The Lake Valley Historic Townsite is on N.M. 27, 17 miles south of Hillsboro. It is open between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Thurs. through Mon., closed Tues. and Wed. Plan on at least an hourlong visit, and two if possible. Take the self-guided walking tour prepared by the BLM. Before leaving, drive or hike to the top of the hill south of town and visit the cemetery, where former residents still choose to be buried. More information is available at mynm.us/lakevalley.
Some of my friends have been dead for a hundred years, but I still enjoy spending time with them. I love nothing more than to wander among the ruins of sunbaked shacks, listening to the wind caress crumbling adobe walls, sitting silently in the broken pews of dusty, empty churches. I can’t help it: I’m a fan of ghost towns.
I’m not alone. Ghost towns fascinate us. New Mexicans seem particularly enamored of them, perhaps because they are so much a part of our history and our landscape. I’ve visited and written about my admiration for these places for years. And I’ve spoken with many people who feel similarly, who tell me that it is one of their most deeply felt desires in life to travel to some forlorn location and stand in the middle of nothing.
I’ve often wondered what it is that draws us to these lonely places. I think I have an answer.
It’s summer, windy, and I am one of only five people in Lake Valley, New Mexico. Lake Valley is a ghost town. The site, about a half-hour south of Hillsboro and 40 minutes west of Hatch, is open to the public under the care of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A loose collection of abandoned buildings represents this former mining boomtown today, including an old Conoco service station, a couple of houses, a schoolhouse, and the walls of what was once a jail. All of them lie scattered beneath Monument Peak, which everyone calls Lizard Mountain because the rock formation near its top looks just like one.
Aside from me, there are two site caretakers busily tending to their daily duties, a volunteer with the BLM, and my host, David Legare, also with the BLM. A tall man with a shock of white hair and matching beard, Legare is the archaeologist for the town, officially known as
the Lake Valley Historic Townsite.
“This is a special place,” Legare tells me as we get acquainted in the schoolhouse, now the town museum.
He’s talking my language. I never knew Lake Valley existed until one day in 1994 when I was driving N.M. 27 on a road trip with a friend. We were surprised to find a town here, and decided to explore. But our visit was a short one. A number of vehicles with official plates were parked on Railroad Avenue. We left, not wanting to be in the way, a little scared of what might be going on. I never found out what that was.
I’ve returned many times since, always fascinated by this place and the attention the BLM shows it. The bureau came to be responsible for Lake Valley largely through attrition; because the town was never incorporated, the majority of land never transferred ownership from the federal government. A mining bust, a fire, and a general outmigration of people robbed the town of its once promising future. As Lake Valley dwindled, the BLM found itself the owner of a genuine ghost town. And of an opportunity. The agency strengthened and renovated structures, built an interpretive trail, opened a museum, and invited the public to visit and learn. Last year, some 1,800 people did so, according to the signatures in the museum guestbook. By some estimates, that’s more people than ever lived here.
As we walk down the dirt road that is Railroad Avenue, Legare explains how the townspeople got their water, but I’m distracted by the sound of the Conoco sign on the old stone gas station. The wind is rocking the sign on its hinges, creating an ethereal, metallic melody. It seems to have been composed just for this location, a soundtrack of loneliness in the desert.
But we don’t talk about loneliness. In fact, to listen to Legare is to be persuaded that the town is still very much alive. To an archaeologist, it is. He examines a nail that’s bent on both ends and suggests it was used as a door handle. He finds a charred stone and blames its discoloration on the fire that raced down Main Street one terrible night in 1895, all but destroying the town. His Lake Valley is a bustling town full of people, whose lives and motivations are there to be studied, whose stories are written in the artifacts they have left behind. Perhaps there are more than five people here today after all.
At the small chapel, which the BLM has fully restored, Legare tells me a story: By mutual agreement, every Sunday morning, the Episcopalians would hold their services here first and, when finished, store their hymnals and set out the Catholic missals. After mass, the Catholics set out the hymnals again. The chapel is quiet and still inside, the morning light falling gently across the wooden altar. Legare points out the pews and cabinets where this routine unfolded, and I try to photograph the stillness.
The chapel is a tailing’s throw from the old railroad grade, over which the Lake Valley branch of the Santa Fe Railway hauled silver from the mines to the railhead at Nutt, 15 miles south. The mines themselves are behind the low hills to the north, on privately owned land. The most famous of them is the Bridal Chamber, an enormous deposit of silver discovered in 1881. Eager to unearth a similar trove, miners dug holes across the otherwise prosaic hill surrounding the Chamber, but nothing quite so spectacular ever came forth again, despite the fervor with which they hoped otherwise.
From the railroad grade, other remnants of the town are visible: the office of the justice of the peace, the house where Dr. Beal lived, the rusted safe left behind after the fire and surrounded now by creosote and mesquite. If any place has earned the right to call itself a ghost town, it’s Lake Valley.
“This is our past,” Legare says. “This is how we came to be who we are.”
Before the end of my visit, I walk around once more on my own. For all the good work the BLM has done here, Lake Valley seems determined to decide for itself when and how it will end. Or if. Some structures remain stable; others have collapsed. The rain doesn’t help, nor does the sun, nor the wind. Entropy may not have full custody of Lake Valley, but it has visitation rights.
I’m drawn to the former home of Pedro and Savina Martinez, the last residents of the town. They left in 1994, for health reasons. That was the same year I first visited. I wonder if my visit, the day of all those official vehicles, might have coincided with the very day they left, and even with the very act of their leaving.
The Martinez house is lined with flowerbeds. They’re barren now, of course, but looking at them, I feel a heightened sense of empathy. What must it have been like, I wonder, to plant flowers that few people would ever see?
Those flowerbeds. Simple patches of earth bounded by stones. They are the answer to the question of what draws us to these lonely places.
Against all logic, we visit ghost towns because they help us connect with other people.
We travel to forlorn locations and stand in the middle of nothing because as human beings, we are capable of feeling the presence of something that isn’t there. We do it all the time, when we remember loved ones who have gone away. It is the very absence of people in these places that makes us so strongly aware of their former existence. If you add in something simple they left behind, like a flowerbed or a bent nail, then they are as close as if they were standing next to us. When visiting these places, it’s the ghosts we seek, not the town.
David Pike wrote about Vaughn in the September issue. Find his blog about ghost towns at vivanewmexico.com/ghosts.