LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The bells tolled at the Basilica of San Albino as mourners gathered on the front steps for the final moments of a funeral Mass — the military flag ceremony.
Tourists paused to watch from a respectful distance.
Twenty-four hours later, the church steps again came to life as members of a wedding party waited for the processional to begin.
Once again, visitors shopping on the plaza of Mesilla stopped to witness a ceremony that seemed all the more sacred against the backdrop of the Romanesque-style church that occupies the entire north side of the town square.
A funeral on Friday and a wedding on Saturday likely made for an unusually busy weekend at the church that is the heart of this town of 3,000 people just to the south of Las Cruces. But such pageantry, elevated above street level, helped to illustrate what makes the Mesilla Valley a different kind of tourism experience.
Las Cruces is a place where people settled for a reason, live their lives surrounded by history and culture and desert beauty and invite visitors to enjoy not so much what they've designed for tourists as what they have built for themselves.
Not that residents of this university town an hour north of El Paso have anything against tourism, as the nearby Spaceport America will attest. Voters in Dona Ana and Sierra counties voted themselves a tax to help build the $209 million facility, billed as the first spaceport in the world constructed specifically for commercial spaceflight and already offering guided tours.
But in a city blessed with 350 sunny days a year that's perennially on somebody's list as a great place to retire, the vibe is more like “look at how pleasantly we live” than “let us wow you for a couple of days and then send you home.”
White Sands beckon
It's a place where state and National Park Service employees want to walk with you, to point out the animal tracks near the Rio Grande River you might otherwise miss or describe what it's like when the full moon is shining over the White Sands National Monument.
It's the city where Gordon Steel finally opened his Rio Grande Vineyards and Winery in 2009 after decades of dreaming and scheming and saving the money he made as a military nurse.
The economy is vibrant in this city of about 98,000 residents, thanks to large-scale employers such as New Mexico State University, White Sands Missile Range and the health care industry. But for the visitor in search of stress relief, traffic is a nonissue, lines are short, the landscape is restful and the brilliant blue sky is ever-present.
“In Mesilla we stroll,” claims Jerry Harrell, general manager of the Double Eagle, a restaurant housed in the oldest building on the plaza and known for its aged steaks. “We don't really need to rush.”
One way to stroll is with a tour guide known only as “Preciliana,” who portrays a well-armed female soldier in Pancho Villa's army as she describes the colonial history and architecture of the town from which Billy the Kid escaped after being convicted of murder.
Chile pepper cuisine is an art form at restaurants all over town, and at NMSU it's a scholarly pursuit of more than 150 varieties ranging from mild to the hottest hot. As many as 5,000 people a year visit the Chile Pepper Institute, home to an endowed chair for chili pepper research. As one might guess, it's the only university in the world with an academic program dedicated to fiery peppers.
Much of what Las Cruces has to offer is just right — in size and complexity. The Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, Branigan Cultural Center, Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park and Las Cruces Museum of Art can all be toured in about an hour.
You'll want to reserve more time for the 275-square-mile White Sands National Monument. Less-active visitors can enjoy the breathtaking gypsum dunes from their cars along the 16-mile driving loop, but the more adventurous will want to hike, picnic, head for a backcountry primitive camping site — and just drink in the stillness of it all.