Writer: D'Lyn Ford
FORT SUMNER - Billy the Kid's legendary escape from a Lincoln County jail in 1881 still fascinates history buffs so much that local promoters are betting tourists will line up for a chance to reenact the Kid's 125-mile getaway from Lincoln to Fort Sumner.
But unlike the famed outlaw's frantic flight, participants in Billy's Last Ride, April 19-28, will travel at a more leisurely pace.
"We're offering a guided, 7-day tour on horseback through beautiful New Mexico countryside, with fireside entertainment and chuckwagon meals in the evenings," said Rex Buchman, program director for New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service in DeBaca County. "This is an opportunity for folklore lovers to enjoy a real-life outdoor adventure tracing the Kid's trail through mountains and plains and along the Pecos River."
Extension is organizing the tour with local businesses and organizations as an annual event to increase tourism in Lincoln and DeBaca counties. It was inspired by NMSU's Rural Economic Development Through Tourism (REDTT) program, which provides technical assistance, training and tourism grants for rural areas.
"It's a way to help people here profit more from tourism," said Buchman, a skilled horseman and one of the tour guides. "Ranches, wilderness and Billy the Kid are all part of our heritage, so we want to build on those assets to boost income."
Local ranchers, businesses and skilled outdoors people such as campsite cooks and managers will provide food, lodging and entertainment for trail riders. "They can all profit from hosting the camps," Buchman said.
The trail ride begins with an actors' reenactment of Billy's shootout in Lincoln, when he killed two deputies before galloping out of town. Riders will visit the ranch where the Kid hacked off his jail shackles and then rode off into the mountains en route to Fort Sumner, Buchman said.
"We'll sleep under the stars and in barns and bunkhouses," he said. "We'll sing around the campfire with fiddle and mandolin players. Some nights we'll get into camp early to just rest and write in our journals."
Buchman expects the area's striking beauty to draw crowds of tourists. "Riders will wake up with the moon still clinging to the early morning sky and the gray-blue Capitan Mountains stretching out as far as they can see," Buchman said. "It's gorgeous."
Organizers have invited outdoors writers and photographers to participate to promote the trail ride and other local tourism attractions. Such promotion is a primary goal of REDTT, which helps local communities identify and market tourism assets.
REDTT has provided nearly $130,000 to Lincoln and DeBaca counties since 1992, said REDTT director Mike Cook. REDTT funds have helped local officials, business people and community organizations initiate or improve annual events in both counties that draw hundreds of participants. Among others, REDTT helped create Fort Sumner's holiday Winter Fest, which features displays of giant Christmas cards made of wood, arts and crafts. In Lincoln, it started the September Arts-in-the-Orchard festival, which highlights local art, music and baked goods.
"The festivals draw a lot of local and statewide visitors," said Pete Gnatkowski, Extension program director in Lincoln County. "People spend the night at our lodges, buy arts and crafts, and eat at local restaurants. It has a considerable economic impact."
REDTT also paid for street banners, signs and brochures in both counties. It sponsored two familiarization tours for travel writers that have generated an estimated $60,000 worth of publicity in state and national publications, Cook said.
The program has significantly increased local tourism, said Sandy Paul, executive director of the DeBaca Chamber of Commerce whose salary is subsidized by REDTT. "There's been tremendous growth since REDTT began," she said. "The number of tourists registering annually at our visitor center in Fort Sumner has increased 50 percent since 1995. People now inquire about the Winter Fest in summer."
REDTT began in 1992 in just five counties. It now operates in 13 southern and three northern counties, Cook said. About 300 people are expected to attend this year's annual REDTT conference April 28-29 in Acoma, which will feature Tourism Secretary Fred Peralta as keynote speaker.
Buchman, who will speak about Billy's Last Ride at the conference, says adventuresome tourists should take advantage of the trail ride this year while organizers are still willing to offer discounts on the $750 price tag.
"It may have been Billy's last ride, but for us, this is going to become an annual tradition," he said. "By next year, we expect to have waiting lists and fixed prices."
The less adventuresome can also opt to participate in just part of the tour. For more information, call Buchman at (505) 355-2381.
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