At noon the main street is so silent and empty that my wife and I walk down its center and chat quietly without fear of interruption. The only group of vehicles is parked behind the squat county courthouse.
The surrounding desert plain is parched despite a few drops of rain the previous two nights. Bare mountains pierce the endless sky and a 40-mile-long flow of black lava fills the valley to the west.
This is Carrizozo. The name, shortened to Zozo by its 900 residents, refers to the Spanish word for a kind of nourishing grass for cattle. It’s the seat of Lincoln County. And of all the unexpected things in the world, it’s the home of the largest photography gallery in New Mexico.
The Tularosa Basin Gallery of Photography displays about 350 photographs by some 40 artists—and many are, indeed, artists—in a former hardware store on 12th Street that dates back to 1917. Now occupying 7,500 square feet in the two-story Lutz Building, the gallery is to expand eventually to 15,000 square feet, according to present plans.
Most impressive of all, every one of the gallery’s images was shot in New Mexico, and all the photographers live in this state. That in itself represents a unique achievement.
The collection is not only massive but delightfully diverse, ranging from antique-looking black and white images to photoshopped abstractions to huge panoramas, and depict every corner of this far-flung state.
An Australian might call the area around Zozo the back of the beyond. The village’s population is half of what it was a hundred years ago. Founded in 1899 as a railroad town, it fought and won a battle to become the county seat in 1909. Trains still run through town but they don’t stop. The closest town, Capitan, is 21 miles away. Mountainair is 83 miles, Estancia 96 miles, Socorro 75 miles, and Ruidoso, the largest town in Lincoln County, 30 miles. It’s a good place to live if you like lonely.
Despite its isolation and small size, Zozo has an active arts community, with five galleries and a number of resident artists. A visitor from Michigan raved on the website Trip Advisor, “This is a world class photography gallery in a quirky artists’ colony.”
Yet this remains a hard place for any kind of business. At midday on Thursday, we were the only ones looking at the photographs in the gallery that is sometimes called Photo Zozo. We felt a bit lonely amid the old building’s immense spaces, although a gallery employee took time to chat leisurely with us and give us bottles of water.
We stopped by Zozo a few days ago on a circle drive that carried us south from Tijeras to Claunch, then west to Carrizozo and Socorro, north to Albuquerque and back east to Tijeras. It’d also be easy to do a different circle through Moriarty, Estancia and Willard, on the Salt Mission Trail.
It took us most of a day. Along the way we admired the blooming yuccas and cactuses and patches of red and yellow and purple wildflowers brought to life by gentle splattering of rain the two previous nights.
Our longest and most interesting stop on the way to Zozo was at Gran Quivira, a seldom visited archeological ruin that is one-third of the dispersed sites of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. We were the only visitors.
Gran Quivira contains the ruins of two pueblos, dating back to the fifth century, and two 17th-century Spanish missions.
Before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, the pueblo had a population of 2,000 and—despite the absence of any water except the 15 inches of rain annually—it was a commercial hub for the area. Its two greatest natural assets were the highly valued salt from the nearby Salinas Lakes and its location as a bridge between the Navajo, Comanche and Apache Indians on the plains to the west and the established pueblos along the Rio Grande to the west.
The rebuilt walls of the pueblos and missions rise impressively from the surrounding desert. A ranger explained to us that the region’s limestone was much harder to cut and fit than the sandstone at other pueblos further north. The small stones were fitted together with a mud plaster.
Asked if the walls had been rebuilt by archeologists, the ranger said, “We didn’t just find a bunch of stones and build a wall. These are the originals.”
The Spanish defeat during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was the final blow. Only the arrival of the railroad in 1899, and the town’s designation 10 years later as the Lincoln County seat, revived the community’s prospects as a center of ranching, commerce and transportation.
Now the tiny county seat is once again trying to reinvent itself, this time as an arts community, and, surprising as it may seem, it is having a bit of success.