Discovering hints of home in Red River

June, 2021

Sloan Covington fly fishes at a mountain pond near Red River, New Mexico. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

I’m sitting next to a wall decorated with Texas license plates and a framed article about Willie Nelson, inhaling smoked brisket, and marveling at how Red River, New Mexico, feels like a sliver of Old Austin plopped into the mountains.

I spent my morning fly fishing with a guide who grew up in Austin, visited a ranch that hosts a summer concert series headlined by Texan Michael Martin Murphey, and drank a few beers with the town’s Texas-born mayor, who told me that three-quarters of Red River’s visitors hail from the Lone Star State.

My only clue that I’m not in Texas anymore? The late April snow sifting from clouds the color of dryer lint.

My husband and I flew to Colorado Springs this spring to pick up our new campervan, which we’ve named Vincent VanGo. We took the long way home, detouring through New Mexico to say hi to some friends and get a taste of one of Texas’ favorite playgrounds. The pit stop did not disappoint.

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First, some history. The Ute and Jicarilla Apaches roamed this area long before Texans were skiing its mountain slopes by winter and fly fishing its rivers by summer. According to the Red River Historical Society, fur trappers arrived in the early 1800s, followed by prospectors in the 1860s. The population soared in the 1890s, as gold, silver and copper mining lured folks hoping to strike it rich. By 1900, nearly 3,000 people lived here, keeping 15 saloons, four hotels, two newspapers, and a barbershop, hospital and sawmill in business. Mining continued until about 1925, just as tourists began to discover its charms. Cabins and grocery stores popped up, and tourists began flocking to Red River to hike and camp in forests of blue spruce and ponderosa pine.

Sloan Covington selects a hand-made fly. Pam LeBlanc photo

This morning, Sloan Covington, 34, who left his desk job in Austin to open Red River Angler & Sport in the mountain town where he’d spent summers as a youth, led us to a pine-dotted property in the nearby hills called Bitter Creek Ranch to do a little fly fishing.

“Don’t overcomplicate it,” Covington said, as he showed me how to use the weight of the line to cast a homemade fly into a shimmering pool of dark blue water, the backdrop for an outdoor summer concert series. “It’s just fishing.”

We used barbless hooks, to protect any unsuspecting trout from injury, but that was a moot point –– the fish all avoided capture, and then the snow started to fall, driving us from the pond’s banks.

With the resident 180-pound dog named Zach swirling underfoot, I took a few minutes to chat with Larry Heglund, owner of Bitter Creek Ranch. This summer, the ranch will host the 10th edition of its summer chuckwagon dinner concerts featuring Murphey, whose hits include “Wildfire” and “Carolina in the Pines.”

“In the early days, this is where the music was. There was a conglomeration of people here before the Austin scene took off in the 1960s,” Heglund says, ticking off names like Steve Fromholz, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Gary P. Nunn. “They’d hang here in the summer. We’ve had years of great music.”

This corner of New Mexico still does. Besides the regular Murphey shows at Bitter Creek Ranch, Red River’s music calendar includes a bluegrass festival Aug. 13-15, the 8750’ Music & BBQ festival (named for the town’s elevation) Aug. 20-23, and a folk music festival Sept. 24-26.

Chris LeBlanc casts a line into a pond near Red River, New Mexico. Pam LeBlanc photo

We packed up our fly rods and headed back to downtown for lunch, where we met Steve Cherry at Shotgun Willie’s, the restaurant where I’m now eating a brisket-covered baked potato the size of a running shoe. Cherry, who moved to New Mexico from Argyle, Texas, bought the place nine years ago, and serves Texas-style barbecue as well as burgers and breakfast tacos. It feels almost like home.

After lunch, we take a few minutes to visit the base of the Red River ski area, which opened in 1959 and is within walking distance of everything in town. The mural depicting a couple of skiers soaring through the air looks vaguely European, and I’m surprised to hear that the mountain goes all out each Mardi Gras, putting on a five-day celebration.

Then it’s time to hike. We head 15 minutes up the valley, where we park our camper at a trailhead and hike a few miles past a beaver pond, stretching our legs and getting a taste of the terrain. I’ve got a friend who has long talked about hiking from Taos Ski Valley to Red River, and I vow to come back to make that trek. The 16-mile round-trip walk up Wheeler Peak, at 13,161 feet the highest point in New Mexico, is also on my list.

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Back in town, we cruise downtown, which would fit neatly inside my Allendale neighborhood in Austin, with plenty of room to spare. The mile-long, three-block wide collection of shops, restaurants and bars feels cozy and welcoming.

For dinner, we get another fix of home at the Red River Brewing Company, where we meet Linda Calhoun, who grew up in Haskell, Texas, and has served as mayor of Red River since 2006. She and her husband Ted, along with their three sons, opened the brewery in 2018, and today it’s the town’s largest year-round employer. Plus, it also serves Texas barbecue.
Michael Calhoun, general manager of the brewery, whisks me off for a tour, starting by pointing out the bar top, made from a slab of 480-year-old ponderosa pine salvaged from a fire.

The Red River Brewing Company makes its own beer and spirits. Photo Courtesy Red River Brewing Company

“Dad and Linda had this land and knew a place like this would work,” he tells me. “The planets lined up one drunken night at Bathtub Row (a cooperatively run brewery and taproom in Los Alamos). Twenty-five months later it was opening day.”

The brewery makes small-batch beer, using malted barley grown near Alamosa (Lazy Bear Blonde is the most popular). A year and a half after opening, it began distilling spirits, too. Today it distills its own tequila, gin, vodka, rum and spiced rum, using equipment that looks like it came from the steam punk version of a chemistry lab. It also makes a dang good root beer.

Back at the table, Linda Calhoun explains some of Red River’s appeal. “We are the closest mountains to Texas, and also the most affordable. Once people come here, they fall in love,” she says. “We have a community, we have Main Street, and we’ve been around since 1895.”

Red River’s population today hovers at just under 500 –– well below the Gold Rush peak, and it’s a popular stop on the 83-mile scenic loop called the Enchanted Circle.

“We’re a German-Alpine-Western-mining town –– we have kind of an identity crisis,” she says. “We are truly a hidden treasure. Everybody thinks of New Mexico as the desert, and we’re not that. We have culture, we have history, we have mountains.”

If You Go

Getting there:

Red River is located about 740 miles from Austin. By vehicle, that’s a 12- or 13-hour drive. Taos Air will offer direct flights from Austin starting July 1.

Stay:

Stay at Copper King Lodge or Alpine Lodge, right on the river, or pick from an array of rental homes, condos and cabins.

Do:

Red River is known for its hiking, fly fishing and live music scene. Catch Michael Martin Murphey at Bitter Creek Ranch every Tues., Thurs., and Sat. from June 13 to Sept. 11. Tickets are $60 for adults, $25 for children and include dinner. Purchase them in advance at www.rocking3m.com. Bicyclists can register for the Roll Mastif, a new organized group ride of 85 or 100 miles, set for Aug. 28 along the Enchanted Circle. Or book a guided fly fishing trip through Red River Angler & Sport.

Eat & Drink:

Try Shotgun Willie’s, 403 W. Main Street, for barbecue and breakfast tacos. The Red River Brewing Company & Distillery, 217 W. Main Street, serves brisket, ribs, sausage, and ribs, plus a solid burger.

Pro tip:

Stop by Candy Mountain Fudge, 300 W. Main Street, and pick up a pound of green chile pistachio fudge. It’s sweet, spicy and delicious.

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