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The sleepy US town which changed its name for a radio show contest

Travel News from Stuff - 28-11-2022

The United States abounds in odd place names, not all of which have a story to tell. From Accident, Maryland (origin unknown) through Mountain, Virginia (formerly Mole Hill; geddit?) to Zzyzx, California (named by a chap with an eye to be last on any list).

Few warrant a visit for any other reason than their name, but any driver plotting a route from El Paso in far west Texas north to Albuquerque and Santa Fe will likely see a dot on the map called Truth or Consequences.

It caught my eye as I planned that journey, and I found a beguilingly American story that attests to the early power of radio in the pre-TV era.

The town, which the locals call Truth, was once named Hot Springs, for reasons not hard to deduce. Almost 200km north of El Paso on Interstate 25, it was (and still is) a sleepy backwater. Its only claim to fame was based on a system of 40 natural hot spring spas – in the late 1930s, there was one for every 75 residents – though there are now fewer than a dozen.

But the place is also noteworthy for having changed its name after accepting a dare from a quiz show host. On the daily show, contestants who failed, often deliberately, to answer a quiz question, had to perform a zany and impossible stunt, such as riding a unicycle.

Truth or Consequences, as it was called, was a syndicated hit for NBC radio (and later television) that started in 1940. As its 10th anniversary approached, the host, Ralph Edwards, announced that he would air the programme on its 10th anniversary, March 23, 1950, from the first town that renamed itself after the show.

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Hot Springs was a little late answering the call. It officially changed its name on March 31, and the show went to air from the newly named town, the next evening – April 1. It sounds like an April Fool’s Day joke, but it’s all true.

More than 72 years on, Truth wears its history well. The locals are as interested in talking about it as Aucklanders are in discussing life south of the Bombay Hills. But even if it’s a small town – about the size of Taupō – it’s easy to get lost, thanks to its one-way streets; a local who gave me directions to the supermarket took pity on me after I passed her for the third time and hopped in her car to lead me there.

Truth is home to the Elephant Butte Reservoir, a man-made lake created by the damming of the Rio Grande as it winds down from Colorado to Mexico, which provides irrigation to downstream farms. Pelicans are a common sight there, though I saw none and the water level, after years of drought, was depressingly low.

But there was water aplenty gushing from the big pipes at the Pelican Spa, the colourful if shabby motel I found. Along with your room key, you get a key to the private spas, big, deep baths with spouting-gauge inlets that will fill the tub in a minute or so. It might not be a bone-warming experience in September, when the temperature ranges from 14 to 30, but it’s a fine way to wash off the dust of the road.

And a nice surprise for such a small town is the extraordinary little Geronimo Springs Museum. Named after one of the hot springs in the basin (which themselves were named for the legendary Apache shaman and leader, a fierce warrior whose late-life humiliation is one of the saddest stories of the era.

The 50-year-old museum has an astounding collection of fossils, photographs, artefacts and pottery (some as old as 1800 years as well as mining and ranching items. And, perhaps fittingly, it has a display about Ralph Edwards, the man who, quite literally, put Hot Springs, New Mexico on the map.

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