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