I was born to roam. From a young age, I was often on the move thanks to family friends with cabins scattered across New England. My high school pals knew the best spots to camp and kayak, and I spent my summers driving the scenic back roads, spending weeks in the mountains, alongside rushing rivers, and in charming seaside towns. College in Florida brought long road trips to and from home, complete with campy diners, roadside attractions, and the sense of freedom that only comes when there are no timetables. The years spent at the bottom of that peninsula only strengthened my love for forgotten byways. Alligator wrestling, reptile zoos, and other oddities entertained me and my friends along the Tamiami Trail and through the Everglades. It was only fitting to find myself, years later, living a stone’s throw from the most marvelous road of them all, Route 66.
Even now, I’m prone to taking the long way. Trading New Mexico’s interstates for the old roads has led me to some of the most unforgettable people and places. That’s how I knew that Truth or Consequences would make the perfect jumping-off point for rediscovering a couple of the state’s most off-the-beaten-path roadhouses. My last two trips to the Nutt Corner Bar had been in late fall and midwinter, blustery, cold times that didn’t mesh with my hopes of enjoying uninterrupted views of rolling rangeland meeting the horizon. With spring here, I was hoping to finally take in the view from their porch.
Thanks in part to a freak snow squall, my late-March trip had an inauspicious start. But halfway from Albuquerque to T or C, where I planned to spend the night along with my dog, Ziggy, the winds settled, the skies cleared, and a sparkling crescent moon hung in a velvet sky awash with stars.
Saturday morning broke bright, sunny, and breezy, perfect weather for driving across the desert to my long-anticipated destination. Except the power steering didn’t seem to want to come along for the ride. A few expletives, a frantic Google search, and a visit to a nearby auto store later, my canine travel buddy and I were heading south toward Hatch on Highway 187, skipping the blandness of the interstate for the winding, windswept old road with its peekaboo views of the Rio Grande and Caballo Lake around each bend. In Hatch, we turned west on Highway 26 into Luna County where, twenty-one miles later, we arrived at a dot on the map known as Nutt, New Mexico.
Originally called the Middle of Nowhere Bar, the Nutt Corner Bar sits at the intersection of Highways 26 and 27, serving as the gathering place of ranchers, ranch hands, and travelers on the road to Deming. Having visited on event days and driven down for the Nutt’s popular Halloween party a couple years ago, I was surprised to be the only one parked there on a Saturday afternoon. The multiple signs in the window weren’t encouraging: half of them read “open,” the other half said “closed.” A tug on the door led me and Ziggy into a cool, dim interior watched over by a pleasantly gruff rancher who informed us that he was just there for the day as a stand-in for the proprietor, Susan, who serves her Hopi fry bread with chili and pintos every second Sunday at the Nutt and whom I’d had the pleasure of meeting (along with her Husky mix) the last few times I had stopped by. It was strange to see the room empty—no patrons cheering on their team on the big-screen TV, no clacking of balls on the pool table while players stood by ready to shoot, nor any scent of food in the air. Luckily, I’d eaten lunch before heading down.
Asking for a cold bottle of Sol and a shot of Hornitos, I took a seat, appreciative that the rancher/barman also served up a fresh bowl of water for Zig. Then the two of us settled in at the tiny bar and began to chat, filling the quiet room with conversation. As the wind began to blow tumbleweeds down the road, he told me stories about his time in New Mexico, of ranching in this seemingly empty corner of the state, and his life spent split between Luna County and Santa Fe. When my drink ran dry, he pulled another round from the well-stocked beer coolers, which were filled with American standards, microbrews, and plenty of Mexican standbys, and poured another shot of Hornitos from the bottle nestled amid a robust offering of liquor lining the shelves. Now and then, customers stopped in to pick up package orders to take home or to gatherings on nearby ranches. Before I knew it, it was time for him to wrap up the day as he was expected at an evening shindig in the foothills of the Black Range. We snapped a few sun-bleached selfies and said our goodbyes before Ziggy and I headed back into the fading day.
Sunday dawned true to its name—sunny and clear, another perfect day for driving. Heading back down old 187 after enjoying a late lunch in T or C, we pulled off the road just south of Caballo Lake and into the lot of the Caballo Tavern. Perched on the edge of the tiny town of Arrey, the Caballo looks like a roadhouse out of an old movie: a long, low-slung building fashioned from adobe-like brick with a deep portico of peeled logs and corrugated steel, and curly iron and bubbly glass Spanish light fixtures flanking the doors. The only thing missing were horses lashed onto the porch rails, which have appeared here more than a few times as ranch hands visit for a cold beer after a hot day of work.
Stepping inside, I took in the small crowd. A few old-timers sat at the long wooden bar in front of a row of tall glass beer coolers from circa 1970. Beyond them, a group of bikers played pool, talking and laughing. Stepping up to the bar, I looked over the small and tall bottles standing at attention on mirror-backed shelves. I asked if Ziggy was welcome inside, or if we needed to head out to the attached patio. Just as the bartender informed me that no, dogs were not allowed, I became aware of a skinny, shaky, and somewhat bug-eyed little fellow standing next to me . . . a Chihuahua on a barstool if I’ve ever seen one. Taking that as a sign that the tavern’s regulars have a few more freedoms than we strangers, I ordered a Dos Equis and Hornitos and stepped out to the roomy patio, where I could sit sheltered from the sun, growing winds, and ever-present tumbleweeds. Before long, one of the bikers came out and struck up a conversation. As a woman traveling alone, I usually start out a bit wary of strangers, but his easygoing nature and self-deprecating humor was disarming and a bit charming.
Two by two, his friends joined, another round was ordered, and we started talking about road trips and the many secret stars and holes-in-the-wall of New Mexico’s less trafficked byways. The guys told tales of the original, smaller Caballo Tavern, how a restaurant was added to increase the space and was eventually taken away in favor of a bigger bar. Sadly, they said, the food truck anchored to the patio fell victim to staffing shortages brought on by the pandemic, but there are hopes to bring it back as weekends attract more musicians and their fans. They shared how the Caballo hosts all sorts of gatherings, from holiday parties to bike rallies and fundraisers, and even held a prom last year in honor of folks who’d missed theirs many years ago.
As at the Nutt, it amazed me just how easy it can be to strike up conversations and share stories with strangers in a middle-of-nowhere location. It’s as if people recognize a certain something in a fellow traveler that gets missed during encounters in larger towns and cities. And like the day before, shadows grew long, the air grew cool, and the time came to say farewell and head back up the road, away from the magical byways and back to the mainstream that is the big city in a vast desert landscape.
Raven Del Rio
Raven Del Rio bounced around the country before falling in love with New Mexico fifteen years ago. A former writer for La Loca Magazine, she's happiest when roaming the highways and byways collecting stories to share. When she's not on the road, she can usually be found working on a vintage Coachmen camper or running with her German Shepherd, Ziggy.