By Craig Springer
Mike Smith has an eye for finding the unusual, the arcane, and the downright strange. The man with a name as common as white bread has an uncommon talent, which he expresses on the Internet, in magazines, and in bookstores. Smith is the author of the locally popular book, Towns of the Sandia Mountains, the keeper of the Web site mystrangenewmexico.com, and a frequent magazine contributor.
Smith makes a home with his wife and two young children in Albuquerque, but he grew up on the green side of the mountain at Canoncito near Cedar Crest. He’s a Manzano High school graduate and he’s presently studying English and history at the University of New Mexico. Smith got a year of college under his belt, and then he had to treat wanderlust. He took nine years off from college, he says, for experiences rewarding in an unconventional sense.
Those experiences included paddling the entire shoreline of Lake Powell in Arizona and Utah, a 1,960-mile trip that took him seven months to complete. A year later, he and his brother and four of their friends traversed 3,500 miles of the Atlantic seaboard, walking from Florida to Quebec for a charitable cause. Before coming back to New Mexico, Smith wrote a screenplay while baking in a travel-trailer in the Arizona desert. These experiences he added to having already hitchhiked to and from Alaska.
As a professional writer, he has sold a screenplay, published a book, and contributed frequently to New Mexico magazine. A recent story of his explored the local legend that Chicago crime boss Al Capone took up a short-term residence in the Jemez Mountains on the banks of the Rio Cebolla. Capone was believed to have stayed at a dude ranch there. But Smith may have put the Capone legend to rest.
“There’s nothing but rumors that Capone was in New Mexico,” says Smith. “It’s all anecdotal and nothing archeological – Capone was in New Mexico twice by train, but only passing through.”
Another story Smith reported on for New Mexico magazine was the legend that a symphony played inside the San Pedro mines near Golden in 1940.
If you think all that’s strange, you might want to read his other writings. Currently, Smith tells his twisted tales in the pages of the Albuquerque-based weekly Local IQ in a column also entitled, “My Strange New Mexico.”
The book Towns of the Sandia Mountains will be an enduring work. Between its covers are numerous old photos annotated by Smith. The book is really a chronicle of growing up in the East Mountains. Smith says he and his family would drive around on dirt roads to explore and discover.
“We’d come across old ruins and cemeteries and the more we explored, the more we learned,” he says. “We stumbled onto our first house in Cedar Crest only to learn it was a TB hospital . . . it was so strange to learn we weren’t the first people living here.”
If you liked his first book, you’ll want the second one, due out later this year. Smith’s sequel, Sandia Mountain Settlements, will explore another handful of towns, including Towapa, Ellis Ranch, La Madera, Rancho Colorado, Casa Loma, Zuzax, and Sedillo.
“These little towns are not generally celebrated,” laments Smith.
Judging from his first book, that’s about to change.
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