KAREN ARGEANAS WALKS THROUGH the old mission church at Abó, one of three parts of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (along with Quarai and Gran Quivira), outside the town of Mountainair. She heads down a path between the mounds of an unexcavated pueblo. Turning around, she studies the view she painted as the monument’s artist in residence.
The foreground holds heaps of sandstone rocks that contained an Ancestral Pueblo village that thrived before the arrival of Spanish priests. The Catholic church, which held services from 1622 until drought and conflict compelled Abó’s residents to leave in the 1670s, dominates the background.
“The pueblo—that’s 300 years of history,” Argeanas says, “and the church is just 50-some.”
History and culture overlay each other throughout this region southeast of Albuquerque. Argeanas, who lives nearby, visited the monument every day of her two-week residency, recording in a sketchbook how light moves over the eroded walls and through doorways, the way clouds pile up, and how the pattern painted by a far earlier artist adorns a piece of pottery. The sketches fed a series of four paintings, each of which depicts a different aspect of the place and its history.
The artist’s job is, in part, to reinterpret or remind us of the past. But artists can also spark a revival. In Mountainair, new businesses, bustling art galleries, and the reopening of a classic hotel are adding attractions to a place layered in both the recent and distant past—while preserving its small-town charm.
Famous for its pinto beans, Mountainair and its one square mile of streets became an official town in 1903. By 1907, the train depot bustled with railcars hauling loads of legumes from nearby farms. Handsome brick buildings rose, including the Dr. Robert J. Saul Recreation Center, a WPA-era structure that once featured a little-known singer and guitarist named Glen Campbell before the Rhinestone Cowboy blasted to fame. The mainstay hotel, the Shaffer, was sometimes so busy that travelers were turned away.
In 1946, drought came. Topsoil blew away. Trains didn’t stop. People left, too. Today Mountainair tallies fewer than 900 people. But motivated locals are orchestrating a turnaround. I arrive at the hotel a few minutes before its dining room starts serving breakfast. A local who sees me checking my watch says, “They’re open—or they are now that they see me here.”
He walks through a door topped by stained-glass windows. Clem “Pop” Shaffer, a renowned folk artist, built the two-story hotel in 1923, embellishing every possible surface inside and out. He created stained-glass images of mountains and thunderbirds, carved table legs, and hand-painted ceiling beams and panels, and tiled the trim on a banquet still used to sort silverware. He even painted a bar top in a chaotic sprawl that, old-timers say, bears hidden images of animals. Outside, stone mosaics of oddball animals cling to garden walls and fence posts.
I sit down with Ed von Kutzleben, the Shaffer Hotel’s current owner, and Peter Nieto, Mountainair’s mayor. Over plates of eggs, Nieto lists his efforts to revive the place he used to know. In the town he remembers as a kid, there was always something going on, he says. But as an adult he noticed that changing, and it worried him.
“I saw Mountainair slowly declining,” Nieto says. Thanks to the national monument, people still came to the town, which bills itself as the Gateway to Ancient Cities. But they didn’t stay. “I told Ed, ‘I want this to become a destination,' ” he says.
Nieto filled the town’s calendar with events, including a hot-air balloon rally and matanza, a traditional pig roast, in November. He rerouted the Christmas light parade to weave through side streets so elderly residents could watch and wave from warm living rooms. He organized a drive-in movie theater for pandemic-safe entertainment.
He also tackled basic cleanup efforts, ambulance response times, and the introduction of online bill payment services. He even learned to administer covid-19 tests to spare people the drive to another town and delivered groceries to those quarantining.
Some locals characterize his work as pulling the town into the 21st century.
“Not to make it where his hat won’t fit because his head’s so big,” von Kutzleben says, gesturing to Nieto with his coffee cup, “but he gets after it.”
VON KUTZLEBEN DISCOVERED MOUNTAINAIR in the early 2000s. “The weather suited me, the people suited me, the food suited me,” he says. “I ride a motorcycle, and the roads are like a dream come true.”
He was volunteering with crews revitalizing the town’s Monte Alto Plaza—renovations that included installing a gazebo adorned with ironworked squash and bean plants and cornstalks so finely detailed their veined leaves curl—when he looked across the street at the shuttered hotel. He decided its closed doors just wouldn’t do. People driving through central New Mexico needed a chance to stop and have a look around.
He bought it in 2019 and reopened without major restoration, just upgrades like new plumbing and beds, leaving its quirky character in place. “I don’t want to take anything away, and I don’t want to add anything. All I want to do is keep this piece of history how it is,” he says. “I just hope in 100 years it’s still here.”
He also invited two local artists to open La Galería inside the hotel, and paintings now spill into the lobby. The art gallery represents regional artists, including Argeanas. Paintings and sculptures share space with affordable prints and notecards (and the occasional sale of miniatures timed for the holidays).
“Everybody deserves to have art in their house,” co-owner and collage artist Rebecca Anthony says. In her collages, layered paper catches the hints of light and shifting textures seen in the nearby mountains, like a charred post-fire scene campers would recognize from the Capilla Peak Campground, in the nearby Manzano Mountains. She bought an Argeanas painting of a trailer in a stark desert, she tells me as we stand in front of a similar piece in the gallery.
“If you can make a trailer into a piece of art, you can do pretty much anything,” she says with a laugh. “I love it. I mean, it’s kind of quintessential New Mexico.”
A SHORT WALK FROM LA GALERÍA, bronzed horse heads rear from the corner walls of the Manzano Mountain Art Council’s building. Inside, a small gift shop supports the nonprofit’s youth programs, along with lectures, concerts, dances, festivals, and gallery shows (Relics & Recycled Art opens December 1). This past year, the council led an effort to restore some lost treasures to the town.
When I step inside, I see them—or some of them, anyway. More await display. Shaffer carved fantastical creatures, what he calls “root monsters,” from twisted stumps and roots found in the desert. He notched them with ears, beaks, and feet, painted on eyes, hooves, and pink tongues, and transformed gnarled wood to loosely grouped limbs. Some look like a lion, a frog, or a monkey. Others dodge resemblance.
Shaffer, who was once described in print as a “hotel-keeper, rancher, blacksmith, playboy, contractor, jokester … [who] throws matches on his own hotel floor,” crafted Pop Shaffer’s Wooden Zoo on his Rancho Bonito property, just south of town. After he died in 1964, his wife, Lena Shaffer, sold most of the creatures to a tourist attraction in Arizona. In 2018, the zoo landed in a Las Cruces warehouse. Mountainair locals tracked it down and pooled funds to buy it.
“They were born here,” says Donna Deiner, who runs the art council’s gift shop and helped in the reclamation effort. “They belong here.”
Rancho Bonito isn’t open to the public, but Nieto gets permission from the property owners for me to look at buildings Shaffer adorned with even more humanlike figures, animals, and geometric designs. Even the pump head by the swimming pool has an eye and mouth painted onto it. On a rock-walled building, Shaffer halved chunks of sandstone and placed them so that their mirror images face each another. Some are assembled into creatures, with pointed ears and eyes drawn by the sandstone’s whorls.
“Like other artists, the folk art environmentalist seems to be driven by the need for expression, but in this case the expression often takes the form of a lifetime, single project which is guided by the desire to form an environment over which the artist has complete control,” Christine Mather, then a curator with the Museum of International Folk Art, wrote in 1977 when nominating Rancho Bonito for the National Register of Historic Places. “Shaffer orchestrated his special utopia.”
“I love this town,” von Kutzleben says. “I can live anywhere in the country, and I chose to live here.”
Mountainair rewards day-trippers, but why not stay the whole weekend?
Explore. A central visitor center for the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is in Mountainair’s downtown area. Pick up maps and ranger tips on what to see at the three units—Abó, Gran Quivira, and Quarai.
Eat. B Street Market stocks produce, cuts of meat, pinto beans, chile, and fresh-baked bread. Its deli counter serves sandwiches, paninis, premade salads, and occasional dinners, like smoked brisket and stuffed zucchini. High school teams swamp the Mustang Diner for pregame fuel ups. Grab a quick espresso at Alpine Alley or more elaborate beverages at the Last Chance Food Shack. Pull up a red vinyl barstool at the old-time soda fountain at Mountainair Meds & More.
Shop. The Cibola Arts Gallery, an artist cooperative, sells pottery, glass mosaics, jewelry, woodworked cutting boards and candleholders, and handmade knives, as well as paintings, drawings, and photographs. Eight regional artists show work at La Galería at the Shaffer. The Manzano Mountain Art Council runs a small gift shop; keep an ear out to catch it when someone has popped in to play the gallery piano.
Stay. Sleep downtown at the Shaffer Hotel (some rooms en suite, some not, many rumored to be haunted). Or enjoy a quiet retreat and views of the Manzano Mountains in the casita at Two Ponyz Ranch. Or pop a tent at Manzano Mountains State Park.
Holiday fun. The Friends of Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument sets luminarias on walls, shelves, and niches at Abó on December 18. Guests can visit the
convento and church by candle- and moonlight. Refreshments, including warm drinks, will be served.