East of Las Cruces and part of a new National Monument, the Organ Mountains are the steepest in the Southwest U.S. Tall enough to have biological zones ranging from Chihuahuan desert plants to ponderosa pine, The Organs rise vertically 9,000 feet, run north and south, and dazzle for 2o miles. It’s no wonder that a hermit, a hotelier, and hunters haunt this area.
The Organ Mountains are destined to be the most developed part of this National Monument. Still relatively new, it has no appointed manager. The road up to the visitor center is partially rough but drivable gravel. A 5-year-plan is in place and paving, a first priority, begins this month so that buses can take tourists from Las Cruces up to this visitor center and then on to White Sands National Monument about 50 miles distant. This is at least being discussed. Signage is needed. There was not a single sign on I-25 to tell Ruth and me to exit at University Avenue and take Dripping Springs Road to its end. This is the only way to get to the visitor center about 10 miles from Las Cruces.
The Organ Mountains are already a popular recreation area with 4 designated National Recreation Trails. Close to 150 bird species have been identified in the area bringing bird hunters. The staff in the visitor center keeps track of birds sighted on a board for them. There are 4 plants–a pincushion cactus, a species of evening primrose, a nodding cliff daisy, and the Organ Mountain figwort–that grow only here.
Colonel Eugene Van Patten built Dripping Springs Resort up here in the 1870s. It had around 16 rooms, a dining area, a concert hall, etc. Pat Garrett, who killed Billy the Kid, visited. So did Pancho Villa. Van Patten went bankrupt in 1917 and a doctor from San Francisco, Nathan Boyd, bought Dripping Springs. Boyd converted it into a sanitorium to treat tuberculosis patients. Still in operation in the late 1940s, the facility is now in ruins. Lead and copper miners abandoned claims in the area more than a century ago.
The most interesting historical resident of the Organ Mountains, however, was Giovanni Maria Agostini. Known locally as El Ermitano, the Hermit, he was born in 1800 to noble parents in Italy. Giovanni probably planned to become a priest but instead walked through Europe where he met Penitentes in Spain. He wore out shoes in South America, Mexico, and Cuba. At the age of 62 he walked with a wagon train from Kansas to New Mexico, where he eventually moved into a cave in the Organ Mountains. Known for herb-based healing powers, he had many visitors. Concern for his safety grew, so he promised to make a fire in front of his cave every Friday evening to show that he was OK. When no fire was seen one Friday, a posse investigated and found him lying face down on his crucifix with a knife in his back. Age 69, he was wearing a metal girdle full of spikes and had been a hermit for 49 years. His murder is still unsolved. His home, La Cueva, is now a Native American archeological site.