THREE YEARS IN, Fritz Kapraun and John Sakel were hitting their stride as gallery operators and bed-and-breakfast owners. So when the landlord pulled the lease on their La Posada de Maria Magdalena art gallery last year, they were flummoxed. Would the gallery survive?
Just before the “closed” sign went up on their former location, the couple learned that businesswoman and occasional resident Suzan Simonds had decided to leave Alaska in favor of Magdalena full-time and had even bought a commercial building on the main drag. She planned to use only the restaurant portion of the former Bear Mountain Coffee House; they could have the rest.
The good news might have ended there. On their May move-in day, Kapraun and Sakel realized that the space needed more renovations than they could provide.
“But then people started walking in with paintbrushes and hammers,” Kapraun tells me. “Someone replaced the door. Someone else showed up at lunchtime with food.”
“That’s a normal, neighborly thing to do,” I say, after meeting the two. Kapraun agrees, but only with the “neighborly” part. “You don’t use the word ‘normal’ in reference to Magdalena,” he says.
Shaped by ancient volcanoes and Paleo-Indians, this town, 27 miles west of Socorro on US 60, has long held an odd lean. Nearby mining towns—most notably Kelly and Riley—brought boomtown hijinks, charlatans, and outlaws. Legend has it that miners detected the profile of Mary Magdalene on the side of a peak near the Kelly Mine entrance, giving the town its name and patron saint. Or maybe it dates back centuries earlier, courtesy of a Spanish friar. Out here, truth is ephemeral.
From the 1880s into the 1960s, annual sheep and cattle drives from Datil, 35 miles west, led through the heart of Magdalena to stockyards a few cow-lengths off US 60, where the livestock awaited rail transport. “Welcome” signs on either end of town still celebrate Magdalena as the “trail’s end,” and cattle and sheep outnumber people. But the residents represent a cast of characters that include famed author and falconer Stephen Bodio, two scientists who identified the algorithm for the human genome, a pack of abandoned but thriving llamas, an artist couple who turned the morgue into their live/work space, and an astronomy aficionado who stuffed an old gymnasium with historic telescopes and astronomy manuscripts so old that some are written in Latin.
At one time, an artist who illustrated Louis L’Amour’s Wild West novels had a hacienda here. A Reynolds Aluminum exec built the state’s first in-ground swimming pool, where the likes of John Wayne and Natalie Wood frolicked.
Eventually, the mines went bust. The Dust Bowl challenged ranchers. Somehow Magdalena kept ticking. Perhaps that explains why a building that still promises coffee on its exterior instead delivers national-caliber art—and is just one of 12 creative hangouts in Magdalena. And maybe it explains Simonds’s plan to turn her half of the building into a barbecue joint with the usual menu of smoked pork, beef, and chicken—but also smoked beets, cabbage, and cauliflower.
The relocated La Posada de Maria Magdalena art gallery draws visitors and locals almost as reliably as the nearby Magdalena Café collects pickup trucks and cowboy hats. Kapraun, a retired marine biologist and unofficial town concierge, works on watercolors of churches and historic buildings as visitors nibble on cookies and drop oddball tales.
One guest talked about the time his mama decided to die. She went up to her bedroom, fell asleep, but then woke the next morning, and the next, and the next. On the sixth day, she tromped down and said, “Well, I might as well get on with living.”
“I thought, That’s the story of Magdalena,” Kapraun says. “It keeps trying to die, but then decides to live.”
RICHARD RUMPF, AKA ZW FARNSWORTH, moved his blacksmithing and metal-art shop to Magdalena in 2010. Pretty quickly, he became the fire chief—“accidentally,” he says. Then, when no one signed up to run for a village trustee opening, he offered his name as a write-in. After winning that post, he was asked to fill in for a departed mayor, mainly to keep the paperwork moving. To everyone’s surprise, the white-bearded Santa Claus look-alike—he dons a Saint Nicholas robe each December—turned out to be a really good mayor.
Recently reelected, Mayor Rumpf plans to build on a series of events that somehow survived the pandemic—a frontier festival, an airport fly-in, and a car show among them. With work-from-home options increasing the town’s appeal to newcomers, he’s firming up a way to demolish the long-closed and asbestos-ridden Indian School (the Alamo Band of the Navajo Nation is up the road) and sell the land to homebuilders.
Surrounded by metal buzzards, burros, and quail, he admits that the art stock in his ZW Gallery has ebbed. “The village has been taking up way too much of my time,” he jokes, and then launches into a tale of townsfolk’s ill-fated attempt to burn “the pumpkin of gloom” at last year’s Halloween festival. “It wouldn’t catch fire,” he says. “Then I realized, It’s a piñata that’s been sprayed with fire retardant.”
When I consider Magdalena itself as the piñata, a host of treats tumble out. Hikers, rock climbers, and hunters adore its San Mateo and Magdalena mountains, which also hold a few archaeological sites, including the barely discernible outlines of the ancestral Goat Springs Pueblo. History nerds can eyeball the adobe jail that held Billy the Kid and the Sundance Kid (the latter more legend than truth). You can even stand on the onetime dance floor of the original Hilton family hotel in San Antonio, New Mexico. Its floorboards were moved to Magdalena’s wool warehouse, today home to the Marketplace antiques store.
The nearby Very Large Array, to the west, and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, to the east, lend themselves to contemplative day trips. Renovated rooms in the historic Magdalena Hall Hotel serve as a base camp, while wannabe cowboys check into the Concho Hills Guest Ranch.
Gallery hoppers can hit everything from the avant-garde Warehouse 1-10 to the Navajo jewelry and weavings at C&S Morningstar to the by-appointment textiles and paintings of the Old S’cool House Gallery—a 1960s-era school that has been renovated into a home, right down to the gymnasium floor.
“We like to tell people that everything in Magdalena is understated on the outside, and when you step inside, it’s a surprise,” Kapraun says.
A gravel road near the Kelly Mine leads up Hop Canyon, where Laurie Taylor Gregg operates her Village Press Print Studio, a space filled with tantalizing letterpress equipment and where she leads art retreats. She and her first husband came to Magdalena for his U.S. Forest Service job and never figured on settling down there. After his death, she began building a family compound amid the ponderosa pines and found her reason to stay.
“I’ll do art anywhere I can,” she says. “I feel God placed me here. There’s a purpose in it, and I’m to find him wherever I am.”
John Briggs found his reason in the dark skies. As a young adult, he worked briefly at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory, near the summit of South Baldy Mountain, then moved away for other jobs before resettling in the nearby foothills and buying the town’s WPA-era high school gym for little more than its delinquent property taxes. His Astronomical Lyceum is open by appointment, or whenever his vehicle is parked next to the 25-foot-long lens-testing device he nabbed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
Inside, he opens a case holding a circa-1820s wooden telescope built in Germany, possibly by the legendary Joseph Ritter von Fraunhofer himself. It’s just one among so many treasures that he can’t quantify a precise number. “It’s a little kooky,” he admits. “But we have a real scene. Astronomers are retiring here.”
Many of them build backyard observatories and use the lyceum as the Magdalena Astronomical Society’s headquarters, sometimes featuring public star parties.
“These things are works of art,” Briggs says of the old telescopes. “When you get a shockingly clear look at Jupiter, you feel like the old craftsmen are reaching out to you across time. There’s a spirit to it. It’s analogous to what people feel with Baroque music.”
WESTBOUND MOTORISTS OFTEN PASS THROUGH MAGDALENA, barely slowing down to the required 25 miles per hour on their way to Pie Town or Arizona. Four years ago, Kapraun and Sakel merely wanted to see the Very Large Array while visiting from North Carolina. A house on a hill with a “for sale” sign on the edge of town caused them to brake. They bought the house that day.
Sakel, a schoolteacher and photographer, told his husband, “Most people on vacation just buy a T-shirt.” They added two guesthouses and began operating their La Posada de Maria Magdalena bed-and-breakfast, in addition to a gallery closer to downtown.
Last year, Kapraun met Osiris Navarro and her husband, Michal Gola, who had driven from Seattle, Washington, to visit friends. The pandemic had stalled out their catering business, and when Kapraun showed them an empty restaurant to the west of town, Gola sold his apartment in the Czech Republic to buy it. The Tumbleweeds Diner specializes in fried chicken and house-cured bacon, but also dabbles in kimchi-topped hamburgers, curries, and lumpia (spring rolls), from Navarro’s Filipino heritage.
“We didn’t want to gentrify Magdalena or be city slickers,” Navarro says, as a mount of a fedora-wearing mule deer gazes across her 10-table dining space. “It’s almost like a living room vibe.”
A pending beer-and-wine license has inspired them to add birria tacos, steaks, and weekend brunches featuring locally grown produce and meats. “We’re meeting people from our age group who are doing cool things, creating a network,” Navarro says.
At Evett’s Cafe, inside a bank turned pharmacy, one of those younger people, Willie Mozley, serves sandwiches featuring slabs of hand-carved ham and turkey, plus milkshakes with the overflow in a separate cup. Growing up in Socorro, he remembers stopping at the pharmacy’s soda fountain after hikes in Magdalena. He moved away for college and worked in other people’s restaurants but felt the need to do something that was all his.
“I knew I could do that coming back here,” he says. During the renovation, he found the bank’s underground vault, protected by boulders set into concrete. He preserved the pressed-tin ceiling and displays his photographs of landscapes and abandoned places on the walls. And he keeps a healthy balance. One day this past winter, hopeful diners found the doors locked and a handwritten message taped to the front door: “They got fresh powder in Angel Fire. I’m out of here.”
I was out of there, too, but I wanted to make one last stop: the Kelly Mine. After giving up its gold, silver, and lead, the mine closed in 1947, and the houses were moved north, to Magdalena. The old headframe, designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), looms near a tailings mound where visitors find blue-green blobs of smithsonite, a mineral Sherwin-Williams once used to tint its house paint.
Morning quiet envelops me and, try as I might, I can’t spy the Lady of the Mountain. But I feel the sense of history in the air, the lives in the soil, and the lure of future hikes lacing across the slope beyond me. This isn’t the trail’s end, I think. This is where the trail begins.
La Posada de Maria Magdalena bed-and-breakfast has two guest suites, decorated with art and weavings from the owners’ art gallery. (You can buy it, too.) Ten ground-floor rooms are available in the 107-year-old, three-story Magdalena Hall Hotel. The entire mountaintop chalet of Mirador Infinita can be rented for overnights or long-term stays. Get a taste of cowboy living at the Concho Hills Guest Ranch, where you can ride horses, rope cattle, and practice shooting.
Tumbleweeds Diner serves burgers, fried chicken, soups, and salads. Check out the exterior murals, too. Evett’s Cafe makes breakfast burritos and sandwiches. Try the espresso milkshake! The Magdalena Café (575-854-2696) dishes up down-home breakfast and lunch.
Start your hunt for art at the La Posada de Maria Magdalena art gallery, which carries Navajo weavings, religious paintings, watercolors, pottery, and more—and can provide intel on other places to visit. By-appointment Warehouse 1-10 displays works by Catherine De Maria, Michael Bisbee, Sigrid McCabe, and others, plus hosts performance events like Music on Main. Navajo-owned C&S Morningstar sells authentic jewelry and weavings (505-288-6361). 802 Artworks and Gifts carries locally made and imported works curated by owner and interior designer Ginny Galer. Artist Hills Snyder's Kind of a Small Array hosts revolving exhibits and cozy gatherings, including poetry readings. Step into a former wool warehouse to shop for antiques, including vintage cowboy boots, at the Marketplace (505-321-1076). The Route 66 Trading Post (505-507-7022) blends original Navajo art, rugs, and jewelry with antiques and also serves as the town's visitor center.
Grab a copy of The Magdalena Times at shops and restaurants throughout town for a self-guided tour of historic buildings. The Boxcar Museum (575-854-2361), next to the old rail depot, houses exhibits about the town’s mining and ranching past. To see the Astronomical Lyceum, email John Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Kelly Mine is on private property about 3½ miles south of Magdalena. Take a high-clearance vehicle and plan to hike the final half mile. Visitors can roam its remnants and purchase a permit for rock gathering at Bill’s Gem & Mineral Shop (575-854-2236).
Pop into the U.S. Forest Service office on US 60 and Kelly Road for information on hiking and camping. Water Canyon, about 17 miles east of town, has a variety of trails and a campground. Mesa Trail #13 starts on the southern edge of town and can be hiked as a moderate 5.2-mile loop or as a more challenging nine-mile figure eight.
Visit more than 12 artful places during the Magdalena Gallery and Studio Tour, May 7–8, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. The Magdalena Frontier Festival, a living-history event, includes old-time games, pioneer-living demonstrations, and “grub” (i.e., food) on June 11, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Other events include an Airport Fly-In (September 17), a Car and Quilt Show (October 15), and the Christmas Light Parade (December 12).
As they adjust to Covid parameters, Magdalena businesses alter their hours. Before you go, check to make sure. This past winter, many were closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the Very Large Array wasn’t open at all.