Okay. In the interest of full disclosure, Kevin Kerney isn’t a real person. He is the recurring main character in the books of Michael McGarrity, a New Mexico author. McGarrity has written quite a number of mysteries as well as the very well received trilogy, HARD COUNTRY, BACKLANDS, and THE LAST RANCH and Kerney or his ancestors are in all of them.
In Michael McGarrity’s book, DEATH SONG, one of his characters tells Kerney that the reason he moved to New Mexico was because of the writer, D. H. Lawrence.
Our reason for a trip through New Mexico was because of the writer Michael McGarrity .
McGarrity has been compared to Tony Hillerman as the voice of a certain area of New Mexico. Hillerman concentrated on two tribal policemen, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee and the Four Corners region. McGarrity focuses on Kevin Kerney and his family and the central area of the state, stretching from Santa Fe, picking up Las Vegas and Hermit’s Peak in his book, HERMIT’S PEAK, and swinging down to Lincoln County. One of his books, NOTHING BUT TROUBLE is set in the “Bootheel” of the state near the Mexican border. Although Kerney goes in one book to California and in another he is living in London only to be called back to New Mexico, the majestic scenery of New Mexico is constant and enticing and and enhances the charm of McGarrity’s books.
So my husband and I set off to follow Kevin Kerney through the New Mexico landscape.
Sunday, Day 1—Our first day was a little longer than we planned. It ended in heavy traffic in Santa Fe with us looking for a motel, any motel! So we really didn’t see Santa Fe although Santa Fe was where Kerney spent a good part of his fictitious law enforcement career. We saw instead trucks and SUVs and an endless stream of traffic. To finish this project properly, we will need another trip to Santa Fe. Maybe next summer!
Monday, Day 2—The morning was clear and damp after rain the night before. Our destination was the tiny town of Mountainaire which figures in McGarrity’s book, SERPENT’S GATE. We followed Highway 47 through a long rural path of farms, yards with no grass, old tired buildings, and old cars, then joined Highway 60 that took us on a better road toward Mountainaire.
Mountainaire is a small, small town with a Forest Service Visitor Center where we got a book on the history of the town. Dale talked with the person in the Center and found the location of the Shafer Hotel where Kerney in the book SERPENT GATE befriended the mentally ill boy and fed him. Outside the hotel was the folk art fence, not quite what we expected after reading the book, but still impressive. The hotel is vacant now, and a large “For Sale” sign stands on the corner.
We finished the day with a mega drive from Mountainaire to Roswell although I don’t recall McGarrity’s books ever dealing with Roswell and the legend of the UFO crash. Still one can’t visit New Mexico without a trip to Roswell
Tuesday, Day 3— On July 14, 1947, a mysterious crash involving possibly an alien spacecraft, possibly an experimental military surveillance device, happened outside of Corona, New Mexico. Corona is roughly sixty-five miles northwest of Roswell. The crash happened roughly thirty miles southeast of Corona which placed it between the two towns. The reaction of the military, the secrecy and the lack of information caused ripples in Roswell and in Corona that still draw curious visitors to this day. There was another crash in that same time period over in another part of the state, but it didn’t received the media attention that the Corona crash received.
Signage has been removed from the Corona crash site because too many people trespassed on the ranch where the crash happened. So the only evidence of the crash remains now in the International UFO museum in Roswell and possibly in the classified files of the government.
Wednesday, Day 4—Capitan Mountain is visible from Roswell and was a blue shadow on the horizon as we headed out Highway 70 toward Ruidoso. The Capitan Mountains, a transverse range, run east-west. Most mountain ranges run north-south.
We went through several small towns like Picacho, Riverside and Hondo among others with their skinny vertical trees reminiscent of paintings of Italy. Hondo it seems has quite a number of fruit stands, possibly the inspiration for Kerney’s adventure in THE BIG GAMBLE.
The Capitan Library, visited not long ago by author Michael McGarrity, is an all volunteer operation stocked to a great extent by donations of books. There is the Book Room where visitors can, for very reasonable prices, buy the donated books that aren’t added to the library collection. The money raised from these donations is then used to support the library programs and help purchase other titles for the collection.
Kerney’s son, introduced in THE JUDAS JUDGE, worked for a while in Capitan and the book, DEATH SONG was set to a large extent in Capitan.
Thursday, Day 5—The White Sands National Monument is nestled in the heart of the White Sands Missile Range, site of America’s first atomic bomb. The arrival of the government in the area in the nineteen forties and their acquisition of the ranches in the area to form the missile range was the main subject of McGarrity’s book, THE LAST RANCH. Fictional Kerney’s family lost their fictitious ranch to the government just as many real ranchers did.
The white sand formed from gypsum looks like snow except for the odd vegetation scattered over the partially stabilized dunes near the beginning of the Monument. We were surprised at the number of visitors. Every corner we turned on Dune Road revealed small clusters of humans climbing, hiking, sliding on the graceful white mounds. Even horseback riding and martial arts training are allowed in the park.
Occasionally the park has to be evacuated and closed to allow the missile range to do its thing. We missed one of these interruptions by a week. Highway 70 that follows the eastern edge of the range is closed during these operations.
In Las Cruces, we shifted from I-25 to I-10 for our run down to El Paso. Kerney passed through El Paso on his way to Juarez in several books, but our lack of passports eliminated a visit to Juarez. We had to be satisfied with a view of the city of El Paso and the Mexican city beyond from the Transmountain Scenic Byway.
Friday, Day 6—We stayed overnight in Las Cruces and started the day with a drive around the University of New Mexico, where our fictional character created by Michael McGarrity attended college and lived in the guest house of a family friend. For me, the main claim to fame that Las Cruces has is its proximity to the Organ Mountains, frequently mentioned in McGarrity’s books. They are rough, rugged, and beautiful.
We made a quick stop at a new national monument near the Organ Mountains, originally the Dripping Springs Park. Two years ago it became the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
T or C is the short version of the name of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, formerly Hot Springs, New Mexico. Back in time, the name was changed because of a television quiz show. Ralph Edwards of early TV fame ran a contest. The town that changed its name to the name of his TV show would be the site of an anniversary broadcast of his show. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico won the contest.
In T or C, the fictional character Kevin Kerney lived with his mother for his high school years.
Saturday, Day 7—This day we relaxed our search for Kevin Kerney and enjoyed the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. We also passed the Camino Real, the road used for many years for trading between Mexico and the states, and is still a tourist attraction.
We also visited Fort Craig with its odd visitor center, a small building about the size of our condo living room. A large RV was parked next to the building under a carport. A man who looked like he might have been watching a TV ballgame, came to the center’s door to greet us.
Sunday, Day 8—Carrizozo, the city of the painted mules and the home of cartoonist, Rick Geary, is the county seat for Lincoln County. It houses the Sheriff’s Department where Kerney’s fictional son, Clayton Istee, was a deputy in a couple of the books.
Remnants of New Mexico’s volcanic past remain in the cone-like mountains and the malpais or “bad country,” as the large lava flows are called. We saw one of these areas just outside of Carrizozo, a black scar on the earth that stretches for forty miles and is visible from space.
Monday, Day 9 and Tuesday, Day 10—The remainder of the trip had very little to do with Michael McGarrity and his creation, Keven Kerney. We visited the Bosque del Apache a second time and Dale finally saw his Gambel’s quail. We lunched with my sister in Albuquerque. We passed numerous Indian casinos, and finally when we were back home in Colorado, we saw a field full of Sandhill Cranes not far from Alamosa.
So what can I say about Michael McGarrity’s New Mexico? Beautiful doesn’t quite do justice to the primitive volcanic vistas, the endless blue skies, the space. It is a hard land, a high desert country, at least the part of it that we saw. But in its austerity and with its rich and varied colors, it is a beautiful land, worthy of being described and celebrated by writers and artists. D. H. Lawrence, back in the early twentieth century, was invited to spend some time on a ranch outside of Taos, New Mexico. He apparently loved it, wrote about it and returned whenever he could, and when he died, his ashes were interred on the ranch.
The artist Georgia O’Keefe also loved New Mexico and moved from New York to Abiqui in the nineteen twenties and celebrated the land around Ghost Ranch in her paintings. So it is not surprising that Michael McGarrity writes of this land as well.
I’m not sure we found Kevin Kerney, but we saw wonderful country and caught just a glimpse of the alchemy that happens when a writer takes bits and pieces of real life and real locations and transforms them into stories.