Carrizo Mountain looms unmagnificently in the sunrise. Nothing else looms but absence. It’s beautiful in the way sad things are.
I peed in the dirt parking lot that marks the entrance to Carrizozo, New Mexico, and put a shirt on.
The town — or what’s left — is lined with poplars, elms, and mysterious painted burro sculptures that no one can explain. Yuccas, cattle skulls, cholla cacti, and thistle adorn rock lawns. The town is named after Mexican grass. I don’t know where it is.
Carrizozo, pronounced the American way, is one of the most typical towns of the American West. It is waterless and stucco, and completely degraded. A former railroad town. Corrugated roofs over caving walls and overgrown alleyways that have trees growing in the middle of them. Nearby State Route 3 has grass growing on it. The restaurant served a bad chile relleno but I could see them cook it.
I walk the entire town in 20 minutes. The only two men I saw were holding guns in their yards. The old man shooting BBs into his garage door seemed less imposing. He spoke English with a rural Mexican accent.
“For some reason they didn’t want it to grow,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
Carrizozo is not your typical town in the American West.
Carrizozo is the seat of Lincoln County, but the court house that gives it that title is all that remains. Nobody works in the town anymore. But what it was, and what it could have been…
When the Southern Pacific stopped working the town ten years ago, everything went to hell. That’s what everyone tells me. “Ten years ago,” the place was different. A single decade. “We could have been as big as Alamogordo,” Neo said. “They used to have five bars here. The Yucca Bar… The Southern Pacific had a restaurant that had rooms and everything. Used to be 2000 people here. Now if we have 800, we have a lot.”
Could have been as big as Alamogordo. There’s a lot of coal in the ground. There was the railroad. They wanted to put the Air Force base in Carrizozo, not Alamogordo. There was the gas company. But the town, afraid for its identity, fought them out.
See, there’s nothing less American than wanting to keep your community small. The price is everything you have.
“We have nothing,” Neo said. “That used to be a baseball field down there. We used to play the boys from Capitán, from Corona. We used to have a lot of fun here.” Cats circled his legs. His wife eyed me warily from the front porch. The quiet would be okay if it weren’t such a small town in such a big place. “I don’t know what will become of Carrizozo.”
The town will lose the county seat. Ruidoso wants it. All they need is a railroad, but that’s a technicality. It wants to grow. Corrizozo will be subsumed by the plains.
Who wouldn’t want to grow? Out here you can grow forever. You can be Roswell. Alamogordo. There could have been an interstate closer than 95 miles away.
4 Winds Restaurant was the only place open for business. “I think we’re okay,” the manager told me. “No, we have a great location. You know, people need to come in and rest, eat, drink, relax. And we’re in a great spot here.”
I don’t believe him.
On the other side of town from Neo’s house, the Southern Pacific rolls by. It’s the only life in the vast plains. But it doesn’t stop in Carrizozo.