The Turquoise Trail
State Highway 14
by George Oxford Miller
The Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway connects ancient mines and ghost towns reborn as artist communities.
With the eye-ache blue skies and hundred-mile views, it’s easy to understand why the high desert hills along the Turquoise Trail have inspired both artists and mystics. From Albuquerque to Santa Fe, the 65-mile-long National Scenic Byway, State Highway 14, parallels the bustling Interstate Highway 25, but it passes through a slower world, where mining and jewelry-making have changed little since Puebloan miners chiseled the sacred blue stone from shallow digs.
The Southwest Indians called turquoise “chalichihuiti,” or “sky stone.” They considered it a sacred talisman for health, happiness and protection. Archeologists unearthed 56,000 pieces of turquoise in a single burial at nearby Chaco Canyon. Mayan ruins as far away as Honduras contained jewelry with stones mined from the fabled Cerrillos Hills along the Turquoise Trail.
The Southwest Indians were not alone in valuing turquoise. Egyptians considered the stone a semi-precious gem as early as 3500 BC. Persia and China have mined the mineral for thousands of years. The modern name comes from the French word, “turquois,” for the Turkish traders who brought jewelry from Persia.
The Turquoise Trail turns north off IH-40 at Tijeras, about 20 miles east of Old Town Albuquerque. Little museums, bizarre roadside attractions, fine-art and craft galleries, trading posts, B&Bs, and mom-and-pop cafes line the winding corridor through the juniper-pinyon covered hills. Take time to chat with the owners, and you’ll discover people who are inspired, wacky or visionary, but most of all, they have a passion for life.
As we approached Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), we passed a sign that warned “Congestion Ahead.” We rounded a bend and promptly slowed to a crawl. We discovered that on weekends, pedestrians turn the village into one extended shopping mall as they crisscross the highway between galleries and shops.
We parked and joined the procession. Todd Klippenstein, owner of Chumani Gallery, greeted us as we entered his eclectic store. In addition to his own paintings, sculpture and jewelry, Klippenstein displays the work of about 30 artists, most from the nearby Santo Domingo Pueblo.
The Pueblo Indians, who have mined the volcanic hills at least since the 1300s, “were the original caretakers of the turquoise mines,” Klippenstein says. “I mine my own turquoise, too. It’s important to maintain the circle of continuity with the native jewelers.” Klippenstein works in many media but focuses on his brightly-colored abstract angel paintings, which carry four-figure prices.
Both the psychic energy, which inspires his angel paintings, and the unity among the community of artists attracted Klippenstein to Madrid from his home in South Dakota. “Madrid is one of the last towns (in the Southwest) that is owned and operated by artists who work and show in their own galleries. Everyone in town is different, but we give honor and respect to each other and keep our work going. This is a wonderful area for the creative process.”
Mel and Diana Johnson opened the Johnsons of Madrid Gallery in an old garage in 1973. They transformed the space into a combination gallery/studio for both of their interests. Mel, who taught art at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, currently paints aerial perspective abstracts of local landscapes. Diana specializes in fiber art.
“We’re the oldest newcomers,” Diane says. “Madrid was a ghost town when we moved here. Now, the town has 30 fine art galleries and 45 craft shops. We’re the oldest and largest and represent 155 artists from New Mexico. Fifty are fiber artists like myself.” One wall offers a glimpse into the past with photographs of Madrid taken in 1935 taken by Earnest Knee.
Madrid offers the best choices for lunch along the route. Dining at the Tocororo Café, owned by Cuban artist Olga Delulogeu, is an artistic as well as culinary delight. The artist decorated the tabletops and walls with her colorful Caribbean motifs. Across the street, the Mine Shaft Tavern serves a more locally inspired roadhouse menu.
Down the street, Maggie’s Main Street Diner may look familiar if you saw the movie “Wild Hogs” with an all-star cast of John Travolta, William H. Macy, Ray Liotta, Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence. The storefront was built as a prop for the film. The area’s stunning scenery and rich history have attracted dozens of films, including “All the Pretty Horses” (2000), “Young Guns” (1988), John Wayne’s “The Cowboys” (1973), and “Easy Rider” (1969).
Driving into the little mining town of Cerrillos, just a few miles north of Madrid, feels like entering an old western set. The dirt streets, adobe houses and clapboard storefronts haven’t changed much since cars replaced horses. Todd Brown, who owns the Casa Grande Trading Post and Mining Museum, left Long Island at age 17. “That was 36 years and six kids ago.” He smiles and adds, “But only one wife.”
Brown made 66,000 adobe bricks to construct the 28-room hacienda-style trading post. He sells jewelry made from turquoise he mines from the famed Little Chalichihuiti mine, which dates back 700 years. “Of the 40 claims in the area, I have the best in the hills,” he brags. “Other mines mainly get turquoise the Indians left in the tailings. Mine still has rich veins of ore.”
His five-room “museum” is more a hodge-podge assortment of mining, Indian and geological artifacts piled on tables, stacked on shelves, hanging from the ceiling, and propped in corners than a curated collection. “I have a thousand objects in every room. Each piece is worth a dollar a piece,” he jests. Antiques Roadshow once featured his collection of treasures.
North of Cerrillos, the Turquoise Trail leaves the desert hills and continues past Lone Butte onto the treeless sagebrush plains. Pronghorn antelope often graze near the highway and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains form a scenic backdrop for Santa Fe. SH 14 continues into Santa Fe, where it becomes Cerrillos Road and merges into the historic plaza.
Chic galleries line the square and Native Americans offer their wares blanket-to-blanket along the sidewalks. Shoppers crowd the walkway and bounce from vendor to vendor. The frenetic pace of Santa Fe’s central plaza gives me a greater appreciation for the heart-to-heart interactions in the quaint little towns along the Turquoise Trail.
For information about Albuquerque, contact the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-733-9918 .
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