Places I Remember with Lea Lane

New Mexico: Pueblos and Art, Space Aliens and Frito Pie

April 13, 2021 Susan Mihalic's novel, 'Dark Horses' focuses on horseback riding -- and the author loves riding in Taos, where she lives. Season 1 Episode 11
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
New Mexico: Pueblos and Art, Space Aliens and Frito Pie
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Susan Mihalic, author of the debut novel Dark Horses, shares her love of New Mexico, her home state.
-- Northern Pueblos, including Taos Pueblo,and  rituals and festivals, Bandelier National Monument,
-- Carlsbad  Caverns.
Lea shares about a tornado;  Susan, a honeymoon road trip  with (or without) bats
-- Susan talks of Roswell, where supposedly a UFO crashed; "cute brick buildings" and a UFO museum
--  White Sands: "mountains of snow," soft, powdery dunes, no shade
-- Los Alamos, where nuclear bombs were built, with the "highest IQ in the state." Rock petraglyphs and  pictographs, at Bandelier
-- Albuquerque: hot air ballooning, "Breaking Bad" sites
-- Taos, Susan's hometown: high desert, blue skies, red aspens. "Taos is my landscape." Artists visiting Taos "stayed because of the light."
-- Ancient crafts, plus Anglo artists from late 1800s. Recreation, in mountains and desert
-- Susan's favorite pueblo, Acoma, known for pottery, and an ancient mica windowpane.
Silver City pueblo, and Zuni pueblo -- fetishes, amulets, jewelry. And  bread made in ornos, special ovens.
-- Red or green chilis? "I always get Christmas." Green chili harvest, and green chili stew.
Lea remembers eating green chili burger and Frito Pie, New Mexico faves.
-- Sante Fe:  "New York in the desert," star chefs, mountains, opera, arts, old theater, culture, slower pace. Stunning adobe brick. Georgia O Keefe museum there; her home nearby, a  ghost ranch and retreat
-- How New Mexico influenced her novel, in which horses are the backdrop.  Dark Horses allowed her to buy a horse and "quit her day job." The heroine's relationship with horses is based on Susan's relationship with her horse, Goldmark.
-- Susan's special memory is set on thousands of acres north of Taos, with old logging roads. She twice went horse camping there, sleeping in a tent with Goldmark nearby, riding out for the day.  Her "most beautiful place."
Writer, editor, teacher Susan Mihalic lives in Taos, New Mexico. Her novel Dark Horses is on Oprah Magazine's and Parade Magazine's lists of Most Anticipated Books of 2021, GoodReads' list of 75 Debut Novels to Discover in 2021, and was named a "Title to Watch" by Library Journal.  Susan taught riding therapy for two summers in college and four years in San Diego. She rides her horse Goldmark every chance she gets, throughout beautiful New Mexico.

Podcast host Lea Lane has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine travel books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to dozens of guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter and  blogs at Contact her at
Please follow  Places I Remember with Lea Lane wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you enjoy, leave a 5-star a review on Apple.

Lea Lane  00:04

Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. Our guest this episode is writer, editor teacher and New Mexican Susan Mihalic. Her new novel, Dark Horses, published by Simon and Schuster, has received rave reviews, and her life in New Mexico inspired much of the action centered around horseback riding in the novel. Welcome, Susan, and congratulations on the book. 


Susan Mihalic  00:44

Oh, hi, Lea, thank you so much. Thanks for having me. And thank you for congratulating me. I'm so excited.


Lea Lane  00:50

Well, we'll discuss your novel a bit later. But let's first talk about New Mexico. You've lived there for many years now, how many have you lived, 26 years? Okay. And I know that the state is a blend of Anglo Spanish and native cultures. And the Pueblos are considered among the oldest continuously inhabited dwellings in North America. Can you tell us about some of those Pueblo cultures that make New Mexico so special?


Susan Mihalic  01:18

Sure. I'm most familiar with the eight northern pueblos, which are sort of from Akima, which is just south of Albuquerque, on up to the state line with Colorado. And I'm most familiar with Taos Pueblo, which is a gorgeous place people still live in the village. That's one of the continuously occupied pueblos. That's quite a step back into history to go there. There's a beautiful river that runs through the Pueblo it's sort of divided into the north side and the south side. And they have many, they're keeping their culture alive. They have many rites and ceremonies that are not open to the public, but they also have some that are open to the public. And in this time of the pandemic, they're they're not open. But normally on Christmas Eve, there's a beautiful bonfire that combines the Christianity that the Spanish settlers brought with some of the Native American rituals. They take Our Lady of Guadalupe out of their church and the mission church that's there and they walk her around the plaza of the Pueblo and people are invited to that there's either a corn dance a deer dance, or turtle dance, I believe on Christmas Day, which is very, very special. I don't believe you're allowed to photograph it. They have Cushaw. Ari's, which are clowns and the clowns will take your recording equipment and your cameras, your cell phones, if you try to record it.


Lea Lane  03:00

I'm told they're five stories high and you have to go on ladders to go up. Is that the Pueblo?


Susan Mihalic  03:07

I am trying to think if I've seen a building that looks five stories high to me, I think I've seen some that are two and three stories. I've not seen one that's five stories at Bandelier National Monument where they have sort of the pre-Pueblo cave dwellings, cliff dwellings, some of those are quite high. And they have the same Kivas the religious buildings that are built into the ground. They have some of the the same aspects of bandolier that they have in Taos. I've been in the grand Kiva at bandolier. Once you have to climb a bunch of ladders up and then a bunch of ladders down. And I will never go in it again, because ladders were terrifying.


Lea Lane  03:53

The tip, how many tell me about Carlsbad Caverns because I, I visited there once long ago, and I think I was in a tornado. It was my first tornado, I happen to be driving along in a little sports car. And this wind whipped up. I don't know if that's typical, or if there's a special wind around that area. But we were soaked inside the little car even though our windows were up. So we didn't get to see the bats. But tell me about this.


Susan Mihalic  04:17

When Rick and I got, my husband and I got married in 2018, we talked about where we wanted to go on a honeymoon. And there's so much of New Mexico that we had not seen and still haven't seen some areas that we decided to take a road trip. We both love a good road trip and Carlsbad was a highlight of that. These caves are absolutely stunning. They think they've only explored and excavated about maybe 20% of them. It's a huge cave system. And it's also connected to the oil and gas industry. There's a lot of oil and gas and they think some of these chambers at one Time millennia ago might have been filled with oil and water. It's absolutely spectacular. We didn't see the bats either. We went there in the morning, and the bats don't fly until seven or eight o'clock at night and it was just too long a day to stay right.


Lea Lane  05:20

And then we went home to we figured the tornado was enough for one day


Susan Mihalic  05:24

The wind can be intense ,here it can really whip up and in the eastern part of the state we probably do get some tornadoes. 


Lea Lane  05:32

Still don't know I will never know that but I know it was a big wind. Speaking of sort of oddities in a way of nature. Roswell is famous. Tell us about Roswell, New Mexico,


Susan Mihalic  05:46

We hit Roswell on the way down to Carlsbad. Roswell is supposedly the town where a UFO crashed in 1947. And supposedly alien bodies were recovered. I don't really think there's actual proof of that. But I also think we would be pretty conceited to think that in the entire universe, we're the only intelligent life forms here on Earth,


Lea Lane  06:14

I would have to agree.


Susan Mihalic  06:17

It's a sweet little town. It has cute old brick buildings. Of course, everything is themed around the UFO crash, there is a UFO museum. And if you're going through Roswell, you sort of are obliged to stop and go through the museum. It they have some exhibits there that are kind of delightfully cheesy. And they also have a lot of very text heavy placards. We were tired of reading by the time we got out of the museum. No aliens, no aliens. They have an alien model there. They've got a cute photo booth where you can make your photo when they superimpose an alien on the photo with you. So of course we did that. It was just a blast.


Lea Lane  07:00

Good. What about White Sands, I've always seen pictures on Instagram. It looks really white, is it as white as it seems?


Susan Mihalic  07:09

It is absolutely as white as it seems. It looks like snow, mountains of snow, but it is white sand. The sand is I believe silica. It's very, very soft and powdery. You can drive through the monument. So if you have any accessibility issues, you can see what there is to see by staying in your car. But it's you can also Park and get out and walk so we walked up the dunes and sort of slid down the dunes. Some people were having picnics, there is no shade in White Sands. So they had umbrellas with them. But it's a beautiful spot. It's it's blue skies and white sand as far as you can see. It's just lovely.


Lea Lane  07:51

Instagrammable, whatever the word.


Susan Mihalic  07:54

Instagrammable framable.


Lea Lane  07:57

How about Los Alamos, that's where they tested the nuclear nuclear bombs. Is that nearby there and have you visited,


Susan Mihalic  08:03

I have visited Los Alamos. I think they built them there. But they tested just north of White Sands, Alamogordo maybe, I can't think of the name of the community where they tested them. But they built them in Los Alamos, and it's a tiny, tiny county, in a tiny, tiny town. And there's one road that goes in and out. It's you can tell it was a secure government facility, particularly during World War Two when they were developing the bomb. And even even now, there's a lot of nuclear development that goes on there. They have, I believe the highest IQ in the state. Because of all the scientists that live in this tiny, tiny county. It is so small we have huge counties here and Los Alamos is just a little speck.


Lea Lane  08:54

And who figured that out it was there a test throughout the state.


Susan Mihalic  08:58

I don't know how they figured it out. I saw it on a website one time and of course everything on the internet is true. So right.


Lea Lane  09:06

Of course. Let me ask you, what is the petroglyph? I know all around there all around New Mexico is I remember seeing something myself that was so beautiful. Explain what that is, petroglyph.


Susan Mihalic  09:21

There are two kinds of rock art. One is a petroglyph and a petroglyph is a symbol that has actually been packed into the rock face with maybe another stone or some other kind of tool, a pictograph. And there are some of those in the state as well. is painted image on rock. And if you go to Bandelier National Monument, those are probably the closest pictographs bandolier is just outside Los Alamos, and there's some pictographs as well as petroglyphs.


Lea Lane  09:53

Excellent. Now, Albuquerque is the biggest city and I know it has an annual Hot Air Balloon Festival and known for the setting for Breaking Bad. But let's talk more about the most charming and evocative cities. I think some of the best and the both of them Taos and Santa Fe. Taos is your home town, right? It is setting. What's the setting for Taos? So what's the history?


Susan Mihalic  10:22

It is absolutely stunning. Here it is set at the base of the mountains there mountains all around us. We're at an altitude of probably the average altitude is 7200 feet. So we're quite high. We're higher than Mesa Verde up in Colorado, for example. We're certainly higher than Denver. It's, it gets all four seasons. We have beautiful cottonwood and aspen trees that turn gold and some of the Aspen's turn red as well, which I had never seen until I moved here. I've been here 26 years as of this year, and Taos is home. I went to a four or five day workshop in abiku, which is a couple of hours from here, home of Georgia O'Keeffe a few years ago, and it was stunning with its beautiful red rock country and white rocks among the red, just beautiful. But as breathtaking as it was, I was so happy to get back to Taos as I was driving into town. I thought Taos is my landscape. 


Lea Lane  11:30

I know I've been there. It's a real western town. It feels like I can feel the I know you love horseback riding, of course. And I feel that, you know, I feel that more than anywhere else in New Mexico that this is a real western town. What what's the history of that?


Susan Mihalic  11:45

It is, the Pueblo Indians have been here for millennia. In the late 1800s, some artists were visiting and they had a wagon wheel break about 20 miles north of Taos. And one of the artists stayed with the wagon and the other one brought the wheel into town to have it fixed. And both of them had decided by the time he got back with the fixed wheel that Taos was where they needed to be because of the quality of the light. So in addition to these ancient crafts that we have the beautiful pottery and weaving, both baskets and textiles, the blankets, we have this influx of Anglo artists that came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And since then, Taos has really been known as an arts community. A lot of artists, a lot of galleries, a lot of different forms of art are here. But the that's a draw for people. But also the outdoors is a huge draw here. You can hike, you can ski you can snowboard, you can river raft, you can ride horses, you can hot air balloon over the Rio Grande Gorge and do your Splash and Dash where you touch the river and then go back up. It's a fantastic place for outdoor recreation as well.


Lea Lane  13:09

I know the Pueblo there was built about 1000. More between 1014 100. I read and it's a it's a historic UNESCO historic site is that the best Pueblo if you had to pick one would you choose the Taos one,


Susan Mihalic  13:24

I would choose the Taos one. But second, I would choose Akuma Pueblo, which is south of Albuquerque. It is up on a Mesa and they have some ancient buildings there as well, including this the oldest windowpane in New Mexico, it's made of mica. And so I'm sure the quality of light inside is not fantastic. But it's this thin sheet of mica that serves as a windowpane. And one of the windows there is see it's lovely an alchemist quite well known for its pottery.


Lea Lane  14:01

There are many arts communities, obviously, but Taos and Santa Fe are the ones we know about. Are there any others that you might mention, Silver.


Susan Mihalic  14:12

City is another big arts community. And let me think about the other pueblos. Zuni Pueblo has a quirky old cemetery and they're a bit scattered at Zuni Pueblo. I didn't see the concentration of buildings that you see at Akima and at Taos Pueblo. So Zuni Pueblo is a little bit more spread out but they make stunning fetishes that are carved from rock.


Lea Lane  14:44

Fetish. I know what it is and you know, foot fetish, that kind of thing.


Susan Mihalic  14:50

And it's an amulet. They do beautiful work there. They make gorgeous jewelry at Zuni Pueblo. So I would certainly recommend Visiting, they're having some oven bread when you visit ha made in these Ornos, these beehive shaped ovens. And there's a gentleman in Zuni, who has a huge, huge or No, I don't know how many loaves of bread he can fit in that thing. So they heat it up. It's super hot. They sweep out all the embers and ash. And then they put the bread dough in there and it bakes from the heat. And it's delicious.


Lea Lane  15:29

It's talking about food. I know. Santa Fe, especially is known for great cuisine. But what are some typical New Mexican dishes that you would you would say to definitely try?


Susan Mihalic  15:42

Well, I have heard that we're the only state that has an official state question, which is red or green. 


Lea Lane  15:50

I betI know, chilis.


Susan Mihalic  15:53

Chili. Do you want green chili or red chili on your entree? Because those are your choices.


Lea Lane  16:00

Which do you want?


Susan Mihalic  16:02

Well, if you're in the know, you say Christmas, and then you get red and green. So I always get Christmas. And if it's too hot, which can certainly be the case, they'll bring you some sour cream to sort of cut the heat. But red chili are huge here. Every fall starting in August, they have a green chili harvest from hatch New Mexico and it's distributed throughout the state. They do these massive chili roasting is at all the grocery stores and sometimes just at roadside stands, and you buy your burlap bag of chilies. They roast it for you in this giant drum that looks sort of like a bingo drum, but it's massive. And you bring your roasted chilies home and you continue preparing them and you freeze them. You take the skins off and you freeze them about six to a bag six to eight to a bag. And that is enough to make a delicious green chili stew and it's enough to just take one out of the bag and add some flavor to what


Lea Lane  17:04

I remember having a green chili burger and a Frito Pie. Yes. Is that a popular? I remember that.


Susan Mihalic  17:11

Those are very popular things. You can get green chili burgers and should wherever you go here. It's absolutely fantastic. And Frito Pie is a staple of the high school fundraiser.


Lea Lane  17:23

Okay, that's what I did on the road. It was memorable.


Susan Mihalic  17:28

Yeah, you go to a big box store and the kids are set up there with their parents. And that's what you get Frito Pie.


Lea Lane  17:35

Well, let's talk about other kinds of food. We'll go to Santa Fe because that's one of the cities in America that foodies adore what what is the, what is the draw that that brings the chefs to to Santa Fe, the star chefs.


Susan Mihalic  17:50

Santa Fe has been called New York in the desert. It's what a friend of mine refers to it as. And it's not a huge city. It's a nice mid sized city. It's just as beautiful as Taos is they've got their own mountains down that way. They have an opera at Santa Fe has a lot of cultural advantages a huge arts community down there as well. They have an old theater called the lensic Theater. So I think that the the culture is really what brings people here. It's a slower pace of life than you get in a larger city. It's been there, there are a lot of people who visit who really appreciate it, and they they want to try the local cuisine. And chefs always bring their own spin to it.


Lea Lane  18:42

And it's a beautiful city, the Adobe architecture. Tell me a little about that.


Susan Mihalic  18:46

So Adobe is a brick that's made of mud and straw and water and it's baked in the sun. They may kiln dry some adobe bricks I'm not sure but traditionally it's baked in the sun. And most often a true adobe building is plastered with a mud plaster that's made of the same material because if you plaster it with concrete, it the Adobe will sweat inside the concrete and it will start to disintegrate if you plaster it with mud. The mud breathes and the Adobe stays solid. There are ancient adobe buildings around here that are our ruins. But the adobe bricks have held up the buildings are abandoned old farmhouses for example, but those are W bricks have held up all these years.


Lea Lane  19:37

It is so beautiful when you come into Santa Fe and you see the the unification of the architecture, and it's one of the most charming cities in all of America for sure. I remember going to the Georgia O'Keeffe museum there that's very, very famous. It she lived there with her husband.


Susan Mihalic  19:57

She lived in abiku by Taos and Santa Fe, there is a Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Her home is actually an adobe. There is a property that she used to own called Ghost Ranch. And she has had a house there. When I took the workshop and advocate several years ago, we had the our group had a house that was next to hers. There's plenty of trees and shrubs and distance between the two homes. But the house that we stayed in is an exact replica of hers, they use the same blueprints. So a friend of hers used to live in that house. And now this foundation owns it. They've got some cabins that they've constructed. And it's used as a retreat and place to hold art workshops and you can ride there they have stables you can hike there. It's a quite a lovely place.


Lea Lane  20:55

A lovely combination of art, and recreation and good food. I mean, sounds fantastic.


Susan Mihalic  21:01

That's kind of New Mexico. It's a beautiful combination of all those things.


Lea Lane  21:07

Let's turn to your new novel just for a second, Dark Horses. Can you tell me how living in New Mexico influenced your writing?


Susan Mihalic  21:16

Yes, Taos is a very artistic community, as are so many communities in New Mexico. And I had wanted to write I had played around with writing when I lived in San Diego. I always intended to publish but I couldn't seem to finish anything. And I moved to Taos and horses are sort of the backdrop for the the novel dark horses. And shortly after we moved here, I started leasing a horse at a place called MacArthur quarter horses. I was leasing a fox Trotter. So the lady who owned her really didn't ride anymore, she kept the horse for her little girl who did a horse camp on her for two weeks every summer. And other than that the horse was at my disposal for a very small fee. So I did that for almost 10 years, and eventually the horse passed away. And then I was horseless, but I started leasing another horse, a beautiful American Warmblood named Goldmark a few years ago, and then selling the book enabled me to purchase him. So he's now my


Lea Lane  22:26

Congratulations. Thank you, wonderful, how fitting.


Susan Mihalic  22:31

That's one of the really wonderful outcomes from selling the book. But I was also able to quit my job finally, and better. Be the no more day job. Being here and riding almost every day really was very inspiring to me getting out on the trails and up into the hills was quite the source of inspiration and the relationship that my main character in dark horses has with her horses is very much inspired by the relationships that I've had with horses and have with Goldmark. 


Lea Lane  23:05

Now I can't wait to to read it. The last question I always ask is what one experience would you remember most about New Mexico and would like to share with us so what would you say is if you had to just choose one covering it all? 


Susan Mihalic  23:25

North of Taos is a wilderness area. And it's, g osh, 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of acres and it is spectacular. And it was a logging area at one time and there are old logging roads that cut through throughout the hills there and they make a great place to ride. So twice have been horse camping there for a couple of weekends at a time. And it is just the most wonderful experience to sleep in your tent your horses in a pen. They have a campground that specifically is built for horse camping. So your horses in a pan close to your tent, and you get up everybody has breakfast, including your horse and you ride out for the day and you don't have to worry about cars, you might see some bighorn sheep. It's just absolutely wonderful. It's the most beautiful place I have ever been.


Lea Lane  24:27

Well, thank you so much, Susan Mihalic, for a wonderful discussion of your home state of New Mexico. And remember if you have any comments, thank you so much. If you have any comments or questions about this or any episode, you can contact me at


Susan Mihalic  24:47

Thank you, Lea.


Lea Lane  24:53

Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.

About Northern Pueblos
Bandelier National Monument
Carlsbad Caverns
Roswell, UFO museum
7:05 White Sands "mountains of snow,"
Los Alamos
Rock petraglyphs and pictographs, at Bandelier
Albuquerque: hot air ballooning, "Breaking Bad" sites
Taos, Susan's hometown:
Susan's favorite pueblo, Acoma
Silver City pueblo, and Zuni pueblo
Red or green chilies? Frito pie!
Sante Fe: "New York in the desert," Georgia O'Keefe
New Mexico influenced her novel
Susan's most special memory