“You might want to slow down,” offered Karen calmly, “there’s a village just around the corner.”
She wasn’t joking. Within a few hundred feet, the road narrowed into a half-mile stretch of old wooden houses, a mix of galleries, homes, and a café. That’s all I really noticed. It was my first time driving, ever. Normally a motorcyclist, driving a truck (no, not a Rover) was enough of a challenge. Madrid did appeal though, as it wasn’t your usual American town. This was a slowly reviving ghost town, some three hundred residents on and off since the 1980s. It had been quite a thriving coal-mining town in the 1800s until just after the Second World War when coal production crashed, so to speak. Then the company closed up the mines, kicked everyone out, and tried to sell the whole town. No-one bought it and it lay empty until the early seventies.
Since that first experience of Madrid I’ve come to call it home. For some twenty years, I’ve come and gone repeatedly, but always returning to this funky unique artists’ haven set in a steep valley in the Ortiz Mountains just south of Santa Fe. Now though, I’m about to move across country, some 2200 miles away to the Northeast. A new lifestyle, climate, and even a college pull me away. With that in mind, I decided it was time to take Shorty, the 72 Series III, and my two dogs on a short afternoon trundle around town.
I opened up the Land Rover as my coffee cooled off, and went about checking all the fluids, tools, and even though to put in a small air compressor. As I packed a picnic for us, Little Stevie (the cat) decided he wanted to check it out as well, but once I came closer he ran off. The van he likes but not the Rover, it’s too loud for him. One day perhaps I’ll get him to go for a drive with us. We’ll see.
First stop was just down from my place south of Madrid. There’s a little known dirt track that takes you only half a mile or so onto a high mesa overlooking the coal pilings and now thriving little town. After a few movies were filmed here, Madrid has become quite the tourist destination and the galleries and restaurants are full on weekends as sunny as this one. I let the dogs out to run ahead and in first gear Shorty followed their tracks easily. Behind us are the Ortiz Mountains, which produced coal here in Madrid, turquoise in Cerrillos, and even gold to the northwest side of the mountains. It’s amazing how full these hills were with small mines, stone houses, and even railway tracks for hauling out the findings. Thousands lived and worked here.
From here, after a short walk myself, I took us into town, and up over Tipple Way towards the red dog, which are the red pilings that come from mining both hard and soft coal. A small hill of this dusty powder and gravel lies just off Highway 14. Shorty climbed up the private dirt road to the peak in four-wheel drive and I parked off to the side. I wanted to hike to the brow of the hill and look down upon Madrid, see how busy it really was this Sunday. With a careful step since it’s rattlesnake season, I hiked up to the radio tower and peaked over to take a photo.
Madrid has its own low power FM radio station. With a handful of dedicated locals, lead by Stella, Will, Katie, Peter, Ashley and Scott, they built a transformer shed on this peak, carrying concrete, tools, supplies, huge post, wires, solar equipment, and now with all the licenses needed, there is KMRD 96.9 FM streaming live on radio and internet all day long. Volunteers do it all. After walking up there with only a camera and bottle of water, I realised how much work it was to build this transformer up here, impressive.
The dogs, Harold and Rosie, lead me back to the shade of the Landy and as they drank deeply from the water bowl, I noticed a soft tyre, a very soft tyre. But I had the air compressor and so took care of it easily. Not a bad place to break down really, and even a kindly neighbour drove past asking if I needed help. The dogs lay down on the platform in the back and then heading down in first gear, we trundled.
Next stop was to head for the Ballpark. Being Memorial Weekend, there’s the annual softball game between Madrid Miners and a team from the East Mountains to the south of us. It’s a big deal. We always lose. Town was packed and I had to drive through in second gear watching out for unsuspecting tourists gawking at Rosie sitting in the front on the left hand side. “The dog’s driving!”
There’s little parking available since I was late, except at the upper parking lot to the north of the park which was fine by me, it was quieter and the dogs sniffed and ran free for a while. Then we headed into the fray, finding some shade under one of the few elm trees. The place was busier than I’d expected with packed tables, many beer coolers, roaming dogs, roaming kids, numerous dusty cowboy hats all amid much yelling to each team. Trey hit one out of the field, he’s one of ours.
“We might win, it’s a tie so far!” Monika was thrilled. The joy didn’t last too long, as one mistake after another and the Madrid Miners slowly lost all momentum. Oops.
“Those drunks from Molly’s Bar won again.”
Back up hill and in the shade of Shorty, the dogs snoozed until my picnic woke them. I popped open a cold soda and munched on a cheese and tomato sandwich. The afternoon was coming along nicely.
It’s such a great way to explore Madrid, taking the back roads in Shorty. Sometimes in four-wheel drive, mostly not, I drove around slowly admiring all the work my friends have put into their homes and gardens over the last twenty years I’ve been here. Locals waved and stopped to ask about when I’m moving. Shocked that it’s next week, we made plans to meet up during the week once more to say bye. It’s still such a small community, we all know each other’s business, the vehicles we all drive, and the names of the dogs wandering around. With about three hundred in town and another couple hundred more in the hills like myself, I’ve come to know many of those who call Madrid home. An odd bunch we are, writers, teachers, sculptors, gallery owners, restaurant owners, pilots, ER nurses, paramedics and dog walkers. We have it all.
Perhaps there was time for a quick beer at the Cantina with the band? Why not, I’m not going to be here for summer. I parked out back like a true local and headed onto the patio for a pint.
Madrid has been such a great home to me, it’s true. I’ve built a home, paid off the land, got back into the Land Rover world in memory of my parents who raised my brother and I by camping all over Europe in a Series IIA LWB in the seventies and eighties. Happy memories.
And yes, I’ll miss Madrid. It’s time though to move on, to find another community and to explore more in Shorty. Taking in the tree-lined Vermont hills, looking for rivers and lakes, and followed by four months of snow, that’s what awaits me. I can’t wait.
Bye Madrid, I’ll miss you. Thank you for all these years together. I had fun.
Published in CLASSIC LAND ROVER MAGAZINE 8/2017
BY SARAH LEAMY