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Seven Days On The Road In Colorado & New Mexico


THE SPIRIT OF THE ENDLESS SKY

(Bummin‘ West)

Rustic Welcome to New Mexico Sign
(
just south of the Colorado border)

Day 1 found my son J and me in Mountainair, New Mexico, a small community in Torrance County south of Albuquerque on U.S. Highway 60. It takes about an hour and ten minutes to drive there from the Albuquerque Sunport. Which seems like forever when you’ve already been traveling all day.
A Little Bit of Pinto Beansville History

Sorry folks, I know this is hard to read. I’m still experimenting with the settings on my camera. But photoshopping the sign would’ve kinda ruined the effect of this baby. That is to say, in the flesh it really does have the look of the crusty old pinto bean that gave the town its original identity. The color is stone-washed chocolate brown. You can’t really improve on it, so I thought it best just to leave it alone. Anyway, here’s the text:

Population 1170 Elevation 6535 ft

“Founded in 1902, Mountainair developed as a major center for pinto bean farming in the 20th century until the drought of the 1940’s. The area had been occupied earlier by Tompiro and Tiwa pueblo Indians from prehistoric times through the mid 17th century when it served as a major center for Spanish Franciscan Missionaries.

After the pinto beans died their untimely (and assuredly drawn-out and painful, a la Ireland’s potato famine) death, lecture tents and car dealers squatted down. They’re gone too now, gracias a Dios, but now they’ve got art galleries and a few funky shops with really cool exteriors in place of the cool beans. Not to mention a defunct Greyhound bus terminal and a railroad line. I love old railroad paraphernalia (must’ve gotten it from my grandfather who had a master miniature of the whole kit and kaboodle down in the basement of his house in Princeton NJ that we were allowed to watch him run, but never touch) and depots, so of course I did some poking around back of town on the wrong side of the tracks.

Vintage Santa Fe Boxcar

I can take absolutely no credit for the amazing ambiance surrounding this Americana treasure. There it stood in all its glory, atop a shimmering backdrop of sand. I snapped quickly, because this leg of the railroad has apparently been privatized and there were “keep out” signs posted everywhere, with lots of ominous reminders sprinkled about that this was not public stomping ground. Which of course made it all the more irresistible. I tiptoed along quietly, pushing J in a fluorescent orange umbrella stroller. Not that I was conspicuous, mind you.
Mountainair Train Station

It seems that right around round 1900, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF) was planning a “cut-off” at Belen, New Mexico. The idea was to route freight trains to points east or west. John W. Corbett (no relation to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” heartthrob, so far as I know) a newsman from Winfield, Kansas, learned that the easterly tracks would likely pass through Abo Pass in New Mexico. He and his friend E. C. Manning got the bright idea of throwing up a township at the top of the Pass. The breezes off the Pass were cool and refreshing in the hot desert summers, which resulted in Manning and Corbett naming their new community, “Mountainair.” I figured two white guys had named it; after all, the towns south, west, east and north of it have decidedly Spanish or Indian names.

The Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore

Texas Trilogy: Train Ride

“Well, the last time I remember
That train stopping at the depot
Was when me and my Aunt Veta
Came a riding back from Waco
I remember I was wearing
My long pants and we was sharing
Conversation with a man
Who sold ball-point pens and paper

And the train stopped once in Clifton
Where my aunt bought me some icecream
And my mom was there to meet us
When the train pulled into Kopperl

But now kids at night break window lights
And the sound of trains only remains
In the memory of the ones like me
Who have turned their backs on the splintered cracks
In the walls that stand on the railroad land
Where we used to play and then run away
From the depot man.

The train don’t stop here anymore.”

–Steven Fromholz

Rail Lines & Old Trail Running Parallel

Today, the railroad no longer maintains a depot in Mountainair since the AT&SF (which is now Burlington Northern & Santa Fe) switched from carrying passengers and mail to moving freight. Yet the flavor of the old railroad remains due to the number of colorful freight trains which still pass through town. The depot, owned by BNSF, is on the Register of Historic Places. Yeah, that being the case, they could be make themselves a little more friendly to railway nerds like me. Grumble, grumble, grumble…
The Rock Motel

We stayed at The Rock Motel, a recently renovated little off-the-highway-cuteside. Our room was spacious and comfortable, with unlimited long distance and the all important WiFi. Unfortunately I didn’t get too far with blogging as J is at an inquisitive stage of life (3 1/2) and peppers his near-endless chatter with questions that usually begin with “Mummy, what’s ‘is?” and end in the same fashion. So blogging took a decided back seat to mothering. As it should. Though I did manage to sneak outside a few times after J was asleep. The WiFi was very sporadic in our room, but I got a few more bars outside. It’s cool to sit outside with your laptop on a summer’s night in an old New Mexico frontier town. Don’t know why. It just is.

El Garaje

I just love the rusty look of old adobe, and El Garaje here is a beautiful example. It’s one of the great things about heading off the beaten trail in New Mexico. When I lived in Santa Fe and Taos I got a wee bit sick of what I christened “Adobe Disney Land,” which isn’t actually adobe at all, but rather stick frame and stucco posturing as such. This type of construction came about because adobe brick is actually quite expensive to build with and maintain these days, but folks are hungry for the “look.” Obviously, the contractors have to give the people what they want, but if you’re earnest about finding “Old New Mexico,” you’ve gotta venture a bit farther out of the Northern part of the state. Wonderful and culturally rich as Santa Fe and Taos are, they no longer really retain the flavor of what was once a wild frontier state. Or rather they maintain it in a tourist-exploited kind of way. So it was nice to spend time in a quiet little neck of the woods I had never explored before. New Mexico changes quite perceptibly, both culturally and topographically, the father south and closer you get to Las Cruces. Like many lovers of the state, I used to have a snobbish preference for Northern NM, but after living as a hick in Vermont for five years, raw, not-yet-ravished land grabs my fancy these days like nothing else. I like silence. I like unfettered beauty. And the two go hand in hand.

Funky Hat, Shaffer Hotel



Interior Pop Shaffer’s Then
J and I enjoyed a few lunches at The Shaffer Hotel, which is Mountainair’s understated equivalent of the La Fonda Hotels in Taos and Santa Fe. The Taos La Fonda is famous for hosting D.H. Lawrence’s interesting foray into the world of visual art. (Not a big fan, but you gotta give the guy credit for trying.) Meanwhile, The La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe is just about one of the most beautiful places you could ever visit without being hit with an entry fee. It has at least three dining rooms, Southwest art details that will blow you sideways, not to mention Bill Hearne, whose Country-Western-Bluegrass-Western-Swing infusion and awesome flat-picking will knock you three ways to Sunday.
…But back to The Shaffer and Mountainair. I’m told the hotel’s founder, Clem “Pop” Shaffer was born in Harmony Indiana back in 1880, the 13th of 16 kids of a blacksmith and a housewife. Already he has the pedigree to become a frontier entrepreneur. Getting the hell outta Dodge and Headin‘ West seemed to be the order of the day back then. (As well as a long German heritage and a cruel mother. I don’t know why, but it’s so.) Old Pop, apparently, fell neatly in this mold. If there was a mold.

Interior Pop Shaffer’s Today

Pop’s father was a blacksmith back in Indiana, and Shaffer inherited the trade and brought it West with him. And, like the renaissance granddaddy of our country (yep, I’m talking about old Ben Franklin here) Pop was a jack of many trades and wore the hats of merchant, horse trader, land speculator, philanthropist, patriot and…well heck, why isn’t he on a dollar bill?

Pop Shaffer’s Hotel Then


Oh, right. Why are we not surprised that Pop was also an artist? To that end he somehow found himself in Mountainair in 1908, probably because the light is plenty good. By now he was fed up with all of the wooden buildings that kept burning to the ground in Indiana (which really must have stunk after a barn raising, which involved all of your friends, neighbors, probably even a few enemies, not to mention all the rope left in stock at the local hardware store), and who can blame him? He endeavored, therefore, to craft a building out of cast-concrete which he then reinforced with old iron fractions. The resulting iconic concrete and iron building became The Shaffer Hotel. Named for himself, of course.

Pop Shaffer’s Hotel Today

J’s flouresecent orange stroller is just out of the frame to the left. Actually, what with some of Pop’s color scheme, there was no need to cut it out. I pushed J in it all the way from The Rock to The Shaffer Hotel, which got a bit dicey when the cheap wheels started spinning on gravel and sticking in adobe mud. (Love that about NM.) Anyway, The hotel still stands at its prominent corner a block south of Broadway on U.S. Route 55.

Adobe Under Blue Sky


This adobe building right downtown is just simply ravishing. I’m sorry, but I don’t know a darned thing about it.

Mural At The Corner of Broadway & Ripley

(*Since my original post I’ve learned that this mural was designed by Shirley & Wray Simmons)
I’ve looked and I’ve looked, but I can’t find any reliable (or even unreliable) info about this wall mural at the corner of Broadway & Ripley. (* Please see addendum above to original post.) All I know is that it was commissioned in 2006 and that the owner of The Firehouse Restaurant generously granted permission to use the side of his building as a sketchpad. Wall murals have a long history in New Mexico (obviously not as long as their history in Old Mexico) and if you’re going on a walking tour of a NM town you can’t just blast by and not stop and gape. This is folk art at its most visceral and raw. It’s simply for-the-people and is free of charge. As all art in its purest form should be. 

Wall Mural In Taos NM

This mural was painted in 1989 by George Chacon, probably the premier mural artist in Northern New Mexico. He really paints in the old style, with large-than-life brushstrokes. George happens to be good friend of my ex, K, so I saw him socially many times. This one is right near the Taos Plaza. Since I didn’t go to Taos on this trip, I’m borrowing this image from Angelstar2134, who posted it on Flickr and who took the photo on January 21, 2008.

Another Section of Mountainair Mural

Lazy Cowboy


I got such a kick (no pun intended..okay, maybe a little) of these black cowboys posted just below street lights all about town. They made me think of the signpost bulls which would pop up on highways along the Costa Blanca in Spain. I figure these guys are the answer to Spain’s bulls. J informed a Mountainair realtor that we had seen “Lazy Cowboys” when asked what we’d scoped on our forays through town. And I reckon these good old boys are. 

Cool Store Front


Mountainair has turned into an artists’ enclave, like so many other small hamlets in NM. Once again, I just love the fact that you don’t have to venture into into a gallery to see art in The Land of Enchantment. It’s everywhere. It’s right on the street. It’s wherever you look.
We still have six more days to get through, which involved a whole lot more photos and approximately 1,200 miles on the road, but I think I’ll stop here and post this for now.

Comments

Comment from Vanessa
Time September 11, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Hi – enjoyed your Mountainair post and pictures. The "abandoned" Greyhound station and old garage are faux fronts – left behind by a movie company but do fit the town. That probably why the property owners passed on having the move crew remove them.

The mural was painted by Shirley and Wray Simmons (their design) and bunches of local volunteers. The local arts council bought the paint and Nancy Townson (building owner & proprietor of Laundrymat and Hair Enchantment Salon) offered the block long more or less blank wall. Dedicated by the mayor after the Firecracker Jubilee Parade in July.

I chronicled it extensively in Mountainair Arts from
Day 1 through updates along the way (it’s muralicious, mural pictures, June 9 & more) to the July 1 Dedication

Comment from Dale Harris
Time September 12, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Hi! Also a Mountainair afficionado and a poet. My husband and I had the Hummingbird Cafe there ten plus years ago and though we live in Albuquerque now, I go back every year to host a Poets & Writers Picnic and poetry writing workshop at the Shaffer Hotel. You have a good eye, really enjoy your photos and word takes! Our blog goddess Vanessa has already written you with some good info. Hope you visit again. Happy trails and travels!
Dale Harris