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The Turquoise Trail

25 May 2000

By Catherine Poe

Dashing to the next destination on our vacation usually defeats the very reason we chose to go there in the first place, to soak up its flavor. As more and more interstates bisect our country, making it so easy to get from here to there fast, we have lost a lot along the way.

When Route 66 was gobbled up by I-40, not only were little towns orphaned, but a piece of America was diminished. The best way to get to know this country is to get off those big super highways and get on those country roads. Nowhere is this more true than the road out of Albuquerque to Santa Fe and north.

The easy way is I-25, a straight shot at 70 miles an hour, across the desert. Still a glorious drive. But if you have a little time to spare, an inclination for the different, and a hankering to see the old New Mexico of Billy the Kid, take the Turquoise Trail (NM 14) out of Albuquerque and meander north.

Just outside of town and a mile off the road on Route 526 sits Tinkertown, a miniature Western town, complete with tiny wooden people and moving vehicles, all hand carved. You can't miss this whimsical museum, the fantasy world of a private collector, because it is surrounded by a fence made from 46,000 glass bottles. Tinkertown epitomizes the word unique, while tickling the fancy of any age.

A short way up NM 14 on your left, you will feel the looming presence of the 10,678 foot Sandia Crest. If you have the time, a detour on steep NM 536 will take you to the lookout at the top. If you thought the view from the top of the World Trade Center was in the awesome category, you ain't seen nothin'.

Try a clear day (which is the rule rather than the exception in New Mexico) at the top of Sandia and you will have a view almost equal to that of the raptors that sweep across the Sandias.

Towns Time Forgot

But if heights make your knees turn to Jello, then continue further north along the Turquoise Trail through the San Pedro Mountains to the ghost town of Golden, site of the first gold rush west of the Mississippi River in 1825. From 1880 until the 1920s, Golden lived up to her name, but now her schoolhouse doors bang in the wind and tumbleweeds jaywalk the once busy streets. Only the perfectly restored 1830 mission church can attest to the glory that was once this town.

Eleven miles up the Turquoise Trail and through the pass lies a ghost town that has been resurrected, Madrid (pronounced Mad-rid). Because of its wooden, not adobe, houses, Madrid looks more like a West Virginian coal town than a New Mexican one, but that only accentuates its dilapidated Western look. In the 1800s, the coal company sold these houses to the miners for $2 each and 700 people lived on the hill above the road. During the Great Depression, airplanes would detour from their routes during the Christmas holidays to fly over Madrid which was outlined in thousands of Christmas lights. However, cheaper, more efficient fuel replaced coal as king and the miners left. Madrid became a ghost town.

In 1974, the Huber family which had been trying to unload the town for years, finally figured out how: Sell the houses and land to the highest bidder. Hippies, artists, and nonconformists came with cash, and today Madrid is a an artistic haven, filled with galleries and shops. But because the water resources are very limited, many of the houses still stand empty in raggedy yards. Although the glory days of supplying coal for the Civil War are long gone, Madrid still retains the feel of a bygone era. To truly capture the spirit of this town, be sure to go to the Old Coal Mine Museum. A self-guided tour will take you through a maze of mining machinery, down a coal mine shaft, to a forge with a working blacksmith, and even to an old-time melodrama theater.

However, no stop in Madrid would be complete without a drink at the Mine Shaft Tavern, which brags it has the state's longest stand-up bar. And if it is victuals you want, order rib-eye steak or enchiladas, but save room for the Mine Shaft Sundae, a skyscraper ice cream concoction of tin roof ice cream, fudgy brownies and creme de menthe. And none of this will bend your wallet out of shape. Then, if it is summer, waddle over to the ball field, spread a blanket and listen to jazz or bluegrass under the stars.

Turquoise and Dust

The next town on your trip north, Cerrillos will make you think you have just stepped onto a movie set, which is one of the reasons the director of The Young Guns chose it. He didn't have to do anything except aim the camera and yell, "Roll it." The old saloon, the adobe houses, the Mexican church, and the dirt streets remain as they were in the late 1800s when this little town boasted 21 saloons, eight newspapers, and several hotels. Cerrillos was once home to thousands of miners who swarmed the hills that ring the city, digging for gold, silver, copper, zinc, and, of course, turquoise. Cerrillos has been at the heart of turquoise mining since the Indians first found the semiprecious stone in 500 AD. Once a booming mining town, Cerrillos went the way of Madrid when the mineral strikes were depleted, but turquoise hunters still roam the hills in hopes of a strike.

Slowly the town has come to life again, not like Madrid, but folks seeking a life far from the fast lane have gravitated to Cerrillos, making it a sleepy, little village where time stands still. Get out of the car and wander, especially over to the Turquoise Museum, a trading post that specializes in bleached cattle skulls, gems of all types, local lore, and even a petting zoo. If the dusty streets stir up a thirst, you can belly up to bar at the Cerrillos Saloon which still serves grub and drinks. If you're on a budget, a good bet would be to bunker down at the 30-room Casa Grande (505/438-3008), a white, rustic adobe that perches on a cliff over an arroyo. While the rooms come with kitchenettes and showers, the convenience of a toilet is relegated to an outhouse. It just depends on how adventurous you are.

Ghosts and Grub

When you reach Route 25, or Cerrillos Road, the main thoroughfare into Santa Fe, turn right and head about 12 miles down to NM 4l and turn right (south). Eighteen miles later, you will come to the turn-off for Lamy, a town noted for two things, the Santa Fe Railroad and the haunted Legal Tender Restaurant and Saloon. Most people who take Amtrak to Santa Fe are shocked when they disembark in a one-street town in the middle of nowhere. Yet this has been the depot since the first trains headed West. In the early days, the tracks into Santa Fe were too steep for the locomotives pulling a full train, and despite technological advancement, Lamy is still the Santa Fe stop for Amtrak. If tourists are smart, before grabbing a jitney for their hotel, they will stroll across the street to the Legal Tender Restaurant and Saloon for some refreshment.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this Victorian saloon highlights its steak cooked on an open grill, but it's the authentic bar that draws the oohs and ahhs. Even more astounding are the ghosts of a lady in white and a man in black who often descend the stairs and mingle with the guests...and it's no show, but the real thing. Anyone spotting the restless ghosts earns a free drink, but only one drink per sighting. So far I haven't been awarded a free margarita. But you might luckier.

If the setting sun is signaling the end to a long day, it's time to return to NM 41 and head for Galisteo, a tiny 17th century village founded by Spanish settlers along the Galisteo River. The movie Silverado was filmed just outside of town in a recreated Western village that you can see from the hills, but it is off-limits to visitors since it is still used as a Hollywood set. But you are probably too tired for any more sight seeing anyway, so make the Galisteo Inn (505/466-4000) your last destination. The rooms of this 250-year-old hacienda always make me think I have stepped back in time. Vigas, saltillo tiles, and the kivas are the real thing, and for a brief moment you would not be surprised to spot a senor sweep down the halls in full regalia of a 1750 patrone. Outside, sheep tend to the vast lawn of the eight-acre estate as they have for centuries. Before unpacking, try a whirlpool, a sauna, or a massage (for a fee) to erase muscles sore from driving all day.

Now you are ready for a dinner of New Southwest cuisine. It is expensive, but worth it to savor the delicious, innovative entrees that change nightly. The next day is best spent horseback riding or biking around the area. Now you will know what Santa Fe was like before the tourists found it.

Going for the Gold

If your fingers still itch to do a little gaming, remember with the high number of Indian reservations in the area, a casino is not hard to find. Just outside of Santa Fe on Highway 84-285 stands the pink, gold and white Cities of Gold Casino run by the Pojoaque Pueblo, where the action runs 24 hours a day. Nearer Albuquerque is the Las Vegas style casino, San Felipe's Casino Hollywood off Exit 252 on I-25. What makes any New Mexican casino so fascinating is watching the motley crew that jam the tables and slots. Where else will you find a Navajo in traditional garb next to rancher in Stetson and boots next to a descendant of Coronado all fiercely, but peacefully, competing for gold? Whenever I drive over a hill and am confronted by a vast casino emerging from out of the desert, it always makes me wonder what would the Indians and miners who traversed the Turquoise Trail for hundreds of years think of this new source of wealth.

Perhaps the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.