Our waitress flew around the room like Superwoman. She took orders, bused tables, made drinks and delivered food. She would stop near the door to assure potential diners that she’d seat them in due time, but that it was a busy night.
It was a busy night at Hotel Eklund’s restaurant, the only eatery open on this particular Saturday evening in Clayton, New Mexico. The town looks to have been hit hard by the past several years of the pandemic, with handwritten notes in the windows of several permanently closed downtown businesses blaming state government COVID-19 mandates for their demise. Even the town’s adorable coffee shop is still a drive-through only several years into this pandemic.
Whatever the truth is, when we arrived in town mid-morning on a Saturday, things were quiet. As we got out at Herzstein Memorial Museum, a lone dog barked from somewhere down the street. The museum is a must when visiting the region and I am impressed with the fact that almost all the artifacts within the walls are original, not replicas.
We grabbed lunch at The Local Hive food truck. The truck operates from the parking lot of the family’s closed restaurant. Be sure to smother your order in red chile. In fact, just get everything edible smothered in red chile in New Mexico. You can thank me later.
There is only one table at The Local Hive, and it was full, so we took our smothered sopapillas to the picnic tables that overlooked the golf course. So, so good.
Pot shops are coming to Clayton, New Mexico, population 3,079 (2020). Indeed, at least one is open, and more are coming as recreational marijuana was legalized one year ago on April 1. There is little doubt that it will be a shot in the economic arm of Clayton, but there is a debate to be had over how helpful marijuana is when it comes to revitalizing a downtown.
Walking around downtown Clayton, I discovered several empty brick buildings that would make excellent breweries; there are none now. Perhaps the Clayton Cantina Brewery or the Lonely Bird Brewing Company. Please give me free beers when I visit should you use one of these names. By the way, the cantina should have swinging doors.
As we moseyed around downtown it was easy to imagine cattle being driven through the town’s dusty streets. After all, the Goodnight-Loving Trail—inspiration for the book Lonesome Dove—passed through this area.
While downtown Clayton was eerily quiet on a Saturday, there is quite a bit to do in the area. I’ve already mentioned the museum and golf course, and following lunch, we spent the afternoon exploring Clayton State Park & Dinosaur Trackways.
Clayton, New Mexico is the Wild West, and the museum is filled with artifacts that support that narrative, but there’s a much older story here, a prehistoric story. As I’ve previously mentioned in Dust Bowl Road Trip posts, Ryan loves dinosaur tracks and there are lots at the park. In fact, it is sort of a must-visit for those interested in that ancient part of the history of the west.
Clayton is just 10 miles from the Texas border, meaning that the park’s lake has been frequented by Texans who’d fish and camp there. However, during the pandemic, the governor of New Mexico forbade out-of-staters from visiting her state (in certain places, state parks, for instance, this rule had to be strictly enforced). I heard, while in town, that this too has hurt the economy of the area.
The historic Hotel Eklund is all dark wood and brick with plants in the lobby. It has that Wild West luxury sort of feel, except there’s an elevator, which was awesome because Ryan had to take the big dog crate to the third floor.
We’d brought a bottle of wine, which we drank while sitting on the hotel’s outdoor patio. I could almost hear the clip-clop of horse hooves, but mostly it was bird calls and the occasional semi-truck passing through on HWY 87 (aka 1st Street).
There are 24 rooms at Hotel Eklund (circa 1800s) along with two dining rooms and a standup bar. Pre-prohibition, bar tops seldom featured stools. Much to my delight, the doors to the bar and dining area are swinging, as they should be in Clayton, New Mexico. Including breakfast and the pet fee, we paid a total of $150.
Back at dinner, we enjoyed drinks as we waited for supper. The restaurant used to serve seven days a week, but in April they had recently reopened after a long pandemic closure. Open on Friday and Saturday nights only, they may have added nights by now, so it is best to call ahead.
Our burgers were solid and the Ek Rolls, an eggroll-style fried chile Rellenos are almost worth the five-hour drive from my house in Northern Colorado.
On an evening stroll with Fritzi, we stopped at the Luna Theater for a bag of popcorn. It’s a darling historic theater still showing movies. This is incredible because many towns and cities have shuttered their historic theaters over the years. Be sure to stop in when you visit and donate to keep this special place going. I can’t find an updated website with movie times, but I know it’s open on the weekends.
Morning at Hotel Eklund meant a breakfast buffet in the dining room. Sunlight streamed in as I dined on excellent green chile quiche and Ryan ate several pieces of homemade coffee cake. He really, really liked that coffee cake! They also served up good coffee. It’s always a treat to taste great coffee on a road trip.
What we saw in Clayton, New Mexico was a beautiful, but quiet and somewhat deserted downtown. However, we visited a fine museum, ate a fine meal, and stayed in a fine hotel. We saw dinosaur footsteps and a roadrunner! We weren’t looking for noise and had no need for hustle and bustle on our Dust Bowl Road Trip.
I do hope, however, that one day, Clayton has a beautiful and thriving downtown. Now, who wants to start that brewery?
Next up, Folsum, no not the prison, and a somewhat new ancient volcano.
What you may have missed so far: