As the waitress brought my brother, Scott, and me another bottle of the local Santa Fe Nut Brown ale, I looked at him and voiced the one thing we were both thinking, “Don’t tell mom, but this really is the best posole I’ve ever had in my life.” We were sitting with our dad inside Tomasita’s Restaurant after playing a bitterly cold round of golf just north of Santa Fe. Dad was too engrossed in his own bowl of the pork and hominy stew with red and green chiles to really hear what I said, but he nodded in agreement. I still haven’t divulged to my mom my preference for Tomasita’s version of the traditional New Mexican dish over the posole she cooks during the holidays, but the effect that this news has on her is not much of a worry to me right now—she’s always been forgiving.
What concerns me more is that my wife doesn’t want me to write this story in the first place, and really doesn’t want me telling anyone about Tomasita’s. So I make my apology now for mentioning our favorite Santa Fe restaurant—and at the beginning of the article no less!
You see, both my wife and I were born and raised in the Land of Enchantment, and though we haven’t been married long, I’m going to go ahead and finish this piece despite her stoic determination to stop me and her steel-eyed glare that tells me I shouldn’t. But the truth is, in my opinion, there is no greater place to visit than our home state.
New Mexico is not spoiled with people, trends or popularity, although this last sentiment is changing quickly—thus my wife’s disgust. What it is spoiled with is a culture and character that no marketing team can recreate or ever fully capitalize on.
And even when we’ve lived outside the state’s borders, we always had plans to return, hoping that it was still more or less the same as when we left. In other words, I hope you enjoy this article, and if it does behoove you to visit, please do not tell my wife that I was the one who pointed you in that direction.
It’s not as if I’m the first person to reveal New Mexico’s wonders; certainly not, considering Santa Fe is among the top 10 tourist destinations in the United States. But the New Mexico you find on brochures can be very different from the New Mexico that locals know. And getting a local to tell you where to find the authentic New Mexico is about as easy as catching a roadrunner. Here’s a hint: Tomasita’s, despite its sometime hour-long wait, is one of the last authentic stands left in Santa Fe.
That’s why my dad, brother and I made a point of finishing our golfing road trip with that bowl of posole. By the time we were wiping the last bits of stew from our chile-stained bowls with our still-warm tortillas, we had already played three great golf courses, passed through the sites of some of my best childhood memories and learned once again just what makes New Mexico special.
I was born 300 miles south of Santa Fe in the town of Silver City. The same town where Billy the Kid landed after moving west with his mother and stepfather from New York City; although it was his time in nearby Lincoln County that he is now most infamously known for. And it was in Lincoln County where the three of us started on our own (albeit less celebrated) journey, trading six shooters for 6-irons and hoping for salvation from double bogey as opposed to salvation from murder.
In Lincoln County, a number of relatively new golf courses have been built, most tied to housing developments, but the county’s best daily-fee golf is just outside of town on the Mescalero Apache Reservation. It’s there, at the Inn of the Mountain Gods, where our parents took my brother and I when we were young, memories of which still linger today.
“Wasn’t there a heated swimming pool here?” Scott asked me on our first night there as we sat next to each other inside the resort’s new casino. “I remember swimming outside in the winter. And the snow fell from what seemed a near cloudless sky.” Clearly, we were much younger during our inaugural visit.
Today, those swimming pools—along with most everything else we remembered from that first trip—have been replaced by bigger, newer versions.
After winning a little and sleeping even less, we arrived on the first tee box the next morning on just the second golfing day of the season. Among the scrub oak and pine trees that surround the golf course it seemed like the true beginning of our own golfing season as well…and Scott and I played like it. With large ponderosas defiantly holding their ground on the fairways of five of the first nine holes, I felt like I was stuck on a life-size chessboard playing against Mother Nature herself. Fortunately for our dad, Mother Nature was much kinder to him.
Dad’s lunch was on us.
The next day we rose early once again, this time headed north to Albuquerque. It’s not a long drive, but on the way we had plans to stop at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to see dawn hit the water and awaken the thousands of migrating birds who respite at the Bosque during their journeys.
We sat in silence on the dirt near the bank of one marsh until our dad’s whispered words broke our silence. “Are those ducks on the water?” he asked. “They’re huge.” And, suddenly, a flock of ducks, maybe 20 strong, rose in unison in the cracking darkness, slapping the water’s surface with their wings before gaining enough momentum to break into the cool morning air.
“They looked like big water ducks,” Scott said. “I would have thought they’d all be much farther north by now.”
Adding to our surprise just minutes later, a foursome of mule deer ambled across the dirt road behind us, and soon the childlike wail coming in unison from a few holdover Sandhill cranes was echoing off the water. In November, when the Sandhill cranes arrive in herdlike numbers at Bosque del Apache, the nearby city of Socorro holds its Festival of the Crane in honor of these uniquely noisy birds, but even in late spring there was plenty of wildlife for us to enjoy.
By the time the sun was nearing its apex our tires had kicked up dust for 10 miles to the north as we made our way to Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern for lunch. Located in the town of San Antonio—what I have to believe is the green chile cheeseburger capital of the world with two restaurants that serve great burgers with the Hatch, N.M., specialty on top and just a few hundred residents—Manny’s Buckhorn is easy to pass unless you know what you’re looking for.
Across the street is the larger and more publicized Owl Café, which serves up a good green chile cheeseburger of its own, but for authentic New Mexico, it doesn’t stand a chance against Manny’s Buckhorn.
From San Antonio it was just over an hour’s drive to Albuquerque, where we would stop off at our parent’s house to say hi to our mom, find some pillow time and wake up to play at the most revered golf course in the state, and one of the best courses in the Southwest. Located on the east side of the Sandia Mountains outside of Albuquerque, Paa-Ko Ridge Golf Club is home to 27 holes of Ken Dye-designed golf that should never be skipped when visiting the Land of Enchantment.
We got to Paa-Ko early and stepped out of the car into an aroma of fresh piñon trees. The piñon is a nut-producing pine that is common in New Mexico and the scent put off by the fresh evergreen is almost without rival. But with more green chile soon in hand—this time in the form of Paa-Ko’s breakfast burritos—my dad was too excited to spend much time just enjoying the fresh air, much less warming up on the range, so off we went to the first tee.
My brother and I should have known better; warming up is exactly what we needed to do. But when dad hollered, “Come on you two, get in a cart and let’s go,” who was going to argue? We also should have known he wasn’t going to give us an edge with another meal on the line. At 7,562 yards (when playing the original 18 of Paa-Ko’s 27 holes) I thought the course would be demanding on our dad, but the greater than mile-high elevation and several downward sloping holes shrunk our advantage quickly. And as Scott and I soon found out, accuracy was more important than wielding our big sticks.
Predictably, lunch was on us again, so back in Albuquerque we headed to the Nob Hill area along old Route 66, now Central Avenue, for Reuben sandwiches at Kellys Brew Pub. Scott and I have both worked at Kellys over the years, he being the head brewer once at the place that keeps 20 of its own micro-brewed beers on tap, so we already knew how good the Reuben sandwiches would be.
After another night at home, we were on the road again, traveling north to Santa Fe on the back road through the mining settlement, former ghost town and now art gallery destination known as Madrid (confusingly and surprisingly mispronounced Má-drid in what has to be one of our country’s most bilingual states). This being New Mexico, there’s always one good-timin’ country bar in every town, and the one in Madrid already had a few motorcycles parked out front despite our early passing that next morning.
As we made our way into Santa Fe the temperature was dropping quickly. Here, against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the thin air can carry a bite when the wind begins to blow and we hoped that once we made it into the Española Valley north of town that somehow the wind would pass over us. “You guys sure you want to play today?” dad asked. And although we knew it would be cold, we thought the weather was just what Scott and I needed to level the playing field.
Unfortunately, that didn’t exactly happen, although as we drove up the dirt road to the Black Mesa clubhouse, Scott and I
would have doubled our bet that the winds of change were blowing in our favor. That was until we saw Skiddy, a tough-looking heeler and one of Black Mesa’s unofficial canine mascots, curled up inside the pro shop next to a heating vent. Not even he was foolish enough to go outside in weather like this.
Black Mesa is surrounded by and built into canyons that run to the valley center. And, as if the winds that day affected the land’s very formation, a few of the greens at Black Mesa looked like the big ocean rollers formed in violent storms. In the mountains north of Santa Fe, the state is at its wildest and Black Mesa is a fitting symbol of the northern New Mexicans’ traditional nonconformity.
The golfing example of this area’s predictable defiance came on the par-five 16th, a 536-yard uphill battle that happened to be playing with a crosswind when we reached it. Oh, and 250 yards or so from where we stood on the tee box, the landing area looked about as wide as a Volkswagen.
We each took our swings and we each ended up under a different collection of brush; mine being a sweet-smelling sage that refused to return my ball without a fight. So after dropping, we were all laying even again, albeit not for long. One 3-wood and a 4-iron hybrid later and my dad was sitting on the green waiting as Scott and I were once again reacquainting ourselves with the smell of yet more sage. The wind was loud, and we were probably 50 yards out still, but I could make out my dad’s empathy through it all. “Why don’t you guys come drop up here and I won’t count the penalty.” That’s when, without even tallying the scorecard, I knew we’d be buying his lunch for the third time on this trip.
Which is exactly what we did at Tomasita’s. But getting to spend a short week driving through, golfing the best of and revisiting authentic New Mexico was well worth the $10 Scott and I split on our dad’s posole that day. Now, if only my wife doesn’t read this I’ll be able to do it again soon.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern
Kellys Brew Pub
Paa-Ko Ridge Golf Club
Black Mesa Golf Club
Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
This article originally appeared in Golf Living magazine.