The Rio Grande is arguably the most storied river in the United States. The Mississippi is about 20% longer and drains a larger area, but the Rio Grande forms part of our border and plays a major role in the western and cowboy lore that forms an important part of American culture.
I’m an old cowhand
From the Rio Grande
But my legs aren’t bowed
And my skin ain’t tanned.
Those memorable lyrics by Johnny Mercer of Savannah, Georgia have been sung by, among countless others, Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, The Sons of the Pioneers, Johnnie Ray, Jack Teagarden, Patsy Montana, Frank Sinatra, and Harry Connick Jr. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, as their characters Lucy and Ethel, sang it in an episode of I Love Lucy. Of course ‘cowhand’ and ‘Rio Grande’ don’t rhyme, but even Spanish speakers out here call it the ‘Rio Grand.’
The great river begins in the Colorado Rockies and travels almost two thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico. It splits New Mexico in half, entering the state in the trackless wilderness just west of Ute Mountain. It then forms the Rio Grande Gorge, a breathtaking narrow canyon where the river at the bottom is designated as one of America’s wild and scenic rivers by the National Parks Service. The Gorge is home to world class Class V white water, steep pocketed rock climbing, and ancient petroglyphs.
The Rio Grande becomes a wider and tamer river when it leaves the mountains, and dams further south have rendered it docile. The largest of those dams in New Mexico is Elephant Butte which creates a reservoir forty miles long covering about 40,000 areas. Ironically, this man-made lake is next to the infamous Jornada del Muerto, so named by the Spanish conquistadors because of the lack of water.
Not far from the dam is the town of Engle, built in 1879 as a station on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. It became a shipping point for cattle and ore. The construction of Elephant Butte Dam (1911-16) swelled the town’s population to 500, but most of those left after the dam was completed. Travel east from Engle was later eliminated by the creation of White Sands Missile range. The Engle post office, opened in 1881, was closed in 1955.
Only six people live in Engle today, and only three or four original buildings still stand, including the old schoolhouse where church services continue to be held on the third Sunday of each month. A sing declares “Preaching, Gospel reading, and singing.”
Engle is the headquarters for the Armendariz Ranch, now owned by Ted Turner. Trains still pass through town, but they don’t stop.
So why did I come to this end-of-the-road town? Because it is where the Gruet family has the vineyards that yield the grapes that make Gruet Champagne, the favorite bubbly of Hubert Schuss and Yrs Truly.