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TURQUOISE TRAIL | Enjoy the scenic route from Albuquerque to Santa Fe
October 01, 2008
BY LORI RACKL Staff Reporter
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Lots of visitors to New Mexico make the drive from here to Santa Fe.
Head north on Interstate 25 and you're there in about an hour.
But what's the rush? A much better route awaits on the meandering Turquoise Trail, a scenic byway flanked by ghost towns and mines once rich in gold, silver and the trail's namesake, turquoise.
Do it right, and it'll take a full day to cover about 70 miles. But you'll come across some of the best scenery -- and some of the biggest characters -- the Land of Enchantment has to offer.
I hit the trail on a crisp autumn morning, desperate for a jolt of caffeine. I spotted a place called Coffee at Dawn, so I parked my cherry red rental car next to a bunch of motorcycles and walked in.
A burly guy behind the counter was gingerly removing fresh-baked cinnamon buns from the oven. He looked like he should be quoting me an estimate on a new muffler, not asking if I want extra foam on that latte.
"They call these Butch's buns," said W. H. "Butch" Chesterfield, as he poured thick icing over his eponymous pastries.
So how does a former Navy Seal come to run a coffee shop on the Turquoise Trail?
"I retired three times and was bored," Chesterfield said. "This seemed like a good idea."
He urged me to take a nearby offshoot on the trail and head up to Sandia Crest, the 10,678-foot peak of the Sandia Mountains. He promised great hiking trails along the way. I needed to work off one of his buns, so why not?
Shortly into my 12-mile detour, I knew I made the right call. The aspens burned bright yellow as my four-cylinder Chevy Cobalt chugged up the mountain. Lots of easy hiking trails snaked off the main road, although hiking isn't ever "easy" at 10,000 feet.
After a couple of hours on foot, I had to force myself back into the car to continue my ride to Madrid.
Pronounced MAD-rid, this former coal mining town was abandoned until artists moved in during the '70s. Cute boutiques and galleries line the main road in this hippy haven, where the hottest-selling item isn't turquoise jewelry. It's a calendar called "Nude Geezers of Madrid, New Mexico."
"You had to be 60-plus and local. Those were the only requirements," said a shopkeeper who noticed my interest/horror in the photo of a grinning, gaunt, gray-haired man holding a strategically placed cowboy hat.
I was about to play cowboy myself at the next stop: Cerrillos.
This once-bustling mining town used to have enough action to support 21 saloons and four hotels. Barely 200 people call Cerrillos home today. It's the kind of dirt-road place where people look more appropriate in a horse's saddle, not the seat of a car.
I temporarily traded my Chevy for a Missouri Fox Trotter at Broken Saddle Riding Company, where a glass case outside the stable displayed an autographed photo of James Gandolfini.
"Was Tony Soprano a good rider?" I asked Broken Saddle's owner, Harold Grantham.
"Terrible," Grantham said. "Nice guy but couldn't ride a horse."
Grantham and I, along with two other "advanced beginners," cantered off into the dusty hills for a $55, hourlong ride along old mining trails. We passed juniper bushes, pinyons and prickly pear cactus as our horses' hooves kicked up a fine powder that caked my jeans.
Feeling like a real cowgirl, I figured I'd stop in a saloon for a cold beer. The only game in town was a ramshackle-looking joint called Mary's Bar. The sign said, 'Open,' but I had my doubts as I nudged the creaky door.
Cluttered and dark, the place looked deserted -- until a little old lady emerged, painfully slowly, from the back.
"What do you want?" she barked, clearly thinking I stopped in for directions or a pit stop.
"I'd like a beer," I said meekly, taking a seat at the small bar.
After spending several minutes convincing this elderly woman that being born in 1969 did indeed make me old enough to legally purchase alcohol, Mary finally served me a $3.75 bottle of Corona.
The beer stayed cold, but Mary Tappero Mora warmed up. She told me about her health problems and how Cerrillos has changed -- for the worse -- since she was born here more than 90 years ago.
"I could keel over anytime," the former schoolteacher said. "Guess the good Lord don't have room for me, and the devil's afraid I'll kick him out of hell."
The devil's fears are well founded. Mary is as feisty as they come. She told me the late Hollywood actor Jack Palance found that out firsthand when he was in town filming the movie "Young Guns."
"He was in here and some people wanted autographs," Mary recalled. "He wouldn't do it. I said, 'These people pay your wages. Get outta here and don't let the door hit your backside on the way out!' "
With the sun going down and less than 20 miles to Santa Fe, it was time for me walk through that same door.
"You take care, hon," Mary said. "C'mon back now and see us again."