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Small-town Virtues

Raton’s classic Santa Fe RR Station

Text and Photographs
by Sharon Niederman

Through a series of circumstances I never could have planned or anticipated, I recently came into possession of a small house in Raton, New Mexico. For those who do not know, Raton is a quintessential western town of 9000 perched on the northernmost edge of New Mexico. It sits at the bottom of Raton Pass, a 17-mile steep land bridge into Colorado. Raton used to have a mine, and it used to have a racetrack. It still has a classic Santa Fe railroad station where Amtrak stops, letting a few passengers off and on.

A way of life

Not too long ago the coal mine closed, leaving a main street with gaping empty storefronts. Before the railroad, Raton was a watering stop on the Santa Fe Trail called Willow Springs. Today, it’s the kind of town that supports churches and coffee klatches.

Saturday at the Co-op

You can walk into the Oasis Coffee Shop and count on finding a table of movers and shakers — guys who were born and raised here and all went to high school together — pronouncing on the state of the world. If you are an elderly lady and your phone rings more times than your friends think is proper without you answering, a small fleet of cars will descend on your house before you can dial 911.

If you become ill or need help, you’ll be put on a prayer chain, and people will help you with whatever you need without you even having to ask. When the apricots are ripe, so many bears roam through town that ladies on their way to their bridge game don’t even bother reporting them.

Change of pace

Dawn comes to Sugarite Canyon State Park

Raton is the “fuzzy robe capital of the world,” a place where the air and water are clean, the nights are deeply quiet, and it’s no crime to be caught in your robe and slippers at 11 am.

That’s quite a different pace than back in the big city. On most Albuquerque mornings I’m up by 5 am, exercising, cleaning the house, cooking; then, by 8 am I’m at the computer deciphering email, facing the daily deadline schedule, juggling appointments. In Raton, only the need to change the brown shower curtain disturbs my composure. It’s not just that I’m busy — like everyone else — it’s the quality of busy-ness that is wearying. The work day seems scissored into a crazy quilt of odd bits and pieces that can be fitted together only with great ingenuity. Time must be stolen from an overbearing schedule for a chat with a friend, a trip to the doctor. Work is so fragmented that it’s difficult to gain a feeling of accomplishment even at the completion of a project, and the daily to-do list is never completely checked off.

Gaining time

The small town pace is far kinder. Setting my laptop on the kitchen table, I feel like a country squire, surveying my acres of time. There’s ample time to concentrate on producing my best work, to stir a pot of soup, to walk my dog to the park. The lack of distractions — bookstores to browse, movies I want to see, classes to take, shopping malls to spend money in — is actually soothing. A drive over the pass to the Trinidad farmers market becomes an event. In a small town that hasn’t become a major tourist attraction, there’s even enough time to get bored.

As an East Coaster who grew up in the most densely populated state in the union and spent school and woking years in Washington, D.C., Boston and New York City, I instinctively comprehend urban life. Small town life always seemed somewhat exotic, and my lack of small town residency always felt like a gap in my education.

The cozy little place in Raton changes all that. I am finally a card-carrying member of a small town library. I can walk to the post office, the grocery story, the library or the café. Someday I’ll get rid of that brown shower curtain, but for now, there’s no rush.

This article originally appeared
in the June, 2005 issue of SAGE,
a monthly magazine of the Albuquerque Journal.

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