Me and Billy the Kid
Last week I took a trip to see my dad, who lives in Wyoming, a few miles from the Montana border. After a wonderful week of stories and campfires, I had to head home. But since I am currently writing a book about Billy the Kid, I started looking at maps and became horribly tempted to take a small detour through New Mexico on my way home. In this instance ‘small’ would mean “400 miles out of my way and meaning that I have to drive all night.”
Sure! That sounds do-able. And am I ever glad I did!
I spent the first day at Billy’s old stomping grounds – up in Fort Sumner. I met Mary there, a friend from Albuquerque who has helped me with research in the past. Managed to go to two Billy museums. (Not a lot other than Billy going on in Fort Sumner, to be honest.) I found myself all alone at sunset,in a small cemetery way out in the country. Just me, the setting sun, and Billy’s grave. Well, and the small bottle of Jack Daniel’s I’d just purchased. Billy was given the first shot, naturally. And the photo is so damn blurry because, hey! Desolate New Mexican cemetary. Darkness. I’m human!
The following day I drove south to Lincoln where the Lincoln County War mostly took place. It’s a very small town of 50 now and has the well deserved reputation of “the best preserved western town in the U.S.”
Imagine being 5-years-old and experiencing Disney World for the first time. Lincoln, New Mexico was as close to that feeling I could ever have. They have several exhibits and buildings which I meandered through. Mostly, I loved talking to the people, who were ready to engage in conversation about many details of Billy’s life. I stayed at “Pat Garrett’s” Wortley Hotel. Since it’s early November, I was the only guest, and my host was the absolutely charming Donna, who was filling in for the owner’s wife. Donna was impossible not to love. We sat on the porch of the Wortley, polishing off glasses of wine – talking about Billy. While right across the street from me, I could look up at the windows of the jail where Billy made his final, and most famous, escape. The first third of my book all happens in this very place – in The Wortley and at the jail.
After about glass 4 of wine, Donna talked me into telling her the plot of my book. She was a very enthusiastic listener. When the owner, Vic, came by, she talked me into telling him as well. I was surprised to find that Vic was very receptive to my twist on the tale. It’s always a little dicey when you’re talking about icons of history like Billy. Some people don’t like messing with legend, but as Vic had made tshirts of Billy wearing scuba gear, he was on my side. As the evening went on, Vic stopped by a few more times and we talked about Billy and our favorite authors.
Whenever I was alone for long, I would drift across the street to hang out under Billy’s window. Seeing what the light looked like at night or daybreak. Admittedly I “scared the shit” out of Donna, coming up from the jail in the dark. But I couldn’t have asked for more charming hosts. And the next morning Vic cooked me the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever had (Christmas style!).
Now I know exactly what the rooms at that hotel looked like. I’ve looked out those same windows Billy looked out while chained up and waiting for his hanging. I know what Lincoln looks like at dawn and smells like just after a rain. And I know how much fun it is to sip wine with Donna while rocking on a front porch. I just have to finish this story and try to do Billy justice!