Southeastern New Mexico retains a delicious feeling of wildness. The nearest interstate is generally as far as 200 miles away, and with few lights from strip malls and no urban sprawl, the stargazing here is a treat for the expert and novice alike.
Because of the clarity of the skies and the absence of typical light pollution, Cloudcroft has one of the largest solar observatories in the world, the National Solar Observatory. Alamogordo, at the base of the mountains, uses special lights to minimize glare for optimal night-sky views. Of course, the area's seeming proximity to the heavens is what's made it the subject of an ongoing debate among UFO believers for almost 60 years: what was it, exactly, that fell from the sky over Roswell that night in July of 1947? Drive to Cloudcroft (8,600 feet) from Alamogordo and you will double your altitude and take you into the cool mountain air of the heavily forested Lincoln National Forest. Curious, large-eared mule deer wander amid the juniper and pines, as well as among sand dunes near the Pecos River farther east. The seemingly monotonous Chihuahuan Desert holds the underground wonderland of Carlsbad Caverns, and the hulking El Capitan peak.
For all its beauty, the area seems understandably harsh to strangers. Spanish settlers quickly bypassed the region in the late 1500s, in favor of the more friendly environs around the Rio Grande in the western and northern portions of New Mexico. Yet in this very region—at Black Water Draw near what is now Portales and Clovis—evidence of some of the earliest inhabitants of North America has been found. Artifacts discovered in the region prove that primitive hunters and gatherers lived here as long as 11,000 years ago, alongside fantastic creatures like the woolly mammoth.
Native Americans lived here for hundreds of years before encroachment by the Spanish, and later the Americans. Though Hispanic settlers had established a few scattered communities, the area was primarily the homeland of Mescalero Apaches. In the mid-1800s Fort Sumner and Fort Stanton were erected to offer protection for miners and American settlers during intensified skirmishes with local tribes. Near Ruidoso, in what is left of their traditional homeland in the Sacramento Mountains, the Mescalero Apaches now own a luxury resort and ski area that attract tens of thousands of visitors annually.
The grasslands in southeastern New Mexico came to be ruled by cattle kings like John Chisum in the late 1800s. The baby-faced outlaw Billy the Kid (Henry McCarty) became a living legend here during the infamous Lincoln County War, waged by rival entrepreneurs in 1872. He wasn't the only outlaw to make his mark on the territory, however; in the now-vanished town of Seven Rivers, between Carlsbad and Artesia, shoot-outs were said to be so common around the turn of the 20th century that it was claimed "you could read your newspaper by the light of the gunfire." Things calmed down—a bit—once the discovery of oil and other valuable minerals brought miners to the area in the early 1900s.