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Snowbirds in Southern New Mexico

By Don Heacox

Last updated on Thursday, July 17, 2003

Snowbird playing golf in Truth or Consequences. Photo courtesy T or C/Sierra County Chamber of Commerce
Snowbird playing golf in Truth or Consequences. Photo courtesy T or C/Sierra County Chamber of Commerce 

John and Darliene Hertweck lived for ten years in their RV, wintering in the South and touring in the North during summers. Then they put a mobile home in an RV park to continue their association with RVers and snowbirds. For the last eight years, as volunteers at the Deming Chamber of Commerce, they regularly talk to snowbirds. They could be considered "snowbird experts."

Some years back, John achieved snowbird fame - or notoriety. He got his picture on the front page of USA Today in a feature about snowbirds "boondocking" on BLM land in Arizona. Boondocking is camping without hook-ups.

According to the Hertwecks, snowbirds are drawn to our part of the country by the warm weather, the quiet and economical locales, the friendly people, and the activities available.

Ironically, USA Today noted John for saying "snowbirds are folks who get up in the morning with nothing to do and by the end of the day they have gotten it about half-done." The truth of the matter seems to be snowbirds don't have much they have to do but keep really busy with what they want to do.

Snowbird Undefined

There seems to be no universal agreement on exactly who a snowbird is. Some say anyone fleeing the cold to spend the winter in the Southern warmth in an RV is a snowbird. Others insist that real snowbirds own northern homes to which they return in summer.

Carl and Lola Machande, for example, don't consider themselves to be true snowbirds. They are full-timers or sundowners (home is where you are when the sun sets). They live in their RV year-round.

In the summer, they stay near their families in Clinton, Iowa. In recent years they wintered at the Little Vineyard RV Park in Deming, except the month of January. In January, they boondock in Why, Arizona, on BLM land.

In Southern New Mexico they walk to the uncrowded golf course and play most weekdays. Carl plays guitar and they dance almost as often as they golf.

The RV lifestyle forces accommodation. Carla cut back from carrying four guitars and one fiddle to three guitars and one fiddle.

Gene and Cindy Richardson do consider themselves snowbirds, although they too are full- timers. Gene took an early medical retirement from the Teamsters. He spent some of last winter in Zapata, Texas, on the lower Rio Grande. A traveler there recommended Elephant Butte. So the Richardsons came up the river to the Lakeside RV Park. They fish and boat. Cindy is an active crafter as well. Come summer, they will continue up the Rio Grande to the headwaters in the cooler Colorado mountains.

Don and Grace Rozalo are now snowbirds. In early October the high temperature dropped into the low 40s at their Nunica, Michigan home. They headed south. They are wintering this year at the Lakeside RV Park. Prior years they spent the winter with their son in Albuquerque - not warm enough to be a true snowbird retreat.

The lure of fishing brought them to Elephant Butte Lake for the first time. Snowbirds were born.

Crossed keys and crossed paths

Eric Sofield is a concierge - one of only two in New Mexico who belong to Les Clefs d-Or, an international association of concierges. Such a concierge proudly wears the insignia of crossed keys. Concierges are famed for their miraculous accommodation of the most challenging demands of their guests: ticket problems, reservations, and the like.

Sofield traveled the world staying in luxury hotels. For fun, he would camp in the RV. Just over a year ago he realized a dream. He purchased the Lakeside RV Park in Elephant Butte.

He offers pontoon boat rides on the lake, campfires, a fitness center, and excursions to ghost towns. Western artist, Nancy Ely, teaches at his facility. Nancy and husband Ed are also the park's hosts.

Last year, Ely taught at 81 Palms RV Resort, a new park in Deming. The Ely's stopped for a night and ended up spending several months at Helen and Richard Krol's Deming facility.

Most, if not all, RV park operators have a bit of concierge in them.

Nesting places and flight patterns

Southwest New Mexico draws snowbirds from all parts of the country. A Deming survey found most hail from Colorado, Minnesota, and Michigan. Even New England and Nova Scotia were represented. Westerners and Midwesterners prevailed.

Boondocking has largely given way to camping in RV parks and campgrounds and in state parks which can offer more amenities and a greater sense of security.

Many Southern New Mexico RV parks evoke some of the positive feelings of boondocking - an escape from urban congestion, community of choice, homespun entertainment around a campfire or fireplace, and warmth of weather and fellowship.

Those who prefer access to urban amenities can camp near Las Cruces and El Paso. Those looking for water have Caballo, Carlsbad, Brantely, and Elephant Butte lakes - and others as well. The desert and surrounding mountains are a big attraction. There are hot springs at Truth or Consequences and Faywood. All the attractions of Southern New Mexico beacon and snowbirds respond according to their own tastes.

Though snowbirds can be found throughout Southern New Mexico, the greatest concentrations of them are found in the Deming, Truth or Consequences, and Alamogordo areas. More flock to the Southwest than to the Southeast.

Southern New Mexico also hosts snowbirds in reverse. For example, Emily and John Nutt's Rio Penasco RV Camp in Maybill caters to Texans and Oklahomans and New Mexicans seeking escape from the summer heat in the Sacramento Mountains. There is trout fishing in the Rio Penasco that runs through the camp, full hook-ups including cable TV, bathroom, showers, office and store. Summer activities feature picnics, potlucks, a monthly mystery play, and live music on Saturday nights in a "Christian atmosphere."

Snowbird Power

Snowbirds do a lot of talking and listening - in that order. They can find out just about anything from one another. Lots of snowbirds stay in specific RV parks because of recommendations from fellow travelers in other RV parks.

There is strength in numbers. Winter visitors add roughly 20 percent to the 10,000 Deming population. In Truth or Consequences and surrounding Sierra County, the 9,500 population swells to 11,000 or more. Other areas grow as well. Snowbirds often volunteer at local museums, chambers of commerce, etc. They often expand the offerings at senior centers and art centers.

Snowbirds, like Southern New Mexico, are a harmony of contrast. They are protective of their independence and privacy, but they are active, cooperative, and community-minded. The hospitable desert hosts sociable hermits. The landscape of often stark beauty provides a backdrop for people with nothing to do leading full lives.

The Geronimo Springs Museum in Truth or Consequences prominently displays a quotation of General Sherman's: "Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico."

Yet the calculation of snowbirds' experiences in Southern New Mexico seems universal: the joy of simple pleasures, sun, and friendship.

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