Monday, April 4, 2016
We took a little road trip last week, planning to explore some parts of western and southern New Mexico that we hadn't really seen before. One of them is Pie Town, a tiny town on US Highway 60 in Catron County, near both the Gila National Forest and the Plains of San Agustin, and just a couple of miles from the Continental Divide. Pie Town's population was 186 in the 2010 US Census; the town itself is very small and you can drive through in just a minute, but I really think you should stop if you're ever in the area.
As you might have guessed, Pie Town is named for pie. Yes! Wonderful pie. Back in the 1920's, a man named Clyde Norman settled here with a 40-acre mining claim as well as a stake in the cattle-driving trail which ran along Highway 60 at the time. In order to supplement his income, Norman opened a small store, where he sold gasoline, kerosene and pies made from dried apples. The pies were popular with cowboys on the cattle trail and the little hamlet became known as Pie Town to those passing through. Eventually, Norman's business was bought out for one dollar by a man named Harmon Craig, who became Pie Town's leading citizen, owning just about every business in town. Pie-making continued, of course. During the Dust Bowl era of the 1930's, the population boomed when families fleeing the barren lands of Oklahoma and Texas established farms in Pie Town. Around this time, the local post office was established and the name Pie Town became official.
In 1940, the Farm Security Administration (a government agency established by then-president Franklin Roosevelt) sent photographers to various parts of the US to document conditions in rural America as the nation struggled to recover from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Russell Lee produced a remarkable series of photos depicting everyday life in Pie Town during the early 1940's; these photos are included in the Library of Congress today. You can see his FSA photos here, or you can browse a wider collection of his photography here.
Our trip to Pie Town began with - what else - pie! It's still a major attraction in Pie Town (tourism is important to its economy; there is an annual pie festival in town too). There are several cafes and small restaurants operating in Pie Town today, along with lodging. Most of the eateries were closed on the day we rolled through, but one was open and looked very welcoming. The Gatherin' Place was a great place to stop for lunch. The Bear and I shared a barbecue pork sandwich and chips (they smoke their meat on the premises in a small free-standing smokehouse next to the main building). The small Bears had cheese quesadillas. There were also burgers on the menu, and plenty of hot coffee. It was a cold, windy day (snow flurries were flying when we first arrived). The wood-burning stove was a welcome sight when we went inside. It's friendly, the kind of place where food is served on Dixie plates with plastic cutlery, where you can sign your name on the woodwork with a Sharpie and they give you the coffee, in a Styrofoam cup, for free with your meal.
For dessert, we had pie, of course. They bake 6-inch pies here, just a few at a time, and you have to put your name on the one you want. We ordered an apricot pie, split four ways. Vanilla ice cream was an option, but we took our pie straight, and it was absolutely delicious, maybe the best pie I've ever had. Want to know why? Lard, that's why. The crust was crisp, flaky and not one bit greasy. The fruit was perfectly cooked, juicy and not too sweet. There was cinnamon in the fruit and coarse, crunchy sugar on top of the crust. Cowboys knew what was good.
After lunch, we went exploring. There are old things everywhere you look - cars, tractors, road signs, houses. On a dirt road south of the main strip, we came upon two dilapidated clapboard houses standing side-by-side. They were within feet of several small houses and trailers that looked inhabited, so we were careful not to disturb anyone, but we had to look around. Stern warnings were given about rusty nails, broken glass and touching absolutely nothing. It was a feast for the eyes, for lovers of old things like the Bear and me. I adore abandoned places, especially when things have been left behind. Life things - coffee cans and mayonnaise jars, Coke bottles, bed springs, shoes. Tattered net curtains fluttered at the broken-out windows; once-lovely wallpaper flapped in the wind. A gutted Plymouth hunkered in the backyard, the windshield shattered and the hood resting on the ground nearby.
I don't know exactly when the people left, but lives were lived here. That afternoon, the sun shone but the wind was icy as it wound around the houses, through the gnarled trees, and up and down the dirt road. Dust blew at our faces. It was harsh but beautiful too - the wide-open landscape, the blue bowl of the sky. Imagine the people who landed here in the 1930's. Compared to the places they left - the parched, desolate plains where wheat would no longer grow, where roiling black towers of dust filled the sky - this was a gentle, fertile paradise. They moved along eventually, when they had saved enough money to start fresh in California, or when the drought relented back home, but for a little while, they found a good place in Pie Town.