Mad About Madrid

Want to hang out with hippies? Sip a Dead Canary Brew? Soak in a hot tub? Head for this New Mexico mining town—but please don't drink the water.

January 2000By Comments

The first oddball local I meet, minutes after my arrival in Madrid, New Mexico, sports a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, huaraches, safety-pinned sunglasses, a straw cowboy hat, and a graying ponytail. I encounter him standing in the middle of the gravel road that separates an adobe church (someone inside is playing Marvin Gaye) and the decadently oversized hot tub behind Madrid Lodging, the onetime-whorehouse-turned-B&B I’ll be calling home for the next three nights. After a moment of soul-searching, the ponytailed Madridian raises his head and reluctantly introduces himself as “uh, Bill.” Asking if I want to see a rattlesnake, Bill leads me past his small, ramshackle house (surrounded by a fence constructed from old car doors) and an ancient, slope-shouldered Chevy truck to a lopsided blue outhouse. He opens its rickety portal and points with a cackle at the rattlesnake skin dangling from the roof: “Rattlers crawl all over these hills, so you’d best carry a flashlight at night.”

Walking back up the dusty road toward the church, I sniff a funky barnyard smell drifting across the arroyo. “Those are my neighbor’s llamas,” Bill explains. “He’s got four or five of ’em fenced up behind his house.” Perhaps having second thoughts about sharing local details with a guy in a rental car, Bill dismisses me with a not unfriendly wave of his hand, turns, and when he reaches the safety of his porch, says, “And the correct pronunciation of our town is Mad-rid.”

Tucked in the foothills of the Ortiz Mountains 25 miles south of Santa Fe and 42 miles northeast of Albuquerque on New Mexico Highway 14 (the Turquoise Trail), Madrid is a former no-horse coal-mining ghost town that was revived in the mid-seventies as a one-horse artists colony—sort of the New Mexican version of Marfa. With its big-sky, tequila-swigging, outlaw atmosphere, Madrid is an ideal long-weekend road-trip destination for adventure travelers living in Amarillo, Lubbock, or El Paso, and can be reached by air via Albuquerque. I arrive in late August in time to attend the Labor Day Blues Festival, featuring the Hoodoo Boys blues band and a lively crowd of locals who “spirit dance” half-naked in the moonlight. Many of Madrid’s 350 citizens are transplanted San Franciscan hippies or wandering artistic eccentrics who have turned coal miners’ shacks into solar-heated homes, shops, and art galleries. By law there are no car washes, minimalls, gas stations, or fast-food joints. There’s also no drinking water.

Robin Hardie—the miniskirted, combat-booted proprietor of Back Road Pizza—keeps a bottle of Madrid’s sulfurous tap water to show her customers. “The stuff’s got chunks of coal and turquoise in it,” she says, giving the cloudy bottle a shake. “It started making my hair turn orange. I joined a gym in Santa Fe so I could take showers.” Taking a bite of one of her killer spinach-and-garlic pizzas, she adds, “Other than the lack of water, I really like this place. The weather’s great. Everyone here has depth and color, but you’ll find that the most interesting people aren’t too interested in talking to outsiders.” Robin mentions that she used to drive a limo for Morton Downey, Jr., when she lived in California and that she sleeps in a pit house, a solar-heated cabin that’s partially underground.

On my second evening in town I have dinner with Madrid Lodging’s owners, Greg Neutra and Joni Conrad-Neutra, her son, Calder (who works as a local mountain-biking guide), and Kent Black, a Men’s Journal contributing editor who lives in the 108-year-old adobe church. Greg is a computer consultant (and a grandson of California architect Richard Neutra). His beautiful, smiling wife, Joni, is a professional potter and practicing Buddhist (in the mornings you can smell incense and hear her gently chanting daily prayers in the den). A native of Louisville, Kentucky, she has lived in Madrid for 25 years, and at least one of her neighbors sees her as the guiding spirit of the community.

“Once people started using propane after the war, the need for coal dried up and Madrid just died,” Joni explains, uncorking another bottle of red wine. “The whole town went up for sale in 1975. I was studying pottery in Santa Fe when I bought a coal miner’s shack here for $100 down and $12 a month. I opened up a pottery shop and was in business for sixteen years. Then I bought this house—which was supposedly run by the coal mining company as a boarding house in the thirties and was rumored to be a brothel—and started the B&B.” She sighs and reaches under the dinner table to scratch Sadie, her overweight nine-year-old beagle. “There were about fifty of us in Madrid originally. We wrote up covenants and bylaws and established a water co-op. We had a great time driving our old pickup trucks, playing bluegrass music, having goat roasts. People have this romantic thing about small towns—and it’s true.”

Almost all of Madrid’s businesses are within walking distance of each other on or near a half-mile strip of the Turquoise Trail. Located across the arroyo, fifty yards west of the town’s main drag, Madrid Lodging consists of a two-room suite, a big bathroom (with filtered water), and the “clothing optional” hot tub (14 Opera House Road, 505-471-3450). A private deck, shaded by elm trees and surrounded by purple asters and white-blossoming Apache plumes, has been added to the north wing of Joni’s handsomely furnished two-story house. At night you hear nothing but crickets and tree frogs and the occasional howl of a dog. Breakfast is included, served at your convenience in the private sitting room (my first morning I awoke to a lamb-sausage torte, sliced mango, coffee, and cranberry juice). All of this goes for $85 a night ($15 for each additional guest), cash only.

Though not as quiet as Madrid Lodging, Java Junction Bed and Breakfast offers a Victorian suite on the second floor of a restored miner’s house, complete with a kitchen, sundeck, and claw-footed tub, for only $65 (Highway 14, 505-438-2772). Linda Dunnill, the fiddle-playing owner, serves a mean mug of joe to the twenty or so regulars who congregate early each morning in the garden beneath the suite. A bit more rustic is the Old Boarding House, atop Madrid’s general store (Highway 14, 505-471-5134; $59.95 a night). For New Age cowboys who like their massage oils lightly scented, Heart Seed B&B and Spa (505-471-7026; [email protected]), on sixty acres seven miles northeast of Madrid on County Road 55, provides six private rooms ($89-$125 a night), a meditation garden, hiking trails, spa treatments, and easy access to the Broken Saddle’s stable of horses for rent.

Nursing a third cup of the Java Junction house blend my second morning in Madrid, I gradually find myself surrounded by a handful of gray-haired locals wearing cowboy hats, one of whom packs a pistol next to his turquoise belt buckle. Everyone seems to be smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Behind me I hear, “Nah—if the worm’s floating on top, then the mescal’s no good.” A couple of the old coots nod sagely in agreement. Another conversation reveals that a local gallery recently sold a painting for $50,000. Word spreads fast when a writer comes to town, and—eerily—one of the fellows knows my name before I introduce myself. Another lowers his hat over his eyes after seeing my tape recorder. No one is outright rude; they just don’t want to share any intimate details. On my way to the Mine Shaft Tavern across the street, I ask Eugene Bousson, the bearded town marshal and ticket seller for the Coal Mining Museum (mostly rusty mine equipment, a couple of antique cars, and a “drunk tank,” which used to hold intoxicated miners overnight), what brought him to Madrid. Glancing at my notepad, old Eugene offers a wry half-smile and drawls over his cigarette: “A 1974 Dodge Dart.”

Next to the Engine House Theater (home to the Madrid Melodrama, a troupe that stages plays like Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch and He Ain’t Done Right by Nell), the Mine Shaft Tavern is a world unto itself. For some reason, the 55-year-old saloon, which boasts the longest stand-up bar in New Mexico, is the only place in Madrid that’s allowed to serve alcohol. A buffalo head looms on the brick wall over the fireplace, and Stevie Ray Vaughan seems to be the jukebox musician of choice. The darkest beer on tap—Santa Fe Nut Brown—proves so rich that a pint of it makes my ears ring. To my left at the forty-foot bar sit two middle-aged, leather-clad female bikers sipping the locally made Dead Canary Brew. On my right, beneath an elegant beige Stetson, sits an elderly, bolo-tie-wearing gentleman who, after reminiscing about a Mine Shaft shooting in the late eighties, declines with a wink to tell me his name.

What little I do get out of the locals during my all-too-brief stay in Madrid almost always reveals an uncommon love for their colorful town. They point to the enormous star-filled sky as if to ask, “Can you top that?” They chuckle and shake their heads after revealing that 25 years ago their house cost $500. They seem proud of the fact that Madrid’s first fire truck caught fire and exploded during its inaugural Fourth of July parade a few years back, and that Madrid’s annual Christmas toyland light spectacle, witnessed by Walt Disney from a low-flying airplane, reportedly inspired the creation of Disneyland. As one Madridian put it, “Many people here would be lost, homeless faces anyplace else. Madrid is a utopia for them.”

After the best lunch of my trip—a chicken enchilada and a salad with raspberry- walnut dressing at the No Pity Cafe on the main drag—I spend the rest of my final afternoon revisiting many of Madrid’s three dozen shops and galleries. At Red Railcar Collectibles (a kid sitting on the front steps has an iguana draped over his shoulder), I find everything from horseshoes to vintage postcards. The Crystal Dragon sells silver jewelry and quartz and other crystals. Johnsons of Madrid has a fairly impressive collection of New Mexican art and photography. Blown glass and beautiful horsehair pots are made and sold by the friendly folks at the Al Leedom Studio. Tribal House features traditional African crafts, and the Woofy Bubbles Studio sells “curvilinear wearable art.” Custom Canine specializes in dresses covered with pictures of dogs. One of the biggest buildings in town, the Madrid Company Store, houses Primitiva and Maya Jones, two shops specializing in Latin American imports, and Cambio, a boutique offering natural-fiber clothing. Maya Jones’s popular soda counter has a sign that reads: “Installed by the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Company in 1934. Coal miners and their families would use company ‘scrip’ to purchase all their clothing, groceries, fuel, lamp oil, medicines, and ice cream. The mines slowed production during WWII and closed in 1954. This fountain was restored in the 1980’s.”

In the evening, accompanied by one of Madrid’s umpteen stray dogs, I hike to an elevation of almost seven thousand feet and, as the sun begins to set, discover the tiny Madrid cemetery, its odd array of tombstones fashioned out of everything from bleached cow skulls to Harley Davidson handlebars. (Strangely, one of the older graves looks freshly dug up.) On a neighboring hill I spot the Waldo Mesa Institute for Harmonic Balance, a sort of adobe castle built at an “intersection of cosmic flux lines,” according to Madrid’s Web site (, and run by a local mail-order minister. No one in town seems to know what goes on there.

The morning I’m scheduled to fly back to Houston I find Joni in her front yard, barefoot and wearing a long white cotton dress, and with a sheepish grin follow her around as she tells me the names of the various plants on her property. “These are Mexican sunflowers,” she says in her soothing Kentucky lilt, her prayer beads jangling around her wrist as she caresses the leaves. “Those are buffalo gourds.”

Resting on the porch as I prepare to leave, I think: What a wonderfully soul-satisfying place. A relaxed, three-hour dinner with a writer who lives in an adobe church. Pet llamas. Georgia O’Keeffe sunsets. In a mountain town so small it doesn’t even have a post office, life has to be lived slowly, indulgently, with a kind of sublime indifference to the rest of the world.

“So, Joni,” I ask, “do all of your guests end up having a bit of a crush on you?” She laughs and waves away the compliment. I smile and sip my iced tea, and wonder which I’m enjoying more: flirting with this lovely Buddhist potter—or with the possibility of moving here.

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