Issue 8: Carrizozo, New Mexico

Contributors: Polly Chavez, Suzanne Donazetti, Rick Geary, Corbin LaMont, MoMAZoZo, Aaron Lovejoy, Linda Rodriguez, Iona Leveck aka Gwendolyn Watson, Joshua Wheeler and Paula Wilson.

Copyeditors: Ray Dean, Keenan Mitchell and Joal Stein.

11" x 17" Laser, Gray Paper, Full Color.

Printed by American Printing.

Tales, Times and Trials in Carrizozo, New Mexico

“You don’t have to be crazy to live here but it sure helps.”

Written by Corbin LaMont
Edited by Joal Stein, Ellen Freeman and Ray Dean.

Famous Green Chile Cheeseburger, The Outpost Photo:  Aaron Lovejoy

Famous Green Chile Cheeseburger, The Outpost
Photo: Aaron Lovejoy

The piñon pines create a little shade overtop a picnic table made of stones. We’re halfway between Carrizozo and Capitan on a road called Indian Divide, or maybe the whole area is called Indian Divide. A father and son duo sit on the table looking toward the dome house they brought here from Colorado. I have to imagine it was just the bones though, because they’ve added so much. There’s a kitchen and greenhouse and some kind of water system in large black tubs that sits on the second story and runs down to the first floor. The greenhouse takes up nearly half the dome and there are some things growing, but as everyone has told me, it’s hard to grow anything out here. 

The heat creeps down my spine and I edge closer to this little piece of shade but try to give them their personal space on the table. I’m having a familiar conversation, one that I’ve been having for at least seven months now. People find out you’re a newspaper woman and they want to know what you’ll write about, they want to feed you stories or give you leads. I like to throw it out there that, “You can let me know if there’s anyone I should talk to,” but I don’t start any conversation knowing whether or not if it’ll be in the newspaper or what I’m looking to get from a person. I like to suppose The Changing Times doesn’t want to get anything from anyone; there’s an aim to be the antithesis of transactional. I know I do not always succeed at this. 

So we’re doing this little dance, they’re in the shade, I’m almost in the shade. We cover topics like high school in Carrizozo, small town gossip, and whether or not I’m going to talk to their ex-wife/mother Ann, one of three local real estate agents. The father in this duo gives me a line I love: “Everyone thinks they found Carrizozo.” It feels so true, and it will become a part of my lens for this place, where everyone feels ownership over their own discovery of a place empty enough to feel their own. We could call this place sparsely populated, or depopulating, or repopulating, or rural, or remote. 

Roy’s Ice Cream Parlor  Photo:  Aaron Lovejoy

Roy’s Ice Cream Parlor
Photo: Aaron Lovejoy

Lincoln County sits in south central New Mexico, and the town of Carrizozo is the county seat. There’s a vacation community primarily made up of Texans tucked up in the looming Sacramento Mountains that boasts the largest population in the county, but down here in the windy, hot, hot desert sits the courthouse and the sheriff’s office. It’s hard to keep businesses alive in a town of under one thousand people—at least that seems to be the local consensus. A closure felt by all was the Carrizozo Market; now the closest grocery is twenty minutes away, up past the dome house in Smokey Bear’s birthplace, the village of Capitan. The Wells Fargo is moving out of town too, leaving behind its weird little corporate structure. The Lincoln County Historical Society recently got some goodies from their basement; no use for local memorabilia when you’re a corporation leaving town. There used to be another bank before called City Bank (not the national chain you might be familiar with, Citi Bank). When they left town, they explained that it was because banks don’t make money off checking and savings accounts, they make money off loans. 

You won’t find a lot of people getting loans in Carrizozo. You’ll find people who got their places rent-to-own, or for labor trade, or for some kind of deal they made themselves, like a motorcycle for a house. That’s real—Marcus has two houses, and one he paid for in part with his bike. Marcus has long flowing Fabio hair that’s kept styled somewhere between a hippie and a biker guy. Apparently he was a “very successful” male model, but he didn't tell me that. He told me he was an artist in Miami and drove across the country looking for a new place to settle with his daughter. They got all the way to Portland, Oregon but came back to Carrizozo. I have nothing concrete to base this on, but I’m pretty sure Marcus moved here because he met Paula and Mike. 

Mike will say that Paula moved here because of The Outpost’s green chili cheeseburger. But it’s clear she moved here for her life with Mike. To say the burger sealed the deal is probably an overstatement as well. Currently there’s a For Sale sign on The Outpost. I don’t eat hamburgers but I really want to see this cheeseburger; I want to see if perhaps there is a burger powerful enough to move people from Bushwick to rural New Mexico. We know people will do anything for love, and there are lots of those stories here in Carrizozo, too. One person has to be here, the other becomes their recruit. Some folks grew up in this area and were living in Colorado until they got to their older years and wanted to come back home. A woman he’d socialized with for years would come down to visit. They’d get to talking about what they wanted and she’d move in with him in this desert. Friends who visited at first wouldn’t anymore, but they’d make new friends. 

When I rolled into New Mexico for Issue 8 of this “newspaper from many places”, I didn’t know a soul. I had what I call “leads”, which are just friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, and people who look interesting from the internet. When you’re a newspaper that self-publishes and reports on whatever stories come to the surface, can you really call these leads? I don’t know, because I’m trained as a graphic designer not as a reporter. I like to call this an “intuitive research process.” I go where I feel and I feel out who to talk to and I feel out who to befriend. Everywhere I go because my heart says, “Go.” So I’m doing a lot of listening. Listening to myself first and then listening to whoever myself gets me next to. Sometimes this feels incredibly indulgent and sometimes it feels incredibly naive and other times it feels futile. But this is The Changing Times and I don’t publish it because it makes sense or because it is good business, I publish it for the magic. 

The magic is people. All these “leads”, each one is a person. You can tell me society is rotten and this country is falling apart, but I won’t believe you because there are just too many fucking fabulous people all over. Everyone, everywhere seems to believe someone else is messing things up. It seems we all need someone to roll our eyes at or turn up our nose. It’s all highly individualized who you feel you’re allowed to hate on. Folks in the Northwest love to look down on the South; in Iowa at a dinner party, a couple said they’d never go to New Jersey; a young college student from Rhode Island told me she couldn’t stand the stuck-up idealism of those West Coast people; my mother can’t believe anyone lives anywhere away from the ocean. 

My admiration for the desert brought me to New Mexico. Perhaps I just love it because my mother does not. Like how she wanted me to play the piano, which is why I do not. Carrizozo is the third desert town of a thousand I have taken up temporary residence in: Green River, Utah stole my heart first, then New Cuyama, California. I love to be able to see out. I love the fine, sandy dirt. I really love rocks. And I like the people, crinkled up like lizards, tough, slow-moving but quick-witted. I also like being a young person where there are few, I like being a graphic designer where there are few. I’ll admit, I feel more valuable here. This is the cocktail of things that got my drunk heart to Carrizozo.

I drove around following my “leads” for almost two weeks. Santa Fe had too many wealthy retirees, Taos too many tourists on land filled with tragedy. Abiquiu felt like it was being bought up by urban millennials from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago so they could live their own little Georgia O’Keefe painting. All these places are geographically beautiful, but I’m looking for the magic. I’m listening for the people. I was starting to have a crush on Albuquerque. Gentrification is rolling in hard with a new but failing bus route digging up the main drag of town, a queer art space exclaiming, “Four people from Portland moved here last week,” and breweries with food carts beginning to populate industrial areas. All the signs are there for Albuquerque becoming more palatable for some and less affordable for others.

Albuquerque is where I got my lead on Carrizozo. One of my most favorite friends and sometimes-editor of this newspaper, Mary, put me in touch with Erin, a curator and artist. Erin wrote a whole slew of emails introducing me to people she thought could be a good fit for me. I spend a night at her boyfriend Mitch’s place. He’s in the predominately hispanic South Valley on half an acre with a couple of adobes, a teepee, and ex-convicts working to create a community art space. He loves a small lizard he’s had in an aquarium for thirty years and for this, I love him. Staying with Mitch got me thinking that I could make an Albuquerque issue work. In my heart, though, I still had to go to this place called Carrizozo with the couple that has a hotel and theater and something called MoMAZoZo. Mitch lit up as he told me of the inventions I was soon to see.

Mural, Paula Wilson Photo:  Aaron Lovejoy

Mural, Paula Wilson
Photo: Aaron Lovejoy

Those who identify as artists tend to have houses that act as some kind of extension of their work. They either bring the studio home or their walls become a gallery, or, like for Mike and Paula, the home feels like their muse. They’ll explain to me when I first arrive in wonderment that the wooden stuff is all Mike while the painted stuff is all Paula. I don’t think it is that simple but it’s a helpful first identifier. There are the light switches made of wooden pulley systems that ring bells or turn on lights. Then the adobe house muraled on all sides; on the street side that faces the Santa Rita Catholic Church, a butt is painted as the focal point. Wooden toilet seats, and regular seats, wooden bowls, and wooden light fixtures. Chairs with subtle penises and pronounced spines. A wooden kitchen tiled by a mosaic layer of paint. Rugs that are canvases stretched around plywood. The aesthetic of this house seems to encapsulate a dream sequence or the tail end of a hallucinogenic trip. 

The yucca blooms taller than me everywhere around town. I’m told we’re at the end of the season. The cicada are alive for the first time in over a decade and make their rustling cackle through the sound of the wind.  You can hear the wind in Carrizozo—like all the cliches of a western or a horror film, it howls, whirrs, and whispers. Paula and Mike birthed MoMAZoZo a decade ago, perhaps subconsciously inspired by the birth of the last round of cicadas. Locals supposedly call Carrizozo “Zozo”, but no one said this sincerely while I was around. Perhaps Zozo isn’t something you say to outsiders for fear it will catch on. MoMAZoZo has multiple meanings: Museum of Modern Art Zozo, Museum of Mobile Art Zozo. In their early renditions of MoMAZoZo there was a trailer with a 7-foot wind-powered wooden bead tumbler that rolled through the streets like a parade from their then-house-and-studio to 12th Street.

Carrizozo Blows, Mike Lagg Photo:  Aaron Lovejoy

Carrizozo Blows, Mike Lagg
Photo: Aaron Lovejoy

There are two main commercial arteries of town: Central Avenue and 12th street. Central curves around, bringing you past the new nearly-opened library, the courthouse, the closed Carrizozo Market, the Carrizozo Cafe and the Highway 54 Emporium which houses tchotchkes like a massive vintage tupperware collection and a flower pin that the owner, Bill gave me because, he said, “No one understands how hard artists work”.

Parallel to Central is 12th Street, with an art scene that’s been ebbing and flowing for the past fifteen or twenty years: ceramics, warping landscapes, an artist-in-residence space, and “the largest photography gallery in New Mexico”. The new kid on the block is Cynthia (Cindy) with Limina Gallery. She closed her downtown Los Angeles gallery and arrived here after looking at a few other towns in New Mexico. She was greeted with a potluck and had a well-attended grand opening featuring many of her own abstract pieces. 

Screen Door, Mike Lagg Photo:  Aaron Lovejoy

Screen Door, Mike Lagg
Photo: Aaron Lovejoy

Right before I arrive, the Friday meeting of MoMAZoZo makes prints that exclaim “CARRIZOZO BLOWS”, a tongue-in-cheek bootleg tagline for the town. Later on in my stay, the papers on my wall come peeling off from a gust of wind and I truly begin to understand the sincerity of this sentiment. 

The current tagline for Carrizozo is “The Crossroads of New Mexico”. If you’re going on Highway 54 to White Sands National Monument or on Highway 380 to alien-haven Roswell, then you have no choice but to halt at the four-way stop in Carrizozo. Here you’ll see one old gas station for sale and two more that are up and running, plus three motels, two owned by the same family; 2-star motels with four-star reviews. The Four Winds, with its standard Mexican American fair, is one of  three functioning restaurants along with Paul’s New Mexican Take-out and ZZQ, BBQ wagon.  No one has a liquor license—you have to go to the “ghost town” of White Oaks twenty minutes away on a Friday or Saturday in order to have a drink. Note – most of the booze, beer, wine, hard stuff, is purchased at Allsup’s, but you can’t drink it there.

If you’re on Highway 54 coming from  Alamogordo or El Paso, you are directed to  slow to 25 mph before a very sharp left hand turn,  but some choose not to. This month, an 18-wheeler (cited for 55 in a 25) missed the turn, laid on its side and ripped open against several cars parked for repair at The Bike Shop, a local motorcycle and auto repair shop owned by Rick Hyatt, who is also the mayor of Carrizozo. He awoke to a scene of wreckage mingled with hundreds of watermelons, the big rig’s cargo. At Town Council this month, he said that this was the third time cars waiting for repair at the shop have been damaged by this problematic intersection. 

There are big, beautiful plans that have been drawn to fix this swath of town. “The Historic Carrizozo Revitalization Plan” aimed to create more pedestrian-friendly streets, wayfinding signage, improved building facades, better sidewalks, vegetation, on-street parking and historic street lighting—all while taming traffic speeds. The watermelon big rig fiasco will be used in a complaint to the state requesting urgent funding.

Rural USDA and the EPA recently designated Carrizozo as a “Cool & Connected Community” (CCC).  Working with these agencies and Smart Growth America, a list of Community-Driven Strategies was developed to leverage the installed broadband network to catalyze downtown revitalization. These communities can combine broadband service with other local assets such as cultural and recreational amenities to attract investment and people, including young people, and diversify local economies. Part of that strategy calls for public Wi-Fi at McDonald Park, in the heart of the Historic District.  Funding for installing and maintaining the Public Wi-Fi is still being pursued. As a direct result of the CCC initiative the newly organized Carrizozo Community Public Library and Archive now offers free public high speed internet and Wi-Fi, 3 days a week.  Expanding those hours depend on additional funds and volunteers.  Currently bundled broadband internet and phone service rates begin at around $60 per month.    

Lava Rock, McDonald Park Photo:  Aaron Lovejoy

Lava Rock, McDonald Park
Photo: Aaron Lovejoy

That report also gives us statistics on the population decline: “Carrizozo's population is shrinking. By 2010, the town's population dipped below 1,000 people, and the town experienced a general population decline of 31.4% between 1990 and 2016. Projections show continued population loss at a rate of 3.2% from 2018 to 2020.” The population decline is a conversation across demographics and stakeholders, and some think the town needs 300, 500, or even 1,000 new residents. Who might relocate to Carrizozo? Ray Dean, who spearheads local non-profit Carrizozo Works, says proudly, “Our market is artists and retirees.” You can see how that might work; most artists have to make their own opportunities. 

Social artist and educator Paul Ramírez Jonas recently spoke about making work that interacts with the world in an interview with The Creative Independent. “I show my graduate students this lecture that completely depresses them where I go through these algorithms that rank artists. I show them the depressing reality which is that .01% of artists make a living at it. Then I start to show them graphs that show income distribution in the United States. Income inequality in the art world is exactly like the income inequality of the country. The art world is in the world. It can’t be better and it can’t be worse than the world. It’s in the actual world. It reflects it perfectly. It seems more extreme because it’s smaller and we actually know some of the people, but it’s really not dissimilar to the world at large... If you want to be an artist, why would you contort yourself to what you think is going to work commercially when the chances of success in doing that are so slim? You might as well stick to doing what you want to do. Then at least you have the reward of doing that, at least you have the reward of being true to yourself, of saying what you want to say, of being creatively honest.”

With that sentiment, there’s another promising tagline for Carrizozo from Ray Dean: “You don’t have to be crazy to live here but it sure helps.” This desert, two hours south of Albuquerque and two hours north of White Sands National Monument, requires a certain kind of disposition. This is a place that asks you to assign your own value to your property, your work, your day, your neighborhood. Sure, this can happen anywhere, but here almost demands it of you. People will leave you alone if you want, but being a good neighbor is celebrated. There are shared values around potlucks, or offering car help or a lawnmower regardless of your political or economic background. Outside of our predominate cultural framework of consumerism there are so many more ways to define opportunity through social connection, community safety, and the wonder of natural beauty. These are things we police each other into agreeing upon, but we all have our own will in the matter as well. In Carrizozo, I see glimpses of an alternative economy where you’re emboldened to trust those around you and worship your natural landscape. 

No Weed Wackers Photo:  Aaron Lovejoy

No Weed Wackers
Photo: Aaron Lovejoy

What is the value of an artist? What is the value of art? Matthew Fluharty, the founder of Art of The Rural wrote in a piece titled Towards a Local Practice, “Whether through notebook dispatches from artists considering questions of diaspora, cultural history, and rural-urban exchange, or through reflections from individuals engaging in this durational process, the goal in beginning the slow work of claiming the space for a local practice is how we create power for grounded everyday experience, how that space increases equity in our communities, and how this local, aesthetic process bridges and advances our collective dialogue.” We can hope that the creativity that has burgeoned and fluxed in Carrizozo for the past couple of decades can become a promising stakeholder for the community. The current Carrizozo Artist in Residency is bringing a variety of regional and national artists to take up their practice temporarily on 12th Street, and although not all have a social or community-driven practice, past visiting artists have naturally wanted to engage with the permanent residents. 

But what does this talk of population growth make of the existing populations? If retirees and artists from urban areas buy into Carrizozo, could property values and rent prices push current residents out? The town’s revitalization plan has property tax modifications for oldtimers but currently there are no plans for rent control. Additional senior housing is also planned but currently unfunded. The current senior housing, Casa Manaña, run by the Carrizozo Women’s Club, is at maximum capacity. As I see it, there is a very delicate balance at play with this small town magic*. 

How many people is enough people? How many businesses make a place? How many artists make an arts economy?  Do communities with homogenous viewpoints or values work better? Who defines what’s best for a town—the mayor, the newcomer, the outsider, the oldtimer? Are we afraid of emerging populations? When folks already have to make their own opportunities, when folks already have no choice but to appreciate what they have, what is truly at risk? 

Currently New Mexico ranks 48th in the country amongst states, falling lowest in the categories of Education, Crime & Corrections, and Infrastructure. What may not surprise you is that New Mexico ranks 8th in Quality of Life, taking into account things like Community Engagement, Social Support, and the Natural Environment. Here, folk art lives and people know their origin story. Myth and legend are alive and well. In Carrizozo, there is the feeling that you can make your own culture, make your own meaning, and make your own life.