By Maggie Grimason • Photos courtesy Catherine diGesu
Catherine diGesu—who prefers to be called Kay—imagined that she would become a nun. Growing up in Richmond Hill in Long Island, New York, in the 1940s, she attended an all-girls Catholic school and was enchanted by the older women that ran the place. “I admired the countenance of the nuns,” she recalls. “I just thought they were so beautiful. They really had something, and I wanted that something.” But, as she says, though you make your plans as best you can, God often has something else in mind.
Sitting in her home tucked on the edge of Cibola National Forest, horses stalking their pen outside and mountains on the horizon, it’s hard not to become curious about how diGesu, still active at the age of 84, landed thousands of miles away from where she started—not a nun, but a veteran businesswoman and mother of seven.
“We met on a bicycle,” she begins, telling the story with her hands folded in her lap, eyes looking outward through her home’s picture windows toward the mountains. The early morning sun is brilliant over the canyon, though snow is in the forecast tonight. That day—many years ago now—she had set out from Richmond Hill with a friend, pedaling through Queens until she got a flat tire. Far from home, she was prepared to walk back when two young men pumped the brakes on their own bicycles and came to their rescue.
“I remember we said we’d meet up with them the next day at the same time,” she says. “We didn’t know their neighborhood, they didn’t know ours. So we said we’d meet in the same place. And we never showed up! Sure, I wondered about it, but I just didn’t date. I didn’t even have any guy friends.”
A few weeks later, sitting on her front porch, a boy passing by on a familiar bike peered over the hedges and called out a greeting. It felt something like fate that, in a city of millions, their paths might cross again. “It was wild,” she said. “And that was the beginning.”
That young man was Mario diGesu. They eventually married, and together would go on to travel thousands of miles, set up shop and feed hungry travelers on Route 66, raise seven children, and start Frontier Town, an attraction in the East Mountains for those allured by the mythos of the Wild West.
Their path to the East Mountains was largely happenstance. At 23, Kay was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis that left her barely able to walk. Treatments were painful and because the medications were experimental at that time, her doctors could only prescribe them for a year due to the side effects. They did suggest, however, that perhaps she might try out a different climate. Hearing promising rumors about the beauty of California, in 1962 the young diGesus packed up a white ’59 Cadillac convertible and their five-year-old daughter, leaving their youngest, still a baby, in the care of their family back in Long Island. (They sent for the baby once they settled.) And they headed west, for “anywhere in California.”
“We broke down in nearly every city,” Kay says, laughing at the memory. In fact, they barely made it out of New York before the Cadillac began to lag. When the carburetor gave out, they were just outside of Albuquerque. “It wasn’t anything mechanical,” diGesu recalls, “just something in the air with this tender Cadillac.”
Perhaps it was fate intervening again. It hadn’t been their plan to stay in New Mexico—but they were chasing the sunshine, and when the weather agreed with them three days in a row, then a full week, they decided to stay. “We had more brawn than brain,” she says, wondering at their youthful courage. “We just did things. We had never heard of Albuquerque, let alone knew how to spell it!”
Within a month, the couple were business owners. They purchased Lucky’s Pizza at 3500 Central Avenue and a triplex on Lead Avenue. They also bought a house. Each cost them $10,000. On their days off from Lucky’s, they often found themselves headed east into the mountains. Between 1963 and 1964, they bought 50 acres in Cedar Crest, about four miles north on N14 near where the Turquoise Trails Campground is now located. On it, they first opened a small campground and then the well-loved Family Fun Farm, which later became Frontier Town.
Mario had long had a love of old westerns, the likes that starred Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. “There was a real allure there that Mario saw,” Kay says. “He was always looking for property here—he wanted to live adjacent to the mountains.”
It seemed a natural fit for him, though in hindsight Kay wonders at their audacity—opening a campground, when they had never themselves gone camping. “Two city goons coming to the country! It’s funny when you think about it. There was nothing primitive about us.” Though, after selling the pizzeria and completely relocating to Cedar Crest, Kay quickly became familiar with life in the mountains, and her children were completely at ease leading horseback rides. They even dressed up like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo—the mascots of the campground. “We really just lived for our kids,” Kay says.
And Frontier Town was their way of giving the community an opportunity to spend time with their families, to connect and create memories. They were able to achieve that in the almost 20 years the attraction was open. Those who grew up wandering the old adobes, playing in the covered wagon, camping in the forest, and exploring the East Mountains on horseback carry the magic of those childhood memories with them still. Kay’s daughter Lisa describes traveling to Hong Kong, for example, where the world started to feel small when she met another traveler from New Mexico who vividly described her memories of Frontier Town. The woman revealed a photo, and Lisa saw her own face, decades younger, staring back at her. It turns out she had led the woman and her siblings on a horseback ride all those years ago. To be part of so many people’s happy memories has felt like a blessing for the diGesus.
That is perhaps the legacy of the work that Kay and Mario did—to share with others their love of and joy for life, whether by feeding them at Lucky’s or offering them the chance to forge memories together in the East Mountains. Though much older today, Kay’s enthusiasm and love of her family is still palpable. So is her gratitude for the home she found in New Mexico.
“In fact, I have a new appreciation for the mountains,” she says. “It’s peaceful here. There’s a serenity for me—it’s a sanctuary.” Mario passed away in 2015, and their son Mark before him. Some of her children have stayed close, others are as far away as the Philippines. In fact, Kay had just recently returned from five months with her daughter Lorraine there. As she had begun telling the story of her sojourn to the East Mountains, she had laughed and said, “It’s sort of an Italian thing—one family always has to go out in the world.” It is clear that, all these years later, Kay still has that same spirit of adventurousness that has carried her so far.
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