Arizona: Truth Or Consequences


You can tell how crazy and colourful, how truly kooky, the towns out in the American desert – in Arizona and New Mexico – really are simply by looking at the map. Open up any atlas covering these two enormous states and it’s as if some peculiarly poetic lunatic has covered the page with their favourite words and phrases – Carefree, Bumble Bee, Strawberry, Maverick, Snowflake, Superior, Inspiration, Octave, Constellation – until parts of the map resemble a giant scrabble board.

The habit seems to have become addictive, spiralling from almost-conventional terms like Young, Price or Globe to the wilfully-eccentric – Sparks or Chloride, Edith, Beaver or Bowie – as if to confirm all that sun and space, heat and freedom, has affected the inhabitants irredeemably. It underlines this is some other world, and no coincidence America’s more unstable film directors such as the Coen brothers (Raising Arizona), Oliver Stone (U-Turn), or David Lynch (Wild At Heart) often set their films here, out in the wilderness, away from normality.

It makes for a novel way to plan your journey, driving round looking for Enterprise or Modesto, for Jean or Hurricane, Blue or Luna. Eureka or Jackpot are great destinations, while Surprise sounds encouraging. You start to wonder if living in Loving, Golden or Valentine is better than Bland or Slow Low. (The jury’s still out on the merits of living in Pie Town.) Picking a favourite is difficult but I’ve always been drawn towards Truth Or Consequences, on Highway 85 on the way to El Paso, 145 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the edge of the White Sands missile range.

A former mining town, it was originally known as Hot Springs after the mineral baths, popular in the late 1800s. By 1950, as the draw of the springs dried up, State Senator Burton Roach hit upon a novel way to put the city back on the map. The host of the Truth Or Consequences Radio Show, Ralph Edwards had invited towns to enter a competition to celebrate the show’s 10th anniversary, with the show’s name as the prize. The show – a cross between Mr & Mrs and Noel’s House party, in which most of the ‘consequences’ involving custard pies in the face – only went off air a few years ago and is now a successful touring show.

The city voted by 1, 294 votes to 295 and on April Fool’s Day in 1950, the people of Hot Springs woke to the first day of life as Truth Or Consequences – or “T Or C” as they quickly dubbed it.

In those days it was populated by people working on the Atom Bomb. Nowadays it’s full of up-market trailer parks populated by retirees who have moved out there for the wide open spaces, virtually perennial sunshine and the golf. I’ve wanted to go there for years, if only to confirm if it was real. (With a name like that, you never know.)

Driving up Highway 80 from the Mexican border, sinister black rubbish bags lined the road: very David Lynch. We had already ticked off Apache and Rodeo. Paradise was no longer lost, but was, I was dismayed to learn, no more – a ghost town.

The first shop in New Mexico was called Kathy’s Fireworks, which was perhaps more alarming than it sounds. A giant billboard was offering Rattlesnake eggs. In Deming, one of several musty Thrift Shops stood out for the fact that their most prominent display was a dustbin full of second-hand crutches. (Always handy). The town Rock Shop was, disappointingly, closed. We adjourned to a local diner, collecting further proof (from the local TV news, from the flyers on the walls) that the mad town names really did attract a certain type of resident: names like Clay Bender, Gary Sick, Art Rasco, ranked alongside Dwight Trout, Chuck Swindler, and my own favourite Albert Eyebath who had sadly passed away.

When I asked the cashier about Truth Or Consequences, he said it was “real big for those golf cart races the senior citizens have.”

A mechanic he knew made a living tuning them.
“Some of those babies get up to 35, 40 miles an hour,” he marvelled. Outside, an elderly woman (“Miss Carrie Nuff, howdy”) had parked her battered tangerine and turquoise Sedan next to our car. She was learning against it, blending into it, thanks to her tangerine and turquoise trouser suit. I couldn’t help pointing out she was dressed like her car.
“I like to do that sometimes,” she beamed. “It cheers me up.”
I had to admit it had cheered me up too.

These were exactly the sort of signs I was wanted to associate with a place-name as colourful and larger-than-life as Truth Or Consequences, symbols of the American outback and its myths. Just before we reached the outskirts of the town, we crossed the Rio Grande. A bald American Eagle flew over-head – an increasingly unusual sight, apparently.

I saw my first road runner, though the only coyote was not in hot pursuit but lying by the roadside, reduced to a roadkill.

Things only started going wrong once we actually arrived.

I had been looking forward to seeing one of those large green signs outside the City Limits: Welcome To Truth or Consequences. But there was no welcome sign, as if the people had decided there was, fundamentally, to be no welcome.

T Or C, a sign announced instead, “has 17 service stations, 19 restaurants, 26 motels, 15 camp grounds” which, theoretically, made it sound quite lively. Actually, though the sub-text of this was that Truth Or Consequences was a town you stopped off at one the way to somewhere else. Or in other words, a town where you should just keep going. This became (painfully) clear when we turned a corner and suddenly saw it, stretched out before us, low and flat over arid scrubland, colourless and horrible. It was the only view I had ever seen in New Mexico that did not look spectacular. Visitors who headed out to any of the 15 camp sites (for hiking, fishing, or water-skiing around the 45-mile long Elephant Butte Lake or popular State Park, five miles out of town) clearly had the right idea.

“Praise Loudly, Blame Softly” recommended a sign outside the First Baptist Church but it was hard to contain my disappointment. The shops on Main Street were scrappy, uninspiring and, like everywhere else by 5 o’clock, either empty or closed. Besides a couple of service stations or convenience stores, only Antonio’s Southwest Cargo gift shop was open (but also deserted). On Saturdays, Antonio said, sometimes the town was closed by 2pm. He had opened up a few months ago, having moved from Santa Fe to be nearer his wife’s parents, and treated the almost eery atmosphere with admirable calm.
“Things are getting much better since we moved here,” he insisted. “Some new people moved in, introducin’ new ideas”, presumably referring to staying open after 5.

He described T Or C’s population of about 8000 as “mostly red-necks, trailer trash and old alcoholics” and certainly it seemed every pick-up truck you walked past had a rifle propped up against the front seats, or an evil-looking, grinning, pitbull in the back.

We got the sort of looks that made me feel like potential prey, like the hunted outsiders in the film Southern Comfort. A few days after I left, news broke that T Or C residents, suspected serial killers, David Parker Ray and his girlfriend Cindy Lea Hendy had been arrested after a naked young woman was found with a padlock round her neck having been “tortured with bizarre electrical and medical instruments for three days”. 59 years old, Ray was a mechanic with the state parks department.

The town centre was so quiet, I began to feel as if I had woken up in an episode of the Twilight Zone. The abundance of estate agents had their work cut out. Desert Paradise Development (“Your One Stop Shop”) in particular was surely promising too much. At 5.30pm, even the town’s hot-spot, the Pleasure Centre, a modern little leisure centre, where young people went to hang out, play pool or go bowling, was closed. I asked a passer-by about it opening and mentioned it seemed a bit early to be closed. “Not for here !” he beamed. A sign for the business hours explained: “Some days or afternoons we aren’t here at all, and lately I’ve been here just about all the time except when I’m some place else but I should be here then too.”

The same fate befell the Geronimo Springs Museum, boasting “the finest collection of Mimbres Indian pottery in the world” and “an entire wing dedicated to Ralph Edwards and the quiz show”. Looking for T Or C’s other place-to-be, we received a host of helpful hints on how to get there, ranging from “it’s on the top of the hill” to “it’s got a sign with the words Hilltop Cafe written on it.”

The visitors book at the local information centre had been signed by visitors/idiots from Doncaster to South Korea, presumably because it was at least something to do. Any souvenirs to prove they had been there were non-existent, with no Truth Or Consequences baseballs caps, mugs, or bumper stickers anywhere to be found. (I would have had Truth Or Consequences playing cards or Truth Or Consequences pistols and bullets.) The man in the Information Centre said he sympathised. When I asked him what the town’s main industry was, he pulled a face and said sheepishly, “it’s, ah, tourism. So I guess that shows you what kinda smarts we got in this town. Everyone wants to go home early for dinner and spend the weekends with their family.” He assured me the fishing on Elephant Butte lake, the golf and state park picnic sites were excellent but admitted that if I didn’t have my rod, my clubs or my, er, picnic, I was struggling.

A final drive round town denied me even the most juvenile pleasures. The town did not seem proud of the name, or want to market it. The only postcard I could find made the mistake of showing the town exactly how it was. It seemed criminal that somewhere with such a colourful name could be so drab, so reluctant to milk the opportunities to promote the name. I had been looking forward to seeing the sign for the Truth Or Consequences Courthouse, or the Truth Or Consequences Cemetery. The Sierra County Courthouse just wasn’t as good, while the Hot Springs Cemetery was unusual only due to the fact that it was a drive-through. A sign on the gate said ‘No Alcoholic Beverages” which seemed to sum up their clientele.

It was that kind of town. I couldn’t help thinking that if Ralph Edwards was still around to reappraise the original decision to award them the name, he would surely vote that ‘Consequences’ to be forthcoming instead. Custard pies in the face for everyone.