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"!" Hands of the giant undead suggest subterranean thrills at Fox Cave.

Fox Cave: Billy the Kid, Zombie Hands (Closed)

Field review by the editors.

Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico

After this Field Review was written, Fox Cave closed as an attraction and was turned into a marijuana dispensary. The museum exhibits were moved to the Ruidoso Trading Post in town.

In the gift shop: aliens and prospectors.
In the gift shop: aliens and prospectors.

Between the alien hotbed of Roswell and the cold ski slopes of the Sierra Blancas sits Fox Cave. From the highway, it doesn't look especially cavelike. Zombie human arms and hands, 20 feet high, jut from the ground next to a tiny fake cemetery with two tombstones. Dinosaur heads vie for visitors' attention with some green Roswell aliens, a petting zoo, a lumpy Billy the Kid that resembles a giant pinata, and what looks like a miniature Buddhist wat temple on a flatbed truck.

"Cave Open" declares a banner hung at the entrance, yet the cave at Fox Cave hasn't been open for over 70 years. The interior was plugged with concrete so long ago that no one can remember when it occurred. In 1951 what remained of the entrance was covered by a high rock wall with windows, turning the space between the wall and the cave into a gift shop. With its natural rock, it could be called cavernous (although not a cave) -- but if you accept that "Fox Cave" is the attraction as a whole, then the Open banner doesn't seem quite as misleading (Fort Worth, after all, didn't change its name after the army outpost was demolished).

Arnold Duke and the Miss Universe hardware that Donald Trump didn't get.
Arnold Duke and the Miss Universe hardware that Donald Trump didn't get.

Wax Billy the Kid chills in his coffin.
Wax Billy the Kid chills in his coffin.

The property had been abandoned for years when Arnold Duke bought it in 2010 and began its gradual rejuvenation. Arnold, a native of Washington, DC, became familiar with the area in the 1970s as "a party place" when he attended college in nearby Las Cruces, studying geology ("Every geological formation in the world is within a two-hour drive of Las Cruces," he told us). Why would someone whose job is rocks -- Arnold has spent his professional life as a gem dealer -- buy a cave that isn't a cave? It appealed to Arnold's other passion, the Wild West, because Fox Cave was the supposed hideout of New Mexico's most notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid.

Arnold showed us around. He has fun with his gift shop, populating it with dummies and dinosaur props. After our years spent in Rainforest Cafes and fake mines, it felt strange to be inside a structure with walls made of real rock. In addition to the shop's fossils, salt lamps, and rubber snakes, we noticed the paw of a chupacabra and the head of a Bigfoot in a display case. Arnold said that these cryptozoology relics were "not really for sale," but then added that, "everything has a price" -- a blow-me-away-with-an-offer approach to artifact management suited to someone who sells things for a living.

Sheriff Pat Garrett's wife holds the gun that killed the Kid.
Sheriff Pat Garrett's wife holds the gun that killed the Kid.

Rock wall encloses the cave entrance.
Rock wall encloses the cave entrance.

The bulk of Arnold's treasures are displayed in a ring of casitas (little houses) on the property, which Arnold calls the Ruidoso River Museum.

The history of these buildings, like the cave, is unclear. A 1930s motor court? A 1970s craft village for indigenous artists and aging hippies? Arnold unlocked one -- the keys are available to visitors in the gift shop -- to reveal his collection of Wild West paraphernalia.

Among the showcases of original correspondence and guns (including one owned by Billy the Kid) is the crown jewel of Arnold's collection: the sheriff badge of Kid-killer Pat Garrett.

Wild West outlaws rarely ironed their clothes.
Wild West outlaws rarely ironed their clothes.

Centered in the room, regally rotating on a bed of blue velvet in a spotlit case, one imagines the badge surrounded by a crowd of Garrett-happy admirers. It looks very badge-y, like a Hollywood prop or part of a Halloween costume. Arnold called it "the most reproduced badge in the world," the prototype of all pop culture Wild West badges. Despite his salesman's knack for exaggeration, we believed it.

Arnold's off-site career has made him a semi-absentee museum owner, so the cabins devoted to aliens and dinosaurs were still under construction during our visit. But he ushered us into what we called the Cabin of the Rich and Famous, displaying a smorgasbord of showstoppers, many of them acquired by Arnold as headline attractions for his traveling jewelry show. What Arnold has called "a little something for everyone" is a real jumble, with Jackie O's cigarette case sharing space with a "Mayan Sacrifice Blood Cup" next to "the only Egyptian mummy mask in the state of New Mexico." If Fox Cave advertised "Liberace's Hammer," you'd think it was a flowstone formation -- but it's a real hammer, the handle studded with rhinestones, many apparently worn off through years of vigorous gripping by Mr. Showmanship himself.

One of Arnold's business ventures, until 1995, supervised the tiaras for the Miss Universe pageant. Then Donald Trump bought the franchise, told Arnold he would have to pay ten times his previous promotional fee, and Arnold left, taking some of the tiaras with him. They're displayed next to a replica of Napoleon's coronation crown and O.J. Simpson's 1973 Player of the Year trophy. Arnold, always the showman, melted the original O.J. trophy on live TV to make pendants benefiting women's shelters. In a similar stunt, he transformed a dress covered in pearls owned by Princess Diana into hundreds of earrings on Geraldo.

Gift shop dummy basks in the glow of salt lamps.
Gift shop dummy basks in the glow of salt lamps.

With a revolving assortment of businesses in need of furnishing, Arnold is constantly procuring, moving, and selling items in his collection. The only artifacts that seem permanent at Fox Cave are the Billy the Kid gun and Garrett badge. This speaks to Arnold's personal Wild West fascination and his commitment to his adopted home state. He told us that had been offered huge sums for gun and badge by other collectors, most notably Bill Koch, who bought the only authenticated photo of Billy the Kid for $2.3 million. But Arnold has not wavered.

It is impossible to predict what visitors might see at Fox Cave next week, or even tomorrow, but Arnold's eye for razzmatazz suggests that it will be memorable. And although his Western memorabilia, even the rarities, seem suited to their rough-hewn cabin, you really don't expect to walk in to a place like that and see Pope John Paul's ivory snuff bottle or a tablecloth from the Titanic. Fox Cave, failing to deliver on "cave," is more satisfying for its many surprises.

Also see: Another New Mexico Cave

Fox Cave: Billy the Kid, Zombie Hands

Six miles east of Ruidoso Downs, on the north side of US-70, at milepost 269.
Closed in 2023; turned into a weed dispensary.

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