Friday, July 8, 2016

A Panhandling, Headless Ghost...

Madrid, New Mexico -- a thriving tourist town now, full of galleries and shops and the Mine Shaft Tavern, where locals and tourists gather for refreshment. Every Christmas, the town resurrects an historic light show, rumored to go back to the 1920s and 30s.

Coal mining started in Madrid in the 1800s and picked up steam in the early part of the 20th century. By the 1920s, the town produced its own coal driven electricity and became famous for a Christmas light show that is still visible today.  The mines closed in the 1950s, but hippies and other non-conformists began to live in the old wooden cabins that occupied the site in the 1970s. Over the time I've lived here, Madrid has gone from an eccentric ghost town occupied by oddballs, to a popular tourist spot on the old Turquoise Trail, a "back way" between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

When I arrived in New Mexico in 1982, the town was nothing like it is today. The old houses still tittered on rotting foundations, the roads were empty and ghostly, and, yes, ghost stories abounded about the town.

One story stuck in my mind. It was told to me in Santa Fe, at the old Green Onion Bar and Grill on St. Michael's Drive.  A seedy place even back then, my friend Al and I stopped in to soak up local color and  for local gossip.  After a couple of beers, one of our bar companions heard us talking about a recent driving adventure on the Turquoise Trail.

"You hear about the ghosts in the Mine Shaft Tavern?" The man was about 30, with straight dark hair and a mustache.

"Tell us," Al said.

The man moved down a barstool and revealed the story of a miner named Arnie who owed money to the mine company and couldn't pay.

"Arnie had this sick kid. And he spends money on the kid for medicine and taking him to the doctor in Albuquerque, so he can't pay his debt. So the story goes, a company man finds him and the middle of the night and cuts off his head, right in the guys bed, while his wife is laying there.  Late at night, here in the bar -- right before last call -- he appears in the near the bathrooms. Arnie, standing there in the dim light, holding his head in one hand and a donation cup in the other."

"Have you seen him?" I asked.

"Seen him?  I gave him money. Lot's of people do."

"Why? What happens to the money?"

"Folks find it later. Usually a family with a sick kid. They wake up one morning and the money is on the sidewalk in front of their house. In my case, I gave the ghost a twenty -- I was that scared -- and a woman from Madrid told me she  walking down the street and she looked down and there was a twenty."

I gave him a questioning look.

"God's truth, I swear. Stay until closing -- give an odd amount. You'll hear about it, I swear you will. No lie."

I heard the story again, but I never went into The Mine Shaft Tavern and stayed until closing. Maybe you can do that the next time you visit Mysterious New Mexico.