St. James Hotel’s tin ceiling features the requisite bullet holes.
Douglas Merriam

New Mexico's high country is populated with aspens, bison, and ghosts of the Old West

Leanne Potts

The woman checking into the St. James Hotel looks a little surprised when the desk clerk tells her there's no TV in her room.

"No TV?" she asks.

"No ma'am," says the clerk, adding that there is no telephone or Internet access either in any of the 125-year-old hotel's 14 historic rooms. "It's very quiet here," she says.

"Quiet" could be the motto of Cimarron, a northeastern New Mexico town that drowses in the shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Here buffalo still graze golden prairies beneath infinite blue skies, and cell phones often won't work. A million acres of ranches and protected public lands ring the town and serve as a fortress between its 900 residents and the modern world.

The classic Western terrain surrounding Cimarron has sparked the imaginations of writers such as Zane Grey, as well as controversy between environmentalists and oil companies over whether or not to drill for natural gas beneath the nearby mountains. It's one of the last places in the West to look and feel like the age before superhighways and subdivisions. 

In October the aspen-draped mountains and hills of the Cimarron Valley explode in red, orange, and gold as cold temperatures return to the high country. Summer campers have gone home, buffalo and antelope are on the move, the roads are empty, and there should be rooms at the St. James.

Ghosts and bullet holes
As the grandest structure in Cimarron, the St. James is a rambling old two-story adobe. Locals jam the hotel bar on weekend evenings to drink with the tourists because there is no place else to go.

More than two dozen bullet holes riddle the 133-year-old tin ceiling in the hotel's original saloon, which is now the dining room. Legend has it that 26 men swallowed their last whiskey beneath that ceiling, where travelers now order bison pot roast, filet mignon, and tender baby quail. But the St. James's current proprietor, Roger Smith, says the death toll in the saloon was more like six or seven. "There's a lot of exaggeration out there about this place," he says. 

As is true with the tales about ghosts. Every old hotel has one, but the St. James supposedly has three, including the obligatory man-shot-dead-during-a-poker-game. There is, however, a padlock on room 18, where the hapless card player died, and the room is never rented out. Liability concerns, says Smith. Haunted or not, the hotel has 14 original rooms named for frontier celebs like Annie Oakley who are said to have slept there, in addition to 10 modern rooms equipped with TVs and phones. The vibe is pure Old West, from the 150-year-old roulette table in the downstairs hall to the buffalo head in the lobby.

Settled in 1841, Cimarron was a way station on the Santa Fe Trail. At its peak in the 1870s, the town had more than a dozen saloons, a slew of bordellos, and a reputation for living up to its name, which is Spanish for untamed. The railroad passed it by, and today the tiny business district has the basics: a western-wear store, a grocery, and a few shops and galleries. The Cimarron Art Gallery, for one, serves milkshakes and the only lattes in town from a 68-year-old soda bar. 

Although I can just pick up a brochure for a self-guided walking tour of the old town, I choose to see it with Jared Chatterley, who wears 1850s garb on his "Legends by Lantern Light" walking tours. On the 90-minute expeditions down starlit streets, he shares tales of lynch mobs, range wars, and the abandoned town jail. Stepping inside the dank stone structure built in 1872, Chatterley points to a name and date scrawled on a cell wall. "This guy is the father of one of our townspeople, who also went to jail," he says. "Some things never change."

East of town, the land opens up into plains―most of it private ranchland. Nearly a decade ago, media mogul Ted Turner put a bison herd on his 588,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch near Cimarron. Most days some of Turner's 2,500 bison can be seen from two-lane U.S. 64, which runs through the ranch. Driving northeast about 5 miles from Cimarron last fall, I spotted a herd of around 150 buffalo just 25 yards from the road, munching on short prairie grass and swishing their tails. I felt like I had stepped into a scene from Dances with Wolves. 

Where the buffalo roam

Hikers can easily spend a day exploring Cimarron Canyon State Park. Granite cliffs popular with climbers line the canyon in which the park sits, and the icy Cimarron River contains fat brown trout. The moderate Clear Creek Canyon Trail winds uphill alongside a mountain stream, through juniper, oak, and cottonwood, and across log footbridges spanning the creek. The Jasper-Agate Trail offers a shorter, strenuous hike over an old logging road.

Invigorated from my hike, I returned to the St. James to find a wedding reception in progress. Men in cowboy hats, plaid shirts, and crisply ironed jeans danced with women in broomstick skirts on the patio outside the bar. A cover band played country songs. Beer bottles clinked. The groom wore a white cowboy hat.

I watched the party from the window of my TV-less room until the wee hours, like Alma Garrett on Deadwood. Overhead the stars twinkled as they did before electric lights usurped them, and the vast, ancient landscape reduced all of us to specks beneath an empty Western sky. Some things, it seems, never change.

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