Hannah Dean visits Hills Snyder and shares some of the local lore, food, art, and books from Magdalena, New Mexico.
Field Report: Magdalena, NM
Elevation: 6,572 feet (the mountains range from 6,548-10,783 feet)
Town name etymology: “Mary Magdalene gazes down from the Magdalena Peak” according to the village website.
Fun fact: The Magdalena Ranger District for the Cibola National Forest is the oldest continuous business in town.
Notable distances: 24 miles to the Very Large Array. 25 miles to the Magdalena Ridge Observatory. 29 miles to the Alamo Band of the Navajo Nation’s Reservation. 54 miles to Pie Town.
Driving north from the Valley of Fires and Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, I take the exit towards the Very Large Array, turning twenty-six miles westward to the village of Magdalena, New Mexico. Clouds break, spotlighting cow and piñon-dotted hills that are déjà vu, pulled straight from the paintings of Peter Hurd.
This small village retains the charm of being ghost town adjacent, the historic trail’s end for cattle drives, and outpost for the once-active Kelly Mine. (Interestingly, the mine’s headframe was designed by that Eiffel.)
My guide, Hills Snyder, introduces me to more than a few Magdalenans. The same gusting wind that animates local Michael Mideke’s sound art pushes us along between visits. A former area fire chief, Mideke chuckles about a propane maintenance man “steadfastly ignoring the madness,” the cacophony raised by his backyard sound garden, a collection of various cans, lids, and random objects made into chimes.
Magdalena is home to artists, gallerists, teachers, astronomers, chefs, authors, farmers, and firefighters—most with some combination of these descriptives. Many are born and raised in the area, or prodigal sons and daughters returned, coastal exurbanites, and “dark-skies” seekers. The art folks here have the rhizomatic quality of aspens in local painter Estelle Roberge’s work: individuals connected by the experience of developing in this particular place.
Art and Culture
Artist Catherine DeMaria directs the art space in a former feed store, which she and her spouse, Athena Gassoumis, ran as such for years after moving to Magdalena, based on a good premonition, from New York. A recent exhibition, 380/A Thread Between Two Artist Communities, showcased several Magdalena-based artists. Judy Richardson, who moved here from New York in early 2020, sculpts found-object assemblages in her studio down the block from Warehouse 1-10. Also from the East Coast, married artists Sigrid McCabe and Michael Bisbee moved to Magdalena in 2006. Bisbee’s bisected color-field paintings are reminiscent of plant root systems or maps. McCabe’s humorously anthropomorphized ceramics grace several places around town—you can’t miss them.
kind of a small array
A petite gallery adjacent to Warehouse 1-10, kind of a small array started in 2018 by Hills Snyder, an artist, writer, and musician from San Antonio, Texas. Programming continues to include a formidable roster of mostly-Southwestern artists.
Navajo artist Eddie Tsosie is represented at La Posada Art Gallery (with a mural of his work adorning the exterior wall) and 802 Artworks & Gifts. Tsosie’s colorful paintings depict the Southwest through modern and traditional Diné customs.
Laurie Taylor Gregg runs her print studio (at a new location) in Hop Canyon. The shop boasts several printmaking processes, including letterpress printing, and is available for rentals and workshops. Behind the print studio is a cottage for artist residencies (you can also rent it as an Airbnb).
Stay and Rest
This cozy adobe B&B comes with views, and rates starting at $105 per night.
A rustic, pet-friendly motel and RV park that was once a maternity hospital, right off Highway 60.
A historic hotel off the main drag, with rates starting at $95 per night. Home to Kelly’s Place Cafe, where I enjoyed sausage-gravy and green chile–soaked “redneck huevos.”
A corner sandwich and coffee shop located on 1st street where I had the generously portioned BLT with green chile, and picked up a children’s book about a skunk assisting the Easter Bunny (written by cafe owner Willie Mozley’s mom.)
On the westbound side of town, Tumbleweeds has a range of casual offerings. I enjoyed the vegetarian burger, fries, and relaxed atmosphere, right up until the diner closed after selling out their inventory.
Dah Díníílghaazh Fresh Fry Bread Stand
Classic fry bread offerings like the Navajo Taco, piled with pinto beans and all the fixings, located on Highway 60 in front of the auto parts store.
Atelier Studio 605 and ES-PRESS-O
On the main drag, filled with several massive letterpress printers and a hot rod, the espresso shop is open when the “cappuccino” sign in the window is lit.
While planning your stay, please pick up a copy of the following local books, including Stephen Bodio’s Querencia (1990, Clark City Press), which took less than a day to read cover to cover. This autobiography peers into the author’s admirations and observations of his love, Betsy, and Magdalena, often in concurrence.
Bruce Holsapple’s Wayward Shadow Poems (2013, La Alameda Press) is peppered with humor to counter the harsher realities of life, and is a portrait of place. An excerpt from the poem “Elevation”: “I know you, I say / kneeling, then peer down / over my shoulder / to the place where I first learned / this weed, “Goat’s Beard” / saw through myself / to that desperate time / the distance / took my breath.”
Krista Arias’s Xingona Girl Smoke: the pace and posture of permission (2021, Tlatolli Café-Press) is a short collection that gracefully weaves into a singular overarching poem, that of a “Xicana Indígena mother’s… only daughter’s coming-of-age ceremony, which ends up also being her own.” The book enthralls through the lens of relationship, body, land, history, dreams, and death. Xingona Girl Smoke was conceived through Arias’s own small-press project, Tlatolli Café-Press, housed in Magdalena’s 1918 Roosevelt Schoolhouse.
Of the many gems Magdalena offers, the Astronomical Lyceum—a decommissioned gymnasium filled with tele- scopes and an extensive astronomy library, gathered by astronomer and history enthusiast John Briggs—is an unusual treat. Briggs himself is the most encyclopedic element of the Lyceum, and a willing conversationalist. Keep an eye out for the Enchanted Skies Star Parties of the future, or make an appointment to see the Lyceum for yourself.
With that, I leave you one last artifact: rumor has it you can catch the mayor working at his sculpture shop, ZW Blacksmithing and Metal Art, in the middle of town along Highway 60. Happy trails!