On the Road in New Mexico: Montezuma Hot Springs

I was going to write to you about my experience of visiting the Hot Springs at Montezuma, 5 miles outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. But I was there on a hot summer day—nearly 100 degrees—and didn’t even dip a toe in the pools. I will be going back during the cooler months, of that you can be sure. But in looking for some information on the Springs, I came upon this delightful piece written by Birdie Jaworski and posted on the site: PostcardsFromThePlaza.com, The Ultimate City of Las Vegas, New Mexico Tourism Site! There is absolutely no way I can tell about these beautiful pools any better than this, so I’m going to post Birdie’s piece in its entirety. Here you go:

The Road to Relaxation: The Montezuma Hot Springs
by Birdie Jaworski

It’s a five mile drive to the Montezuma Hot Springs from Las Vegas, New Mexico, but these days it feels longer, much longer, hotter, and more desperate than you think it should. Tiny clouds cast no shadow big enough for a car or a person, and this year’s relentless drought brought sands that gather and fall with the wind, whip across the road like snow in hell. My eyes play tricks on me here. I see water in the road, the ripples of space and time along the dusky base of the mountains. All my years living near the edge of the Great Plains, it’s exactly the same. The open country stays gold and quiet and dimpled, always smells of juniper and coyote droppings and loneliness.

Hot Springs Boulevard winds past the state’s behavioral health hospital, past weathered homes, past lean stray dogs and rugged men in cowboy hats and torn jeans walking, walking, walking long pinto miles to town for a day job, for a hot meal. I usually see no other cars on the road, just wary jackrabbits and spindly tumbleweed waiting by the side of the road. The rolling expanse melts into the foothills housing the Armand Hammer United World College.

Three hundred years ago, the Apache ran these lands. They caught fat rabbits in brush skirting the forest and collected prized piñon. When their warriors found themselves slashed with wounds of life and war, they laid down weapon and suspicion and pressed body into ground along the banks of what would one day be called the Rio Gallinas. Healing waters bubbled around them – geothermal hot springs filled with lithium and sulphur. The Apache filled their injuries with the warm silt that rose to the surface of the lands. In order not to offend the Great Spirit and risk losing this gift of healing, the area around the springs was considered an area of peace. No fighting took place in the immediate area, no game was hunted. The Apache consecrated the springs and surrounding areas as sacred ground.

The first time I visited the springs, I hesitated before stepping into the water. Montezuma Castle loomed large above the Rio Gallinas, a statement of stark architectural beauty and elegance, framed by a hillside of cultivated foliage. The springs, by comparison, are homely, rock-lined pits coated with slick green algae, a hundred thousand weeds between them and the fading river. I dipped my toes into the heat, let the liquid rise to meet my ankle, then my shin, my thigh, my waist. I understood what others have known for hundreds of years. The aching heat, the scrape of my back against uneven rock, the rush of water from one pool to the next caressed my body into a state of hyperawareness, of pain mixed with relaxation.

The site was initially commercialized in 1840, when a man named McDonald petitioned the Mexican government for the land, and was granted it on the condition he became a Mexican citizen. He built a simple wooden house by the hot springs, and charged admission. In 1846, after the territory of New Mexico was conquered by the U.S. Army and seized from Mexico, a military hospital was established near the waters. Converted into a hotel in 1862, and replaced by a stone building in 1879, the Old Stone Hotel – the administrative center of the United World College – still watches over the hot springs. Jesse James and Billy the Kid threw cards in an old adobe near here, and spent an evening or two together, soaking up precious minerals in the rejuvenating waters.

Today, visitors no longer need to lie on hot water soaked ground to enjoy the springs’ soothing properties. Over the years a rag tag collection of pools have been built, each with a distinct personality. Ranging from the beloved “Lobster Pot” – a scalding hot circular stone pool of 120 degrees – to an earth-lined large natural pool of 102.7 degrees called “Africa” because of its recognizable shape. All pools are free of charge and open from dawn to dusk. Patrolled by the United World College, the site remains pristine, natural, calm. Visitors to Las Vegas can enjoy the best of all local worlds – a trip to the hot springs, including extra towels, a map and flip flops, along with a special overnight rate thanks to the Historic Plaza Hotel in the heart of the city’s Arts and Culture District.

The last two weeks have brought monsoons to Las Vegas. The Rio Gallinas tries to run as strong as a man’s will to live, tries to sprint like an Olympic champion past the castle, past the springs, through a town dreaming of gardens as lush and fragrant as the Midwest. And though the sun casts summer fire most early afternoons, locals find themselves on the edge of the springs to soak thermal under the sparse shadow of the simple branch fence.

On any afternoon, children rest in the cooler pools. A young boy will sweep his arm across the water, let it ripple and fade into his chest. Mothers watch from the warmer pools, dark hair melting into heat-sealed ringlets. The water speaks, gives muscles ancient mineral messages. Old men yell across the river. They jump into the rushing current, their bellies soft and colorless, let the Gallinas carry them fast, far, into a swimming hole filled with muddy reeds. You may laugh out loud, at the sheer joy of watching old men play, of watching young boys rest, the world upside-down, insane.

After a good soak, I drive home, my body saturated, content. The street propels you to a town filled with history, with quiet passion. The waters call you home.

For more information on the Montezuma Hot Springs and Las Vegas, New Mexico, please visit www.PostcardsfromthePlaza.com. Call 505-425-3591 and ask for the Hot Springs Special to book your room at the Historic Plaza Hotel.

Sound like a place you need to visit? Yeah, I’m with you.

Love to you all,

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