Story and photos by Jeff Berg
Want to know where you can go? If you stop at the State of New Mexico Visitors' Information Center off I-10 at the Texas border near Anthony, Olivia Placencia, Toby Martinez and Juanita Salazar can tell you.
They are the people who staff the visitors' center. They field questions from the dullest—Where are the bathrooms?—to the more interesting, such as: How much does dental work in Palomas, Mexico, cost? Not to mention the absurd, such as Why is the center flying the American flag? and folks asking if they can exchange dollars for pesos (from the geographically impaired who don't know about our statehood).
The center is open seven days a week, 362 days a year, but unless locals are stopping for a bathroom break, we don't generally have a need to learn more about visiting New Mexico.
On the other hand, a lot of people who come to New Mexico are looking for information about one thing or another.
Curiously and a bit sadly, during my two visits to the visitors' center, once in late April and the second time in mid-May for Tourism Day, not one person asks for any information about Las Cruces, even though the staff offers a bevy of verbal information, including how to get to Mesilla and to the new exhibits at the Farm and Ranch Museum. (Oddly, in my four years in Las Cruces, I have spoken to residents, both old and new, who had either never been to or knew where either place was!)
But there are requests for nearly everything else in New Mexico. Silver City and the Gila are popular destinations; Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos and even Roswell have a few interested parties. Columbus and Carlsbad are asked after, and Deming is the spot to spend the night, not a lifetime, for many travelers. The free Internet access and free coffee offered at the center prove much more popular than Las Cruces. Convention center, anyone?
Most of the people looking for something, however, are looking for something outside of New Mexico. Phoenix is very popular (though I can't tell you why), a lot of California dreaming is going on, and there's one couple on their way to Alaska. More on that later.
Olivia Placencia is the supervisor at the visitors' center. She has been in the state tourist business since 1984. Her career started in Lordsburg.
"I was helping out the tax assessor's office part-time, and I was told of an opening at the visitors center in Lordsburg," she recalls. "My then-supervisor recommended me, and the supervisor at the travel center was really stressed out, since she was losing several employees all at one time. When I interviewed for the job she said, "Well, do you want the job or not?' So, I took it!"
Placencia was born and raised in Lordsburg, and her husband was employed at the smelter in Playas before it shut down several years ago. After working briefly in Tyrone, he went to work for Honeywell/NASA in Las Cruces, and the family (two children) moved to Las Cruces.
These folks are on their way to Phoenix.
"How far?" he asks.
"408 miles" is Placencia's reply. Evidently this is a common question.
They thank her for the vacation guide: "We're in a hurry, but we may have more time on the way back."
Olivia Placencia is an excellent choice for this job, since her main interest besides her family is "anything New Mexico." She says, "As I was growing up in the state, I was not exposed to all of things that have taken place and that there are to do in New Mexico." She knows a lot about local history, and has a desire to learn more.
The door opens again (this is easy to note, since a small plastic alien is attached by a string to the door and it goes up and down each time the door is open and closed) and it is Danny, a local.
"He is a local transient," Toby Martinez says. "He comes and goes, but mostly he tells us he is 'just passing through.'"
Danny has brought several cans of iced tea with him, and dispenses them to the workers in the office and around the grounds. There is also a janitorial crew from Tresco (all maintenance is contracted out to Tresco) on hand, and another worker is dealing with an unruly water fountain.
Two other gentlemen enter the center, and head right for the coffee machine. For about 15 minutes, they drink cup after cup of the stuff, loading each one with sugar. They don't speak, and I think they may be part of the maintenance crew.
Two women enter next. They are all the way from Chaparral, NM, perhaps 10 miles to the northeast.
"We came here from California in 1994," one of the women tells Martinez, "and since then all we have done is work and go home, work and go home. We haven't seen anything since we have been here, and now we have some time off."
They scour the visitors' center. No pamphlet or guidebook goes unnoticed by the women, whether it is for the art galleries in Santa Fe or the El Bedbug Motel in Tucumcari.
Earlier in the week, Martinez attended a conference in Santa Fe sponsored by the Tourism Association of New Mexico. The association presented attendees with a huge notebook of information, which we idly flip through as we chat.
"Clovis cannot even afford postage to send us information," Martinez says, "and Socorro asked for help from the state to get more visitors to stop there."
Of course, Clovis may disappear off the map entirely if the recently announced plan to close Cannon Air Force Base goes through.
It's no secret that Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque are promoted more heavily by the state tourism office than the rest of the state put together. A recent issue of The New Yorker magazine had a beautifully detailed, full-color, multi-page pullout section entirely devoted to promoting northern New Mexico. I will not hold my breath to see the same effort given to a promotion that encourages visitors to stop in Las Cruces, Silver City, Hobbs and T or C.
Another New Mexico native, Martinez tells me that he is from Grants, and that his family had a farm in that area. "My parents met in Grants—where they still live—but they do not farm. They keep their brand registered, but that is about it. I came here to go to NMSU, graduated, and found out there was a job opening here. I took it because it allows me to stay in New Mexico and I love talking to people."
Martinez is newly engaged. Olivia Placencia teases him, "It's about time. How long have you been dating her, eight years?"—which puts him in an "aw shucks" mode.
Another couple has entered the visitors' center and is looking around when Marcos Romero, one of the maintenance workers for Tresco, comes in. He looks at the woman with surprise and shouts out a name. She looks up and after a moment recognizes him as a former student. As it turns out, Romero was one of her students many years ago when she was teaching in the Rio Grande Valley near Brownsville, Texas. Romero is now a part-time student in Las Cruces, and his former teacher and her husband are on their way to— you guessed it, Phoenix.
"408 miles," says Martinez.
He brings out the guest log from the previous day. There were 221 guests who signed in, from around the US and from Germany, Mexico and Canada. "It's slow this time of year," Placencia tells me, "and the rise in gas prices will have a definite effect on who plans to really come back."
Most guests headed elsewhere casually lie and say they will be back to New Mexico.
Fred and Pam Krauth are the next visitors I eavesdrop on. Going from one extreme to the next, they are driving from Harlingen, which is also in the Rio Grande Valley area of far southern Texas, to North Pole—North Pole, Alaska, that is, located just outside of Fairbanks. They are full time RV-ers, and are heading north to a work and camp situation.
Fred Krauth tells me, "We are cutting across to California to see my mother, who lives in Vallejo. She doesn't understand what I'm doing. But from there, we will travel up (US Highway) 101 through Washington and Oregon, and then on to Alaska."
Krauth is a retired letter carrier for the US Postal Service, and we briefly compare notes on our postal experiences. "I gave them my 30 years and two days, and then I was gone," he says.
I admit to him that I could only take it for 15 before I resigned. He nods his head in understanding.
The two women from Chaparral are still planning their adventures, and one asks about Apache Creek. For the first time today, Placencia and Martinez are stumped. After slowly extracting tiny bits of information from the women, a quick Internet check shows that Apache Creek is a summer camp for hearing-impaired children, located north of Reserve.
With that answer, the two women leave with their fistfuls of brochures and booklets.
A man from Eire ("Pennsylvania?" "No, Eire, as in Ireland') comes in to check his e-mail on the public computer, but finds that it is not accessible. "Someone loaded the wrong program in the computer, and some providers cannot be reached. We have a call in to have someone to come out and fix it," Martinez tells the Irishman.
The next question is from a traveler with an appetite. "Any good restaurants around here?" the man asks Placencia in his southern drawl.
Without hesitation, she directs him to the Rose Garden or the Red Rooster, two Mexican food emporiums just across the road in the village of Anthony.
This mission accomplished, Placencia and I walk outside to tour the rest of the facility. "There are nine other visitors' centers statewide," she says. "At this one we have 22 shelters—each with a picnic table—and a corral. It gets a lot of use from cowboys who are on the road, and sometimes small traveling zoos that are passing through will use it."
The little shelters are well kept up and offer a glimpse of some of the more common plants of the Chihuahuan Desert.
Earlier, Martinez and I had looked out one of the windows and wondered aloud why a native plant garden was not in the spot that is home to a few scraggly plants and a lot of rocks. He then proudly pointed out the small fishbowl on the counter that contained a miniature ant farm he has put together. He said, "I guess that will have to do for now."
Placencia and I look across I-10 to where a large number of construction vehicles are moving rock, dirt and sand around.
"People are constantly asking about casinos," Placencia says. She points to the activity across the freeway. "That's where the Jemez (the still-unapproved casino planned by the people of Jemez Pueblo in northern New Mexico) Casino is going to be."
Somehow, with all of the construction that is already going on across the way, it seems that the people who want to stop the casino have already lost. A street is being paved, and new curbs and gutters are being poured.
Southern New Mexico recently noted a rather hefty decline in visitors, down 15 percent from the previous year, though most figures show an increase in Grant County. Dona Ana County accounts for only about six percent of vacationers' visits each year.
Maybe we need some of the thinking that recently led the state to move what was called its "goodbye" center in Gallup from the outgoing (leaving New Mexico) side of I-40 to the incoming (entering the Land of Enchantment) side. Some state officials were probably surprised when the increase in visitor usage at Gallup went up more than 300 percent the first four months of this year.
Four more people are looking at the information offered at the center. All retirement age, and all from Florida.
Eavesdropping again, I hear the following exchange: "How far is it to Yuma (Ariz.)?" one of the men asks. "A friend of ours said that there is a little town just across the border there (probably San Luis), where he had some dental work done for a song."
Placencia has soon talked the trekkers into going to Palomas instead. She tells them, in detail, what medical services they can find there, that those same services are excellent, no appointments are needed (usually), and that the prices are much more reasonable than anything they would find stateside. And, of course, adjacent Columbus is much closer than Yuma, and in New Mexico.
I am now convinced that Olivia Placencia knows everything about southern New Mexico.
I once again note that all of the folks who stop in are on their way to Elsewhere, and that Elsewhere is not Las Cruces.
Toby Martinez has positioned himself with a clipboard in the small courtyard where the tables are set up by the representatives from the aforementioned destinations. The wind has picked up, blowing a number of brochures off the tables, swirling them around the tiny square.
I go back into the visitors' center to bid farewell to my wonderful hosts.
"408 miles," Juanita Salazar tells a bizcochito-munching guest.
Frequent contributor Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.