HEAD TO THE BORDER FOR A HEAVY DOSE OF FUN AND HISTORY
Written and photography by ROB MCCORKLE
The pre-dawn surprise attack by Mexican Revolutionary Army leader Pablo “Pancho” Villa’s forces on Columbus, N.M. in 1916 continues to bring the small southern New Mexico village its international notoriety more than a century later. The ethnically diverse border town of 1,500 continues to trade on its notorious past and peacefully co-exists with neighboring Palomas, Mexico (pop. 15,000) to draw thousands of travelers annually from near and far.
Today, scores of North Americans “invade” Palomas to shop and dine at La Tienda Rosa, The Pink Store, and frequent nearby businesses to purchase economical pharmaceuticals and eyeglasses, and receive cut-rate, professional dental treatment from more than half a dozen dental clinics. A two-hour drive from Las Cruces makes for an easy day trip or an affordable overnight border getaway.
Judy and I waited for cooler autumn temperatures before heading west from Cruces on Interstate 10 to Deming on a sun- drenched morning, swinging south on State Highway 11 to reach the Los Milagros Hotel in the heart of Columbus shortly before noon. Proprietor Philip Skinner, who has operated the five-room inn with his wife Diana for three years, shared his knowledge of the border area gleaned from a quarter century of living and running businesses in the sister communities.
Skinner attested to the border area’s international draw, noting recent guests had included several couples from England and a photographer couple from New Zealand. He also explained the symbiotic relationship between the two towns dependent on one another for economic viability, education and medical services. As for tourists seeking a taste of Old Mexico, he said, “Basically, most people cross the border, head to the Pink Store and come back. That’s it.”
Hunger pangs setting in, Judy and I drove the three miles to the border, parked on the U.S. side and make the short walk into Palomas, where tourists stroll unimpeded (no pedestrian toll or inspection) into the downtown business district. The two-story Pink Store looms over the main drag just a block away. (A word to the wise: wear comfortable shoes to make dodging debris from ongoing construction and walking on uneven surfaces easier). Farmacias, or pharmacies, are prevalent in this area and heavily frequented by Norte Americanos like us.
No trip to Palomas is complete without taking time to peruse the plethora of quality Mexican ceramics, jewelry, clothing and crafts that range from the sacred (crosses and
innativities) to the whimsical (Day of the Dead figurines and pigs with wings). A complementary margarita and music from strolling mariachis ensure a festive experience at the Pink Store. My final stop is always the corner of the store where shelves are laden with reasonably priced liquor, including dozens of varieties of mescal and tequila. I’m always search- ing for unusual tequilas (100% blue agave) rarely available north of the border. Familiar brands, such as Jose Cuervo and Hornitos, can be acquired for roughly 20 to 30 per- cent less than you’ll pay in the U.S. Tourists who end up with more souvenirs than they can carry on foot can hitch a ride on a Pink Store golf cart to Customs at the U.S. Port of Entry (The new $18 million U. S. Port of Entry complex is scheduled for completion in mid 2019).
I purchased two bottles and Judy got a pair of sterling silver earrings and a carved walking stick.
While mariachis Rafael and Jesus serenaded us tableside with “Volver, Volver,” we dined on a half-order of nachos and half-order of quesadillas to save room for the dinner at a Palomas establishment — Casa Mexicana Restaurante — that the hotelier promised to take us to later. We ate at a table in the rear portion of The Pink Store’s main room, a temporary location, while an expansive restaurant facing the back courtyard was under construction and slated to open soon.
Judy opted to take a siesta at Los Milagros while I perused the Columbus Historical Society Museum. The museum occupies the 1902 Train Depot built by the El Paso Southwestern Railroad, which later merged with Southern Pacific, to transport copper by rail from southern Arizona to El Paso.
The restored depot provides an excellent framework for understanding life in early 20th century life in this desert outpost and the nearby military installation (Camp Furlong), as well as the March 9, 1916 raid that claimed the lives of 10 civilians and 8 soldiers and almost 100 of Villa’s feared fighters. The Columbus landmark houses a gift shop (look for Mata Ortiz pottery from Casas Grande and books about the Villa attack) and three display rooms of artifacts, vintage photos, military weapons and memorabilia from Camp Furlong. I find of particular interest the old Columbus State Bank’s original Diebold safe sporting a bullet hole inflicted during the guerilla-style attack on the slumbering town.
An historic marker out front pays tribute to 18-year-old Susan Parks who awoke to the sounds of gunfire during the Villa raid and bravely sat at her switchboard to call Deming about the attack and summon National Guard troops.
Be sure to pick up The Columbus Story booklet that includes a map of 11 stations around town that helps tell the story of the morning when Villa’s soldiers — for reasons still not known — burned and looted the village and stole booty from the town’s businesses and Camp Furlong, home to the U.S. 13th Cavalry. Some 400 troops stationed there played a pivotal role in driving the invaders from town. Only the restored train depot, the abandoned Hoover Hotel and the military barracks inside Pancho Villa State Park still stand from that dreadful day 103 years ago.
Columbus offers a handful of highly rated local eateries serving breakfast and lunch, including Borderland Café, Irma’s Kitchen, La Casita and the Patio Café. After a restful night at Los Milagros, we opted for a delicious breakfast at Lawrence Haddad’s Borderland Café. Judy’s custom-ordered burrito and my piquant huevos rancheros provided the fuel we needed for a tour of the must-see exhibit hall at Pancho Villa State Park before returning home. The 34-acre park, dedicated in 1961, also contains the aforementioned Camp Furlong barracks, Cootes Hill, an International Peace Garden and campground with 63 campsites.
Among the many exhibits and memorabilia vying for attention inside the spacious museum are:
1) a bullet-riddled 1915 Dodge Touring Car belonging to Archibald Frost who was wounded in the Columbus attack,
2) a Jeffrey Quad Armored Truck, a 3) a French-made Benet-Mercie 1901 machine rifle (machine gun) and 4) a JN-3 “Jenny” aircraft that was used in Gen. Blackjack Pershing’s 500-mile pursuit of Villa and his army deep into Mexico. Check out, too, the compelling 1914 photo of Generals Pershing, Villa and Almaro Obregon taken in El Paso during friendlier times.
As the exhibits explain, although Pershing and his 10,000 troops on foreign soil never caught up with the famed bandito, the U.S. forces killed a number of his soldiers, including the two generals who led the attack on Columbus. More importantly, the armed expedition into Mexico as World War I was heating up saw the last U.S. Army cavalry action ever mounted and marked the first U.S. military operation using mechanized vehicles and aircraft that would prove invaluable by U.S. troops after entry into WWI just months after Pershing and his troops returned from Mexico.
ROAD TRIP TIPS
To return from Mexico, U.S. citizens will need proof of their residency, such as a New Mexico driver’s license, or preferably a U.S. Passport.
Columbus N.M. Historical Society
Highway 9 and 11 (575-531-2620); Except for major holidays, open daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m., September- April and 10 a.m.-1 p.m. May- August.
The Pink Store
Palomas; open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. except Easter Sunday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. www.thepinkstoremexico.com
Los Milagros Hotel
Columbus (575-531-2467); www.losmilagroshotel.com
Pancho Villa State Park Visitor Center
Columbus (575-531-2119), www.nmparks.com
Open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m.