Something in the Water

Eclectic art, memorable meals, and forget-the-world hot springs attract pilgrims to this singular town on the Río Grande.

“To me, it is per capita the most creative little town in the United States,” says my friend Susan Martin, who lives in northern New Mexico and works as an art publicist for clients in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris. No, she’s not talking about Santa Fe, Taos, Silver City, or any of the state’s myriad other art centers. She’s talking about Truth or Consequences. “Everyone there is making art,” she continues, “but they have an ironic point of view, and it’s outside the norm of the art world.”

Yes, T or C boasts numerous galleries and crafty boutiques, and its own an art pedigree—the stars in its firmament including Delmas Howe and the late Harold Joe Waldrum. But it’s also becoming a destination food town, as the bliss-inducing Italian trattoria Cafe Bella Luca has recently been joined by the lively Asian fusion joint Latitude 33, and the mobbed-at-breakfast Passion Pie Cafe.

The town of 6,400 souls was established as Hot Springs in 1916; people have been coming to take the waters ever since. You could come to T or C for the weekend, never have a soak, and have a great time. However, the hot springs are still a thriving attraction, and relaxing in the extreme. Odorless, high in soothing lithium and magnesium, 98 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, with a neutral pH of 7, the waters are available via various venues in the bathhouse district, with both drop-in and lodging options. As with other attractions in T or C, when it comes to soaking, you can go swanky-spa, kitschy-cute, or bare-bones.

In 1950, the town changed its name to Truth or Consequences, after the popular TV game show. In the following years, Ralph Edwards, the host, filmed the show there, and attended its annual May fiesta every year until he passed away, in 1957.

Like Taos and Santa Fe, Truth or Consequences emits a siren call to people from other parts of the country, but they are not the same kinds of people and it is not the same kind of call. It lures post-urbanites of a particular quirky bent who want not just to escape the rat race, but to blossom creatively in an anything-goes environment.

Susan found out about T or C when her best friend, Danielle, moved there from Los Angeles with her husband, Dan. They worked in the film industry and wanted a change from L.A.’s vibe. Danielle also wanted to open up her own business. She rented a space, painted it bubble-gum pink, called it Miao, and filled it with the cute purses she made out of midcentury hats. There she met other young entrepreneurs from elsewhere, as well as Ruanna Waldrum, daughter of Harold Joe Waldrum, co-owner of Hot Springs Frame & Art Supply.

Like Danielle, Susan Morrongiello- Koenick and Mo Koenick left Washington, D.C., to move to T or C ten years ago, and opened a live/work vintage shop called Dust and Glitter, which they have since transformed into a gallery selling 100 percent handmade clothing, jewelry, and art. Their historic adobe home includes a storefront on Main Street. “Apart from the town itself,” says Mo, “I love the climate, the access to the Río Grande, and going hiking in the nearby Gila Wilderness and nearby ghost towns.” In 2006, Wendy Tremayne and Mikey Sklar moved to town and launched the blog Holy Scrap (blog.holyscraphotsprings.com), which led to Tremayne’s book The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-on Living. They grow their own food, ferment their own wine, and make biofuel from recycled cooking oil.

I can see why so many people moved here to give their dream lives a whirl. Low-slung storefronts hold galleries, thrift shops, cafés, bookstores, and, of course, hot springs. There’s a sense that if you had the desire to run an offbeat kind of shop or restaurant, this town would be a good incubator for it. Property and rents are manageable, and a steady stream of people come through for hot springs soaks, and wander around afterwards, serene and smiley and open to aquiring a memento, whether it be a tchotchke or a wall-dominating painting. (In fact, I bought my first piece of art there eight years ago: a small landscape by Olin B. West, who paints and shows work in his Mud Mountain Studio.)

When I spend a weekend in T or C, I like to stay at the Pelican Spa. At any of Sid Bryan’s properties, which stretch over a handful of blocks, you’ll step into a world of saturated neon-colored walls and retro furniture covered in busy tropical fabrics, happy bark cloth curtains, corrugated metal ceilings, and art on the walls that ranges from solid midcentury abstract to tongue-in-cheek (a señorita painted on black velvet). His 30 rooms range from modest efficiencies a mile from the main building to a 1,500-square-foot industrial-chic loft in the Red Pelican—and the prices, from $45 to $95, are budget friendly.

Over time, I’ve noticed a certain Truth or Consequences ethos. Maybe because the main magnets of the town, the hot springs, are basically a gift from the earth—just there, waiting to be enjoyed. It inspires retail entrepreneurs to take what exists already, put a new spin on it, and offer it up again. And then there’s the food scene, which also puts a fresh spin on the classics.

Joseph Schmitt, the owner of Asian-fusion restaurant Latitude 33, first came to the town as a travel writer. He enjoyed it so much that he pitched the story to many more publications, fostering more opportunities to return, until finally he left Palm Springs to relocate here.

“I just fell in love immediately. I love the quirky, independent, small-town vibe, and so I took my savings and opened up this restaurant. It’s one of the crazier things I’ve ever done,” Schmitt says with a laugh. “It’s been everything I knew it would be regarding the challenges of running a business in a small town, but all the rewards are there too. There’s the ease of having everything located nearby, the genuinely nice people —and I’m able to provide different, fresh food made with love.”

Made with mad skills, too. At the restaurant, which is next door to the Pelican Spa’s main building, my kids and I dug into our Kitchen Sink Fried Rice, Spicy Peanut Noodles, and most excellent Crispy Pork Wings (small pork shanks with sweet chili sauce), paired with the house-made sparkling strawberry-ginger lemonade. In the morning, we wandered into the Passion Pie Cafe, where locals packed the joint, enjoying delicious coffees, quiches, and breakfast sandwiches. We had to try the just-out-of-the-oven chocolate brownie, which was studded with dried cherries soaked in the local (but widely known) gourmet cult vinegar, Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monticello (organicbalsamic.com). Another wonderful breakfast option is the vegetarian White Coyote Cafe, where frittatas, scones, pie, and great coffee are served in a gracious, cozy adobe setting. After breakfast, we visited the town’s halfscale but 100 percent emotionally moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial replica, just outside the Hamilton Military Museum.

Then, it was on to a soak at the Riverbend Hot Springs, where we enjoyed lolling in a private, stacked-stone tub on the banks of the Río Grande, with scenic Turtleback Mountain attracting our gaze skyward. The hour was up far too soon.

We were there during the town’s monthly Art Hop, when galleries, shops, and restaurants stay open until 9 p.m. and people bop from space to space, amplifying the town’s small scene. Rio Bravo Fine Art’s handsome, large space offered different kinds of art, from photography to abstract paintings, and reminded me of the early days of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when it was just a cheap place to live with lots of loft space available and a smattering of good restaurants. Incidentally, I met a couple visiting from Williamsburg that very night.

After visiting a few more galleries, we headed over to the lauded Cafe Bella Luca. Since it opened in 2008, it’s won four Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence. The high-ceilinged dining room has a candlelight-softened, industrial-metropolitan feel, and the open kitchen heightened our anticipation. The first thing that blew us away was the small bowl of olives, which were so complex in flavor that we exclaimed aloud. “We make them in-house,” the server said with a smile. It only got better from there—including the Space-Port-a-Bellas, mushrooms marinated and tempura-fried.

The reference to the nearby Spaceport reminded me that a whole new swath of entrepreneurs is surely evaluating Truth or Consequences in a different light: as a place to put up, feed, and fête Spaceport’s passengers and their entourages when it becomes operational, sometime in the near future. Ted Turner recently bought the town’s most polished hotel, the Sierra Grande, a harbinger of changes that might redefine the local economy (which could surely use a boost). Either way, change is part of T or C. “It waxes and wanes,” says Susan Martin, mentioning that her friend Danielle closed her Miao shop and moved back to L.A. “But I love it, and I go back there as often as I can.” ✜

NEED TO KNOW
From Albuquerque, take I-25 S. 146 miles to exit 79. Keep right and merge onto N. Date St., which becomes S. Date St. After 2.4 miles, S. Date St. becomes Main St. and enters T or C’s downtown bathhouse and commercial district. See the district map at bit.ly/TorCMap. For a complete list of T or C businesses, visit sierracounty.info.

DINING
Cafe Bella Luca
Italy meets New Mexico in the calabacitas fettuccine, with green chile and a white wine cream sauce. Their pizzas are legendary, including the $45 Godfather, which includes truffle oil and grilled shrimp, topped with a thinly sliced mediumrare filet of beef. Excellent wine list. Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Tues. 303 Jones St. (575) 894-9866; cafebellaluca.com

Happy Belly Deli Open daily. Tasty, fresh deli fare in a cute space with courtyard, too. See Facebook page for hours. 313 N. Broadway; (575) 894-3354 Latitude 33 Groovy Asian-fusion restaurant with great service and bright décor. Lunch Tues.–Sat. 11 a.m.–2 p.m., Dinner Fri., Sat. 5–8 p.m. No alcohol served. 304 S. Pershing St.; (575) 740- 7804; latitude33torc.com

Passion Pie Café Croissant sandwiches, salads, quiche, pastries, coffee, and a wild waffle menu including the Fat Elvis (topped with peanut butter sauce, banana slices, whipped cream, and bacon). 7 a.m.–3 p.m. daily, serving pizza Fri., Sat. 4–10 p.m. 406 Main St. (575) 894-0008; deepwaterfarm.com

White Coyote Cafe Vegetarian café with delicious classics in a homey setting. Open for breakfast and lunch Fri.–Mon. 8 a.m.–2 p.m. 113 Main St.; (575) 297-9040

GALLERIES/ART
Rio Bravo Fine Art
The roster includes work by Harold Joe Waldrum, its founder, as well as other local artists. 110 N. Broadway; (575) 894-0572; riobravofineart.net

Mud Mountain Studio Olin B. West’s abstract geometric paintings hang in a clean-lined gallery space. Open by appointment. 324 N. Broadway. (575) 894-1325; olinbwest.com

Hot Springs Frame & Art Supply Buy art in town, get it framed here— or pick up some plein air supplies and make your own. See website for hours. 322 N. Broadway; (575) 894- 9200; hotspringsframeandart.com

LODGINGS WITH HOT SPRINGS ACCESS
Blackstone Hotsprings
Not only do the rooms have spacious and clean private tubs, their décor is inspired by nostalgia for TV shows like The Jetsons, The Golden Girls, and The Twilight Zone. 410 Austin St.; (575) 894-0894; blackstonehotsprings.com

Pelican Spa Bright, retro-inspired rooms in several downtown buildings. We recommend staying in the main building, which contains the hot springs tubs (accessible to hotel guests only). 306 S. Pershing St.; (575) 894-0055; pelican-spa.com

Riverbend Hot Springs Walk-in and lodging options available. Geared toward couples; children under 12 allowed only in private tubs, which overlook the Río Grande. 100 Austin St.; (575) 894- 7625; riverbendhotsprings.com

Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa Handsome hotel with on-property spa and soaking tubs. 501 McAdoo St.; (575) 894-6976; sierragrandelodge.com

MUSEUMS
Geronimo Springs Museum
Prehistoric Mimbres pottery, an authentic miner’s log cabin, Apache arrowheads, and much more. Mon.– Sat. 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–4 p.m. 211 Main St. (575) 894-6600; geronimospringsmuseum.com Hamilton Military Museum Displays include uniforms, buttons, memorabilia, and more. Located at the Veteran’s Memorial Park, which also includes a half-scale Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall replica. Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Sun. 12 p.m.–4 p.m. 996 S. Broadway; (575) 894-7640; bit.ly/HamMilMuseum

ATTRACTION
Spaceport America
Follow the Sun Tours offers guided half-day excursions by van to the spaceport, from Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte. Access is limited to the exterior, an architectural marvel in a dramatic desert setting. (505) 897-2886; spaceplacenm.com

Managing editor Candace Walsh is the author of the New Mexico–Arizona Book Award–winning Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press).