Carrizozo, New Mexico, Living Ghost Town

Tragedy from a divided America.

Aging brick facades wear bright murals like days old polish on manicured fingernails. Broken remnants, fractured chips. Vibrant designs too precious to remove. A reminder of the special event they were intended for, now a fading hope.

That hope haunts these streets.

The city’s first cause for celebration came in 1899 when the railroads chose the fledgling town for a station. Envy of its neighbors, the new prominence awarded Carrizozo the honor of the seat of Lincoln county, stolen from the city of the same name. Men had died here on the unforgiving Malpaís fighting Apaches, and each other, for lesser spoils.

Carrizozo’s ascent felt certain. Farmers and ranchers and local craftsman suddenly had access to markets across the nation. Passenger cars brought tourists to be amazed by the vast desert landscape, canvas for distant violet mountains, and glorious sunsets. These were the purple mountains majesty often promised then blocked by progress. Unspoiled yet a clear promise of growth.

Within a lifetime, that glory would be undone.

Technological advance wasn’t finished with the railroad. Diesel engines came and a less pressing need to be stopped and watered. Alongside the tracks came roads. Automobiles flooded the nascent arteries of the desert. Stops on the hard-scrabble plain? Optional.

Mining and logging operations dwindled. Industry migrated elsewhere. Tourists still came but Interstates siphoned off all but the most adventurous. The town struggled to survive.

Taming of what was once wild brought a settled peace. In Lincoln county’s mountains, recreation became their savior. Ski resorts and chalets tried to lure travelers from the smooth flowing arteries connecting urban centers.
An industry of hospitality assumed the throne. A low wage service economy replaced skilled tradesmen. Only those already wealthy saw their fortunes increase. Not everyone felt the boom.

In a new millennium, the husk of a town sought to make their own fortune. Carrizozo performed their own manicure, put on their formal wear, and let the ball come to them.

Asses. Colorful, vivacious asses. They adorned the street corners. Walkways. Even parading on the roofs, exposed.

Whimsical and artistic became their new brand. “A place to reinvent yourself” as the town itself had to do. Artisans lined the side streets, galleries sprang up in repurposed buildings, all waiting for a renaissance that would never happen.

As recently as 2015 you could still get ice cream from the old-fashioned soda jerk, a staple since the ’50s. The residents then spoke of increasing their population enough to support a sustainable tax base. Enough to remove the ventilator they’d been on for decades.

COVID 19 would pull the plug.

Outside, the world spoke of renewable energy. Electric vehicles, shorter range, different infrastructure than the only two thriving businesses left – two brand name gas stations, pit stops to elsewhere. The country talked of Black Lives Mattering, a message, to some, seemingly intended for less than 2 percent of the county population.

They’d fought tooth and nail for existence on the burnt desert plain, why shouldn’t everyone else?

In town, businesses closed. Buildings went up for sale. Three hundred, six hundred days listed with no potential buyers. A somber reality set in.

Many who still live here can remember the railroad, the boom times of their youth. Eeking out an existence on a razor-thin margin had never been a choice, but pride drove them to carry on. To dream of a better time. One glorious moment in a past too far to reclaim.

Two technological advances had left them stranded. What was this new lie about more? The pandemic threatened to wipe out their one remaining lifeline – to see travelers explore their streets again. Why close their few remaining stores, bitterly hanging on?

Then one man spoke of the power of coal, the fuel behind the engines that last brought a glimmer of greatness. He spoke of the storied past only they remembered. Didn’t matter if he lied like the rest of the politicians. Didn’t matter if he never delivered. The whole county would vote overwhelming for him not once but twice. He offered their only remaining hope.

To someday be great. Again.

All images by Russ Lintonlicensed under CC BY 2.0.

2 thoughts on “Carrizozo, New Mexico, Living Ghost Town

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