The Madrid Chile Festival is the perfect start to any New Mexico vacation. Green chile is why the Land of Enchantment has such a distinctive cuisine. And Madrid, a 400-person artists’ enclave located about 30 miles south of Santa Fe, represents the flavor – in taste and the less-definable New World tone – that locals and visitors have come to know so well.
Problem is, there is no such celebration. The signs are props for a John Travolta movie being shot in the town, one of several recently filmed in the area.
“If you’re not from around here, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not,” said Suzy Kelly, owner of Color & Light art gallery. (The signs advertising volunteer fire department meetings every Tuesday at 7 p.m. are authentic.)
That sentiment holds true about a lot of things in New Mexico. Jerry Rightman, my guide on a walking tour through Santa Fe, advised our group to spend modestly for any jewelry that caught the eye, but not to empty pocketbooks for fear of fakes.
This is one of the poorest states in the country, owing in part to New Mexico’s large Native American population. But glitzy new Indian casinos continue to pop up around the state. New Mexico is one of America’s original melting pots, a territory settled by Native Americans and later a Mexican province, and those influences still infuse the state’s culture. Today, 42 percent of residents are Hispanics, nearly 10 percent Native American and 45 percent white.
The abiding influences of Native American and Hispanic cultures create much of New Mexico’s appeal, and not just for tourists. It’s one of the reasons artists have flocked to the region and why towns like Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid, unlike the Spanish city) pop up along the landscape.
“Artists came to create the great American work, and when you do that, you look to the indigenous people,” Rightman said.
Artists’ infatuation with the area isn’t just spiritual. New Mexico’s clean, dry air makes for sharp colors. The ground’s orange and brown tints reflect light instead of absorbing it. The horizon seems more distant in New Mexico. All combine for stunning landscapes, which is why the state is one of the leading locations for ballooning and host to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, held annually since 1972. There’s also the Sandia Peak Ski & Tramway – the world’s longest – to get another high-altitude view of New Mexico.
The landscape is such that I was able to play golf on three distinctly different terrains. First was Paa-Ko Ridge, No. 37 on Golfweek’s list of America’s Best Modern Courses and No. 1 in the state. It’s set in the mountains below the Sandia Peak, where the ski season lasts from December to March.
Next was the understated University of New Mexico Championship Course, ranked fifth in the state. The last of the trio was Sandia Golf Club, a desert resort course in the shadow of resort’s 228-room hotel and casino.
Paa-Ko and Sandia are flashy new courses, with all the amenities from range-ball pyramids to GPS-equipped carts and an army of cart attendants.
Paa-Ko combines a mountain hike with a round of golf. It was built by Ken Dye, no relation to Pete, as evinced by holes built from natural terrain, not bulldozers. Most fairways are flanked by natural areas, which hide the rest of the holes. The course’s dramatic elevation changes make for obvious visual appeal. I didn’t realize until after the round that the lone photo I took, of the downhill par-5 No. 12, was a replica of the image on the scorecard.
Sandia offers a twist to desert golf. Finely ground, decomposed granite sits between the fairways and natural areas, helping conserve water while allowing for creative recoveries and more playable surfaces. The course is conveniently close to the casino, which at times detracts from the golf experience. The ninth hole is an unceremonious end to the front nine, leading golfers close to the casino’s loading dock; I had to drive my cart a little too close to a poolside wedding on the way to the driving range. But the back nine climbs to offer views of Albuquerque, celebrating its 300th anniversary this year, and the surrounding valley below, especially on the two drastically downhill closing holes that dive back to the clubhouse.
UNM’s home, by contrast, is refreshing – golf sans glitz – the type of place where an employee sees no problem asking a patron to help load a table on a golf cart, instead of waiting on them hand-and-foot from the second they put the car in park.
The course’s entrance is announced by the same small turquoise sign that labels on-campus buildings, and weeds peek through cracks in the parking lot. But regulars will proudly tell you Tiger Woods won his first college title on the 7,248-yard parkland course. Walking to the 10th hole – a 90-degree dogleg right around the driving range – a maintenance worker mentions that Phil Mickelson’s aggressive line over the O.B. once left him with just a sand wedge to the 480-yard hole.
There’s also the Hank Kuehne tree, located 300 yards from the 12th tee to commemorate the distance he reportedly covered with a 2-iron after being angered by a short miss at the previous hole.
All three are within 30 minutes of downtown Albuquerque, as is Twin Warriors Golf Club in Santa Ana Pueblo. The course, which tips out at more than 7,700 yards, is routed around 20 ancient cultural sites.
And about 90 miles from Albuquerque, you’ll find Black Mesa Golf Club. It’s worth the drive, ranked No. 62 in (ITAL) Golfweek’s modern courses rankings. The course was designed to have a rugged links look, while playing around native arroyos and sandstone ridges. Similar arroyos come into play Twin Warriors Golf Club in Santa Ana Pueblo, site of the 2003 PGA Club Professional Championship.
New Mexicans bemoan that the state capital, Santa Fe, increasingly has become a getaway for rich Californians. But there’s enough small towns brimming with local flavor to make that fact more tolerable.
Cedar Crest, about 10 minutes from Paa-Ko Ridge, features a hostel, a microbrewery whose selection includes beer produced in a monastery, and Coffee At Dawn, a truly local shop where owner Lauren Stenzel remembers most of her customers’ favorite beverages.
The establishment’s name isn’t just derived from its 6 a.m. opening, but the name of a previous owner. Stenzel bought the place in June. She’s a warm lady and easy conversationalist who describes herself as an “MSW (Must Save the World) type,” which explains why she serves only organic coffee. It really stands for masters of social work. She closes the shop at noon to head to Albuquerque to pursue that second career.
Art is Kelly’s second career, but first passion. She named her gallery Color & Light because they were the reasons she left her job at an Albany, N.Y., bank to pursue her dream in Madrid, about 30 miles up the road from Cedar Crest.
Madrid was a company-owned coal mining town with a population of about 4,000 before it was abandoned in the 1960s as coal fell out of favor.
Rumor has it Walt Disney was inspired to build Disneyland after seeing the town’s annual Christmas lights celebration, enough of a spectacle that airline pilots used to divert their planes to get a glimpse. The Christmas celebration has been revived by the current residents, though they’re not of the same ilk as those original inhabitants. Madrid sat empty until artists began arriving in the 1970s. About 400 people live there now, though hundreds more were there for filming, causing a virtual traffic jam as crew members played Wiffle ball in the street and extras gathered around the spread.
“I think because of the amount of space, people here don’t mind interacting,” Kelly said. “Where I come from, it’s so overpopulated that you just want to get them out of your face.”
There’s no better way to see New Mexico’s expansive landscape than from the air, though I didn’t believe that while waiting for my guide at a Conoco station in the ski town of Taos. The dirty maroon van with the cracked windshield didn’t inspire much more confidence, especially when compared to the bright yellow SUV with matching trailer and fancy logo that pulled alongside us at the launch spot. Pilot Ken Eske assured me he’d been flying 13 incident-free years, adding, “knock on wicker.”
Crew chief Fred Rippetoe – who as part Hispanic, Native American and white embodied New Mexican culture – amused us with stories, like the time he accidentally burned down a friend’s wall while housesitting, saying it finally gave the artist north-facing windows.
My fears eased as Eske dipped the balloon in and out of the Rio Grande gorge. He guided the balloon anywhere from hundreds of feet above the ground – where giant ant hills could be seen dotting the landscape separated by just a few feet – to the river’s surface, for his signature “dip and dive.” The trip concluded with a brunch of fruit and Entemann’s, with Eske giving us the history of ballooning and Taos, a town where the three cultures come together regularly on the softball field.
That’s an unlikely place to find cultural harmony, but here in New Mexico, looks can be deceiving.