Madrid, New Mexico, has had a strange timeline.
Before the 1940s, it was a boom town, where the people worked relentlessly to pull coal from the ground. Then, coal was phased out in favor of natural gas, the money petered out and the town almost died. Finally, in the '60s and '70s, a bunch of hippies moved in and took over Madrid, which rests in a valley 26 miles south of Santa Fe on Highway 14. Now, it's an art town: There are myriad galleries, restaurants and gift shops lining the main road in the center of town. Madrid has branded itself as "The Town Too High to Die," and wears its rich history on its sleeve. Still, unless you decide to read a book about Madrid or talk to each and every one of its 150-ish inhabits, you probably won't be able to find much about it. Until now.
Now, there's a tour, and not just any tour—it's an oral history tour. Accessible through the VoiceMap app for $2.99 (at voicemap.me), it's a deep dive into the fascinating history of the little town. You'll find interviews with locals, some of whom have lived in Madrid their whole lives, and a narrator with a soothing voice.
It opens up with a solid minute explaining how to pronounce Madrid. Some harken back to the capital of Spain, whereas others pronounce it as "MAD-rid," or even "Madrild."
Once you get through the pronunciation lesson, you'll start to hear information about every historic place in sight. As it turns out, there's a lot of them. Tales of union struggles, when LGBT people made up the majority of the town's population, and Madrid's role in the Manhattan Project are but a few of the stories longtime locals recount. The tour runs for about two hours—it's best to go during the day, when this small town is most active—although it might take longer if you feel like stopping to take pictures, talking to the townsfolk or petting the many fluffy, friendly dogs that wander around town.
"What's so interesting about Madrid is that it used to be a ghost town," says Andrew Wice, creator and narrator of the tour. "Plenty of [ghost towns] don't generally come back, like Golden, another former boom town in New Mexico. Madrid's rebirth is really fascinating because when the hippie era reached its high-water mark and fell back, the country lurched in another direction. When that was going on, this place was rebuilding. This isn't a town full of hippies any more, and continues to evolve."
Wice's app tracks your exact location, and the tour tells you about the history of whatever building you're standing in front of. One might be skeptical of the accuracy of the GPS, especially when all the buildings are so close together, but that's not the case; it works exceedingly well. A visitor could stand in front of Jezebel Studio and gander at the out-of-place BB stuck in the glass, walk 20 feet, and hear about how the blue gift shop used to be a Sunday school. Or, standing in front of a crater, they might learn that the town used to transport coal to Los Alamos during the creation of the atomic bomb. The old but renovated shops and galleries were once something completely different—the Old Boarding House Mercantile used to be a brothel, and the Mine Shaft Tavern was once a all-day bustling center for weary workers. Every building in Madrid, be it a little jewelry shop or a public bathroom, tells a story.
"Some stories reflect a certain spot, and tell the overarching narrative of the town," Wice tells SFR. "Once I put the idea together, I found that an oral history is the best way to tell the story of the town. The one thing that's been missing is the texture of the people who made this town special."
Wice's journey to building the app and tour was extensive. Funding was raised through a 2017 Kickstarter campaign, which received a little over $3,500 (his goal was $2,500). He then managed to gather up roughly 70 hours of audio footage by interviewing the apps' tour guides himself, and delving into the archives of the University of New Mexico.
And Madrid might be only the beginning, as Wice says he might expand to other New Mexico towns.
"I have other ideas for using this technology. I didn't expect the technology to really click, but it does." Wice says, ruminating. "Santa Fe has an interesting history, as does Albuquerque. I might also do a spooky one."