The saddest, weirdest, most honest little town in America
New Mexico is strange country. On the White Sands Missile Range, they conducted the first atmospheric test of an atom bomb. Just to the east is Roswell, where the aliens allegedly crash-landed and the Men in Black concealed their crushed little bodies from the world.
There’s the Holloman Airforce Base, near Alamogordo, where in the early 60s they launched the first chimp into space.
There’s a lot of feeling in the atmosphere of central New Mexico. Driving through this vast, rugged, treeless place of towering mountains and their little brothers, the buttes that erupt from the broken landscape, you wouldn’t at all be surprised if the minute hand on your watch started spinning and the full petrol tank inexplicably drained to empty.
After losing a day or two, you might just find yourself staggering, shell-shocked, into the town of Truth or Consequences. They’ve had to make some especially wide road signs to fit all that in.
It would be poor form for a US correspondent to come all this way and not to spend the night in a cheap motel in Truth or Consequences. Just to see.
Checking into that cheap motel, the usual inquiries are made about one and other’s health with the staff. A young man tells me all is well. “Can’t complain,” he says. “Just another day in paradise.”
“Really? This is paradise?”
“Well, when you close your eyes it can seem that way.”
Truth or Consequences, population 6000, sits beside the mighty Rio Grande. It used to go by the name of Hot Springs until 1950, when radio presenter Ralph Edwards, who had a quiz show called Truth or Consequences, issued an America-wide challenge for a town to rename itself after his show.
The reward, insufficient as it now seems, was that Edwards would come and air an episode of his show from that town.
Foolishly, perhaps, Hot Springs bit. In doing so, it lost its self-explanatory name as a place to come and take in the warm healing mineral waters of the Rio Grande.
Back when Ralph issues his challenge, there were up to 40 hotels offering spa treatments. Now there are about 10.
Truth or Consequences sounds like a place where you go to watch the tequila pouring out of a hole in your side as you die in a hail of Mexican drug bullets.
At the very least, you’d probably rather not be arrested by the Truth or Consequences Police Department. They’re probably fine upstanding officers, but that name evokes images of painful retribution delivered to the soles of your feet should you provide an answer they don’t like.
Such concerns would not apply to the 1999 arrest of David Parker Ray, a local serial killer suspected of raping or murdering up to 40 women from around these parts in the purpose-built torture room of his mobile home.
Ray came to police attention in 1999 when the naked and bleeding Cynthia Vigil escaped from Ray’s shackles and ran through the desert wearing a metal slave collar and a chain, passing cars ignoring her pleas for help until she finally flung herself at the mercy of a woman in a trailer home.
Ray, a scrawny, nasty looking man who fit every definition of white trash, died in prison shortly after his trial. None of his victims have ever been found. Last year, the FBI posted hundreds of photos of items of jewelry on its website, gathered from Ray’s mobile home, asking if relatives of missing women recognized the pieces.
Down in the old part of town, where the little spa resorts once welcomed guests, there are trailer homes and silver bullet caravans and a sense that poverty has had plenty to keep itself occupied around here.
It’s a hard, burned-out place, and its gentle setting by the Rio Grande can’t soften it.
“New Mexico’s a poor state and this is not a prosperous town,” says local attorney Mike Filosa, who came to the south west 30 years ago seeking career fulfillment which he didn’t think he could get in a Chicago law office.
“It’s just a small little old town,” he says.
Truth or Consequences is a town in waiting. Just south of here rest its hopes – the planned international tourist space base, Spaceport America, where high-paying customers will take joy rides 110 km above earth and experience weightlessness.
Tarmacs and hangars appear to have been completed and the State of New Mexico has a 20-year lease agreement with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which is already booking seats for the world’s first commercial space liners.
No one seems willing to put a date when the first passengers will depart. But you get the feeling that some of the residents of Truth or Consequences wouldn’t mind taking that flight and keeping an eye out the window for a more hospitable planet.
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