For the people who know me, they know I talk a lot about the little town where I grew up. The truth is I do this because the little town of Madrid, NM helped me become who I am today.
A little background (I will post my full paper on it at some point.) The town was founded at the height of the railroad age to take advantage of the confluence of two types of coal. The town was home to 3000 plus miners and their families. Because the town was company owned all inhabitants had to use endorsed services. For instance, when they bought a car of the wrong brand, the car was thrown into the arroyo. (Dry riverbed that takes the bulk of the annual floods.)
In the 1930’s, the town was abandoned. The cheap wooden homes were left to dry out in the desert. Following this the town sat empty until the 1970’s. Several times over the years the entire town was up for sale from a low of $250,000 up to $1,000,000 at its height. When my family moved from the Midwest in the 1970’s they convinced the owner to subdivide the town. Within a few weeks the whole town was sold. Many of the new inhabitants were Vietnam veterans, artists, or people who felt like society had abandoned them.
The town has grown to about 300-400 people. Main St. is the only paved road in town. It is full of galleries, but there are three restaurants, a museum, and a bar as well. My grandparents run the largest gallery in the southwest, The Johnsons of Madrid. Here I grew up surrounded by fine art and got to meet artists of all kinds. My grandfather taught at The Art Institute of Chicago as well as Texas Tech University. He is an architect and painter. He has also done some sculpture. My grandmother shares his teaching experience, her expertise is in fashion design.
Much of my time was also spent in The Engine House Theater. My mother did a lot of acting with them as I grew up, and my first show was when I was four years old. Most of the time, these shows were mostly Victorian style Melodramas. The story that I always remember being told is that while my mother rehearsed her role as Lucy in Dracula, I sat in a crib in the back of the theater while she had the blood of children running down her white lace dress. I still have the dress, and it is one of my favorites. The red dye never same out, so people often think I am dressed as a zombie when I wear it.
The theater is located in the Old Coal Mine Museum. This open-air museum has been changed a lot since the owners took over, but I will talk about it as it was while I was growing up. The most memorable part of the whole place is the 769 train engine. It is parked right at the entrance to the Engine Repair Garage, which is now the theater. Often in the melodramas the sliding doors would open to reveal the train, usually as it runs over the villain and saves the day. The engine is (was?) open to visitors. The kids always loved to ring the bell, which was always kept in working order. You could also see the stove where the coal would be shoveled into to keep the train running. My friends and I, since we spent so much time here did not always stay in areas open to the public, and would climb into the coal car behind as well.
There were several buildings full of relics from the mining days, including the boxes from the mail room, vehicles, and tools. My favorite part of these are the bats that live in the rafters. After the mines closed, many caved in, and the bats had to find a new place to call home.
One of my favorite things to explore in the museum was the recreated coal mine. You could walk down into it as it gradually got shorter and shorter and tighter and tighter. There was a gate so you could not go too far, but the whole way down you could see the coal seams that had not yet been tapped.
Another unique experience is the jail cell. It really mostly functioned as a drunk tank. You could go inside and sit in the tiny one-room jail. The door was permanently propped open. Inside always smelled rather dank and odd. Obviously the room does not have great ventilation.
Every time I spent time in the museum I ended up with a phenomenon we know as ‘Madrid Black Foot’. This can happen anywhere in town, just because there is so much coal dust everywhere, but especially in the museum. This coal dust really affects everything in town. The water in town, while technically drinkable is very unappetizing. Most homes are older and do not have a quality filter system. As a result, the water can come out of the tap black. Even with a good filter system, the water still smells like sulfur, which unfortunately resembles rotten eggs. Just finding that water was a huge obstacle. In the mining days all water was brought in by train. It was not until the rebirth of the town and many many tries were they able to tap a well. This town is also in a desert, and with the long-term drought that was going on most of the time that I was growing up, there is always the risk of draining the aquifer. The neighboring town did end up having to truck in their water one summer. I remember one of the restaurants felt the need to explain why they did not provide water to guests before requested. They had taken a water bottle and filled it up from their tap. When it sat for awhile there was a layer of black silt in the bottom. They kept this on the counter with a sign.
For many reasons, Madrid has a reputation in the area as a ‘hippie’ town. The town was reborn at the height of the hippie age. The town is largely populated by people who are very conscientious about the environment. My population estimates include all of the “Madroids” as we call ourselves, including the ones who don’t live in town. Many of these live off the grid. As with anywhere, there is also a sector of the population that self-medicates. Because the town is unincorporated, we do not have our own police force and rely on the state troopers, who largely ignore the area. Citizens, law abiding or not, appreciate their privacy. There have been a few times I can recall when police were called out, but on the whole Madrid is a very peaceful community that lives in harmony.
My mother taught me how to sew at a very young age. One of my first toys I remember was homemade sewing cards. Before I was ten I worked in my grandparent’s gallery replacing the dried out elastic in the clothing. When I would do performances, I very much enjoyed making, or altering my costumes. I never got much inspiration from modern clothing, but the shows that I saw and participated in showed me that there is something inspiring out there. I grew up in a town that incorporated bits and pieces of many different eras. This probably helped to give me my love of history.
Because Madrid is so small, there is no school in town. For elementary school we had to go halfway to Santa Fe, for Middle and High School, we had to go the full half hour to the city. On a school bus that took an hour to an hour and a half. I was always a little out of place in school. The things that I spent my time doing were foreign to my peers, and the things that they did I did not do. In my house we chose not to have television, and I did not touch a gaming system until probably Middle School. My friends played, and I would watch, but it did not really intrigue me.
I loved to explore my town. Because Madrid had the coal to provide it, electricity was adopted early. In Madrid’s heyday it was famous for its huge Christmas celebrations. There was even a full amusement park that would come out of storage once a year. There were displays all around town made of wooden cutouts. I love a photo in my grandparent’s gallery of the Jesus cutout. In the photo you can see the separations between the individual 5 foot sections making up the towering figure. There is a clear square on one of the mountains that was once the Bethlehem scene. At the tip of another peak is a cross that used to be one of the ends of an angels flight across town. There is also a giant wooden tree on one mountain. It was never lit until I was in high school. At that point a man known as Brave Dave decided to climb it. (Many people have this type of nickname in Madrid). New Madrid loves the traditions, and Christmas is still a huge event, even for someone like me, who does not identify as Christian.
On the edge of town there was the ball park. During the mining days, this park was one of the first to have electric lights. Today the ball park is used for little league games and the various music festivals held during the summer. These festivals help to fund the Madrid Landowner’s Association. Which is a democratic group that makes the decisions for the town. On July 4th, and on a Saturday in December we also host parades. In the mining days they did the same. To celebrate this, one year on July 4th my grandfather walked down main street playing a drum. This is the way we conduct our parades to this day. Now we set up a time, and if you want to be in it, you line up at the wide opening to Backroad. (Yes, that is the actual name of the road.) The parades end at the ball park and celebrations ensue. While I was growing up, the grandstands were falling apart. There was a cupola that some daredevils would climb into. The cat that I had growing up was born under the grandstands, which is where I found him. As it turns out the grandstands were also a breeding area for rattlesnakes. This means that my amazing cat knew how to, and did, kill rattlesnakes. The last time that I was there the grandstands were in the middle of renovations. The roof had been replaced, but the seats were missing.
Outside of town there were more adventures to be had. There are caves, petro glyphs, rock cutouts, junkyards, tunnels, mesas, mountains, a former golf course (in those days no-one expected them to be green and manicured), and huge open desert to explore. I loved exploring these caves. Sometimes I would imagine that they were connected to the caverns in Carlsbad by an Area 51 type research facility. One of the other unique, but secret, attractions is the petro glyphs. There only form of preservation is the secret. But there are some ‘modern petro glyphs’ aka graffiti. The ridge that these carved rocks are on is like the ridged back of a stegosaurus. The rocks follow the ridge in a nearly straight line. Just the environment provided so much to explore around Madrid. I could tell many stories of my friends and I getting into trouble. Leaving the actual stories aside, I realize that many of the ones worth telling have a theme. Someone got hurt. Never seriously, but it was certainly a valuable learning experience.
After my parents divorced, my father spent several years renting a space on a friend’s property. He lived in a small cab over trailer. Many people find it strange that anyone my age has ever used an actual outhouse, but there was a very nice one on this property. On the property there was one permanent building with a kitchen and shower. This building had running water from a huge underground storage tank. My father was in charge of hauling the water in. One of the most remarkable things about this 100 acre plot of land was that in order to access it you had to drive through an arroyo. This meant that during flash flood season we often had to tow out people who got stuck in the mud. One time I remember stopping on one side on the arroyo to look for something that my dad had lost. As we looked he stopped and had me listen. There was a low, growing roar. Less than a minute later, there was a ten foot high wall of water roaring down the arroyo in front of us. Once the water had established its presence, it ran slowly, and only a foot or so deep. Even that did not last long.
When my mother bought the property that she later built our home on, the house that was on the property had burned down. I even wrote a poem when I was about five about the ‘Burnt Up House’ as we called it. The original homes in Madrid were hauled in on the railroad. They were very minimalist. Because they were made only of wood, they are now tinder boxes. If one of these homes catches fire, the heat alone can catch the next. We are VERY cautious about open flames in Madrid.
Because water is at a premium, when my grandparents chose to rent out part of their home, they were left without a bathroom. We took baths in a big plastic tub with water we heated up on the stove. They had a port-a-potty out back.
I hope that this gives some insight into who I am, and how I got that way. I believe that the experiences I had growing up are invaluable. I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to live out of time and place. I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to explore the natural world as well as the historical one.