The Accidental Visit I Will Never Forget

One of my favorite places to visit during the summer is Ruidoso, New Mexico. My husband and I load our motorhome and drive to the mountains seeking refuge from the horrible summer heat and humidity of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

This time, in October of 2021, we returned to Ruidoso, from where we would continue to Santa Fe to participate in the annual International Balloon Fiesta, an event I highly recommend at least once in a lifetime.

Once we settled into the R.V. site, we talked to the couple who owns the park and asked about nearby landmarks. They soon provided us with a printed page with scenic drive information near and around Ruidoso. We studied it carefully, and the small village of Capitan caught our attention because of a popular hamburger place called Oso Grill serving renowned New Mexico Hatch Chile* Hamburgers.

Capitan, NM, is about 18 miles north of Ruidoso. According to the flyer, the scenic route and this hamburger joint would make a great side trip. And it did! But not because of the hamburgers but because we found the birthplace and gravesite of Smokey Bear.

Why wasn’t that information on the flyer? Sometimes locals take things for granted, especially stories from a long-gone era. It happens often. We were told Capitan was such a small village I did not think about searching for things to do there. The scenic route did not disappoint, but nostalgia is what sweetened the journey. The Hatch Chile burgers were outstanding, even branded with New Mexico’s symbol, a sun design seen on a late 19th-century water jar from Zia Pueblo.

Smokey was a North American black bear who was severely burned when found on May 9, 1950. He weighed about four pounds and had been born that spring. The forest fire that almost killed Smokey occurred near the Capitan Gap in the Lincoln National Forest, close to the village of Captain – the one we visited for the hamburgers!

Across the street from Oso Grill is a small museum dedicated to Smokey Bear and Smokey Bear Historical Park, where a lovely garden with a paved trail leads to Smokey’s final resting place. It is a moving experience as if part of my childhood lay there.

Smokey was found by firefighting soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas, who called him “Hot Foot Teddy.” A Major named Bob Cooper gave the cub first aid, followed by veterinary care from Dr. E.J. Smith. Other caretakers were rancher Ross Flatley and New Mexico’s “Flying Game Warden” Ray Bell and his family.

This picture was taken of Judy Bell, daughter of Smokey’s caretaker Ray Bell when she was five. The little cub with her would soon be named the living symbol of Smokey Bear. The photographer requested honey be put on Judy’s chin to create this photo with the cub. Courtesy USDA Forest Service, Photo by Harold Walker. From a postcard, we bought at the museum.

If, like me, you thought Smokey was the only fire prevention bear, I tell you it is not the case. It turns out that the use of a bear as a symbol of fire prevention began in August of 1944, during World War II. In 1945, Artist Albert Staehle designed a cartoon of a bear wearing jeans and a ranger’s hat for the original poster. The bear was called Smokey after New York City fire chief Joe Ryan. Smokey’s appearance changed as different artists created posters. His present appearance is the creation of Rudolph Wendelin, Smokey’s portrait painter, from 1954 until 1973.

From Capitan, Smokey was flown to his new home at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Artist Will Shuster painted Smokey’s portrait on the plane. Smokey was accompanied on this journey by K.D. Flock, Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor, and Homer Pickens, New Mexico’s Assistant Game Warden. He was presented to the children of America in June 1950. Smokey had his own zip code. He retired in 1975 and died in 1976.

...can prevent forest fires. I took this photo in Capitan, NM. October 2021.

My husband and I drove back to Ruidoso in April of 2022 when news of the McBride Fire circulated throughout our country. Our RV Park reservations were put on stand-by until residents of Ruidoso were sure the fire was contained. There were power outages, business closures, and disaster loomed.

The McBride Fire started on April 12, 2022, in Ruidoso in Lincoln County, New Mexico, and quickly spread into neighboring residential areas. Over 200 homes were lost, and two fatalities were reported. All evacuations were lifted on April 17, and the fire was declared 100% contained by May 7, 2022.

We arrived in Ruidoso on April 20th. My husband and I drove through Warrior Drive and McBride Road, where the fire is said to have started. I was so dismayed and astonished that I forgot to take photos. We saw young moose with patches of charred skin wandering by the black-scorched hills. Calcinated homes and recreational vehicles resembled ghosts from a dark, dead forest. Cars charred beyond recognition. It was surreal for someone only familiar with hurricanes and not forest fires. The scene reminded me of Smokey’s gravesite we had visited just six months before. It reminded me how vulnerable we are and of that little cub with burnt paws who survived a forest fire and inspired our nation.

Smokey’s most quoted message says, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” But humans are not always at fault. The McBride fire burned 6,159 acres and was caused by a healthy 50-ft tall ponderosa pine tree that blew over due to extremely high winds. It came into contact with a power distribution line, and hell broke loose.

 Near Smokey’s resting place is the Wildland Fallen Firefighter Memorial, dedicated to more than 30 wildland firefighters who’ve lost their lives fighting wildfires in New Mexico. The weather was lovely that October afternoon when we visited, and I had time to sit down and reflect on these brave men and all the many brave men who protect us. I thought about fire prevention poster competitions and Smokey’s impact on our lives.

Living far away from a forest, I did not know what a tragedy these fires could be, but one loving, friendly bear had something important to say.

And we all listened.

Photos of our Jeep: Midnite in Ruidoso, our campground, Lincoln National Forest, moose in our campground, Hatch Chile burger, Oso Grill, and more.

*Hatch Chile is a delicious pepper we enjoy eating when traveling in New Mexico. It is grown only in the Hatch Valley of New Mexico, and to us, it is one of the best. The Hatch Chile season runs from the first of August through the end of September. Sometimes one can find them in mid-July and through October, depending on that year’s harvest. Hatch Chile burgers are a traditional dish in the area.



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