AN HOUR, A STATE, and an era away from El Paso lies Mesilla, New Mexico, a fetching little town with a multiplicity of charms. In a drowsy plaza flanked by sunbaked adobes, you can shop for Native American silverwork and other treasures on the very ground once trod by legendary outlaw Billy the Kid. The locals are uniformly welcoming and tolerant, which helps make picturesque Mesilla a tourist destination without being a tourist trap. Mesillans are proud of the town’s otherworldly feel; as one resident put it, “When it’s eleven o’clock in Texas, it’s 1963 in Mesilla.”
Early fall is a prime time for visiting Mesilla because the weather is cooler and the chiles are ripe. Although the town is readily reached by zipping north from El Paso on Interstate 10, the compleat Mesilla trip mandates a cruise via the back way, through the rich fields of chiles that blanket the Rio Grande’s upper valley. Begin by taking I-10 west to Loop 375 and go west; proceed through Canutillo to New Mexico Highway 28 and turn north, passing through La Union and paralleling the placid Rio Grande. Signs such as “Tractors Next 27 Miles” and “Plowing on Shoulder Prohibited” announce that you’ve entered prime agricultural territory. Giving the lie to the idea that the Southwest is nothing but sun and dust, onions, cotton, melons, grapes, alfalfa, corn, and lettuce grow thickly along the river, though the chiles (green when young, red when left on the bush longer) are the main attraction. Starting in mid-August, farmers harvest them and often promptly roast them in roadside stands; a casita industry hereabouts is the selling of ristras, strings of fresh or dried red chiles that provide both decoration and seasoning. Continue north on Highway 28 through La Mesa and you’ll enter the immense orchards of Stahmann Farms, whose towering pecan trees provide a cool, dark respite from the summer heat. Mesilla is thirteen miles more down the road.
Except for the cars parked on its brick streets, Mesilla still looks like the nineteenth-century picture-postcard pueblo