a dog that barks and a pistol that bites, if I can ever summon the nerve to really use it. It does give me a little peace of mind — which is nice.

After a few weeks, though, I feel much more “at home.” My plan was, at that time, to live as a rubber tramp for five years, and New Mexico was my intended winter getaway. I was committed to making it work. It was all about the adventure. And not getting beat up, killed, or thrown in jail. Praying often seems to help. It usually does.

I started attending a church and met some welcoming folks, although the membership was pretty small and one of the “officers” kept recruiting me to come to Bible Study groups and other things that didn’t interest me at all. I kept quiet and smiled during the “greeting” part of the service. It was advent season and brought back a lot of distant but fond holiday memories. I always left feeling refreshed and better prepared for whatever was to come, but I certainly never felt “blessed”. For some reason, that sensation has never honestly stuck to me. Just sayin…

I also felt at ease at the Montezuma Hot Springs, looking up at the old turreted hotel known as the Castle, now a campus for the United World College. The mineral-rich, lithium-laced water bubbled out of the hillside at flesh-scalding temperatures to us soft-skinned gringos and other non-natives. Fortunately, there were enough bath spot options to find your comfort zone, and if you were feeling particularly gnarly you could take a quick dip in the chilling waters of the nearby Gallinas River. I almost did, once…

“The Castle” is a historic hotel that has been renovated and now serves as the main building for United World College and overlooks the rustic, therapeutic hot spring baths across the Gallinas River.

Here flocked not only locals but other vagabonds passing through, as evidenced by the various rigs and license plates lining the road. It soon became apparent that I was one small part of a much larger tribe of rubber tramps who shared my age or were older, but had the same motivation for unburdening themselves of unnecessary residential trappings and came to embrace the nomadic drifting of the wanderer on wheels.

We talked of various camping hamlets throughout the West, discussing hook-up fees, shower/laundry availability, and the natural wonders which drew us there. Suddenly, the world around me grew a bit less scary, as the therapeutic waters washed anxiety downstream, and my pink, wrinkled skin started to tingle just a little. I began to realize that “home” became less of a static place marked on a map and remembered accordingly, but more an abstract realization of where you were in the moment, and the comfort you took from that. (Must have been something more than minerals in those searing, healing waters I guess…)

But aside from the grocery store and library, church and the hot springs, I sought a little social interaction in more familiar venues, and soon found myself settled on a stool at the hometown pub: Dick’s Pub and Restaurant, to be precise. I didn’t linger long because at first it wasn’t friendly, hard eyes and hushed tones greeted me when I meekly opened the door, as though I’d wandered through a broken fence into a salvage yard full of junkyard dogs. Grrr…

Besides, I sure as sunrises and taxes didn’t want to take any chances smelling like beer if I got pulled over by the law dogs, and there was plenty of law enforcement — as well as plenty of lawbreakers — in Las Vegas, New Mexico: three different types of police cars (never enough in the annual budget to replace the whole fleet at once) and unknown numbers of undercover cops, hella bunch of sheriff’s deputies (it was the county seat) and more State Troopers than I’d ever seen before, because they had a local headquarters in town since I-25 ran through it. And word around the campfire was that Colorado plates meant real money to law enforcement coffers, because we actually paid our fines. Bueno, no!

It should say, “OR YOU WILL BECOME A MYSTERY”. Walking or rideshare services are always the smart choice, even in outlaw territory. Just sayin.

Let’s stop right here, dear reader, and grab a well-earned break. I still feel the need to give a bit more history of this place, particularly after the railroad rolled in, but I thought it better if we knocked around a little first — stepped into the boots of the visiting inquisitor, so to speak.

We can take a trip back to the gunslinging heyday and the lynching vigilantes of The Wild, Wild West with the next episode, so cock your hat forward, hold tight to those reins and stay in the saddle — we’re about to take this tale to its final stages, and see where the next one begins…

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Kurt Buss

I’ve been writing for publication since it was done on typewriters, oh so long ago. I try to bridge the gap between the then and now of being a Baby Boomer.