by Mike Smith
You’ve driven through or past it many times, if you live anywhere at all in the East Mountain area.
Zuzax. You’ve read the I-40 exit signs and wondered, perhaps, about the unusual name, or maybe you used to wonder but have since asked around, or maybe you’ve lived here so long that you know exactly what Zuzax was, because you remember it. Maybe you even miss it some, as we all tend to miss just about anything once it’s gone forever.
Zuzax is toward the easternmost end of Tijeras Canyon, and although the name is now applied to the general area around I-40’s off-ramps and on-ramps there, the name derives from a specific spot once just north of old Route 66, a curio shop/collection of roadside attractions meant to steer motoring tourists off the Mother Road and into spending money. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that every institution is the lengthened shadow of one person, and the shadow that was and still kind of is Zuzax was cast by one Herman Ardans, entrepreneur.
Sadly, not much has been written about Ardans and Zuzax, but in his indispensable The Place Names of New Mexico, Robert Julyan writes that “Herman Ardans, who has been described by a competitor as ‘the cleverest retail man I ever knew,’ opened a curio shop on US 66 here [in 1954] and made up the name Zuzax so it would capture people’s attention and also be the last entry in the phone book . . . ”
Explore the unincorporated community of Zuzax today, and you may very likely find traces of the original shop. The desert preserves things. Wood, and wire, and glass. Look carefully enough at the rocky, roadside slopes just north of the old highway, and you may even still be able to puzzle out the final powdery remains of the giant painted white letters that used to spell out “ZUZAX,” for every passing motorist to see. Ardans advertised the store heavily, with painted and arranged rocks and series of billboards, the miles on the signs counting down to Zuzax, and Zuzax itself an almost psychedelic explosion of western kitsch, impossible to ignore.
In his essential New Mexico Historical Encyclopedia, Don Bullis, drawing from two Albuquerque Tribune articles and some personal memories, writes that, “The curio shop itself was made up of 14 surplus military barracks Ardans bought from Kirtland Air Force Base. Once open for business, Ardans parked a yellow Cadillac along the road in front of the place. He painted ZUZAX on the car’s doors and placed a stuffed rattlesnake on the hood.”
One 1950s postcard of the Zuzax Trading Post, as the shop was called—a postcard recently reprinted by and for sale from the East Mountain Historical Society—shows a classic white and red station wagon parked in a dirt lot, in front of a long, white building with flowery splashes of red around the windows, rugs on the outside walls, wagon wheels leaning all around it, and the roof covered in antlers and folksy animal sculptures, including a bipedal black cat striding confidently in the direction of its dreams. Big white letters on the grayish roof spell “SOUVENIRS” and “CURIOS”; yellow signs with black lettering hanging from the eaves proclaim, “Cowboy HATS,” “ROCKS,” “JACKETS,” and “RUGS”; and logs of petrified wood crowd the edge of the dirt parking lot. A green outbuilding sits back behind it, as does the slope of a low juniper-pocked hill, so familiar, a southernmost slope of the Sandias, lapping right at the edge of Tijeras Canyon.
Ardans was a serious entrepreneur and promoter—very much in the spirit of Carl Webb, founder of the Cedar Crest Resort. According to a long-ago conversation I had with his niece, Ardans would also buy old junked cars, park them strategically in his store’s sprawling parking lot and paint them bright colors; this made it look like the place was busy, and it looked cool too. There was a little zoo, featuring rattlesnakes; and in 1958 Ardans had an underwhelming chairlift ride built up the low hillside behind the store and then back down. “The Sky Ride.” It wasn’t much of a ride, at all, but it sounds pleasant enough. Rumor online has it that the Sky Ride ended up at Uncle Cliff’s Amusement Park, way down in Albuquerque, after the Trading Post closed in 1972, thanks to I-40’s completion.
Local historian and longtime area resident Mo Palmer remembers that the store was, “ . . . on the north side of the road and had a little tram that took you across the highway, which was then Route 66. Had several curio buildings. P.T. Barnum may have visited there . . . It was a neat place as I recall.”
And it still is a neat place, really, Zuzax, that whole, nebulous area around Exit 178. Today, a gas station, a minimart, a campground. A place most people see only peripherally at 75 m.p.h., an interstitial place, a place between places. In the 1980s, a dive bar thrived there, the Outrider, still eulogized by locals as a place that cowboys would sometimes ride right into on their horses and that bikers would sometimes ride right into on their motorcycles, spinning donuts on the dance floor to the great distress of the owner. People would stand and play Ms. Pacman, and fight, and sing along drunkenly to the alt-country tunes of the Beaver Smith Band, whose raucous Outrider performances you can still find and hear on Youtube.
Both The Place Names of New Mexico and William Bright’s Native American Place Names of the Southwest: A Handbook for Travelers mention that when Herman Ardans was asked by tourists about the name Zuzax, he would always say it was named after a local Native American tribe. That wasn’t true, but of course many tribes had lived there. Ancestral Puebloans, and others. And there have been many Zuzax-area Spanish and Mexican villages, now mostly forgotten. Bartolo Baca, with its Penitente, and its adobe chapel, a rough wooden cross still leaning against it well into the 2000s; Zamora, El Tablazon, Carpenter, El Refugio, and others. History piles upon history, all that daily life, and you can never know it all, but you can feel it, like the world could easily implode from the weight of it.
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