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Discover riches on the Turquoise Trail

March 31, 2011

Blue Highway
Discover riches on the Turquoise Trail

Story and Photography by Lesley S. King

As I start my journey along the Turquoise Trail, I wonder what I’ll find this time. I travel it every year or so, and each time it unveils new wealth. The National Scenic Byway of N.M. 14 winds 62 miles along the east side of the Sandía Mountains, providing an adventurous route from Albuquerque to Santa Fe as it traverses old mining towns, where modern-day settlers courageously pursue artful lives.

This trip, I turn off I-40 and head north on the Trail, straight to Golden, a town that dates back to 1839, when its namesake mineral was discovered here. I stop at San Francisco Church. In recent months, enthusiastic parishioner Leroy Gonzales has been conducting tours of this much-photographed landmark (though there are no set hours). He points out to me its three-foot-thick walls, pine vigas, and an altar full of images of St. Francis. He then invites me to ring the bell. “Pull hard!” I throw my weight against the rope and send a cheerful clang down the valley.

My next stop, Madrid (to sound like a local, pronounce it MA-drid), may be the jewel of the Turquoise Trail. Native Americans mined turquoise near here, and in the 1600s the Spanish sought silver and gold. In 1835, coal was discovered and mined heavily for over a century. During that period Madrid became a “company town” that supported some 3,000 people. As I cruise along, I see old wooden buildings and slag piles left from those days.

At the center of Madrid I step into Johnsons of Madrid, the town’s first art gallery, which today is full of works by northern New Mexico artists. I marvel at photographs, paintings, quilts, and sculpture, as gallery owners Diana and Mel Johnson fill me in on the town’s recent history.

In 1973, when the Johnsons moved here as young artists, Madrid was truly a ghost town. It was owned by the Huber family, who, in 1954, had tried to sell the entire town for $250,000. They found no takers, but in succeeding years various individuals rented and purchased the old buildings. Today, some 50 shops operate here, many of them funky places selling the proprietors’ own art. In the last few years, however, a few upscale galleries have relocated from Santa Fe, lending the offerings a bit more sophistication. But looks can be deceiving. “People who think this is just an art town have no idea what a complex community it is,” says Diana Johnson. “Plumbers, electricians, and teachers live here. It’s a real town.”

Down the street, I step into Java Junction, where I meet Nancy and Casey Duncan, who run a small bed-and-breakfast in the same building, and sell high-octane joe in this small shop. Their motto: “Bad Coffee Sucks.” I always stop in for a cup and to see their collection of some 35 hot sauces, with such names as Holy Chipotle, Endorphin Rush, and Tongues of Fire. “Madrid is creative and colorful,” Nancy says. “The only prerequisite for living here is a true heart and open-mindedness.” With that thought in mind, I head for the shops, where I find a vast range of art and crafts: coral earrings made at nearby Kewa Pueblo (formerly known as Santo Domingo Pueblo), waif-like angels carved from thin cottonwood branches, mixed-metal sculptures etched with inspiring sayings, and moody paintings of trees on a saffron horizon. So much color, so much life—and a perfect send-off to my next stop on the Trail, three miles north.

At various times in its history, the town of Cerrillos has hosted the mining of turquoise, gold, silver, lead, and copper. At its height of activity, in the mid-1800s, it had 21 saloons and four hotels. Today, its dusty, unpaved streets and false-front buildings lend it a real ghost-town feel. But I find a little nest of activity at the Casa Grande Trading Post, Petting Zoo, and Cerrillos Turquoise Mining Museum. Once featured on the PBS-TV series Antiques Roadshow, it displays jewelry, rocks, and mining artifacts.

But the Casa Grande’s real treasures are its owners, Patricia and Todd Brown, who moved from the East to Cerrillos in the early 1970s. “We were attracted to the dirt streets, cottonwoods, and old adobe houses,” says Patricia. In short order they staked a claim to their own turquoise mine in the nearby Cerrillos Hills, and opened the shop and museum. Since then they’ve collected memorabilia, ranging from hand axes that Native Americans used to mine turquoise, to Tiffany & Co. pouches that held that famous company’s turquoise jewelry. Most notable, though, is the green turquoise that Patricia and Todd chisel themselves from their mine and sell as loose stones, or set in pendants, rings, and earrings.

My last adventure on the Trail takes me right into the heart of the region’s mining history. Harrold Grantham, owner of Broken Saddle Riding Company, guides me through the 1,116-acre Cerrillos Hills State Park. As we ride smooth-gaited Tennessee Walkers to various mine sites tucked into the rolling piñon- and juniper-covered hills, Harrold tells me the story of each. “Even after 17 years riding here, the Park continues to reveal surprises,” he says. When we stop at an overlook with a view south across the Turquoise Trail, I realize that in this single day I’ve traveled through centuries of history and seen untold riches, all created by pioneers, past and present.

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