The place was eerie even in daylight. But in the dark of night, it petrified me. After kicking out the last drunk cowboys and shutting off all of the lights, I would dart to my room with my heart pounding in my throat. I can’t explain the goose bumps: maybe it was the screeching cat I would hear from the other side of my locked door or maybe it was the cold heaviness in the air that pressed on my skin as I lay awake in bed. I worked for a month at this desolate hotel/bar in Cimarron, New Mexico. But unlike many who stayed there, I got out alive.
The St. James Hotel was built in 1872, seven years after the Civil War ended, when the west was a place of outlaws and vigilantes. Many infamous gunslingers spent nights among the thick, scarlet curtains and ornate brocade wallpaper of the hotel. And in the spirit of bullets and lawlessness, dozens of murdered men became its permanent residents.
If you are willing to sleep with the blankets over your head, book a room at the St. James on the second floor in the old hotel; sadly, the new addition is not nearly as haunted. When you arrive, ask for a tour. This is an ideal time to use the black and white settings on your camera, as the ambiance will deliver excellent grays and imbue a sharp sense of past to your photos. Request to see the always-locked Room 18, haunted by TJ, an angry and violent ghost. A few doors down, you’ll find the communal bathroom. I’d recommend finding a bucket or a large jar to keep in your room; that short walk will be frighteningly longer in the middle of the night.
But there is a softness and sweetness in this town whose name means feral and wild. You can find it in springtime, when the blooming desert wildflowers add a touch of color to the rolling tumbleweed and, more importantly, the summer tourists are still months and miles away. Everyone you meet will be a local: genuine horse wranglers with tight Levi’s and a loose drawl in their words.
Seemingly, the entire town will push through the batwing doors of the saloon around 8pm for a whiskey and a beer. Join them. Underneath the calluses and worn leather are small-town gentlemen with warm fire-side manners and a knack for lively conversation and storytelling. You will be swaying arm in arm with them, singing cowboy songs, and trying on their big, sweaty hats until closing time- when some lone barkeep has to kick everyone out, shut off the lights, and dart to her room.
(This story was my submission to World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship. https://www.worldnomads.com/learn/travel-writing/winner-2015. It did not win, but was shortlisted)