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It’s Not Chicken Canyon, and Our Future is Bright

Contributed by Judy Beil Vaughan

Gallinas River, photo by Mike Root

Gallinas River, photo by Mike Root

             As I write The Sweet Scent of Horses, the Wind in the Pines, my memoir about growing up in the Gallinas Canyon near Las Vegas, New Mexico, I recall a conversation I had with countless visitors.

            When newcomers encountered the name of my home river canyon, they were apt to pronounce it “Gal-EE-nas” or even “Galin-ASS.” They would scowl. “Isn’t that “chicken” in Spanish?”

            Gallon ass? I gave a little lecture on the dignity and historical importance of the Gallinas River, whose water made possible the meadows for which Las Vegas was named.

            “It’s pronounced ‘guy-EE-nas,’ I’d say, “and one translation is indeed ‘chicken’.”

            “Why would anyone name a pretty creek Chicken Canyon?”

            I’d explain. The name referred to wild turkeys, still common in the canyon. “Gallina” was a more general term for fowl in the language of the Spanish colonial settlers of the nineteenth century. “Gallina de la tierra” meant the wild fowl, literally fowl of the earth, the ground.  They may have picked the name for the same reason that Colorado had so many Deer Creeks and Clear Creeks; it was important to convey where a pioneer could find food or clean water.

            They’d ask about Hermit Peak, the mountain that dominates the scenery for miles around Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Hermit Peak, photo by Mike Root

Hermit Peak, photo by Mike Root

             Hermit Peak had several names. Its current name honored a man of faith, who lived in a cave near its summit during the nineteenth century.  El Solitario, an earlier version, meant “the hermit” in Spanish.

            As I grew up in the canyon, the origin of another place name, “El Porvenir” was especially intriguing to me. My father named his horse breeding business Porvenir Morgan Ranch. Everyone agreed we lived “in El Porvenir.” But that wasn’t like living in a place as discrete as a town. The name referred to a region dominated by Hermit Peak as though in its figurative shadow. It included El Porvenir Creek that joined the Gallinas a mile above our ranch.

            As I was writing my memoir, I wondered if Hermit Peak had ever been called El Porvenir. Why would a Spanish Colonial name any place El Porvenir? The name is used all over the Spanish-speaking world. There are towns called El Porvenir in Spain and in Chiapas, Mexico.

Seen from the size, Hermit Peak resembles a man's profile

Seen from the size, Hermit Peak resembles a man’s profile

            Jennifer Lindline, in her article about Hermit’s Peak in Geology of the Las Vegas Region suggests that the name El Porvenir was a reference to the Biblical prophecy of the return of Christ. Anyone who looks at a map of the Southwest sees that the Spanish named more of their places with religious references than practical ones. The shape of Hermit Peak is seen by many as the profile of a man’s face, further suggesting an allusion to Christ. “El Porvenir” refers to “He of the Future,” the Christ who will come again. But I couldn’t document that the peak was ever named El Porvenir.

            In the 1960s, Porvenir meant something more personal to me. I foresaw a bright future for the foals that frolicked on our pastures, and for my parents’ life at their mountain home. For myself, I would carry the joy infused by a pristine place into a larger world.


The Bride of the Gallinas

Contributed by Judy Beil Vaughan

I lived on my parent’s horse and cattle ranch in the Gallinas Canyon near Las Vegas, New Mexico.  School was an hour’s drive down a mountain road that wound along the Gallinas River, its rapids sometimes hundreds of feet below.

Judy, Nynette and Cathy beside a cabin in the Gallinas Canyon, 1956.

Judy, Nynette and Cathy beside a cabin in the Gallinas Canyon, 1956.

For a few precious weeks in the summer, I had friends. I had horses to share with Cathy from Chicago and Nynette from San Angelo, Texas, whose families had vacation homes in the canyon. Even when we were only twelve and thirteen, the three of us rode for hours through the Ponderosa woods and grassy valleys near the ranch. We stopped to explore the adobe ruins of abandoned farms. We saw deer, wild turkey, and bear.

But Nynette’s Great Aunt and Uncle insisted that we spend some time at their cabin ten miles up the canyon from our ranch. At first, we balked. We would miss horseback riding! The specter of “nothing to do” was soon banished by lively Aunt Nyne and Uncle Bill Taylor and our play in the pristine Gallinas down the slope of the hillside.

One evening, we spread our sleeping bags on the porch. The cool night glowed with the Milky Way. We had to look almost directly overhead to see the stars. The stream where we had played flowed through the mountains with just enough room in its canyon for the creek’s rapids and the road beside it.

We were just getting drowsy when Uncle Bill sat in the wicker rocker beside us. The light from the living room was just enough for us see his face. Uncle Bill lit his pipe. “Do you know why the campground up the road is called ‘Bride’s Camp?’” We didn’t. The old man’s eyes met ours. He cleared his throat.

“A young man worked as a surveyor for the first road in the canyon in the 1890’s.  He found the place so beautiful he brought his new wife there for their honeymoon. Unfortunately, she got sick and died after only a few days of utter happiness. He buried her in her wedding dress near Bride’s Camp.”

“How sad!” Nynette said.

“She haunts this canyon, you know.” He furrowed his brow. People see her ghost. She still wears her bridal gown. Why, just last week on a gloomy morning, I was standing here…and a white shape, not a cloud I’m sure, rose up from the road and disappeared into the trees…just over there.”

He pointed across to the opposite canyon wall. His finger trembled. Our eyes widened as we struggled to see through the gathering mist. A scuffle ended our stunned silence as the three of us wrenched our frozen gaze from the site of the drifting ghost. We dragged our sleeping bags into the house for therest of the night. I’m not sure we slept even then.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Judy Beil Vaughan lived with her parents, Wallace and Elizabeth Beil, on a horse ranch located near the village of Gallinas . She is writing her memoirs Adolescent From Shangri-La about her coming of age. She lives in Elk Grove, California, which is not as beautiful as the Gallinas Canyon.

Western Life Camp New Mexico – A New Zealander’s Narrative

By Martin Brown, husband to Mary Kay Root, co-owner of Western Life Camp.


Russell in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

I first met Mary Kay in New Zealand when she came to stay with our family as a Rotary exchange student back in 1979. Mary Kay joined our family as my Rotary “sister”. Unbeknown to us both, as fate would have it, we are now married and living together in the Gallinas Canyon, just a stone’s throw from Western Life Camp.

Western Life Camp has long been a place where young people gain an appreciation for the outdoors.  Mary spent her childhood summers at WLC hiking, horseback riding, swimming and gaining a deep appreciation for outdoor sports and Nature.  Learning what to do when the power goes off or the road becomes impassable and you are snowed in for a few days are all important life skills on how to get by in the great outdoors (or suburbia) when the creature comforts of home are absent.

The Southern Alps of New Zealand

The Southern Alps of New Zealand

For me back in New Zealand as a youngster in my early teens I went hiking, camping in the bush with a friend and we were quite at home sleeping under the stars and hunting for our food cooking this over an open fire. We shot possums and rabbits with our slug guns and made terrible stews (because we never seemed to get all the pellets out) but we didn’t mind at all. We were just glad to be out there ‘doin it’. Outdoor experiences certainly install in one a confidence for the later years ahead as you discover the ‘can do – don’t mind’ capability. Yeah it can be wet and cold and you poured salt over your breakfast instead of sugar but so what. Cubs and Scouts were also the order of the day at home and these groups also helped round out our outdoor education.

During my later ‘teenhood’ my family In New Zealand were privileged to share camping, boating, diving, fishing and all manner of outdoor experiences that my home country has to offer with my then Rotary sister, Mary Kay. My parents ensured over time that their children would understand the value of the outdoors and for many years we travelled to the ‘Jack N Jill’, a public beach camp in the Bay of Islands.

Here our family met up with other family groups with whom we developed long term friendships lasting many years (one such family friend was Master of Ceremonies at our wedding which we held in New Zealand in the Bay of Islands in 2013).

Mary Kay and I went to high school together in New Zealand, we looked after each other in our teenage years and we always ‘just got along’. The upbringing of both our families, our experiences in understanding the great outdoors and the other folks you meet along the way I know has helped Mary Kay & I to develop, as my sister-in-law puts it in her blog, into “can do” adults.

As it turned out our respective New Mexico and New Zealand families both were familiar and grounded in being able to experience, respect and enjoy the values of understanding the natural environs.

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Our wedding in July, 2013

Our families stayed in touch over the next three decades, and, feeling strong ties to my parents,  Mary returned  to New Zealand for my father’s 80th birthday and we were reunited, once again after 31 years now as mature adults. I came to visit New Mexico and her family’s ‘jewel in the crown’ reclusive Western Life Camp in 2011. Here the Root family offered outdoor experiences to many varied groups over the last 40 years. No wonder Mary and I got along so well back in the day  as we were raised to respect the environment and become self-sufficient.  Experiences that I believe is not sufficiently promoted today for our up and coming youth and our future societies will be poorer for it.


Mary collecting shells at Hokitika on the South Island of NZ

So some things never change, whether it is boating, fishing, diving, swimming or tramping in New Zealand or camping, tramping, fishing, hiking or swimming at Western Life in New Mexico, there is the opportunity to gain access to personal development for all ages that stand the test of time.

This is our personal story and testament to how important disconnecting from the grid and reconnecting with friends and family can be life changing and beneficial.  It illustrates how long lasting relationships and friends can be developed and maintained through such a facility as Western Life Camp.

Today Western Life Camp has many repeat family reunion groups, church retreats, sports groups and we often meet folks who attended WLC as youngsters and come up to reminesce about their past experiences.

I think my New Mexico sister-in-law expresses my feelings about coming to Western Life Camp and Mary and my life time experience has been “become part of who you are and who you will become”, come visit us.


Perspective of a Lifetime Camper

by Annette (Root) Haggard


Chow Hall and grassy field

My parents bought Western Life Camp when I was eight years old. At the time I was shy and unsure of myself but from the moment we arrived I was filled up with the beauty that surrounded me. I remember hearing the water running in the river nearby and watching the breeze blowing through the pine trees. The majestic high mountain peaks, endless sky, solitude, and peace would affect deep changes within me.

There are so many ways that spending my summers as a child at the camp affected me. Each day campers were offered a variety of activities to attend. The choices of activities and the earning of ribbons that signified mastery at various levels of achievement improved my self-confidence. At first I chose activities like riflery and swimming which seemed to come more naturally. But gradually I selected activities like horseback riding and arts and crafts and surprised myself with the level of proficiency I developed. Hiking, backpacking, and overnight camping trips helped me to develop my own special relationship with the natural world around me. I gained a love for wildlife and all things natural that very strongly influenced my personality.  Summer after summer of hiking changed me. Using humor to help conquer fatigue and pain or undesirable circumstances became a strength of mine. I became expert at turning negative experiences into hilarious stories to be enjoyed later with friends and family. Thanks to these positive experiences at WLC  I came out of my teen years as a “Can Do” adult, knowing that I could face and accomplish whatever life put before me.


Annette & Eric’s wedding at WLC

Another significant thing about “going to camp” was the people. The quality of people that I was surrounded with as a young person gave me numerous examples to follow and pattern my developing self after.  As a young adult I became a counselor, instructor, and campfire leader. Later I directed camp activities and even married my husband at the very camp I had grown up attending.  By this time I considered the camp my “heart home” and although my husband and I lived in several other locations, we were able to purchase the property next to the camp and don’t plan to ever leave “home” again.


Hell’s Canyon

I am a real water lover so, just as I did as a child, I still walk and sit in the river and enjoy slipping and sliding in special spots and water holes. I relish experiencing each of the four seasons and what they bring to these mountains. The warm summer days and nights, lying in a field of grass staring at the expanse of stars just overhead. The oak and aspen as they turn into oranges, yellows and browns and their leaves float gently away in the wind. The forest covered in sparkling snow and the river iced over with gurgling fresh water just beneath the surface. The perfect temperature of spring as flowers, and trees begin to bud and bloom again.

Annette+JoanMost of my life-long friends are people I shared camp experiences with in my youth. What a rich gift to my life they are. A shared background of exploration, discovery, teamwork, and personal growth provided the training ground for developing important relationships and interpersonal skills.

Today, Western Life Camp offers lodging for groups of all ages and interests from family reunions to church retreats, academic groups to sports camps. Just as it affected me, I know your experience at the camp will affect you in positive and memorable ways.

I think the time spent at the camp really gets inside you. The memories you create over a few days, a week, or if you were lucky enough to be there for summers, as I was, become part of who you are and who you will become. I encourage you to come spend some time with us at Western Life Camp. You will be inspired invigorated and renewed!


Western Life Camp – Living History

by Mike Root


John Wayne

Western Life Camp was founded at a time when America was fascinated with Western movies and cowboy legends of the Old West.  Actors like Roy Rogers and John Wayne brought the cowboy ideals to the big screen, and American youth romanticized the Wild West and cowboy culture.  In the late 1930′s Western Life Camp started out as a kind of “dude ranch” where young men could learn to ride horses, shoot rifles, practice archery, and acquire skills their Wild West heroes possessed.  Soon after opening, the camp expanded it offerings to include girls.  The summer camp activities evolved according to the interests of youngsters at the time:  hiking, arts, crafts, swimming and gymnastics.


Northern New Mexico ranchers

Only 15 miles away, the city of Las Vegas was one of the wildest towns of the Wild West.  Cowboy legends Doc Holiday and Billy the Kid were frequenters of the bars in the town square.  Doc even operated one such establishment for a time.  Teddy Roosevelt held yearly reunions for the Rough Riders armed cavalry division in Las Vegas beginning in 1899.  But long before that, the town began as a ranching community.  In 1835 the Mexican Government granted the area to a Hispanic family as a land grant for their ranch.


Our cabins surround an acre grassy field

So the equestrian and outdoorsman skills taught at Western Life Camp had roots in the community going back 100 years.  The location of WLC is idyllic:  a large grassy field bordered on one side by a mountain stream and surrounded by thousands of acres of Santa Fe National Forest.  The authentic Western accommodations feature décor that harkens back to the Wild West era.

Today Western Life Camp is a summer retreat center which holds true to the pure pioneer spirit of the West.

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Hermit Peak

Throughout its various incarnations some things remains constant at Western Life Camp:  the allure and charm of our riverside location proves the ideal place for making lasting summer memories.  And folks come back year after year to take a step back in time and enjoy serenity and simplicity in our idyllic setting.

Western Life Camp has been passed down through three families of owners over the years.

Horse & covered wagon; Historic photo # 114,049; Around 1924

Covered wagon, similar to the one used at WLC

The early years, 1939-1955

In the late 1930s Frank R. Phillips of Canyon, Texas started Western Life Boys’ Camp.  Frank, his wife and two daughters spent their summers at Western Life Camp.  A graduate of Cornell University, Mr. Phillips was Dean of Agriculture at West Texas State College. He began the camp as a place young men could acquire and refine their outdoor skills. Soon after, it was expanded to include both boys and girls. Phillips used pack horses to haul the belongings of campers to the cabins, which were about a mile away from the narrow rocky road that existed at that time. He introduced a horse-drawn covered wagon as part of the camp’s Old West décor.  For the next couple of decades, kids rode to nearby overnight campouts in the wagon.  Phillips knew the history and legends of the area and passed those stories down by way of storytelling to his staff and summer campers at weekly campfire circles.  Campfire songs were passed down from generation to generation over the camp’s 70+ years of continuous operation of family owners.

General and Chief, 1955-1969

Willoughby family at Ponderosa cabin

Willoughby family at Ponderosa cabin

In 1955, two former campers bought Western Life Camp from Mr. Phillips: Al Smith and Booker Hays Willoughby, affectionately referred to as “General and Chief”.  Both men had grown up at the camp, first as campers, later as counselors and finally as camp directors at WLC.  They practically ran the operation for several years and then bought out Phillips in 1955.  Both men were intrigued by the local legends and the natural beauty of the area.

Smith family by Pine Cone cabin

Smith family by Pine Cone cabin

Smith and Willoughby, along with their wives and children, continued running the summer camp and carried on the telling of stories and legends while expanding the number of activities available.  Hikes to Hermit Peak, Johnson Mesa and other destinations were added.  Kids enjoyed their program so much that they would return 10 or more years in a row without missing a summer.  It was not unusual for kids to attend camp from childhood into their teens, then become counselors as adults, just as General and Chief had done.


Group photo in mid-1970′s

The Roots, 1969 to present:
After nearly a decade and a half of direction by Smith and Willoughby, Mel and Jan Root bought the camp in 1969, along with two other investors.  The next year Mel bought out his investors and the Root family took sole ownership of Western Life Camp.  Over the next decade and a half, the camp blossomed into an exciting summer program including horseback riding, gymnastics, archery, riflery, arts and crafts.  Weekly dances were held on Saturday evenings.  Skits and other performances took place in the camp’s Rec Hall building.  Also added were multi-day hikes to Elk Mountain, Hermit Peak and beyond.  Campers were treated to relaxing soaks in the nearby Montezuma Hot Springs (see our article on the historic hot springs), and tours of the Montezuma Castle (see article). Weekly overnight camp outs were held atop nearby Johnson Mesa. There’s a trail to Johnson Mesa which begins just across the road from the camp. A few years ago the Forest Service honored us by naming this trail to “Western Life Trail”.

Mel and Jan Root were mentors to hundreds of kids.  Like the previous owners, they possessed the ability to connect with youth and establish trust and mutual respect.  They no doubt inherited some of the loyal campers of the Smith and Willoughby era.  Loyalty seemed a common thread because campers would often return multiple summers, and some would go on to become counselors, cooks, and instructors in the camp’s many activities. A typical camper day during this era would include choices of arts and crafts, leather working, leather stamping, horseback riding, swimming, archery, riflery  with hikes of varying lengths, and an overnight on the nearby overlook of Johnson Mesa.


Swimming pool

A few campers really took to hiking and survival techniques and spent multiple nights out on the trails learning navigation, local edible plants and other natural sources.  This group was called Voyager and had their own cabin, “Hill Top” with a separate schedule from the rest of the camp: a series of mutli-day hikes where they pushed themselves physically and practiced their survival skills.  A typical meal might include dandelion soup (see recipe in our edible local plants article),  Mel acted as camp director for several decades, and was a mentor and father figure to many youth.

In the late 1980s Mel changed the camp into a group rental facility, for the first time changing the clientele of the camp from strictly youth to all ages.  Groups of 30 to 80 people host events at WLC throughout the summer.  It was not unusual for summer groups, like a local spiritual retreat, to come back over ten years in a row.   A few of our favorite family reunions  have returned multiple summers and appreciate our small family management, always on site and available to talk to or assist you.  Other return clientele has included sports teams, scouting and outdoorsman camps, a variety of youth and adult retreats from weekend workshops to weddings.



Mary Kay, Martin, Mike, Eric and Annette

Family-run Business Continues Today 

In 2013 the next generation of the Root family: Annette, Mary Kay and Mike took over running Western Life Camp, along with husbands Eric and Martin.  The three Root children attended WLC throughout their youth, developing a love for the outdoors; as young adults they took on more responsibility with the camp: Annette as a counselor and camp director, Mary Kay as cook and Mike with maintenance and groundskeeping.  Mike, Mary and Annette spent all summer, every summer at WLC, working with Mel and Jan cleaning and maintaining, opening up cabins in the spring and winterizing them each fall.  Annette’s husband Eric was a camp counselor and co-director.  He was Mel’s right-hand man for maintenance, plumbing and carpentry.  Mary’s husband Martin holds the record for longest journey to join Western Life Camp having moved across the globe from New Zealand to wed Mary Kay.  Martin brings a deep love of the outdoors and expertise in forestry and business planning.  The five co-owners Annette and Eric, Mary Kay and Martin, along with youngest brother Mike continue the traditions of family-run business and continue to run the camp as a group rental facility and unique summer destination.

Dining Hall & Kitchen

Dining Hall with all-wood furniture

Take a step back in time at our pristine riverside setting and find your own special connection with the great outdoors.  The camp is the idea summer rental place for groups from family reunions to spiritual retreats; sports groups to destination weddings.  Escape from social media, cell phones, video games, text messages and TV shows.   Come with us to a time when life was less complicated;  a place you did not need to keep track of emails, remember passwords, or respond to voicemails.  Our authentic western décor includes log and timber sided cabins, heirloom wooden floors, a piano and fireplace in our main lodge, with an heirloom Magic Chef gas oven and spacious kitchen and ample dry or refrigerated storage.

Come create your own incredible summer memories at Western Life Camp in the cool Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Northern New Mexico.  Contact us for more information.









Edible Plants and Weeds of Northern New Mexico

contributed by Gail Haggard, owner of Plants of the Southwest

Western Life Camp is a perfect location to learn about, collect and eat wild foods.  The ability to harvest them is basic to survival and homesteading skills – skills that are popular and fun, and may one day be of great service, one never knows!




Pueblo people lived here five hundred years before the Spanish came, and knew all the edible native plants and edible bugs and larvae.  The indigenous people fished, hunted and picked mushrooms in the mountains where they traveled in the summer and the valleys where they lived in the winter. They ate the nutritious wild onions – the nodding onion has tiny purple flowers that are a charming addition to salads.


Nodding Onion

Nodding Onion

The indigenous people flavored foods with spruce buds and juniper berries, and they ground and cooked the seeds of saltbush and Indian ricegrass, which was a major sustainer.  They ate the cactus pods and the flowers of Yucca after boiling and roasting.  All summer they ate the leaves and flowers of fireweed and bee balm, also called oregano de la sierra – more delicious than commercial oregano. They ate wild plums and rosehips and berries of chokecherry and wax and golden currant and three-leaf sumac, also called lemonade berry.  The nuts of pinon, ponderosa and white pine are nutritious.  Naturally many, many wild seeds and nuts, roots and bulbs, dried fruits and meats and mushrooms were stored for the winter.  When you live largely in the glorious outdoors you have a big appetite!




Purslane is a common weed in New Mexico because the Spanish brought it with them when they came to the New World.  You can eat it all summer and for the winter hang it on a string or toss it in a bag, then when its in the stew pot it plumps up again and gives its flavor and nutrients.  The new greens/weeds of spring are very nutritious.  All our veggies started out as weeds – weeds from around the world – that we cultivated over long periods of time from plants with characteristics that appealed to humans.

In the spring the young leaves of the amaranth (pigweed), clover, rumex, lamb’s quarters and mallow are great.  In late summer you can cook the grain of amaranth or pop it for tiny “popcorn”.  Clover flowers are so pretty in salad, as are rose flowers and geranium flowers.  Also you can eat the geranium leaves or cook with them.  

All partsdandelion of the dandelion can sustain you.  Here’s a simple natural wine:  dissolve 1/2 cup of sugar in 1 cup of water and stuff a jar full of dandelion flowers – just the yellow flowers.  Cover the jar and then try it in the fall – delicious dandelion wine!