Road Forks and Rodeo, New Mexico — just a yodel and a holler away

Rodeo, New Mexico Photo by Carla DeMarco
Rodeo, New Mexico

Put on a cowboy hat, grab a miner’s pick, and get out your birder’s field glasses. You may have need of them when you explore the three neighboring villages on the border of Arizona and New Mexico’s boot heel - Road Forks, Rodeo, and Portal.

As you travel east or west on Interstate 10, turn off at the Road Forks exit in New Mexico. It marks the I-10 junction with transcontinental Highway 80 and then continues on to Rodeo. Take time to visit Road Forks, settled by the G.H. Porters around 1925 and further developed by the late John Graham whose family still own and operate several businesses there.

It’s cowboy country. Practice your John Wayne squint.

Right away you’ll realize that few people (about 30) reside in these open spaces with winds tumbling tumbleweeds. Road Forks was perhaps so-named because a two-lane road once went west from Lordsburg and split (“forked"). One branch veered south, meeting U.S. 80, and then later rejoined the westerly branch.

Stop at Road Forks for “food, gas, and lodging.” With many miles between gas stations, make sure you fill up the tank. Park at the Shady Grove truck stop and admire the barrel cacti at its entrance. Have a bite at the 24-hour restaurant, peek in at the gift shop, and walk out wearing a Southwestern necklace and tee shirt. Head south.

While driving the 33 miles to Rodeo, photograph the rust and ochre-colored rock formations that cut and jut into the velvet blue sky above. If you’re lucky, a hawk may soar by or a whip-tailed lizard may dart off a ledge, giving spark to the scene.

Try to squeak out an hour to stop at the Granite Gap Ghost Mining Camp, seen from the highway and only 11 miles from Road Forks. Collect ore specimens, admire the desert botanical garden, and even ride a burro.

Leave Shaggy and Willie at the camp. Straight ahead is Rodeo, once a center for shipping cattle, but now a growing arts community of several hundred persons. It is bound together by its Spanish, Mexican, and Old West history. Bootheel tales of rustling, smuggling, bootlegging and railroading abound.

Founded in 1902 when the Southwestern Railroad of New Mexico was completed, Rodeo, population 200 including surrounding area, is modernizing its water facilities, which will help its growth. The origin of its name is in dispute. One book indicates the Spanish word Rodeo means “roundup, enclosure,” but local historian Junior Gomez, interprets Rodeo as referring to a large bend in the area’s railroad.

When you enter town, which lays right next to the highway, admire the Rodeo Mission church with its gleaming white exterior. Photograph your family as they point to its sign, “Cowboy Ministry 7 p.m.” Look at your puppy and say, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Then enjoy the brilliantly colored paintings, gleaming silver bolos and bracelets, and unique crafts at the Chiricahua Art Gallery and Guild. Soon other galleries will open. Then enjoy green enchiladas and iced tea (or something stronger) at Bob and Lois Bernard’s inviting Rodeo Tavern.

As you loop back to I-10, make sure your camcorder is ready. Portal, Arizona - gateway to the great Chiricahuas Mountains - is only a whisper away. Portal’s population is about 75 in town and 125 including the surrounding area. Turn left about seven miles north of Rodeo and drive on the narrow, two-lane road to what one visitor called “a bonanza” of diverse plant and animal life. Record the startling extremes of teeming life that range from the rare Trojan parrot to the lowly coyote and from the thorny mesquite bushes to the mountain aspen forests.

First homesteaded by Stephan Reed in 1879, the district surrounding “the embryo town of Portal” was promoted as a promising mining camp and resort area, according to the Jan. 15, 1906, Arizona Republican. No mining is allowed in this area today, but it remains an incredible resort area and nature lover’s haven. Elevations climb from the desert floor to 10,000 feet. Scientists at The Southwest Research Station, internationally famous, study local flora and fauna.

The beloved homeland of Geronimo and his Apaches, the Chiricahuas are also home to bears, warblers, porcupines, wild turkeys, mountain lions, hummingbirds, and an untold number of beetles, ants, and other insects. Snakes, too.

When you need a respite, hightail it to the picturesque Portal Peak Lodge, Store and Café, owned and operated by the friendly Reeces and Griffiths. Munch on a huge hamburger or savor their pork chops. Take home some books by local authors. Stay awhile. But watch out. The Chiricahuas can mesmerize, and may not let you go.