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High Lonesome Ranch Is Poised to Become Home to a $225 Million Spaceport

By Toby Smith
Of the Journal
    UPHAM— The rubberneckers pop up almost every day at Ben Cain's ranch. On a typical afternoon, they brake at Cain's gate, blink at the mesquite nothingness and scratch their heads.
    "Then they make a U-turn and take off, fast as they come in," says Cain, laughing.
    A month ago, Upham, a freckle found in few atlases, morphed overnight into a well-known dateline.
    Newspaper stories around the world saluted the New Mexico locale as the spot from which well-heeled folks will one day be slingshot into outer space. Cruise the Milky Way for 200 grand!
    In December, a British billionaire helicoptered into Upham, site of a proposed $225 million spaceport. Close behind were a phalanx of state government bureaucrats, aerospace wonks, brass from two counties, flacks from all over, rocket club members with models in their hands and elementary school kids with stars in their eyes.
    Watching it all in amazement was Cain, a stooped, former wild horse racer, a cowman tough as a mule's mouth.
    Cain, his wife, Jane, their daughter, Judy Wallin, and son-in-law, Phil Wallin, stand front and center in what's going to happen here because the spaceport— all planned 27 square miles of it— is to be built chiefly on their property.
    This past week, as the Legislature wrangled with the spaceport pitch, laborers broke ground for it. Step one is carving a road to the spaceport site; no longer will the curious find themselves at Cain's front door. That done, work will move toward a planned March 27 unmanned test launch.
    Meanwhile, Cain, 78, still is chuckling at what's going to happen in the desert, his desert. But reality also has set in: When dozens of workers descend here, the peace in his backyard will be no more.
    The Cains and the Wallins will be compensated for the intrusion, of course— negotiations on a sale price are under way— but Ben Cain knows things won't be the same on land where he and his wife have ranched for more than five decades. It's where his three children and seven grandchildren grew up.
    Says Cain: "I've got mixed feelings about the whole thing."
On the Camino Real
    Just inside Sierra County, Upham lies 50-odd, mostly empty miles north of Las Cruces, at the foot of the bone-dry, bleak Jornada del Muerto.
    Cain and his family are the closest residents to Upham, but they get their mail up the way, at Cutter. The Cains have always called the place "Up-UM," not "Up-HAM," like most visitors did last month, or even "YOO-FUM," as a few do.
    Most geographers agree a railroader named Upham christened the siding point 80 or 90 years ago.
    Those railroad tracks, still in use, parallel the much older Camino Real, a trail that once ran from Mexico City to Santa Fe. It passed right by what is now the porch of Cain's Bar Cross Ranch.
    Cain doesn't live in Upham, which has a windmill, stock tank, corral, abandoned shack and nothing else. No one lives in Upham. No one ever has.
    Well, that isn't quite true. Cain's older brother, Lewis, a rancher, now deceased, once hauled a doublewide there and settled in with his new bride.
    "Wasn't any electricity," remembers Ben Cain.
    How did the bride like that? a reporter wonders.
    "None too good, I reckon," says Cain. "They didn't live there but a year."
    Last month, state officials jammed spaceport signs in the dusty, intemperate soil around Upham. Some of the signs remain, including a few on busy I-25, which explains why strangers keep appearing at Cain's door.
    Affixed to one sign north of Upham, someone has added a homemade Christmas appendage. It says: "All Flakes Welcome."
'That knight feller'
    The Cains and Wallins don't mind visitors, even flaky ones.
    The four family members are sitting around the senior Cains' kitchen table this recent morning, telling a visitor how peculiar it was in December to see 75 cars parked next to Ben and Jane's corral, how odd it was to watch three buses shuttle those cars' owners out to the desert— valet parking in Upham!— that Ben and Jane have had to themselves forever.
    "Sir was signing autographs for 'bout an hour," says Ben, still marveling at the sight.
    "That's what he calls Richard Branson, that knight feller," Jane says of her husband.
    "I'm 'sposed to, ain't I?" Ben asks.
    Soon, the name of Victoria Principal comes up. A no-show last month, the actress has reportedly paid $200,000 for a ticket on one of the first flights from Upham, departing in 2009, or thereabouts. That projected two-hour jaunt comes to about $1,600 a minute.
    "I reckon she can afford it," allows Ben.
    The Wallins have taken over Lewis Cain's slice of the Bar Cross Ranch and live south and west of Ben and Jane. All of them are about five or six miles from the windmill/stock tank/corral that is Upham. The Bar Cross, a mix of Bureau of Land Management, state and deeded land, totals just shy of 200 sections, or about 128,000 acres.
    "We acknowledge that their lives will change dramatically," says Rick Homans, secretary of economic development for the state.
    The families gave permission to the state to gouge out the new road. Now they're negotiating about what comes next— and when. All are careful about what they say, lest someone misconstrue it.
    "People in town (Truth or Consequences, 30 miles away) say, 'You're going to be rich,' '' says Judy Wallin. "Look, we didn't ask for the spaceport to come in here."
    A spaceport in southern New Mexico has been on the drawing board since 1991, according to Homans. Three years later, the Office of Space Commercialization was organized, under economic development, and discussions between the state and the Cains and the Wallins began.
    The blueprint has changed some over the years, as have the people involved.
    "At one point," Ben Cain says, "somebody talked to us about putting an amphitheater in." Upham under the stars! "I haven't heard nothing 'bout that in a while."
    But why Upham?
    "They like this spot because of the altitude," says Ben. "It's already 4,600 feet into space is the way it was explained to me."
    "Oh, we're much higher than that," says Jane. "We're touching heaven."
Beloved landscape
    The "space people," as Ben and Jane Cain sometimes call those in charge, want the Bar Cross Ranch because of its high, clear air and out-of-the-way setting.
    "We have restricted airspace here," says Phil Wallin. "You can't fly east of the railroad tracks or west of the White Sands Missile Range. That's a lot of room."
    Initially, the Cains and the Wallins raised eyebrows over the need to glimpse the Earth from inside a rocket ship 70 miles up. For them, the best place to see the Earth is six feet up— in a saddle.
    Over time, the Cains and Wallins say, they've come to believe the space industry will help the area. Aiding this belief is knowing the land around them isn't for everybody.
    Nevertheless, the Cains and Wallins covet their remoteness, their graveyard tranquility.
    "When I went to college," says Judy Wallin, "the first time I heard a siren, I jumped."
    Land takes on great significance when you have to live off it. "We've worked really, really hard here," says Jane Cain. "We love it here. It's who we are."
    Improving this land, crossing a special breed of cattle, brought Ben and Jane a Ranchers of the Year Award in 1994 from the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association.
    But the Cains have slowed down some. In the past few years, Ben has battled cancer. Not long ago, he sold his cattle. But the Cains say that's no reason to uproot.
    Says Jane: "I have trouble seeing us living any place else."
    For the Wallins, 25 years younger, things are a bit different. They say that so far they have had good meetings with the Economic Development Department. But they know what can happen to a ranch family when the government wants that family's land.
    Years ago, Judy Wallin says, her father had kin living near the north end of the Jornada del Muerto. In the 1940s, the military asked them to temporarily leave— their land was needed to test an atomic bomb. Afterward, the family wasn't allowed to return.
    "They got screwed," says Phil Wallin.
    Homans says that won't happen. "Our approach has always been: We're going to treat you fairly. We're going through a detailed market appraisal of ranch land, grazing land, leasing land."
    He expects an agreement between the state and the families to be signed soon.
    After that? "If we launch spacecraft," says Homans, "they're not going to be living there."
Back in the day
    When Ben and Jane Cain arrived near Upham in 1954, the world was a lot bigger. No one dreamed of a $225 million complex out among the coyotes and chamisa.
    "Back then," says Ben, "you could still catch a passenger train for Albuqkerk or El Paso from here. You went out to the tracks and tied a handkerchief on a pole."
    Back then, the Cains drove cattle by horseback down a dirt path to Upham, then loaded them into boxcars.
    So rural was this range that it took the Cains until the 1980s to acquire a telephone. And that was a party line.
    The world has shrunk since 1954, even in isolated New Mexico, and Ben and Jane Cain see it. There's now a trailer park in Cutter, about 10 miles north of Upham.
    For now, the Cains are staying put. They like to sit on their front porch and stare at the desert, their desert. They can't envision having to give up that view for a two-mile-long runway. But then, as Ben likes to say, those space people can make just about anything happen.

E-MAIL Toby Smith