Untroubled Waters

It was once one of the wildest, wickedest towns 
in the Southwest. These days, it’s 
more commonly 
known as an artsy 
town of “Ahh . . .” Doug Fine visits Truth or Consequences and soaks it all in.

I had just glanced up from my inflatable kayak’s skipper’s chair to bid “Happy travels” to about 40 Mexico-bound sandhill cranes when Captain Bob popped into view.He was waving from shore around a bend of the Río Grande in Truth or Consequences. He was there to pick me up after a very relaxed and extremely quiet three-hour solo tour of the river from Elephant Butte Dam to Ralph Edwards Park in downtown T or C. As Captain Bob hauled the kayak back to his van, he made a remark that summed up the modern T or C experience for me.

“Some people call me Dr. Bob,” said my outfitter, a casual man who is as adept rigging a kayak as he is discussing the euro. “That float you just had straightens ’em right out.”

Medicinal. That encapsulated pretty much every minute of my three days in the town once called Hot Springs, before being renamed in order to lure publicity from the eponymous 1950s game show (the town’s main park is named after the show’s late host, Ralph Edwards). Today, you can always get a rise out of a local by asking if the long-ago vote to change the name was a good one. The issue’s still a little raw for a number of folks.

From my riverside view alongside Captain Bob’s van, I could see much of the southwestern New Mexico town, which had grown up along its willowed banks. And that perspective made me realize that with the broad appeal of Truth or Consequences today, you could actually avoid the famously mineral-rich, 110-degree thermal waters that percolate under everyone’s feet here, and still have yourself a perfectly fine time. But you should do that only if you’re very, very aquaphobic, because in this mountain-and-cholla–flanked town, population 7,200, just two hours south of Albuquerque along Interstate 25, there’s a soak for every taste. You’ve got your incomparable river-and-cormorant views from the private stone tubs at Riverbend Hot Springs, your stellar in-room soaks and waterfall steam room at the impeccable Blackstone Lodge, and Napa-style pampering (including cranial-sacral massage) at Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa. These are all within a half-mile of one another. Five minutes at any of the nine T or C spas and you’ll get why this place was official neutral ground for indigenous Southwestern tribes: Conflict and hot-springs soaks don’t mix. Thank you, oh toasty local bedrock. On the other hand, it’s important that you not become so gelatinous in the waters that you fail to notice what has happened in the T or C arts, dining, and shopping realms of late . . . not to mention the town’s future as a portal to the stars.

On the fine-art side of things, for instance, the exhibits will startle you with their scale. It was about midway into my tour of Eduardo Alicea’s Rio Bravo gallery that I began to think that the vast, art-filled rooms might never end.

“Square footage isn’t really an issue here,” Alicea explained in what must’ve been Bravo Gallery’s eighth or ninth room. “In fact, a lot of artists from Santa Fe and bigger art towns began relocating here decades ago, because it was just more affordable.

One of these artists was Rio Bravo’s founder, the late painter H. Joe Waldrum, whose geometric and quintessentially New Mexican church and village images are internationally known. Paris, Texas, native Dave Barnett’s almost impossibly detailed but impressionistic flowerscapes are also spectacular. As with all the 20 or so artists featured at Rio Bravo at any one time, you’ll get to see at least a dozen Waldrum and Barnett offerings: Every room is a career retrospective.

If you park in the middle of T or C’s winding, easily traversed, four-block downtown hub, along Broadway Street, it’ll take you longer than you’d think to reach the labyrinthine treasure of Rio Bravo Gallery. That’s because you’ll first have to pass through some of the more memorably eclectic shopping opportunities in small-town New Mexico. I dare you to not stop. I found a hand-cut Nepalese turquoise-and-silver pendant at a shop called Sacred Rose (also vast and cavernous). I coveted at least three of the hardcovers I saw in the window of the dizzyingly eclectic Black Cat Books and Coffee (including an early edition of Peter Pan that I knew my kids would love), where people play chess, drink coffee, and swap favorite author recommendations. And I stopped for a rejuvenating carrot-and-ginger juice at a health-food hub called Little Sprout Market and Juice Bar.

You’ll probably have stayed longer than you intended at Rio Bravo and other nearby galleries, like artist and blogger James Gasowski’s Studio Niche, which features his own colorful, geometric, and somehow uplifting oil paintings. So once you’ve found your way out, you’ll have worked up the unique condition known as post-gallery-hopping hunger. You’re in luck, because when it comes to fine dining, T or C is probably enjoying its historic peak today. Café Bella Luca features a great selection of both traditional and adventurous Italian dishes, and the seafood at Pacific Grill would pass muster in Seattle or Santa Monica—try the Hoisin Shrimp stir-fry.

And yet, urbane cuisine isn’t making the town hoity-toity. The truth is, nothing could. If you spend at least a night in Truth or Consequences, you’ll learn why Gasowski calls his blog Life and Art in the Strangest of Places (art-n-torc.blogspot.com).

“It’s small-town New Mexico,” says Ruanna Waldrum, daughter of the late artist and owner of Hot Springs Frame Shop. She moved to T or C following her father’s death, to help manage the work he let behind. She immediately found that her new home “allowed more freedom than other places. I also saw, after 13 years in California, a lot of beauty in a five-minute commute.” Also, in contrast to the endless malls and overly maintained façades of Southern California, T or C appealed to both Waldrum and her father because “this isn’t Disneyland.”

Well, that may change a bit with the arrival of the nearby Spaceport America. David Wilson, of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, said, “It’s projected there’s 200,000 people [who will] be coming to the Spaceport America experience every year. Truth or Consequences will be a destination, too.” Waldrum has more tempered expectations. “I expect we’ll see trickle-down visitor traffic. Maybe a few less conventional Spaceport employees will even choose to live here. Already, there are people who drive through on their way to the Spaceport. Some may spend some time checking us out. Others will put the pedal to the metal.”

It’s true that T or C is not to everyone’s taste. Some of the colorful informality you’ll experience from locals might be a cultural legacy of what can safely be called T or C’s carousing days. Those began around 1912, when the town was called Paloma Hot Springs and workers were building the Elephant Butte Dam across the Río Grande, four miles from the town that would eventually become known simply as Hot Springs. These workers wanted a place to . . . relax. (The dam, by the way, was part of one of the United States’ first federal irrigation projects.)

Locals aren’t shy about the fact that, during Prohibition, the place was one of the wilder towns in the West. “Gambling was rampant into the 1930s and ’40s,” said local historian Sherry Fletcher. The town had garnered such a wicked reputation that when Ralph Edwards announced his search for a town willing to change its name to that of his game show, New Mexico Senator Burton Roach, also head of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, jumped at the chance as a way to give Hot Springs a new identity. In 1951, a popular vote was held and the change was favored by 1,294 to 295. Three subsequent votes were demanded by Hot Springs loyalists. Each went down in defeat. Truth or Consequences it stayed.

Also visibly mixed into T or C’s culture today is a pervading kindness and altruism. That could be the legacy of the Depression-era Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children (now the New Mexico State Veterans’ Hospital). Or it could be the town’s long history of hosting visitors seeking the gamut of cures in local baths; by the 1940s, four dozen spas were operating here. Whatever its source, the overarching local atmosphere came across to this traveler as one of simple and genuine friendliness. Within minutes of arrival in town I knew intricate details of regional family trees, thanks to chatty waitresses and museum managers. Not even my smoothie blender was in any hurry to conclude a conversation.

I learned how true this was in all facets of T or C life after two days in town, when I rushed into Sierra Grande Lodge with only seconds to spare before my deep-tissue massage was scheduled to start. “Sorry,” I said breathlessly. “Having trouble operating on clock time for some reason.” “Kind of hard to here,” Carrie at the front desk said evenly, in the tone of someone with long experience of catering to hot-springs invertebrates like me. “Most people don’t.”

Doug Fine is the bestselling author of Farewell, My Subaru and the new Too High to Fail. His blog of carbon-neutral misadventures can be found at dougfine.com. See Douglas Merriam’s work at douglasmerriam.com.