Above: Open grasslands between Roy and Mosquero. Photographs by Jay Hemphill.

THE LAND COMES FIRST. It always has.It was here at the beginning—it was the beginning—and its end will be our end, too. It is the place from which every story here in Harding County starts. Within its two-thousand-some-square-mile reach in northeastern New Mexico lie grasslands and canyons and rivers and ranches and towns and vestiges of abandoned prairie homesteads. There is a spirituality to it, the feeling of a greater presence, of attention paid no matter how small the detail. When the sun fall across it, the light turns windmills into sundials, warms the prairie breezes, and golden-frosts the tumbleweeds that gather along drift fences. Then the land itself seems to glow softly, as if lit from within. The grasses sway, the cattle murmur, and when you stand and let the wind rush past you, the land, all of it, moves—undulating in time to a rhythm that you sense more than hear.

The people here love the land and feel they should be stewards of it. Some of their ancestors came a hundred or more years ago, often as homesteaders, connecting this western edge of the prairie to the larger narrative of the Great Plains. They, like the land, are strong and subtle. Together, they endure.

In all of Harding County, you’ll find just two restaurants, one coffee shop, one brewery, two schools, one gas station, and 760 community leaders, business owners, ranchers, artists, teachers, and students. I didn’t get to meet all of them, as I had hoped. But I made a good dent, along the way discovering this community’s forward-thinking verve, tempered by the will to pause and appreciate.

DRIVING INTO MOSQUERO, I wonder how anyone here gets any sleep, what with all the commotion. Firefighters putting out a blaze. Two men strumming guitars. Cowboys driving cattle. And a helicopter!

Thing is, though, there’s not a sound. And nobody’s moving. All those people are past residents of Mosquero, remembered now in lifelike representations painted on buildings. The idea came from Mosquero students in 2008. With their teacher, Donna Hazen, and the direction of a professional muralist, they painted the images from old family photos. The effect is transformative: a town alive with its past.

“This community is a gem,” Tuda Libby Crews says. She and her sister, Mary Libby Campbell, are my guides to Harding County. We gather in a lovely place called the Rectory. Once the home of local clergy, it fell into disrepair until Tuda restored it as a guest rental. One bedroom features a Murphy bed in a room where the priest had kept canaries. So if you sleep there and dream you’re flying, you’ll know why.

Mary and Tuda are among those working to keep Harding County healthy and forestall the out-migration trend that so often strikes rural communities. Mary is executive director of the Harding County MainStreet program, and she and her husband operate Yesterday’s Valley Ranch. Tuda runs the Ute Creek Cattle Company. Both were born and raised here. Over a home-cooked meal, we discuss some of the things they’ve done to bolster their communities. One in particular intrigues me. In 2007, about a hundred residents voted on things they wanted to see happen, like opportunities for youths and an improved economy. The top vote-getter—winning 58 votes—was a “positive, progressive outlook and attitude.”

An abandoned homestead between Roy and Mosquero

Above: An abandoned homestead between Roy and Mosquero.

I get to see that attitude during my visit. And I can attest: so far, so good. “I drove through and liked it,” Jimmie Ridge says when I ask him how he came to Mosquero. We sit in his store, Elle J’s Town and Country Market. A world map on the wall prickles with pins marking the hometowns of visitors. His dog rests on the floor. Jimmy, retired from the military, had traveled often, but when he drove through Mosquero in 2010, it felt different.

“It called out to me and said, ‘Hey, make this your home.’” On a return trip, he saw that the store was for sale, so he bought it, and he’s been here ever since—happy to be where he can see almost all his neighbors on a daily basis.

Just down the road is Callahan West Brewery. Pete Callahan says he knows a good beer, so he purchased the building to start his own brewery. He offers three specialty beers—dark, medium, and light—along with New Mexico wines. He makes good use of the space: The bar is the old mercantile counter left over from the Schollenberger Mercantile Company, the former occupant. But what I notice first is the wall of books, more than 3,000 of them, history and romance and even books specially formatted to fit cowboys’ pants pockets. Pete began reading Ian Fleming spy novels at age five, he says, so Dick and Jane came as a disappointment.

“I’m pretty happy here,” he says. “Beer and books.” When Jill and Jack Chatfield decided in 2016 that they wanted to open a restaurant in Mosquero, they realized they already had one—they just needed to put walls around it. So they rented the building at the end of the street, a former mercantile with a garage door, through which they pulled the mobile food truck they’d used for catering, and made it the kitchen of their Headquarters restaurant. “The community has been so happy,” Jill says. And if they ever want to expand, she and her husband joke, they can just put in a double-wide.

Headquarters’ specialty is the KendraBurger, invented by the cook, Kendra Price, who replaces the top bun with “firecracker beans.” There’s no wrong way to eat one—you just go. Soon your mouth is filled with the flavors of beef, cheese, onions, and other ingredients I can’t list because I spilled the explosively spicy beans on my notes.

Look around the restaurant and you might see Jill’s father, Harry H. Hopson. Born in 1927, he’ll tell tales of growing up and working as a cowboy around northeastern New Mexico. Like riding with the cowboys when he was only five, laying his bedroll over oat sacks in the chuck wagon to keep hungry mules away at night. Or loading cattle onto the old Dawson Railway that ran through Harding County and whose vestiges still remain along NM 39. “I broke horses all my life,” he says as country music plays and everyone who comes in or out stops to greet him.

Downtown Roy

Above: Downtown Roy.

Ranching is an important part of the heritage and economic viability of Harding County. Blair Clavel, the county extension agent, says that, barring a few acres of Forest Service land and the towns themselves, the entire county is dedicated to ranching and agriculture. So I happily accept an invitation to visit Tuda on her ranch in Bueyeros. Founded in the early 1800s, it’s a beautiful place, with low grassy hills and endless views. Tuda describes it with the Spanish word tranquilo. Her compassionate care for both the cattle and the land earned the ranch an Excellence in Range Management award from the international Society for Range Management. And the bird sanctuary she created on a hill behind her house, with fruit trees and watering fountains, has netted her a nickname, “the Bird Lady of Bueyeros.”

We’re on the way to see a project she undertook with the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program that uses small plastic balls to reduce stock-tank evaporation when, passing her husband, Jack, and the ranch manager, Jeremiah, moving cattle between pastures, Tuda pulls over so we can watch. We sit quietly and admire their cowboy skills. It’s a charming interlude. Tranquilo.

ONE BRIGHT AFTERNOON finds me with Vanita Menapace at a rock dugout built into a hillside in Solano. We duck inside to a cool interior, empty and earthen but solid, a rock fireplace in one corner, the original cedar beams holding up the roof. This was the homestead that Vanita’s grandfather built to shelter his wife and eight kids after they arrived from Kansas around 1900. Vanita points out where the rocks, hauled by wagon from a hill a quarter-mile away, meet the hillside. “Can you imagine carrying those things around?” she asks. I can’t.

Eventually, her grandfather built a grander house a mile away, where Vanita now lives. She’s recently added cabins and opened them as a guest ranch. But the place needed a catchy name. Vanita liked the song “The Rhythm Ranch” by the pop group Huey Lewis and the News, and she’d even met Lewis himself a few times. Once, at a concert, she asked if it would be okay to name her ranch after his song. He agreed, although he hasn’t visited the ranch—yet.

If your tank is close to E, you better stop at the Roy Fuel Stop, in Roy, because this is the only gas station in Harding County. Between fixing flats and changing oil, Rick Hazen, who runs the garage, finds time to talk. We sit on folding chairs in the shade, so it’s cool despite the warm breeze off the prairie. Cars pass by, and the drivers wave and we wave back. “It’s something that’s needed here,” Rick says of the station. The place is authentically vintage, built in the 1920s and not much changed since then, except that the pumps now take credit cards.

Rick was raised in Mosquero and went to college to study woodworking. He started teaching industrial arts in Roswell, then here in Roy. Eventually he became superintendent, a job he held for the last eight years of his 30-year tenure. Several times, he turned down superintendent jobs in other districts because he liked Roy and wanted to raise his kids in a small town. “People are pretty close here,” he says. “You know everybody. People watch out for each other. It’s a Western town.” Rick’s mother, Lonita Hazen, is remembered in the name of Lonita’s Cafe, down the street, the only other restaurant in the county. Before she passed, Lonita had been in the restaurant business for 40 years, including in a different building here in town. When Rick’s daughter bought the current building and opened it as a restaurant in 2017, she named it in her grandmother’s honor and gave jobs to local folks such as June Mahoney.

The motto printed on the menu boasts, “A small town café for a big appetite!” I qualify, so over a few days I frequent the place: hamburger one day, enchiladas another, even the fried pickles. Their specialty is homemade pies—coconut cream, chocolate, peach—all from Lonita’s original recipes. That’s her, Lonita, in the photograph on the wall, keeping an eye on things.

AT ROY HIGH SCHOOL, I get to meet the senior class. His name is Tyler Overberger. While there are almost 50 students in Roy, most are in the lower grades, leaving Tyler alone at the top. He knows the other kids are watching him, which may be why he does so much: Boys State, football, 4-H, student council. He’s a member of Harding County MainStreet and the Chamber of Commerce. He also somehow finds time to run his own landscaping business.

“I have high expectations for myself,” Tyler says. He shows me around the school, including the cattle feeder he built in shop class last year and the classroom where he takes distance-learning courses to earn college credit. Outside, we walk the length of the football field. To ensure enough players for a team, students in Roy and Mosquero join to form one team, supported by both communities.

Rick Hazen, Tyler Overberger, and June Mahoney

Above (from left to right): Rick Hazen, Tyler Overberger, and June Mahoney.

Later, Tyler drives me to his old family ranch house, now empty. This was the home of his maternal great-grandfather, who arrived from Germany just before Hitler’s rise. Finding work with the couple who had homesteaded this property, he eventually bought it and raised a family through difficult times: Tyler’s grandmother recalls playing with the Dust Bowl dirt that forced its way past the blankets covering the windows. She remembers also the day their last horse died, choked to death by the dirt in the air—remembers it clearly, because it was the only time she ever saw her father cry. But he never left. This was his home. Tyler wants to go into politics to give something back to the community. Remember his name. You’ll hear it again.

I'M LATE FOR MY VISIT with U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Mike Atkinson, because the sun is coming up and everything is purple and I can’t keep my eyes on the road. I have to pull over and take it in. It’s impossible to multitask during a Harding County sunrise. Mike forgives me because, he confesses, he has often done the same thing himself.

We drive the uneven road down into Mills Canyon, to the ruins of the Orchard Ranch, the dream of turn-of-the-century tycoon Melvin Mills, who planted fruit trees on the fertile bottomlands alongside the Canadian River. Mike and I wander the two-story remains of what was once the main house, looking at joints in the stonework and trying to imagine the original layout of the rooms. We wouldn’t have to imagine had a late September rain in 1904 not flooded the canyon and destroyed the ranch. Mills tried again, but he never recovered, dying broke and broken a few years later. It’s a haunting place, and I’m glad I’m not here alone.

Making our way back to the highway, Mike points north to Sugarloaf Mountain. Mountains like that, he says, rising above the open landscape, served as markers for early travelers. We discuss the land, so wide and unending. There’s a beauty here, Mike says, that wraps itself around you. It reminds him of his time in the Navy and the vastness of the ocean.

“It all looks the same, except there are subtle changes,” he says. “Like when the sky darkens, the ocean reflects that darkness. And the landscape here does the same.”

As my ramble through Harding County comes to a close, I realize how right he is. To dismiss this land as featureless, as some drive-through travelers do, is to miss the forest for the lack of trees. It’s the subtleties of the land that give it depth, that make it move. And just like there were landmarks for early travelers on the land itself, there are landmarks in daily life, little things that offer a sense of security, let you know you’re on the right path. Like beds that make you dream of flying. And meals that warm you inside. A community that comes together to improve itself, and a young man who plans to one day help guide it. It’s handshakes and laughter and quiet moments spent watching the world pass beautifully by.

Story Sidebar

ALL THE NEWS
The main source of Harding County news comes courtesy of Mosquero High students, who produce the Harding County Roundup, covering local events, agriculture, marriages, and deaths. You can subscribe, even if you don’t live there (575-673-2271).

 

HARDING COUNTY HOW-TO
Part of La Frontera del Llano Scenic Byway runs through Harding County, connecting the communities of Mosquero, Solano, Roy, and Mills. Kiowa National Grassland—the only national grassland in New Mexico—surrounds the village of Mills, from which you can reach Mills Canyon for hiking, bouldering, and camping. High-clearance vehicle suggested (575-374-9652, nmmag.us/NFSKiowa). Tuda Libby Crews will show visitors around her Ute Creek Cattle Company, in Bueyeros (575-673-2267, utecreekcattlecompany.com).

Harding County artists include Mae Shaw, who paints and crafts jewelry from old silverware (221 E. 5th St., Roy, 575-485-4739), and Leroy Trujillo, a santero working in the traditional Spanish Colonial style (220 Roosevelt Ave., Roy, 575-207-8768).

Callahan West Brewery serves three craft beers, New Mexico wines, and wood-fired Neapolitan pizza, 4–10 p.m., Monday–Saturday (22 Main St., Mosquero, 575-366-3330, on Facebook).

Headquarters restaurant satisfies eaters May through August, Monday–Saturday, 7 a.m.–7 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.; September through April, Monday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. (20 Main St., Mosquero, 575-673-0201, on Facebook).

Lonita’s Cafe dishes up fine pies, Monday–Friday, 11 a.m.–7 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.–7 p.m.; and Sunday, 8 a.m.–2 p.m. (275 Richelieu St., Roy, 575-485-0191, on Facebook).

Claudia’s Coffee serves homemade sweets and breakfast burritos within Ma Sally’s Mercantile (which sells pretty much everything else), Monday–Friday, 7–11 a.m. (450 Richelieu St., Roy, 575-485-5599).

The Rectory offers fine accommodations in a restored parsonage (10 S. 4th St., Mosquero, 575-673-2267, utecreekcattlecompany.com).

The Bunkhouse has the essentials at a low price: two-bedroom suites with a kitchenette (35 S. 3rd St., Mosquero, 575-673-3030).

At the Rhythm Ranch, guests enjoy two cabins, a recreation room, and an old wagon repurposed as a stargazing platform. Cabins have refrigerators, stoves, bathrooms, and Wi-Fi. Open from the last weekend of April through the last weekend of September (565 Ross Road, Solano, 575-673-0003, or email rythmranch@plateautel.net).

The Sundance Bed and Bath has one-bedroom apartment-style places with kitchenettes and Wi-Fi (408 Chicosa St., Roy, 575-447-7026).

At the historic Mesa Hotel, some rooms don’t have showers, so ask for one if preferrred (584 Richelieu St., Roy, 575-485-2661).

La Casita is a guesthouse with a bunkhouse vibe; RV parking available (150 NM 120, Roy, 575-265-9088).

The RV Ranch and Horse Hotel, on the Ray Ranch, offers a historic four-room rock house with full kitchen (89 Salamon Road, Roy, 575-485-2559).