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A whirlwind of a New Mexico adventure

Carol and Don Baumgardt look across the Rio Grande during an early morning soak at Riverbend Hot Springs in the small town of Truth or Consequences, N.M. (Pam LeBlanc/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

By PAM LEBLANC | Austin American-Statesman | Published: January 5, 2017

When the rambling man inside your head threatens to grab the wheel, go ahead and succumb.

A good old-fashioned road trip -- one fueled by roadside diners, stops at oddball attractions and frequent forays into nature -- does the soul good. At least that's what I found when I flew to El Paso, Texas, and joined GeoBetty Tours for a five-day spin through southeastern New Mexico.

We swept across drifting sands, climbed mountains, chilled alongside the Rio Grande and rambled through the desert, uncovering quirkiness and charm all along the way. Here's how our trip unfolded.

At White Sands National Monument, a glistening, lunar eclipse of a park just outside Alamogordo, Don Baumgardt, owner of GeoBetty Tours, whips a pair of saucer-shaped sleds out of his trunk. We drag them up what looks like a hill of sugar and slide down, whooping and hollering all the way. We also make sand angels, hike across a series of sand ridges and follow a beetle trekking through the desolate terrain. The park offers a variety of activities, from full-moon bike rides to sunrise photography tours and sunset strolls. Stop by the visitor center to watch an orientation movie, and if you forgot your sled, get one there.

All that sliding makes us hungry, so we slow roll into nearby Tularosa, where we sample an array of pistachios and pistachio products at Heart of the Desert Pistachios. (Anybody remember when pistachios were always dyed red? No more.) I like the plain ones best, but more adventurous nut munchers might like the green chili garlic or green chili onion varieties. Be sure to wander onto the patio for an up-close look at a grove of pistachio trees.

We grab a quick dinner, then continue on our way to Ruidoso, where we check in at the famous Inn of the Mountain Gods, a resort built by the Mescalero Apaches. Attractions here include golfing, gaming (we skipped the casino, but if you're into that sort of thing, this one covers 45,000 square feet and is packed with machines, poker tables and roulette wheels), restaurants and live entertainment.

Our rooms overlook a small lake surrounded by pine trees. The next morning, I get up early, lace up my trail runners and head out to explore. The place is huge; I walk past a zip line over the lake, bike rentals and the golf course, all tucked in the trees.

We pile back into the car and on a whim head south of town to check out the Hurd-La Rinconada Gallery, http://www.wyethartists.com/ that features art by Michael Hurd, Peter Hurd, Henriette Wyeth Hurd, Andrew Wyeth and N.C. Wyeth. You might recognize N.C. Wyeth's imagination-inspiring illustrations from books like "Treasure Island," "Robin Hood" and "Robinson Crusoe," and his son Andrew Wyeth's vaguely disturbing painting "Christina's World," portraying a woman lying in a field in front of a farm house.

We meet Michael Hurd, who's still painting, and he takes a few minutes to show us around before he heads out to paint. "To me a painting or a drawing is an emotional time exposure," he tells us.

Take the time to explore the outbuildings on the property, including the lovely Las Milpas compound, which is available for rental.

Back in the car, we head to Ruidoso, stroll the main street, admire the chainsaw carvings at Grizzly's Workshop, poke our nose in shops and grab sandwiches before driving toward Ski Apache. We park our car just outside the gates and strike out on the Crest Trail through the Lincoln National Forest. The forest swallows us instantly, and we're surrounded by groves of golden aspens and towering pines looking across a valley toward the ski area.

The next day, we check out of the hotel early and hit the road again. First stop? Capitan, home of the Smokey Bear Historical Park, where we learn all about the little cub found singed and clinging to a tree during a forest fire here in 1950.

That bear became the living message of a national campaign to prevent forest fires, a message that remains important today, says park manager Bennie Long, chief of the Lincoln Fire Department and one of the first female firefighters in the area. We stroll through a small garden, snap pictures with a Smokey Bear statue and pick up a few Smokey Bear trinkets at a small museum and gift shop in a log cabin next door.

Then we ramble on to Valley of Fires Recreation Area near Carrizozo, where we bound out of the car and stretch our legs on a }-mile loop trail that takes us past lava caves and collapsed gas bubbles along the buckling ripples of an ancient lava flow.

Wheels rolling once more, we book it to San Antonio, a tiny town that prides itself as the birthplace of that pinnacle of New Mexico culinary artistry, the green chili cheeseburger.

Baumgardt and his wife, Carol, nab one burger from the Buckhorn Tavern and another from the Owl Cafe. We cut them in quarters and dig in, determined to pick the best one. In a split decision, the Owl's burger -- a smaller but much spicier version -- wins. We mosey into the neon-lit restaurant and order another round.

Thus fortified, we forge on, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in our sights. In the cold months, the refuge flutters with migrating birds including sandhill cranes, eagles and snowgeese.

We're lucky; the sandhill cranes are trickling in now. The 4-foot gray creatures, which have red foreheads and white cheeks, fly more than 3,000 miles from Alaska to winter here each year and attract photographers who perch on decks to snap their picture. The refuge itself, which covers more than 57,000 acres, features more than 100 individual wetlands that are periodically flooded to provide habitat for the inhabitants.

"It's a great place to watch the cycle of nature take place," says Chris Lesser, visitor services chief. "Each time you come back to the refuge it's going to look different."

From there, it's on to Truth or Consequences, a funky little town that famously traded its original name of Hot Springs for the name of a game show in the 1950s. They should have kept the old name, because the springs are what make this a town worth stopping to explore.

We check into the Riverbend Hot Springs, which used to operate as a bait shop, then became a hostel, and since has evolved into a quirkily charming resort alongside the Rio Grande. Quick as we can, we change into swimsuits and ease into the stone-lined, spring-fed tubs, twiddling our toes in the piping hot water, watching the stars pop out and listening to the coyotes yap.

We take another dip in the tubs the following morning before piling back into the car for the drive past fields of pecans, cotton and chili peppers on our way to Las Cruces. When we pass the exit signs for Hatch, I can't help but think of the pepper roasters that appear in front of grocery stores in Austin in late summer.

We drop our bags at the Hotel Encanto (lovely lobby!) and continue on to the historic Mesilla section of town for a plate of enchiladas at La Posta, which is housed in the old Butterfield Stage Building. Then it's on to the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, where program specialist Adan Delval teaches us a thing or two about the state's favorite crop.

We unwind back at the hotel, resting up for the grand finale the next day, a mountain bike tour of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

In the morning, we climb onto mountain bikes from Crazy Cat Cyclery and speed down a portion of the beginner-friendly Sierra Vista Trail. It weaves through rolling acres of cactus in the dusky blue shadow of mountain. I spook a jackrabbit as I spin down the trail, and at the midway point we all dismount and flop onto the ground for an impromptu siesta.

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