Down The Road with the Original Buffalo Dale
Welcome back. While traveling I often run across places of interest not always on my itinerary and the first night on the road this week that’s just what happened. The exit for Conchas Lake is five hours west of Oklahoma City on I-40 and then you drive thirty miles northwest of Tucumcari, New Mexico. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the lake when it built a dam on the Canadian River in 1939. Conchas Lake State Park is immediately adjacent to the lake and it is divided into two recreational areas with camping, swimming beaches and fishing docks available in both parts. The park sits at an altitude of 4,200 feet and for me it is the scenery I found that really sets it apart. From the campgrounds you can see the beautiful canyons and bluffs that are typical of this part of the country. Even though it was still very cold, the clear water was so inviting I couldn’t resist taking a swim. Although Conchas Lake is the third largest lake in the state it is also referred to as the hidden treasure of New Mexico because it is so far off the beaten track. If you visit don’t expect any shopping or fancy restaurants. There is a marina and a small general store for supplies, the rest of the entertainment is provided by nature. This is a cool spot and just what the doctor ordered if you’re looking for peace and quiet.
My next stop was Santa Fe and the historic La Fonda Hotel which is where I am now. Santa Fe is one of the oldest communities in the country and La Fonda has been a part of the local history since the very beginning. Fonda is the Spanish word for inn and since the early days there has been an inn on this site which was a preferred stopping place for a wide range of people including fur trappers, soldiers, gold miners, gamblers, politicians and outlaws. In 1833 Mary and William Donoho established the Exchange Hotel here which also became known as the “American Fonda.”
The Donohos weren’t the last innkeepers as up until statehood in 1912, La Fonda had several owners. Then in 1919 after World War I, the original hotel was demolished. When the current hotel opened in 1922 it was built on the same spot and with much hoopla, was advertised as the finest hotel in the west. La Fonda was sold again in 1925 to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad which operated La Fonda as one of their “Harvey House” hotels for forty years. The Harvey House chain was known for operating hotels and restaurants near busy railroad stops and they were also famous fortheir “Harvey Girls”, the professionally trained and neatly dressed young waitresses who became the hallmark of the chain.
In 1968 Santa Fe businessman Sam Ballen purchased the property and nowadays his heirs are running it. Over the years the hotel has been renovated several times and just before I arrived another big remodel which encompassed the 172 guest rooms and the distinctive bell tower had just been completed. All of the rooms have retained their southwest character but new creature comforts and creative upgrades have been added. The bell tower now includes a bar where, weather permitting, you can enjoy a fantastic view of the city. The hotel is also known for its extensive collection of original art, including many pieces by Pueblo artists, which hang in the guest rooms and public spaces.
If you haven’t been to La Fonda before or heard all the stories about the legendary people who have stayed there here’s a short list starting with Charles Lindbergh, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland as well as Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, and I could go on. During World War II it was rumored that spies were staying at La Fonda in an attempt to meet scientists working on the Manhattan project who would occasionally stop by the hotel bar.
As this is my first day in town, I’m sure I will turn up more interesting stories about the oldest hotel in the oldest capital city in America. I’m also planning to give you a restaurant review as there are first rate restaurants on every corner and on the blocks in between. There are numerous museums and art shops and local craftspeople sell their handcrafted jewelry and artwork on the sidewalks around the central square, just steps from La Fonda. It doesn’t take long for the rich history here to take you back to a bygone day when legends walked these very streets and the United States was in its infancy. So for the next couple of weeks I’ll be taking you for a ride through north central New Mexico.
And till next week, Adios, I’ll see ya down the road…..