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NM’s Bootheel is full of pleasant surprises

Way down yonder in the Bootheel of New Mexico, just about as far south as one can get and still be in the Land of Enchantment, life is as lazy as a fine fall day.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty going on in one of the nearly forgotten corners of the state.

Rodeo is the thriving metropolis in the area and home to the Chiricahua Desert Museum (chiricahuadesertmuseum.com), which is a botanical garden and living, creeping, crawling shelter for desert wildlife, founder Bob Ashley said.

“A lot of people think it’s just a rattlesnake pit with a bunch of diamondbacks in the basement,” Ashley said. “But it’s a high-end display. People call it world-class.

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“We have live animal exhibits in the indoor museum area. All reptiles. It ranges from Gila monsters and rattlesnakes to lizards and turtles. We have two full-time keepers to make sure the animals are healthy and have lots of babies.”

The towering ryolite formations are a trademark of Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona.

Outside, a creek ambles through gardens filled with native plants such as cactus, yucca and agave, as well as grasses and trees.

Free-roaming animals such as Sonoran Desert tortoises, desert box turtles, yellow and Sonora mud turtles, chuckwallas, crevice spiny lizards, Bolson tortoises, leopard lizards and collared lizards call the garden home.

The site is also an art lovers’ haven, with a 15-foot-tall rattlesnake tail sculpture overlooking the garden. It was designed by renowned wildlife artists Tell Hicks and built by Charlie Painter and Mike Hill.

The United Kingdom-based Hicks, a founding member of the International Herpetological Society, also created an eight-foot Gila monster mosaic. More than 60 of his paintings hang in the gallery; the museum contains a nearly complete set of his work.

Many other well-known wildlife artists, including Don Wheeler, Marty Capron, Ben Greishaw, and Karen Bell, also have original works on display.

The Chiricahua Gallery in Rodeo houses an eclectic collection of original art from local, regional and national artists. (SOURCE: The Chiricahua Gallery)

The Chiricahua Gallery is a co-op.

Housed in what was originally a saloon, then converted into a church and finally into the nonprofit gallery, it is a New Mexico-designated historic site featuring original work from local and regional artists.

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An ever-changing, eclectic mix of items include oils, mixed-media, jewelry, homemade soaps, woodcrafts, coyote gourds and books by local authors, including Alden Hayes, Brooks White, Jeanne Williams and Fran Zweifel.

“It really is something special to see,” past president and stained-glass artist Jackie Lewis said.

The Chiricahua Gallery was once a saloon and a church and is a New Mexico-designated historic site.

Lewis also runs the bed-and-make-your-own-breakfast George Walker House in nearby Paradise, Ariz., on the eastern edge of the Chiricahua Mountains.

She keeps the refrigerator stocked with dairy products, bagels and condiments, and guests are free to supplement their fare. World-class birding is the magnet, particularly in the fall and spring, as rare birds from Mexico recognize no borders and freely cross to and fro.

The Chiricahua Mountains, famed as a hideout for Geronimo and his tribe of Chiricahua Apaches as the last free-roaming Native Americans, is also a rugged band of peaks with extensive, other worldly, towering rhyolite formations, said Suzanne Moody, park ranger for Chiricahua National Monument.

The Chiricahua Museum in Rodeo is home to botanical gardens and reptile exhibits. (SOURCE: The Chiricahua Museum)

Most of those are on the west side of the range, which can be accessed through winding and graveled Pinery Canyon Road, Lewis said.

Guided tours of the Faraway Ranch House – the 1887 homestead site of the Erickson family – is one of the highlights of the west side of the mountains. The house, still furnished in the original period pieces, was home to Lillian Erickson until the 1970s.

The true wonder, however, is the mountains themselves, Lewis said, particularly the rock formations not unlike the hoodoos found in New Mexico.

Many of the pinnacles, which are up to 100 feet high, are balanced on a small base, appearing ready for imminent collapse.

Other geologic features of the park include shallow caves, faults, mountain formations, prehistoric lava flows, and a giant volcanic caldera. The 12-mile-wide Turkey Creek Caldera is just to the south of the park and was caused by a volcanic eruption 27 million years ago. Ash and debris settled and compacted, forming a thick layer of rock called rhyolite tuff. This rock layer has fissured and eroded over time, creating the rock formations.


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