Hot springs, billionaires, and a strange name: New Mexico’s Truth or Consequences is a town of contrasts

Originally called Hot Springs, the town renamed itself after a popular game show in 1950 as a joke—but the new name stuck

Sunset over the Gateway to Space. | Photo courtesy of Spaceport America

With its vintage Main Street architecture and the feel of a sleepy hamlet, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, could stand in for many small towns in the American West. However, a closer look reveals local art, hot springs—and a couple of eccentric billionaires. With a population of 6,000 residents, T or C, as locals call it, is a town of contrasts. It’s a place of incongruities that somehow don’t seem that way at all. 

“It’s always kind of had its own dichotomy,” says local Jake Foerstner, owner of Riverbend Hot Springs hotel and soaking resort. “There are two ends of the spectrum here: the very progressive artists downtown and very conservative cowboys in the rest of the county. And we all peacefully coexist. It makes a great melting pot.” 

The quirk factor

Residents originally incorporated the town in 1916 as Hot Springs. The name nodded to what first the Mimbres and later the Apache peoples had long known: Geothermal waters burble to the surface here. The area was considered sacred healing grounds by the Indigenous peoples who inhabited it. 

Sunset view from a soaking pool at Riverbend Hot Springs hotel.
Sunset view from Riverbend Hot Springs. | Photo courtesy of Riverbend Hot Springs

In 1950, Hot Springs swapped its name for the quizzical Truth or Consequences. Radio host Ralph Edwards offered to broadcast the 10th anniversary episode of his Truth or Consequences game show from the first town to rename itself after it. Hot Springs became Truth or Consequences on March 31 of that year.

Initially, the town changed its name as a joke with every intention of changing it back, says 67-year T or C resident LaRena Miller, director of the town’s Geronimo Trail Visitors Center. However, after Edwards visited for the broadcast, the town developed such an affinity for him that residents voted to make the new name permanent. The affection was mutual. Edwards visited each May for the next 50 years. His annual “homecoming” evolved into a town-wide fiesta that T or C still celebrates with a parade, pageant, and other events in Ralph Edwards Park. 

Today, the town leans into its retro heyday. Blackstone Hotsprings has kitschy themed and named rooms, including the Babalu Suite, which pays homage to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Ten bathhouses cluster in the downtown Hot Springs Bathhouse Historic and Commercial District. Here, a handful of palm trees lend the town the resort feel it was known for in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s when visitors came eager to soak their road-weary bones. 

The grounds of Riverbend Hot Springs hug the Rio Grande, which meanders by on its low-and-slow journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The laid-back resort began as a bait-and-tackle shop until Lee and Sylvia Foerstner turned it into a youth hostel with hot springs baths in 1990. Today, the family-owned hotel features more than a dozen common and private soaking pools with around half overlooking the river. It’s a fitting spot since the town’s thermal waters flow out of a Rio Grande rift—and a scenic one, too. 

“The natural beauty of the landscape and the town’s proximity to the mountains and the water has attracted the creative folks,” says resort owner Foerstner. “T or C has a really funky, artistic flare.” 

Rio Bravo Fine Art is another mainstay. The gallery represents around 20 local and regional artists working in various media. “Here you have more freedom to create without worrying about particular styles that are going on at the moment,” says owner and gallery director Eduardo Alicea. He says the town’s affordable cost of living is also a draw for creatives. Since 1992, however, the artists have had a new neighbor who didn’t care much about “affordable.” 

Eco tourism

Two massive tracts of land outside of T or C attracted the attention of media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner. According to Miller, these stretches of cattle grazing land had escaped overuse. The area’s mix of ecosystems, where many indigenous species thrived, led the billionaire CNN founder to invest in the large parcels of land, according to a Turner spokesperson. Turner ranks as the largest private landowner in New Mexico with more than 1.1 million acres across three properties. He purchased the 156,000-acre Ladder Ranch in 1992 and the 360,000-acre Armendaris Ranch in 1994. 

On the Armendaris Ranch, prickly cholla cactus segue into plains of black grama grass. Lava flows house a million Mexican free-tailed bats each summer, and their nightly emergence to hunt is a spectacular sight. Desert bighorn sheep frequent the foothills of the Fra Cristobal Range. The ranch is part of a sheep restoration project and now houses one of the largest populations on private land in the U.S. 

Aerial view of Spaceport America
Aerial view of Spaceport America. | Photo courtesy of Spaceport America
American bison.
American bison. | Photo: Sean Fitzgerald for Ted Turner Reserves

Turner returns to New Mexico for a couple of weeks a year for quail hunting. The Armendaris Ranch also offers hunting licenses for oryx, an antelope species native to Africa, which through a series of unlikely circumstances now roams this slice of southern New Mexico.

The main herd here, however, is bison, which Turner has helped return to the American West. Around a thousand wander Ladder Ranch, the more verdant and mountainous of the two properties. Visitors might spot them out the window while staying at the Ladder Ranch House, Turner’s personal five-bedroom home, decorated by actress, activist, and Turner’s former wife, Jane Fonda. If the bunkhouse is booked, Turner also owns the Sierra Grande, a historic retreat in T or C, which serves up bison burgers at the in-house restaurant. 

Launch pad

Just down the road from the Armendaris Ranch lies Spaceport America. It’s the first purpose-built spaceport (like an airport, but for launches into space) in the U.S. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is moving ever closer to passenger space flights. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the region has fast ties to the country’s history of space flight. A rocket launched from the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range—just over the mountain from Spaceport America—took the first image of Earth from space on October 24, 1946. Today, Spaceport America’s location next to the busy missile testing range also grants it access to 6,000 square miles of restricted airspace for its own launches. Combined with low population density, and 340 days a year of sunny, low-humidity weather, this spot is prime for liftoffs. 

Although tours have been cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic, in general, travelers can visit the public areas of the Gateway to Space. The butterfly-shaped building doubles as the hangar for Virgin Galactic’s space fleet, and its reception and training areas for future astronauts. Tours include glimpses of the WhiteKnightTwo, known as VMS Eve, which took its name from Branson’s flight attendant mother, and SpaceShipTwo, known as the VSS Unity.

Although flights are open to the public, only a select few will be able to swing the price. The first future astronauts to buy tickets put down between $200,000 and $250,000 to spend a few minutes at zero gravity. The commercial space flights promise to bring even more big names into this corner of New Mexico—and to the eccentric town of T or C.