Living Desert’s Mescalero Apache Mescal Roast: A Feast for the Senses

Visitors flock to Carlsbad, New Mexico, for its caverns and bats. Less well known, but equally extraordinary, are two aboveground attractions: the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens and its annual Mescal Roast, conducted by the Mescalero Apache people.

We drove south from Santa Fe in the predawn hours on a Thursday in early May. Blessed by heavy spring rains, the land was spectacularly colorful. Near Vaughn, a freight train was silhouetted against the rising sun. Nearby, antelope grazed on expanses purple with prairie verbena. Grasslands gave way to a harsher landscape, where white blossoms spiked upward from soaptree yucca (New Mexico’s state flower). It is easy to understand why the Spanish called this land the llano estacado, or “staked plains.”

    A little before 10 a.m., we swung into the gates of the Living Desert State Park. On either side, ocotillo snaked skyward, tipped with scarlet blossoms. The prickly pears were extravagantly decked out in pink buds and brilliant yellow flowers. We drove up a steep drive to the museum’s spectacular location on a ridge of the Ocotillo Hills, overlooking Carlsbad.

The Mescal Pit

    Friendly museum staff welcomed us to attend the ceremony with no charge. They directed us to the mescal pit outside. A large dirt mound, about 10-15 feet across, rose about five feet above the rocky desert. Dug into the flat-topped mound was a deep pit lined with rocks. A wood fire had burned for hours into white-hot coals. Next to the fire were neatly stacked about twenty heads of agave. About fifty observers and thirty Mescalero Apache, mostly teenagers, sat on small bleachers.

    As we waited for all participants to arrive, a retired park ranger named Mark Rosacker explained that the mescal roast is part of the girls’ coming-of-age ceremony. The rest of the ceremony will take place on tribal lands near Ruidoso in July. Mescal is one of five traditional foods that the girls prepare, along with piñon nuts, desert sumac berries, banana yucca, and honey mesquite pods.

Four girls were celebrating the rite of passage. Rosacker and one girl demonstrated how, the previous day, they had dug the mescal. It is a type of agave, or century plant, called agave neomexicana. They choose a plant that is 16 to 18 years old, just before it sends up the tall, flowering shoot by which the plant reproduces, and then dies. A stout oak stave, sharpened to a point at one end, was placed at an angle just under the plant. Traditionally, the Mescalero hit this with a rock; today, the girls use a sledgehammer. A few hard whacks pop the mescal out of the ground. The girls then chop off the leaves with a hatchet. The resulting head is 1-2 feet across and resembles a giant artichoke with its leaves lopped off.

By now, everyone had arrived. Rosacker requested that we put away cameras as prayers were offered in the four directions in Mescalero. Then each girl picked up a special mescal head marked with a red ribbon. They swung the heavy mescal four times over the pit to honor the four directions and threw it in. The leaders then invited the other Mescalero (teenage girls and boys and a few older men) to heave in the other mescal, and we were allowed to take photos.

Next they opened large bags of side oats grama, a native dryland grass collected for the ceremony. They dunked armfuls of the long, stringy grass in barrels of water, carried them up the hill, and laid them over the agave in the pit. They covered the grass with soggy burlap and then shoveled in three feet of dirt. They packed the dirt, mounded it up, and left it to roast until Sunday.

Living Desert’s Zoo and Gardens

We purchased tickets for the feast and dances on Friday and Saturday nights since they sometimes sell out. Then we were free to explore the park (after paying admission). Indoors, the museum offers displays on geology, culture, flora, and fauna, including a long table of antlers and artifacts to touch and feel (which children would love, and so did we). Outdoors, a path leads to a lily pond and a greenhouse displaying Succulents of the World, which include cacti. The trail then winds through several ecosystems native to the Chihuahuan Desert, which extends from Texas to Arizona and south into Mexico.

The ecosystems, from sand hills to piñon-juniper forest, feature not only native plants but also birds, animals, and reptiles. These are rehabilitated animals injured by cars, bullets, traps, and other human hazards. They remain in the zoo only if injuries prohibit their release back into the wild. We had close-up views of hawks, golden and bald eagles, owls, mountain lion, wildcat, javelina, black bear, antelope, Mexican gray wolves, and other animals.

Camping in Carlsbad

We checked into a friendly, well-appointed KOA campground, complete with cabins, pool, hot tub, delicious barbecue, and weekend pancakes. A roadrunner greeted us on the drive. Bird watching and a lovely desert sunset ended our day.

Friday we found our way to the Blue House Bakery and Café in Carlsbad. Located in a charming little house on Canyon Street, it features scrumptious homemade pastries, espresso, and lunch specialties served on the front porch or out under the trees. Our only disappointment was that it closed Saturday at noon for the weekend.

The Mescalero Apache

We returned to Living Desert at 2 for an information session with Rosacker and Apache representatives. The eldest, Silas Cochise (a direct descendant of the warrior Cochise) was Chiricahua (chee·ree·CA·wa) Apache; the others were Mescalero Apache. In addition to these two closely related groups, the Southwestern Apache also include Lipan, Jicarilla, and various Western Apache groups. Although related, the groups differ. Their Athapaskan languages are also related to those of the Navajo and of some tribes in Canada.

The Apache once ranged from Texas to Arizona and Colorado to Mexico. They fought hard to keep their rugged lands. In 1864 the Mescalero were imprisoned with the Navajo at Bosque Redondo. Many succumbed to starvation and illness; the survivors walked home, without permission, in 1865.

The Chiricahua also spent a long time “walking uphill,” as Cochise put it. They were imprisoned for 28 years in Florida, Alabama, and Oklahoma. When finally released, the few hundred survivors were not even allowed a reservation. The Mescalero agreed to take in their Chiricahua, Lipan, and Warm Springs Apache cousins on their small reservation near Ruidoso.

Rosacker explained that, twenty years ago, Living Desert State Park had realized it lacked information on the area’s original people and their culture. Rosacker approached the Mescalero. Three women, the tribe’s traditional counselors, agreed to bring the mescal roast ceremony back to the park, part of their homeland. In fact, mescal does not grow well on their present-day reservation, high in the Sacramento Mountains near Ruidoso.

The grandson of one of these women, Abraham Chee, explained to us that some tribal members did not want to perform the ceremony for outsiders. But others, such as his late father and grandmother, believed it was important to educate us. Many of us, to this day, know little of the Apache except that they were warriors. They were great warriors—defeated only by the repeating rifle—but, as we would learn, they are a much more complicated people.

In fact, the girls’ coming-of-age ritual is the Mescalero’s most important ceremony. The ceremony recognizes that men may gain glory through brave deeds, but it is the women who were the heart of the Apache and who gave them strength as a people. Women raised the children, moved the home, fed and clothed the family, and created handicrafts. Like the Pueblo tribes, the Mescalero were matrilineal. There are reports of Apache women who served as warriors and shamans. Chee confided that his wife had left her hospital bed, where she was recovering from an operation, to come to the mescal roast.

The panel clarified that the mescal roast had nothing to do with mezcal, the Mexican liquor distilled from agave. Although Native Americans had created alcoholic beverages from corn, distillation arrived only with the Europeans. They explained that the mescal ceremony was a blessing for their people and for us.