Las Vegas, New Mexico is laid out in the traditional Spanish Colonial style, with a central plaza surrounded by buildings which could serve as fortifications in case of attack. An important consideration in 1835 when it was founded. The town soon prospered as a stop on the Santa Fe Trail which was a 19th-century transportation route through central North America that connected Missouri with Santa Fe, New Mexico.
We were not familiar with Las Vegas, N.M. Jay’s cousin suggested we stop in as we made our way to her home in Santa Fe. Turns out it was a boomtown in its time, and has more than 900 buildings on the state and National Register of Historic Places.
In the 1969 movie Easy Rider, Las Vegas, New Mexico, is the town where the two bikers ride behind a parade, are arrested for “parading without a permit,” and meet Jack Nicholson’s character in jail. And most of the 2007 Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men was filmed here.
The arrival of the railroad on July 4, 1879 brought with it businesses and people, both respectable and questionable. Among the notorious characters were such legends of the Old West as: dentist Doc Holliday and his girlfriend Big Nose Kate, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Mysterious Dave Mather, Hoodoo Brown, and Handsome Harry the Dancehall Rustler.
When the Spanish-American War was declared in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt resigned from the Navy Department. With the aid of U.S. Army Colonel Leonard Wood, Roosevelt assembled an improbable regiment of Ivy Leaguers, cowboys, Native Americans, African-Americans, and Western Territory land speculators. This group of men, which became known as the Rough Riders, trained for four weeks in the Texas desert and then set sail for Cuba. Over the course of the summer, Roosevelt’s Rough Riders fought valiantly, and sometimes recklessly, in the Cuban foothills, incurring casualties at a far greater rate than the Spanish. Roosevelt kept a detailed diary from the time he left Washington until his triumphant return from Cuba later that year, and his account of the battle was published as Rough Riders in 1899.
This September day the town is pretty quiet as we stretch our legs with a walk around the plaza. Many artists now live in the area and we buy a few cards at the El Zócalo Cooperative Art Gallery. A member-operated cooperative gallery on the historic Las Vegas Plaza featuring the work of over 15 diverse local artists. From there we walk over to the historic Plaza Hotel, newly restored and know as the “Belle of the Southwest” when it was built in 1882.
Las Vegas is situated between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on one side and the Great Plains on the other. Nearby are state parks and the 1.6-million acre Santa Fe National Forest, one of the five National Forests in New Mexico. The Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, 6 miles southeast of the city, provides an important resting, feeding, and wintering area for migrating geese, ducks, and cranes.
So ends our quick tour of Las Vegas… we are eager to get to Santa Fe, a little over an hour away, and our base for the next five days.