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New Life for an Old Ranch : New Mexico's Chama Land and Cattle Co. . . a home where the elk roam and a place for would-be cowpokes to hang up their spurs and sit a spell.

March 27, 1988|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

CHAMA, N.M. — Six elk cheeseburgers sizzled in a huge battered frying pan that looked as if it might be in its second century. Flames leaped from spruce logs in the fire pit to several inches over the pan's edges.

As wrangler/cook Jim Town laid thick slices of Cheddar cheese on the elk patties, the darkening sky above Sugarloaf Lake, 50 feet away, began to talk. A distant rumble of thunder was first, then, like a bomb, came a blast from directly overhead. The thunderclap rolled across the lake and echoed off spruce and fir hillsides.

The first drops were huge, the kind that go "plop!" on dry ground and raise tiny dust clouds. One hit Town on his cowboy hat, which looked as old as his frying pan.

"OK, everybody get under the awning and I'll try to pull this off without getting anyone's cheeseburger wet," Town said.

Half a dozen guests and staff people from the Chama Land and Cattle Co. lodge in northern New Mexico were on a midday picnic outing to 10,500-foot-high Sugarloaf Lake, one of 14 lakes on Chama's 32,000 forested acres. While Town cooked, they sat on a picnic table under a tarp, drinking champagne and applauding the thunderclaps.

It was a picnic of a memorable kind. The elk cheeseburgers were sensational, and so was the sound and light show.

The rain grew in volume until it raised the lake's surface to a froth. Town picked up the pace, too. He served the cheeseburgers, then dropped fresh, breaded cutthroat trout fillets into his old black frying pan.

And at that moment, after five minutes of driving pellets, the rain turned to pea-size hailstones, setting off a loud clatter on the tarp overhang. After a few minutes the storm subsided as quickly as it had begun. The dark clouds began to fracture. Rapidly widening bright beams of sunlight, like curtains, poured through the cloud seams and illuminated the lake and the forest.

That evening, at Chama's 13,500-square-foot lodge, it was more of the same: another short-lived thunder and lightning show, while guests sat outside under an overhang, drinking cocktails. They watched lightning flashes 40 miles away dance on peaks in Rio Grande and Carson national forests.

In the kitchen, fast-moving people were creating something that would top the elk cheeseburgers. Stay tuned.

As quickly as it had arrived, interrupting the quiet twilight, the day's second mini-storm passed. It left behind only a few small puddles and a trace of humidity.

"That's typical, this time of year," said Chama foreman Leo Smith. "Usually, though, it's only late afternoon or evening--not like what we had at lunch today. Big, black clouds blow in here almost every day, and we get thunder, lightning and rain for 10 minutes, and a couple of minutes later there's not a cloud in sight."

Guests filed inside for dinner.

One look inside the massive main room of the Chama Land and Cattle Co. tips anyone off that these folks are no longer in the cattle business. They're in the elk business. From October through December, Chama's 11 guest rooms are mostly full of elk hunters. But in spring and summer, Chama is just the ticket for someone looking for a few days of:

--Nightly thunder and lightning shows . . . big-tumbler, make-your-own cocktails . . . five-star food . . . solitude . . . wildlife viewing tours . . . doing absolutely nothing but be left alone to eat, sleep, drink or to sink deeply into one of the big leather chairs near the fireplace and snooze.

If you insist on some sort of activity, there are nature hikes for bird watchers and botany fans. One is an easy, flat trail; a tougher one is called the "aerobic" trail. Or you can go into the town of Chama and take the six-hour (including a lunch stop) train ride on the narrow-gauge Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad to Antonito, Colo.

The train climbs to 10,000 feet and crosses the Colorado-New Mexico line 11 times during its 19th-Century route through the San Juan Mountains.

Now, back to that fireplace. We're talking world-class fireplace here. Chama's core, its heart, is its fireplace--a mammoth, 18-foot-wide structure made of 200-pound stones. Above the fire pit and high on the walls are numerous head mountings of six-point Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer buck and Rocky Mountain bighorn ram.

On a shelf of the fireplace, a full-body mountain lion mount peers silently through pine boughs.

Hot-Burning Gambel Oak

The favored fireplace fuel is hot-burning gambel oak, the heat of which backs guests up to the rear row of chairs.

The favored fuel on the menu calendar is Mexican night, a treat that will not encourage you to back up from the table. Nor did the fork-tender barbecued prime rib, which I'd had the previous night.

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