Magdalena, 29 miles down 60, is an old mining and cattle town whose heyday was in the 19th century. Now it features shops selling knickknacks, furniture, and Navajo rugs, mostly to people on their way to somewhere else. Blue Canyon Gallery is the first place you reach driving in from Socorro—the gallery, a house, and a kiln. In the shop one finds pottery made by owner Barbara Moore, and jewelry made by Indians on the nearby Alamo Navajo Reservation.
“Magdalena kind of went down the tubes in the late twenties and thirties, like a lot of the old mining towns in the area,” Barbara said. Her brown hair was in a bowl cut, and she had a wry, deadpan delivery. “It made a comeback in the fifties and sixties, when some hippies roosted on the land. Now it has quite a few retirees, which we are too.” Her husband, Jim Versluis, appeared. He was a bluff man with a sun-reddened face surrounded by wisps of white hair. We talked about how he fell in love with this landscape almost 12 years earlier, and he offered to take me on a favorite hike in the surrounding hills.
And so I found myself traipsing through the old Kelly Mine, around which the original town had formed. The miners had come hoping to find gold, quickly lowered their sights to silver, and ended up with lead for paint and pencils. We peered down into the mines, black holes in the ground. I threw pebbles, waiting several beats before each little ping. We came upon some fantastic views of the canyon that Route 60 cuts through here. What I most liked up there was the incredible hush. The landscape was utterly still, and yet it moved. A tall stand of cottony-looking shrubbery swayed in each breath of air that came across the mountain. Perhaps the altitude turned my head, but I could have stared at this silent picture and listened to the faint sound of the wind in my ears for hours. Jim waited patiently as I took pictures of the brush, and then we went down to the house and shared tea and the scones and eclairs I had picked up back at the Manzanares Street Coffeehouse. Barbara and Jim and I talked about their children, their cat, who moved stealthily between our legs, and life in Magdalena, which was a happy life for them.
Then Barbara said, “You know what this reminds me of?The scones and the treats?Richard.”
“Oh, yes,” Jim said.
They proceeded to tell me about their old friend Richard Fry, who had planned to work on his poetry when he retired from fixing copy machines. But then he inherited some land in West Virginia, and drove all the way from Magdalena to look at it. On a second trip there, he was killed by a tornado in Kansas.
“It was a pure accident of fate,” Jim said.
“I remember seeing it on the news,” Barbara said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
They both looked down at the table. But the somber moment gave way to the unexpected warmth of our visit. I bought a little wire brooch in the shape of a cat from their shop and hit the road.
I put the convertible’s top down. The road was smooth and flat as a runway. I opened the engine a bit, then some more. I flew by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s “Very Large Array”—rows and rows of gigantic white dish antennas that can be manipulated to work together like eyes and “focus” on deep space. I flew past the piñon trees that line the road like bunched fists of green. At times it felt as though I were standing still and the road was unspooling rapidly beneath me. The flatness seemed like it would go on forever. In fact, it was only 56 miles from Magdalena to Pie Town, whose two commercial establishments are both devoted to pies.
I contemplated the Daily Pie Café but in the end chose the Pie-O-Neer on the grounds of its bigger sign. A whole bunch of pies were laid out for perusal, and when I asked what they were, Kathy Knapp, the proprietor and chief pie maker, was summoned from the kitchen to explain. She had big blue eyes that conveyed a childishness and a kind of frontier pragmatism, which is a look I’ve seen before in the eyes of small- business people who secretly see themselves as artists.