Steins, New Mexico: The Ultimate American Ghost Town

It concerns me that the gas station attendant has never heard of Steins. We are one stop away from Steins on New Mexico’s Interstate 10. It’s basically this gas station, flat desert, some yucca plants, then Steins. I could walk to my destination from here. Granted, I might get sunstroke and also scary close to the vultures on the fences, but the point is we’re that close. “Sorry ma’am,” he shakes his head. “I don’t know that town.”

I keep calm, knowing Steins doesn’t fit everyone’s definition of a town. Not since the mid-1940s has Steins had much street traffic. That was when the Southern Pacific Railroad switched from steam to diesel, shutting down this depot town virtually overnight. It’s the classic ghost town tale – a settlement of transients and dreamers who fled as abruptly as they came – except that Steins was never completely abandoned.

There was always someone hanging on: first, the bordello madams, and later, a lone man who got his pick of the cluttered homes. For over 40 years, the adobes slouched and the barns blanched to gray, but Steins, unlike so many of the old boomtowns that dot the map of New Mexico, was never left to the elements, and never looted.

It’s no small relief to see a woman on the porch of the old town store, under the chipped white letters, STEINS MERCANTILE. There’s a cattle grate to bump over, and just past it, an outburst of prickly pear cacti, holding their pert needles up to the desert sun. It’s just after 9 a.m. and already, the desert’s cooking.

The woman stands and watches me pull up – apparently, I’m today’s first guest. Steins, after a full year of closure, just reopened in May. I scoured the web for an official site to confirm its new hours, but all the search results led me instead to the story of Larry Link.

%Gallery-161412%A rattlesnake farmer, Larry Link got to dreaming about the abandoned train town deep in the southwest corner of New Mexico, and persuaded his wife that they should buy it. This was in 1988, when Steins wasn’t even listed in some regional ghost town guides. From the highway, it looked like a junkyard; up close, like a trove of Wild West artifacts. Larry’s vision was simple: it didn’t involve historical reenactments or tour guides in period garb. He just wanted to clear a path through Steins and to invite the public in.

“He didn’t want to entertain people,” says Melissa Lamoree, Link’s granddaughter, who just took over the family operation. A year prior, Larry Link walked out late one night to investigate a noise on his property. He was shot and killed. The murder, which remains unsolved, devastated the Link family. As for the ghost town, it looked as though history was about to repeat itself, with another sudden folding, until 30-year-old Melissa stepped in. It bristled her to think her grandfather’s death might overshadow the place he’d spent years reviving. By the end of his life, Link had cleared paths in all but a few buildings. “He just wanted the history of this place to speak for itself.”

Melissa stands off to the side as I duck through the low doorway of a pink brick house, into a room so thick with dust it has the murky feel of pond water. In a long slice of window light, I see what a commotion our entrance causes. A dust storm rises and settles. My first concern is knocking something over. My second concern is where to look.

Imagine an attic where your parents and their parents, and about four more generations of parents, have stacked lamps and novels and cowboy boots and old license plates. Imagine that no one, in this long line of hoarders, believes in spring cleaning. No dusters in the family, either. Imagine spider webs as thick as gauze. A few you mistake for cocoons.

My gaze settles first on a boxy wooden suitcase, cracked open to reveal the record player within, its needle resting partway across a grimy album. Next, I make out a pair of silver roller skates, sitting like a pair of toy cars on the counter. That’s a horseshoe, I think; that’s a tin for tobacco. I lift the cover of a children’s book and what sounds like a pinch of sand hits the floor.

I turn around and cringe at Melissa, not because I’ve broken something, but because I haven’t heard a word she’s said since coming inside. “Could you start over?” I have to ask, hoping Melissa believes my reason. “I’m overwhelmed.”

She smiles – I must not be the first dumbstruck guest – and rewinds. “Thirteen hundred people used to live here … ” In the early 1880s, Steins was a workstation for the railroad company aiming to connect California and the Gulf of Mexico. When a stone quarry was built nearby, 1,000 Chinese laborers arrived to lay gravel bed. “Only one Chinese man was allowed to live right here in town,” Melissa tells me. “The cook.” On the wall behind her, a half-corroded company sign warns townspeople “to avoid being struck ... by trains or cars.” The railroad gave life to this town, and just over a half a century later, took it away.

“When things shut down, people were offered a ride on the train,” Melissa pauses by an upright piano that looks straight out of a saloon.The piano’s roof, like most surfaces in this 16-room maze, doubles as a display – in this case, for clocks, peacock feathers, a tarnished watering can. “They were told to take whatever they could carry.” There was a lot the people of Steins could not carry – hence the attic-feel.

If Steins is haunted, it’s by what was left behind – things too heavy or impractical to carry forward, pieces of this town’s life that were never the starting ingredients for someplace else. The pie safe is crowded with still-full spice jars. A typewriter sits heavily on a table, spider webs bridging its blank-faced keys. Overhead, a cowboy hat hangs on a pair of elk horns, lanced right in its dimple. The handle of a dresser dangles off one hook, like it was yanked hard and quick.

It’s the arrangement of things, more than the condition they’re in, that makes the interior rooms of Steins so astonishing. You get the sense, creeping across the swollen floorboards and into the silent bedrooms, that these lanterns and suspenders and saddles are right where someone left them. That was why Melissa, when she was a little girl, trailing after her grandfather on summer visits, refused to go into the bathhouse. Everything by that cobwebbed, claw-foot tub looked left by someone.

Preserving that trace of the town’s last settlers was the work of Larry Link. He wasn’t precious about keeping the antiques in mint condition (the only relic I inspect through glass is the delicate skeleton of a horny toad), but seemed to believe that the way we leave things – however messy or unruly or vulnerable – tells a story.

Take the mason jars of Steins. Everywhere you look in this ghost town, there are long families of glass jars, their shoulders uniformly dusted. I see mason jars over doorways, across the piano, bloating cupboards. From the look of it, the people of Steins were America’s first diehard recyclers. “The sheriff warned people not to throw away glass,” Melissa tells me. “Because the Apaches might use the shards to make arrow heads.”

I’d planned to weave through other old mining towns on my long ride home from Steins, but anywhere else is bound to feel like a Disney ride set after a place this heavy with history. At a nearby ghost town, reenacted saloon fights remind visitors of the lawlessness of the Old West. At Steins, that hint is in the bottles, every shade of sea glass, glowing in the corners of dim rooms.

“Every time I come through here,” says Melissa, “I notice something new.” I know she’s not exaggerating; later, when I study my photos, I see all I missed. Completely different things pop: not the chipped white bed post, but the hanging silver scissors, their legs kicked open, gleaming in the backdrop. Not the broken china plate, but the sewing machine off to the side, looking somehow poised.

One thing, though, is impossible to look past in real time: the stuffed warthog.

“That’s a javalena,” Melissa corrects me. She sounds excited to introduce us: New Yorker and giant rodent of the desert. Her grandfather hung the javalena for precisely this occasion: so outsiders could learn about the desert habitat. Though I doubt it’s the cactus-eating beast that’s exciting Melissa. She brightens every time her grandfather comes up. I’ve heard about Larry Link in just about every chamber of this ghost town. Steins starts to feel like a layering of dreams and losses, all of them raw, but none more than the Link family’s.

A train passes, its whistle like a pipe organ – all keys pressed down, let go. It’s gone by the time we step outside, into the brightness. I follow Melissa through a yard where rusty barrels and wash pans look as organic as the barrel cacti. Steins has a fence but no real perimeter; it spreads and mingles with the desert scrub, as far as I can squint. This place refuses to let you get your bearings. It tugs at and teases your gaze, onward and deeper, into the next rusty puzzle. Off in the distance, a splotchy red truck that probably drove through the Great Depression rests with its hood popped open.

“Antique people sometimes come and tell me our most valuable things are out here, baking in the sun,” Melissa says, sounding amused, not worried.

I squint over her shoulder, wondering what the high-ticket treasures are. The disintegrating wheelbarrow? The drooping stagecoach?

I give up, realizing it doesn’t matter. Melissa may one day have to dismantle the dusty chaos of Steins, but for the moment, she’s sticking to the vision of the rattlesnake farmer who put Steins back on the map. She’s keeping a path clear, and stepping aside.