LA MADERA TUCKS INTO A NOOK OF green surrounded by sun-burnished canyons. A few houses perch on gnarled, rocky slopes dotted with dark piñon and juniper trees, but most line the valley floor along the Vallecitos and Tusas rivers, near cottonwoods with trunks too big for two people to touch fingers around and fields stacked with bales of hay. Renegade apple trees hug the roadside.
When the lumber mill in La Madera ran from 1914 to 1926, hundreds of people lived in this little valley and in scattered nearby villages. They had stores, schools, libraries, dance halls, and enough people for parades. But after the big pines were all cut and freighted away, the valley drifted into sleepy semiabandonment.
The town, about an hour north of Santa Fe, was a quiet enclave when C.C. Culver arrived 30 years ago to visit her friend, the legendary micaceous clay potter Felipe Ortega. Eventually, in 2010, she bought the land that became Owl Peak Farm, leaning in to a desire to bring people together and feed them.
“I’m an artist. I never thought I’d be a farmer,” Culver explains, showing me around the fields, the rebuilt farmhouse, and the production shed where she mills flour. She’d always worked on a grand scale when painting and printmaking, but after sinking time into the farm, even murals ceased to captivate her. “It was too small,” she says. “This is like my big canvas. I can feel the air, the light, the people, the animals, the soil.”
For three years, Culver planted fields of cover crops to help the compacted, saline soil that grew only scrubby alfalfa plants regain some vitality. Now, rows of beans, corn, onions, and vegetables bask in the sun. Her water comes from rain and the Río Vallecitos, which turned to a trickle through a stony bed earlier than expected this summer. But her eye is on what she’ll learn and gain. “I like to see what survives,” she says. “With my tomatoes, if all die but one, that’s the one I want.”
She’ll save its seeds to start new plants for the next year—which is not unlike the spark of La Madera’s farming history, which remains for a determined few to fan its flames. They’re nurturing themselves and their communities, often just one meal at a time. For now, the town feels like a pastoral place for an unhurried, get-back-to-nature retreat, poised for quick trips to nearby places like Ojo Caliente, Taos, or Abiquiú, with a chance to swing by the farm and stumble into some new happening. It has long been a place where people went to live freely, quietly, and perhaps a bit invisibly, Culver says.
The search for a less-beaten track was my introduction to La Madera. I like taking roads I’ve never driven before, filling in blanks on my mental map of this state. So I traveled the circuitous route from Santa Fe through La Madera and Vallecitos while heading to Tres Piedras to rock climb. What filled the void was a curl of river valleys, scattered houses, and a twinge of curiosity. I drove on to camp in a Carson National Forest meadow and spent that evening walking through the woods as the light ran low and golden, passing hunters camped nearby while scouting for the coming season, prickled by what might be happening in those remnant villages.
Culver started Owl Peak Farm as a nonprofit focused on building community around food. Owl Peak’s rebuilt 3,600-square-foot farmhouse was designed with a great room, multiple kitchen spaces, and a row of bedrooms to host interns or small conferences. It’s seen all of those, plus community dinners.
During the pandemic, Culver and her staff served boxed meals from the kitchen for people to take to tables scattered in the pasture, together, but safely distanced.
As of this summer, Culver is on the lookout for someone with a vision for using this functional, fully outfitted space for milling flour, baking bread, or hosting meals. That might be a pair of women she met recently, or another new resident of the area who meandered through the mill and farmhouse with us the morning of my visit.
“It comes and goes,” Culver says of the local happenings, like the community lunch she hosted on Fridays in July. “It just takes a group of people who care about coming together and love cooking or doing what they’re doing, and everyone sharing in the effort that it takes to bring people to the table—and it’s always wonderful when we do it.”
Upstairs, light filtering through curtained windows glints on shelves of micaceous clay pots, including some by Ortega. These pots are made to be used, but it’s difficult for her to dirty and risk damaging the work of a now-gone friend. Ortega shepherded Culver’s place in this community, and she now supports other artists, hanging their paintings and ironwork. She mills flour and sells it in the Owl Peak Farm mercantile, as well as at shops in Santa Fe, alongside beans, eggs, and honey. Adorning the walls, photos best described as portraits of blue corn show navy and eggplant kernels gleaming against bursting dried, golden husks.
“You should see it when I make nixtamal,” Culver says. For that traditional process, she soaks and cooks corn in an alkaline solution that preserves its nutritional value. Sometimes the timing means she’s up at midnight, washing kernels, exhausted but dazzled by “gems of every kind of color of blue.”
A couple from El Rito stop by for one of the July community lunch events. Culver and her staff prepare lunch for her farm crew, but when the Open sign is flipped on, anyone can drop in. On this occasion, Culver invited local musicians, too.
After plates of grilled chicken, rice, calabacitas, and tortillas, New Mexican folk musician Cipriano Vigil tucks a guitar under his arm, tunes, and then begins to strum and sing. Vigil plucks with a thumbnail and strokes his fingernails down the strings. His voice intertwines with his son’s, who’s come to play today, too. Soon, two more guitars are out, and players are trading off melodies.
Vigil’s son listens, then says, “I play one like that, but mine’s a little different.” He sets off plucking out his variation. Vigil tells the stories behind songs he wrote and plays classics. One is so raunchy it leaves everyone chuckling.
“You picked a rich day to come,” the woman from El Rito says to me as she prepares to head home. She had previously bought one of four hat-top boule loaves Culver sold at a farmers’ market and declares that she and her husband “went nuts from the first crust.” Culver talks through her recipe, detailing how much of the Turkey Red stoneground flour she uses in the mix. “Good luck,” Culver offers, “and if you don’t have luck, I’ll fill in the gaps.”
AMID THE GREEN FIELDS LINING THE ROAD, about a mile north of town, rows of hops vines climb toward the sky. In 2017, as his dad bowed out of working the family fields during cancer treatments, Kenneth Suazo was feeling worn down by cutting hay.
“There’s got to be something better to do than grow grass and kill ourselves,” Suazo recalls thinking.
His father and uncle returned home from Vietnam with the idea of planting hops and brewing beer. While brewing never took off, hops grew wild all over the farm, so Suazo persuaded his dad to try it.
“My dad was like, ‘Make me a business plan,’ ” he says. They started small, with just 250 plants. Now, his family (which includes his sister and cousin) has thousands all along the Río Vallecitos that produce close to 1,000 pounds of hops each year. In early August, they come together with friends and local brewers to cut and sort hops, and spend a night camped at the farm sipping beers around a bonfire. Bathtub Row Brewing and Bosque Brewing Co., which both set up tents this year, use the Chinook, Cascade, and Nugget hops from White Crow farm in their beers.
Suazo, whose kids will be the eighth generation to farm the land here, says his parents are pleased with what they’ve built. “It’s just part of old traditions turning into new traditions,” he says.
Linda Garcia grew up in La Madera, when the community was home to a lot of farms and a lot of kids who picked produce all summer and took classes in a four-room schoolhouse. After retiring from a job in Albuquerque and moving back to La Madera, she opened Linda’s Coffee Stop in honor of her grandmother, who was known for feeding anyone who stopped by.
In the first quarter of the 20th century, loggers parked their semis and hiked uphill to her house for a hot meal. Locals would come on their way home from dances, sleep on cots, and wake for breakfast. Her grandmother always said, “Don’t let people leave hungry,” Garcia recalls, and so she doesn’t.
She opens the coffee shop before the kids head out to wait for the school bus and stays until around noon—and even later on Wednesdays, when garbage crews come through town.
The morning rush consists of a lifelong La Maderan sitting at what feels like Garcia’s kitchen table, trading stories with her over a slice of apple pie with whipped cream before heading out to work on a new house. A farmer from nearby Servilleta stops by with jugs of goat milk and cartons of eggs. The coffee shop has become a community drop-off point, she explains.
The lifelong La Maderan leaves Garcia with his grocery list for her next trip to town. As she readies a bowl of soup for a cattle rancher, he laments how well he’d done staying off sugar until he encountered her pastries. When he butchers a cow, he’ll bring her ribs, brisket, or hamburger meat. Farmers give her vegetables and beans.
“Everybody participates, one way or another, in helping me,” Garcia says. “It’s beautiful.”
Growth is happening “little by little,” Garcia says, as I press the last cherry-cake crumbs from my plate. Ojo Caliente, just 20 minutes south, felt similarly sleepy in recent years, but the old pizza restaurant and the gas station both have new owners, and a daughter of the couple that ran Mesa Vista Cafe has taken over that restaurant. How far that energy spills up the road remains to be seen.
About twice a year, Garcia fires up the horno in the front yard so people can make their own pizzas. Maybe 30 or 40 people squeezed into the picnic tables out front last time, Garcia says. That’s more than the census counts as living in town. She has also catered local car shows and bingo nights. Her granddaughter is pushing for a movie night with hot dogs and hamburgers. She’s considering a wineglass-painting night.
When strangers stop by—off-highway vehicle riders headed into double-track trails in the Carson National Forest, hikers wending toward Cruces Basin Wilderness, rock climbers like me on their way to the knobby mounds of granite near Tres Piedras, and meandering road-trippers from more countries than she can count—Garcia takes down their information and sends thank-you cards, “so they don’t forget.”
The screen door slaps shut behind a young woman staying at a yurt up the road, who bundles up pastries, burritos, and two coffees with cream. Garcia bids her, “Enjoy our little village, and come back.”
“We hope to,” the woman says.
Get down on the farm and back to nature.
Across the river, Wild River Oasis, booked through Hipcamp (the campers’ equivalent of Airbnb), features a yurt, vintage camper, and en suite bedroom at the edge of La Madera. Two campsites are also available. Crisp, bright Casita de Paz en La Madera sleeps eight. The recently renovated La Madera Farmhouse Airbnb sits on six acres and is perfect for a family retreat.
Linda’s Coffee Stop, on NM 111, is open from 6:30 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. or whenever everyone is fed. The members-only Shed Dinner Project hosts limited-seating dinners intermittently through the year. Paid participants support regenerative agriculture, including raising Criollo cattle and Churro sheep, on the farm near Vallecitos and gain access to a market of small-batch goods.
Owl Peak Farm’s store, 480 NM 111, sells beans, stone-ground organic flour, and eggs, and stocks Honey Lovin’ honey and Pickle Jar mustards.