In the high desert town of Madrid New Mexico, floating coal dust dirties your clothes even when you’re standing still, there’s no cell phone service, many homes still have outhouses, and the drinking water smells like hell, literally: Every glass stinks of sulphur from the coal mine-honeycombed aquifer below.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” says Barbara Fail. She first visited Madrid as a 20-something hippie 30 years ago and “from that moment I knew I wanted to come back here.” Six years ago, while running an art gallery in Manhattan, Barbara decided to make the move at last. She opened Studio 14, on Madrid’s main street.
“I laugh when people say Madrid is a hard place to live. For me, this is the easiest place in the world. Everyone gets to be themselves. You can live off the grid. People take care of each other. It’s great.”
Indeed, for most of the 200 or so folks who live within Madrid’s 300 acres, it’s hard to imagine life elsewhere. With a median age of 57, Madrid has been home to a slowly growing population since the 1970s, when this community of rugged individualists first took root. Dozens more, many of them well into middle age, have arrived since then, inexplicably drawn by the town’s unique mixture of high culture and low standard of living.
At the heart of Madrid, where Route 14 winds its rolling course through the Cerrillos Hills, stand rustic old mining town houses now converted into art galleries and restaurants, catering to tourists who drive up from nearby Albuquerque or down from Santa Fe. A block or so off the highway spreads a grid of dirt streets with names like Old Goat and Back Road. Out here the houses become markedly less kept-up, with sloping roofs and dilapidated porches—yet most are adorned with works of art, either outdoor murals or statuary ranging from abstract concrete shapes to assemblages of old wood and machine parts. These houses appear to be occupied largely by artists and gallery owners.
Farther out still are frame structures that seem supported by little more than ornery stubbornness, separated by vast stretches of scrub-marked wilderness. This is where you’ll find Madrid’s most dedicated individualists; folks who have receded from society with a vengeance. Visitors are warned not to venture out there, lest they end up facing the business end of a rifle.
In recent years on large parcels outside of town—at times a stone’s throw from the ramshackle homes of those resident outsiders—folks from the cities have started building beautiful adobe houses with floor-to-ceiling windows and hot tubs. One such home, on a bluff overlooking town, has been sarcastically dubbed “The Castle” by locals.
Anyone who arrives in Madrid pronouncing the town’s name like that city in Spain will quickly be corrected. “It’s MAD-rid,” a bearded local told me shortly after my arrival at the Mine Shaft Tavern, Madrid’s chief watering hole. “Emphasis on the ‘mad!’”
The fact is that about 130 years ago, when the place was willed into existence by a coal company to house miners and support staff, Madrid was pronounced the traditional way. It was one of New Mexico’s most bustling locales, known nationwide for its annual display of 150,000 Christmas lights and for having the first lit ball field west of the Mississippi. The crash came in the 1950s, when the mine closed and the populace fled Madrid like tumbleweeds blown by a high desert windstorm. For more than 20 years Madrid stood virtually empty, a destination for adventurous photographers and a curiosity to motorists passing through on old Route 66 (local legend has it the nuclear guts of the first atomic bombs came this way in 1944, during their transport from Los Alamos up north to the Trinity Site down south).
The land remained under the ownership of the mining company’s former superintendent, and in the early 1970s his son began to first rent, then sell the old houses for a few dollars a month.
The offer primarily attracted two wildly different groups: socially disaffected Vietnam War veterans and free-spirited craftspeople and artists, largely from San Francisco, Chicago, and nearby Santa Fe. Today that general breakdown still holds among the 200 or so people who live in and around Madrid.
On any given morning, a klatch of bearded Vets in M.I.A. baseball caps, bandanas and denim jackets can be found downing coffee and smoking outside Java Junction, a rustic coffee shop, or down the street a bit at patio tables at The Holler restaurant. They wave collegially to the local business owners—primarily women—arriving to unlock their shops for the day.
“Work hard, Darlin!” a vet named Ron shouts to a gallery owner pulling out the keys to her shop. She laughs and engages him in a short, friendly chat. “A writer, eh?” he says, turning his attention to an interviewer. “The last writer we had here we ran out of town.”
That’s a common sentiment among the Madrid’s veterans community; visiting writers often paint them as something of a cross between Rambo and Grizzly Adams, an easy generalization that doesn’t come close to portraying the complexities of their community. Here at Java Junction, Ron and two other vets; a Vietnam era contemporary named Mark and a younger man named James, alternately insult each other, slap each others’ backs, and make joshing references to shooting each other or blowing each other up.
“Every third Tuesday of the month most of the veterans who live up in the hills around town get together and have lunch,” says James, a former submarine sailor who confesses his return to society has been difficult.
“They just talk and eat and make sure everyone’s still alive.” Casual visitors to Madrid might not see many of its military veteran residents: They tend to disappear to their homes when the daily crowds of shoppers and tourists arrive.
“The locals I can tolerate,” says Ron. “They’re mostly nice people. But when tourists go on vacation they tend to leave their brains at home. I don’t deal with them too well.” “I don’t know why we can’t just shoot ‘em,” James deadpans.
“After all, it’s tourist season.” The three men nod solemnly at first, then burst out laughing.
The days of military veterans and starving artists finding a cheap haven in Madrid are fast disappearing. While in 1972 a house on the main street cost a few thousand dollars, today a 880 square-foot renovated schoolhouse on Back Road is listed for $174,500. And things can get a lot more pricey than that. Former hippie Barbara Fail, whose Gallery 14 sits on Madrid’s main street, recently put her 2,700 square foot, off-the-grid adobe home on the market. Located on a bumpy, one-mile dirt road from the highway, the low-lying three-bedroom home is light years away from the hardscrabble structures that dot Madrid down the hill. But that doesn’t mean she’s about to leave the town she settled down in seven years ago.
“That house is a city girl’s perfect modern homestead,” says Barbara. “I’m not sure what I’m gonna buy here, but I’ll be downsizing.”
It’s Wednesday night at the Mineshaft Tavern, and Cactus Slim and the Goat Heads, a beloved local group, is tuning up on the small stage. Barbara and her partner Lee Reasonover, who co-own the gallery that represents some 20 local artists, are seated at a big round table that in the course of the evening will attract any number of Madroids, as the locals call themselves. Lee has been here for three years after a career at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, designing microscopic machines for national security applications. His gray beard frames an easy smile, and long hair hangs far beyond his shoulders from beneath a cream-colored cowboy hat.
“I always thought I’d like to live here sometime,” he says. “Then I broke my back in a motorcycle accident. I’m getting paid not to work, and Madrid is a great place to do that!”
Among the 50-plus folks joining the gathering is Gerald, a gentle bearded bear of a man who before retiring to Madrid was a pediatric nurse in Albuquerque. And Rebecca Nafey, a real estate agent at Madrid’s improbably named Sea Properties, who runs the annual “He/She Bang,” a cross-dressing extravaganza that raises money for local residents’ emergency medical bills.
Lisa Conley, owner of a pottery studio on the main street, is happy someone is writing about Madrid—but also understandably concerned about readers who might see the town as some sort of desert paradise.
“Sixty Minutes reported on us in the 1980s, and we were bombarded with letters from people who wanted to live here,” she recalls. “Several of us had to be a voice of reason and say this is not the kind of place most older people want to come to. There’s not a lot of stuff here. A potato at the little store we have can cost you $2.50. My shop building has no insulation in the walls. You have to be really healthy to live here—and a lot of people in their 60s and 70s aren’t really healthy.”
Which is not to say Madrid is a heartless frontier town that spits out the infirm like spent nutshells. I dropped in on Diana Johnson, who along with her artist husband Mel has owned Johnsons of Madrid, the oldest art gallery in town, since 1973. The couple had spent the morning in Santa Fe, where Mel was undergoing medical tests.
“You learn to get old wherever you are,” sighed Diana, 78, surrounded by the works of artists young and old. “If you live in the city, you learn to get old there. If you live out here, you learn how do it here.”
For those who need help—struggling artists, displaced veterans, and the odd passing vagabond—Madrid has stitched together a grass roots safety net that involves the entire community. There’s a community garden, a weekly food bank at the volunteer fire house, any number of fundraisers to help Madroids who’ve fallen on hard times, and a box where you can drop off used clothes or pick them up.
“It’s interesting when you see a friend walk by wearing one of your sweaters,” says Jesse Shakespeare, noodling on his 1960s-vintage left-handed Fender Malibu outside his shop, Dream Gallery.
“Someone described Madrid to me as an outdoor insane asylum populated by cartoons.” Jesse, 57, and his partner Pam Ellsworth, 61, run a pair of galleries on the main street. They’ve been in Madrid for nearly a decade, and they both feel like it was a place that was calling to them their entire lives, even before they knew it existed.
“People here are from both ends of the spectrum, and we simply don’t judge one another,” says Pam. “We had one fellow who moved here from New York. He wore fish net, purple skirts, dreadlocks, and mascara. He was all pierced and he drove a purple car. He eventually left, because he couldn’t provoke a reaction from us. He was disappointed”
“We’re an intentional community,” adds Ruth Aber, a former Manhattan podiatrist who quit the city 16 years ago to open Mostly Madrid, an art gallery.
Sitting on a rickety bench, Ruth, now in her 60s, gestures down the dusty street outside her shop. “The purpose of Madrid is to create a community where there is no sense of judgment. Think about it: When this place was re-settled in the early 1970s, it was by Vietnam veterans and artists. Those are not two groups who should have been able to sit at the same table—but at the time there was only place to gather here: The Mine Shaft Tavern. So they had no choice.”
Randy Liggett’s beat-up pickup truck is barely holding its own against the rutted dirt road that leads up into the hills east of Route 14. It’s a good, sturdy truck though, having made several trips lugging stuff between here and Randy’s old place near Toledo, Ohio, where until year or so ago Randy ran a successful house painting business and worked as pastor of a Foursquare Church. This truck also towed a trailer all that way bearing Randy’s prized Belgian horse, a towering stallion named Stor Strijast.
“Back in Ohio I almost never got to see my horse,” says Randy, who now owns a quaint Madrid antique store named Rewind in Time. “Now I can get up here most every day.”
Liggett, strong and stout with glasses, boots and a wide-brimmed hat, has a certain Teddy Roosevelt quality about him. After arriving at an isolated ranch house, he jumps out of the truck, slams the door and heads straight for the paddock where Stor Strijast is pawing at the dirt in anticipation.
The ranch belongs to Pete Bassin. He’s better known in these parts as Pistol Pete because he explains unnecessarily, “I’m always carrying a pistol.” At 77, he’s one of the area’s longest-tenured residents. As he tells it, his route to Madrid was typically circuitous: A childhood on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, learning to ride horses in Central Park; a stint in the Army; a career as a stage designer first for rock impresario Bill Graham in San Francisco, then for outdoor concerts in Santa Fe. In 1989 he moved to this spread just outside of Madrid, and five heart attacks and a broken neck (a horse threw him) later he’s still here, living in the middle of nowhere on Social Security in a dirt-floored cabin with a two-tiered interior that resembles a rustic stage set.
“My daughter lives up in Santa Fe,” Pistol Pete says. “She’s been riding horses since she was in my arms, and now she’s a psychotherapist doing equine therapy with children.”
Why live out here? Sitting on a hay bale in a shed, Pistol Pete pats his pit bull/Rhodesian hound Nessa on the head with one hand, and with the other simply points his walking cane to the endless wilderness around him.
But what about those five heart attacks? Isn’t number six lurking somewhere out there in the scrub? “Screw it,” he barks. “I’m not gonna die in a hospital. I’ll die right here.” He points again. “Or out there. Or if I’m really lucky, I’ll end up in a gunfight.”
The barely marked dirt roads in and around Madrid lend themselves to lots of scary wrong turns, but if you’re lucky one of those turns will turn you up at the Madrid cemetery, on a mesa overlooking town. Madroids are fiercely protective of the place; they won’t take outsiders there or even tell them where it is.
As you’d expect, the markers are as quirky as the populace: a cast iron derby hat; an oversized gas can; a miniature bicycle. It’s the place Madroids expect to end up; a final declaration of their independence—and sometimes of their unexpected compassion.
“Shortly after I came here, this one fellow. Kind of a loner, died,” recalls Les. “He was a drifter. Nobody really liked the old cuss. He never had anything good to say, and otherwise kept to himself.
“The county was gonna bury him in an unmarked grave, but around town we started talking, and we said, ‘Well, we didn’t like him, but he was a Madroid.’ He deserved to be buried in our cemetery.”
It was August, and a team of guys who’d been hanging around the Mine Shaft trudged up the hill with shovels and pickaxes to hack out a grave in the rocky soil. The task took a couple of days. Meanwhile someone built a coffin. An artist painted a likeness of the fellow on the lid. As the coffin was lowered into the grave, a circle of Madroids stood around it.
“We buried him up there on the Mesa,” says Les. “And I thought ‘If Madroids treat someone they don’t particularly care for like that, what will they do for people they do like?”
Cactus Slim and the Goat Heads are finishing up their set, and the Madroids start to spill out into the star-strewn night.
“That’s what I like about Madroids,” he adds. “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”
A considerably shorter version of this story appeared in the November 2016 issue of AARP Bulletin