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The other Las Vegas

Take a gamble on small New Mexico town

LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Founded in 1835, it was once the only Las Vegas.

Now, eclipsed by the flashy one in Nevada, it has become the other Las Vegas.

But for some people, that "otherhood" is a plus. People who prefer natural treasures to man-made glitz, who would rather stroll shady lanes than the Strip, and who enjoy history and recreation al fresco will find that this city of approximately 16,000 in the northeast New Mexican highlands has much to offer.

Within easy reach are two national historic parks (Fort Union tells of the Santa Fe Trail; Pecos focuses on early cultures), a national wildlife refuge and 11 state parks (offering fishing, camping, hiking). The nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains have recreational and scenic opportunities.

Sheep, cattle and horses dot the landscape — but you can also find alpacas and llamas.

The city has nine separate historic districts and more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register — more than any other city in America.

The only American campus of the United World College is located here, and it is home to New Mexico Highlands University. Las Vegas also claims the only still-functioning Carnegie Library in New Mexico and one of the few left in the country (built to resemble Jefferson's Monticello, it turns 100 this year).

The culture is a blend of Indian, Hispanic and Anglo, a mix that is reflected in architecture, activities and attitude throughout the area.

The name means "the meadows," and it was the gently rolling landscape that attracted people to the area as early as 10,000 years ago. But it could also have been named for "the corridor," as this area between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north and what is now called the Glorieta Mesa to the south provided a natural passageway that was used for travel and trade from those earliest days.

At first it was various tribes of Indians that moved through the area: the farmers of the Rio Grande interacting with the buffalo-hunting tribes of the Plains. They were followed by Spanish conquistadors, and then by American and Mexican merchants along what came to be known as the Santa Fe Trail.

The people who lived in the valley before the arrival of the Spaniards dwelt in multistoried adobe "towns" called pueblos. Their story is told at Pecos National Historical Park, about 45 miles north of Las Vegas.

Pecos was the easternmost of 40 pueblos in the area, first inhabited in the 1200s. In 1584, a Spaniard described the place as having "the greatest and best buildings of these provinces" and noted that the people "possess quantities of maize, cotton, beans and squash."

At its height, more than 2,000 people lived at Pecos. In the late 1500s the Spaniards sent priests to the Pecos region, and between 1617 and 1717, the Franciscans built four churches at the pueblo. But wars, famine and disease took their toll, and by the late 1830s, the pueblo was abandoned.

Today, only remnants of the rock walls remain. "That's the nature of adobe," says Bill Zunkel, a volunteer guide at the park. "Without constant maintenance, adobe dissolves." Still, it is easy to get a sense of the history here, as it rests in what one author called "a collapsed but peaceful state."

Life at Pecos Pueblo was impacted by increased traffic along the Santa Fe Trail, as was life in Las Vegas. It was once the first and last town that traders came to after leaving Missouri and before arriving in Santa Fe. The town square where traders arrived is now known as the Old Town Plaza and is flanked by historic buildings, including the one on which Gen. Stephen Kearney stood in 1846 to "invite" the folks to become part of the United States.

The arrival of the railroad in 1879 brought a second surge of prosperity. In the 1880s, Las Vegas was the largest wool exporter in the country, and the wealth acquired was soon translated into lavish buildings.

Las Vegas is an outdoor museum of both Spanish Colonial and Italianate architecture, says Elmo Baca, a heritage preservation consultant from Santa Fe.

The Plaza Hotel, which sits on the Old Plaza, "is one of the best examples of Italian Renaissance architecture in the state," says Baca. Built in 1883, it provided elegant lodging for the affluent travelers who arrived by rail. In 1982, a $2 million restoration project returned the Plaza Hotel to the glory it knew as "the Belle of the Southwest."

But what the railroad brings, the railroad takes away. In the 1920s, Las Vegas lost its rail trade to politics and Santa Fe, and its future took a decided turn in another direction.

In 1886, during the height of Las Vegas' glory years, you could not find a finer resort anywhere than the Montezuma Hotel, built on a hill overlooking the town. Until the Grand Canyon Lodge came along to usurp Montezuma's place, it was the glamorous resort hotel in the Southwest.

The Queen Anne style of the building made it unlike anything else around. Wealthy patrons arrived on the railroad for an average six-week stay to see the "Wild West," to rusticate in the warm, dry climate and to "take the healthy waters" of the natural hot springs.

The Montezuma survived a number of fires over the years but could not survive the financial downturn that followed the loss of the railroad. In 1913, the building was donated to the YMCA and in 1920 was sold to the Southern Baptist Convention, which established a college there.

From 1936-1972, it became a training college for Jesuit priests in the Roman Catholic Church. But it had been abandoned for nearly a decade when the Armand Hammer Foundation purchased the property to establish a United World College campus in the United States. Major renovations ($15 million worth) occurred before the school opened in 1982.

This college, which began in Wales in 1962, now has 10 campuses around the world in locations such as Singapore, Swaziland, Italy, Venezuela and India. Supported by such notables as Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles of England, Queen Noor of Jordan and Nelson Mandela, the college brings students ages 16-18 from all different races, religions and social backgrounds together, "committed to the ideals of peace, justice, understanding and cooperation."

The home culture supplies only 25 percent of the students, explains UWC-USA president Dr. Philip O. Geier. "Our 200 students come from 86 countries. Our graduates have gone on to be ambassadors to the United Nations, astronauts, diplomats. One was even an assistant to film director Peter Jackson ('Lord of the Rings')."

(Generally closed to the public, the college is open for student-led tours on several Saturdays each month or by special arrangement. For more information, visit www.uwc-usa.org.)

Las Vegas not only has an interesting historical setting but an interesting ecological one as well. "This area is where three ecosystems meet," explains Kristin Kuyuk, a naturalist at the national wildlife refuge just outside of town. "Prairie, mountains and desert all come together here, and you see parts of all three: prairie grass, mountain trees, desert cacti."

This location at the edge of the Great Plains and at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, attracts a wide variety or birds to the lakes and grasslands within the 8,000-plus acre reserve. A good way to see some of them is to wander along the half-mile Gallinas nature trail, accessible with a free special-use permit you can obtain at the refuge headquarters.

You can also see nature and wildlife from the back of a horse on a trail ride into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Outfitters such as the Tererro Riding Stables in nearby Tererro offer trips ranging from one hour to all day into the Pecos Wilderness area. As you move up the mountain, the sweeping views of other tree-clad mountains are breathtaking.

Wildlife of an altogether different sort can be viewed within petting range at the Victory Ranch in nearby Mora, which is home to one of the largest herds of alpacas in the United States. These smaller, gentler cousins of llamas come in 22 colors, and their luxurious fiber (not exactly wool; not exactly fur) lends itself to a wide variety of clothing and accessory creations. Visitors can try their hands at spinning and weaving as well as feeding the alpacas.

Enjoy the scenic backdrop of the northern New Mexico mountains; hold a handful of grain in your hand; fall in love with the gentle, soft-eyed creatures. You can't do that in the other Las Vegas.


E-mail: carma@desnews.com