Times passes slowly on the Turquoise Trail
December 20, 2007
Sure, theres a faster way to travel between two of New Mexicos most prominent cities. You can use Interstate 25 and get there in an hour. Or you can take the road less traveled the so-called Turquoise Trail, and not spend a boring minute along its 50-some miles.To me, its a no-brainer.So, on a recent fall day, my husband and I set out on the latter a route forged centuries ago by Native Americans, miners and Spanish Conquistadores. Wed been told that the historic byway owes its name to the vast lode of blue-green gemstones discovered in the area centuries ago the only place of its kind in New Mexico. Wed also been told that meandering along the Trail offers a visual and mental treat, that its vistas are breathtaking and that its rustic villages and those who reside in them are, in every case, the most memorable kind.We were not disappointed.
As we head south on Cerrillos Road from downtown Santa Fe, we pass countless strip malls. But once onto Highway 14, the urban landscape fades away. In its place, mountains dotted with pion pines and scrub junipers come into view. Bright golden chamisa blooms along fence lines. Gnarly rock formations flank portions of the two-lane roadway. A herd of buffalo grazes nearby.And then, about 20 miles out, we follow signs that lead to the dirt streets and adobe houses of Los Cerrillos (the little hills), established in 1879 as a tent camp amid the Cerrillos Mining District. Actually, Cerrillos (the Los is often dropped) history goes back much further to the Native Americans who first mined the mineral they believed help ward off evil. The Spanish later continued mining operations (for gold and silver, too) for export to Spain. It is said that Cerrillos turquoise graces the crown jewels of Spain. It would be easy to think that this is a real ghost town. We see no signs of life, not even a stray dog. A few wooden buildings, the paint long gone, rise up like weathered tombstones along the towns one short street. Broken fences and corral posts poke out of weeds like the ribs of long-dead beasts. Faded signs attest to thriving businesses now put to rest. But, thank goodness we dont make that U-turn!
When we stop for a photo of Tom Morins elegant wrought-iron gate with its carved wooden lintel, it literally opens doors to us. Seeing us admiring the structure, Morin, a local sculptor, comes out to personally welcome us into his gallery and the splendid garden beyond. Tom creates sculptures with used sanding belts and discs, veneered onto kiln-dried wood frames. He uses varying widths of the materials all of rich, earthy colors to create works reminiscent of American tribal rugs. Tom also loves to talk about the town hes lived in for 15 years. Hes a wealth of information about Cerrillos history, its culture and some of its 200 residents, who, for the most part, zealously guard their communitys off-the-grid status quo. Many movies have been filmed in Cerrillos (Young Guns, from 1988, seems to be the one mentioned most), but none, according to Morin, has had a cast of characters as colorful as the real folks who live in and around town. He cites Todd Brown, who operates the Casa Grande Trading Post, Petting Zoo and Turquoise Mining Museum from a home he and his wife built from 65,000 adobe bricks some 35 years ago. The museum features an amazing array of relics and wrecks from Cerrillos past and a collection of modern-day funk as well: everything from refrigerator magnets to one-of-a-kind mining tools. Morin calls Brown a Cerrillos staple, and says hes reason enough to pull off N.M. 14 and into town. Hes an encyclopedic treasure, more than happy to share history and stories of Cerrillos with customers, especially the paying ones. Perhaps less visible but just as unique in vision are the dozen or so artists and craftspeople who have converted old buildings and cabins into studios. Some create in private; others open for business when the mood strikes. A sure way to see their wares is to take the Turquoise Trail Artists Studio Tour, an annual event that takes place in late September.
Hands down, the most colorful character in town is 92-year-old Mary Tappero Mora, who opens her Main Street Bar every morning at 10, rain or shine. According to local lore, Mary has never had an alcoholic drink. At first we think Mary might be playing hooky the day we visit. The door is open, but no lights are on inside. Are you open? I call tentatively, expecting no answer.Youre in here, arent you? Mary snarls back.I dont even flinch at the abrupt reply. Earlier, Tom Morin warned us that Mary is the queen of crusty comebacks, and that we should expect the worst. Instead, we shamelessly woo her by stocking her refrigerator with sodas left by a delivery man with a busy schedule. After that, Marys expletive-filled complaints about worthless relatives (who were supposed to do the heavy lifting for her) cease. So do her legendary one-liners. To the routine question, Is this a ghost town? Marys stock reply is Yes, and Im the ghost. Its safe to say that Mary revels in her role as Cerrillos stand-up comedian. Marys grandfather moved to Cerrillos from Italy in the late 1800s and owned, at various times, a saloon, general store and hotel. Her husband was a prisoner of war during the Battle of the Bulge. When he left, he was 180 pounds, Mary remembers. When he came back, he weighed 72. Mary proudly shows us his photo, along with his Purple Heart, on a wall above the bar. If it were up to people like Tom Morin and Mary Mora, present-day Cerrillos would never change. My guess is that most tourists feel the same way.
To start with, its pronounced MAD-rid, not like it is in Spain. And the scene here is worlds apart from where weve just been. Unlike Cerrillos, this ghost town rocks.The towns revival is fairly recent the 1970s. Its former life was built around the Albuquerque & Cerrillos Coal Co.that headquartered here in 1906 and brought 4,000 workers to the area. Its demise came at the end of World War II, when natural gas became more widespread. Its best to park your car and venture down Main Street on foot, for close-up views of quirky and colorful clapboard homes and company stores descended from Madrids mining days. Today the buildings house eclectic shops, artist studios, coffee shops, and galleries that feature arts and crafts of every ilk. Fountains and rock gardens between them reveal surprises like gilt angels, iron elk, old gas pumps and Stonehenge-sized, wrought-iron gates. Something for everyone! Thats what this town is all about. You can learn more about Madrids history at the Old Coal Mine Museum, where you may wander among sinister-looking machine parts and even walk down an abandoned mine shaft. On weekends and holidays from Memorial Day through mid-October, the Engine House Theatre next door presents old-timey melodrama productions. Booing, hissing and throwing marshmallows (available at the door for a small fee) are part of the fun. An even more classic remnant of company-town days is the Mine Shaft Tavern, where a sign over the door offers a bit of local humor: Madrid Has No Town Drunk We All Take Turns. Inside, you can belly up to a 40-foot-long bar and order a buffalo-steak lunch. It might take you all afternoon to read the inscriptions interwoven among the mural panels. One proffers that It is Better to Drink than Work. Surely everyone in the bar that day, from long-distance bikers to gallery-gazers, joyfully heeds those words. Once a landmark trade destination, then a bona fide company mining town, and later a ghost town, Madrids newest evolution appeals to modern-day cowboys, outlaws, serious art collectors, kitsch-gatherers, movie producers, celebrities and, of course, day-tripping tourists like Bill and me. Were all here for Madrids quirkiness and irresistible charm.
After hours-long stops in Cerrillos and Madrid, our energy is waning a bit by late afternoon, but there are still sights to see. So, for the sake of journalistic integrity, we soldier on. Past the all-but-forgotten town of Golden (so named because it was the site of the first gold strike west of the Mississippi in 1825), we take a jog to the west, in the direction of Sandia Crest. Were told that at its 10,678-foot summit, the mountain offers panoramic vistas that extend across the desert floor all the way to Albuquerque, the Rio Grande and sacred Mt. Taylor beyond. A tram that takes 15 minutes to get to its destination carries visitors through four life zones as it makes its way up jagged peaks, often pink in the late afternoon sun.Because weve been on the road all day, we choose not to drive to the top. All the more reason to return another time!On the same road, however, we do have a quick look-see at an oddball phenomenon called The Tinkertown Museum. Perhaps one could call it a temple to one mans efficient use of leisure time. The late Ross Ward, an artist and sign painter, was also a master whittler and creative engineer. Over a period of 40 years, he carved thousands (one source says 20,000) of elaborate miniature figures and dioramas out of wood, some that he animated with tiny levers and pulleys. Here a western town springs to life with rowdy characters, and there a three-ring circus features the Fat Lady and a teeter-totter polar bear. Outside, undulating walls made of bottles (the same source says 50,000) and studded with rusty, weather-beaten collectibles of all kinds emerge from the woods like a tangle of kudzu. Bizarre, really, but the layout, both inside and out, is surely a remarkable example of pure folk art. Carolyn Schwartz writes from home offices in Frisco, Colo., and Pittsboro, N.C. For more information on the Turquoise Trail, go to turquoisetrail.org or nmtourism.org.