It’s an early wake up call on Saturday morning after my University of New Mexico tilt the night before. A three hour drive from Albuquerque down to Las Cruces awaits, but I linger long enough to belly up to the breakfast counter at Golden Pride BBQ. Although the three letters of B-B-Q in the name are enticing, it’s the famed green chile breakfast burritos that I am truly here for. I order up the infamous #9 at Golden Pride – a breakfast burrito with eggs cheese, potatoes, bacon and green chile; considered a classic among New Mexican breakfast circles. I go off menu for my second burrito, and order one with the spicy red carne adovada I was introduced to the day before (pork slow roasted in thick red chili sauce) in lieu of bacon. The carne adovada, especially, may be the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever had…
From Albuquerque, I cruise south down Interstate 25 humming the little rental shitbox past 80 miles an hour. At 85 the Kia starts to shake and rattle violently, so I set the speed control at a comfortable 82mph for the three hour cruise into Las Cruces. The undulating highways are a pleasure to drive here, wide open and free, with only the occasional ranch truck thundering by. The pastel desert expanse of New Mexico is captivating, as ancient volcanic rock monoliths jut out of the sagebrush covered high desert plains. Although I’ve driven extensively through the American Southwest, I never cease to be humbled by the sheer vastness of it all.
I stop for lunch in Hatch, New Mexico – the Graceland of chili peppers. It’s here in the Hatch Valley, where, due to the unique soil of the Rio Grande and consistent climate conditions, some of the finest chili peppers in the world are grown. This feat is celebrated at the annual Hatch Chili Festival, where the small town of 1,600 swells to nearly 30,000 pepper heads looking to get their capsaicin fix for a weekend.
I order lunch at the Pepper Pot Restaurant, once featured on an episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, as the TV celebrity cruised through the American Southwest. I order up a few beef sopapillas here, this time opting for my meal served “Christmas style”. In the parlance of New Mexico eateries, this means half the dish smothered in green chili sauce, and the other half smothered in red chili. Having sampled both a few times now, I start to lean towards the earthy smokiness and gradual, building heat of the red chili.
I’m so enamored with the chilis in fact, that I saunter across the street to one of the scores of chili pepper shops lining the streets of Hatch. Hanging bunches and wreaths of red chilis hang throughout the tiny building, while burlap sacks full of them line the floor. I pick out a smaller bunch of the fiery delights for eight dollars, the perfect size to smuggle back to St. Louis in my carry on luggage.
From there, I head straight into Las Cruces, pulling into the large gravel parking lots that surround New Mexico State’s Aggie Memorial Stadium. The Pride of New Mexico State Marching Band, self dubbed “The most dangerous marching band in the world” (for reasons I’m unable to decipher), is out in force in the parking lot surrounding tailgates and regaling them with brassy notes for the contest ahead. I chat up a couple former Marines hosting a tailgate from a few massive military surplus trucks in the parking lot, one a 2.5 ton “deuce and a half”, and the other a full 5 ton military cargo truck. The larger one, bought for a thrifty $5,100 at a government surplus auction, is used to haul the owners 35 foot boat to nearby Caballo Lake State Park. The rough road and deep sand on the lake approach make such a heavy off road truck a necessity. They also make a rather formidable tailgating gauntlet, in my humble opinion.
Approaching the stadium, the place looks like a ghost town, and there are certainly no scalpers or ticket resellers of any kind. Forced to use the tiny box office (and actually happy to throw a little extra revenue towards NMSU), I ask the girl behind the plastic window for the best ticket she can give me. For $25 bucks, she slides a front row, 50 yard line seat back underneath the glass – only an hour before kickoff. Maybe these smaller stadiums aren’t so bad after all…
It’s a crystal blue sky overhead, and a bright sunny day for football in southern New Mexico. I spread out on my front row aluminum bench (there’s plenty of room around me) only a few feet away from the team bench on the field. Shortly after the Aggies take the field through a giant inflatable helmet, they receive the kickoff from the formidable Boston College Eagles. After a quick three and out, the Aggies 4th down punt is muffed by the BC receiver and NMSU recovers on the 29 yard line. Shortly after, Aggie place kicker Maxwell Johnson boots a field goal through the uprights and the farmers take an early 3-0 lead.
Up close, the genetic talent gap between an elite Division 1 team like Boston College and a perennial struggler like New Mexico State becomes readily apparent. BC sports an offensive line full of mastodons that toss the Aggie rushers around at will, while their skill position players ripple with lean muscle and athleticism. The Aggies, on the other hand, have more than a few guys on the team built like Jack Black, and the entire squad is noticeably slower and outsized across the board. Adding to their woes, the Aggies are horribly undisciplined. Receivers drop easy passes, the O-Line is plagued by false starts, and a coach vociferously lambastes the team on the sidelines so loudly that the entire crowd can hear. In all, I count 7 penalties for New Mexico State in the first half alone. Yet, inexplicably, the Aggies pluckily hang around and head into the tunnel at halftime only down by a field goal – BC 20 NMSU 17.
In the second half, amazingly, the Aggies manage to hold on and make a game of it. When BC stuffs in a 3rd quarter touchdown, NMSU responds. During the break after the end of the 3rd quarter, a marriage proposal is given on the field. Jordan bends the knee and proposes to his girlfriend Julia, to the delight of all 14,977 in attendance that afternoon. Shortly after the fourth quarter gets underway, as the shadows dip lower into the Aggie Memorial bowl, New Mexico State connects on a 32 yard field goal to knot the score at 27. After a few touchdowns are exchanged, improbably, the Aggies are tied with Boston College with 8:07 remaining in the fourth quarter. The crowd collectively roars to life with the prospect of a miracle upset.
But the joy was short lived. With the Eagles pinned deep in their own territory, Heisman contending BC running back Andre Williams bursts through the line, trampling over the hapless Aggies with his oxen like legs. He blazes 80 yards down the field for a touchdown, hushing the NMSU crowd and their cowbells (which are rung frantically on third downs) are silenced. On the ensuing Aggie possession, quarterback Andrew McDonald quickly fires an untimely interception, dashing their hopes for a response. Shortly after, Williams blasts through the line again for his second touchdown run, this time for 47 yards. Bringing his total to a productive 295 yards on the day, Andre Williams puts the nail in the coffin, and the Eagles slip away with a much closer win than the 48-34 final score would belie.
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