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Mission ruins at Quarai

The following story is approximaitely one fifth of the article that originally appeared in Albuquerque the Magazine, July, 2004. The article contains descriptions of five day trips that may be made from Albuquerque on a single tank of gas in a newer model car, or for the more adventurous, on a motorcycle. These trips are being published in installments one per week over the course of five weeks — this is the fourth installment. New installments will be posted on Friday mornings in the hopes that some Albuquerqueans may venture outside the city this summer.

Mountainair: The Pinto Bean Capital of the World Welcomes You

Text and Photos by
Sharon Niederman

Instead of turning north at the Tijeras exit of 1-40, try going right, or south, instead, on NM 337. The scenic road is a journey through New Mexico history — ancestral, Spanish and homesteader — winding past ancient villages of Tajique, Torreon and Manzano, nestled in the Manzano Mountain foothills. Each community, a collection of weathered adobe houses anchored by an ancient church and cemetery, speaks to the tenacity and determination of Spanish settlers whose descendents continue to inhabit this place. Turning south at NM 55, follow the road to Punto de Agua and encounter Quarai, the first of three haunting and imposing Spanish mission ruins that together make up Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.

Fanciful stone fence at Mountainair’s Shaffer Hotel

A self-guided 1/2 mile trail leads to the mysterious 17th century church, whose towering walls of red sandstone evokes the turrets of a medieval Spanish fortress. In 1630, Franciscan missionaries, charged with saving the souls of the native people, forced the Tompiros to construct their mission. Driven out by famine, disease and Apache raids by 1672, Quarai was abandoned along with its sister missions, Abo and Gran Quivira, scattered in a 50 mile radius in the Estancia Basin. Gran Quivira is considered the best-preserved of the ruins, all built atop pueblo villages, but each is worth a visit and speaks most eloquently — and is most photogenic — at sunset.

It’s a short jog down NM 55 to the village of Mountainair, founded in 1910 when the railroad came through, bringing health-seekers and homesteaders to claim and prove up on government giveaway 160-acre plots. These tough folks lived in dugouts and practiced dryland farming, built schools, churches and communities that celebrated hard work and persistence in the face of the toughest blows nature could deliver. Those that managed to stick it out built small spreads, and their descendents continue to live and ranch in the area.

The Shaffer Hotel is Mountainair’s most colorful stop. Built by local blacksmith and jack of all trades Clem “Pop” Shaffer in the 1920s, the primary-colored dining room is an eye-dazzling example of Pueblo Deco architecture. New owner Joel Marks is in the process of restoring lodging rooms with private baths, and he intends to bring in a “four star chef” from Portland, Oregon to make the hotel a dining destination worth the drive. Of the stone fence embellished with Pop Shaffer’s fanciful stone critters beside the hotel, Ernie Pyle wrote, “You can find in that fence practically everything in the Western hemisphere or the Sears Roebuck catalog.” The Shaffer’s grand opening is scheduled for July, meanwhile, the Kowboy Kafe continues to serve decent red chile and homemade pie.

Mountainair’s main street is sprouting interesting shops and galleries, like the Cibola Arts co-op and Abo Trading Company interspersed with traditional businesses like the must-see Gustin’s Hardware, with its array of ‘stuffed’ and mounted animals. The town will celebrate its annual Sunflower Festival on Aug. 28.

Mountainair is located 65 miles southeast of Albuquerque, making for a 130 mile trip.


My vehicle, a silver automatic 2004 Nissan Altima 2.5S has a gas tank that holds 20 gallons, costing,$50.00 to fill at today’s price of $2.50 per gallon. It gets 23 miles per gallon in the city and 29 miles per gallon on the highway. At that rate, a tank of gas takes me 580 miles.


This article was first published in
Albuquerque the Magazine, July, 2004

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