Exploring New Mexico's Loneliest Ghost Town

We made our way down to New Mexico expecting midnight scares and nut jobs galore. What we got at the Old Cuchillo Bar and Hotel was an unforgettable experience...
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We made our way down to New Mexico expecting midnight scares and nut jobs galore. What we got at the Old Cuchillo Bar and Hotel was an unforgettable experience...

I love the idea of ghost towns. And the pictures which always show them in sunlight. New Mexico is full of them thanks to rivers that dried up, mines that failed, railroads that drew traffic away from stagecoach trails. It never occurred to me that at night they’d be dark, but I did think about that a bit as we drove down through lengthening shadows into a silent valley, largely abandoned town, and past the disused church to the Old Cuchillo Bar and Hotel which isn’t exactly a Bar and Hotel anymore, but the remains of a bar, post office, trading post, stables and whorehouse and the unusual home of Josh Bond who generally lives here all alone, but of late has been offering accommodation to paying guests.

Turns out Josh was not, as Dave had worried on the way, a ‘nut job’ after all, but great company and almost completely normal; a clever and humorous artist and designer who stumbled across the town 11 years ago, and bought this property five years ago, and has been unravelling its history and attempting to preserve it ever since. We weren’t going to have to camp out in the ghost bar with flickering candles; instead, he showed us into his beautiful adobe home, and a chic room with wi-fi, a pile of Dwells and Architectural Digests, good art and the world’s most comfortable bed. And there was beer, lots of it. Inevitably though, after eyeing the cobwebby windows of the empty bits across the courtyard, the urge to poke around the abandoned bits proved irresistible.

Josh is slowly working his way through the simple but plentiful rooms, sifting through the things that were left behind. There are some that are semi-ruined, like the stables, where the locals would hole up protecting each other and their horses during Apache raids, and the Post Office was badly damaged by a fire some years back. But through the dark and creaking store, full of furniture, saddles and boxes of papers, the saloon bar is intact. In fact, it looks as if a bunch of old-timers heard a noise, put down their drinks, stepped outside, and never came back.

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In the last of the evening’s slanting sun, this is a mighty atmospheric place, with worn steps, a table by the window, stools up at the long bar, dresser laden with stuff, and glass cabinets. Many of the objects found across the property have made their way here – the pistols and rifles, old pictures, photo albums, papers, coins, tools, stags heads, ornate tills and a hand-drawn oujia board. He holds a light up to a couple of portraits in a back room I don’t like the look of, and I keep checking the mottled old mirrors to make sure the only reflection in them is mine.

He’s had a drink at the bar with friends, says Josh, but he wouldn’t choose to sit in here at night alone. To help raise the money he needs to keep the place, and because he loves to share it, he’s hosted ghost-hunter groups. They’ve all come back with things, he says. “I don’t subscribe to everything they believe, but these buildings are 150 years old and they settle and make noises . . . I live alone, so I don’t need to spook myself more than I already do.” The last group set up 16 cameras and are currently sifting through the footage for signs of paranormal activity. “They’ve sent details of some of the things they’ve found, and I’ve told them I don’t want to know the specifics, just send a report and we’ll leave it at that. But it’s interesting. The way I describe it is as residual energy. There’s been 150 years of boots scraping and that energy is still here.” Hmm, I say, looking around. “It’s easy to scare yourself and I don’t come and hang out here at night, but I’ve never felt anything here that was bad at all.”

Josh has been researching the history of the property and Cuchillo as a whole, scouring through documents and talking to descendants of the early settlers, as well as his friend, Mr Romero, the 80-something year old previous owner who he takes to lunch on Fridays. The town was a trading hub, and a popular R&R stop-over for miners and cowboys, and travellers passing through on the stagecoach from Silver City. Not only was it customary for cowboys to bury their money so they didn’t lose it all in the bar, but as the boarding house was operating back when travellers were vulnerable to attack by Apaches, guests would frequently give their money to the owner to hide for safekeeping. Apparently a big haul was discovered buried in the courtyard some decades ago, and Josh spends a fair bit of time with a metal detector in the hope of unearthing the rest and using it to restore the property and keep it and the things that belong in it together. At the moment he’s facing the fact he might have to sell it.

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“It’s an overwhelming responsibility. I feel that I should be doing something every second of every day to try to save it” he says. “Have you seen Christine? The Stephen King film? I feel the same kind of possession by this house. Do I own it, or does it own me?”

I am happy to report that despite what may or may not have been going on over in the dark bar, we had a great night here. Excellent Mexican food with plenty of the most famous green chilli, top conversation, and then, after handling one of the old pistols, a look through Josh’s huge vinyl collection which, for someone raised in Alberquerque, leans surprisingly heavily towards UK indie bands, some of whom I’d interviewed and Dave had done press for which gave him a chance to tell his old Morrissey stories which makes him happy.

As we’re leaving the next morning, Josh points to a boulder by the steps and says “shot a rattlesnake there. I don’t usually mind snakes, but this was a little close to my house. It’s unusual; usually the big bull snake that lives underneath it gets them.” This is impressively Wild West.

I found this place through Airbnb – a new addition, we were Josh’s third guests – and once again had the kind of unique and unforgettable, full-on local experience I couldn’t have had in a Days Inn (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – this social media facilitated overnight homestay thing is great). In this case, not only do you get to step back in time, but you get to meet Josh, to stay in a house that’s really lovely, with thick adobe walls, traditional ornate tin ceilings and full of art – some bright, religious Mexican bits (found in abandoned houses), and some his own beautiful metal work, and it’s all for a good cause. The ridiculously small amount you pay goes towards helping keep the Old Cuchillo Bar and Hotel standing.

Check out more of Sorell’s work on Somewhersville or Sorrel downer