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King of the Hills
By Matt Gomez   - 02/22/2007

Mountain View Telegraph

Mike Smith owns the Sandia Mountains. Well, not quite, but he often feels that way.

Smith, the author of "Towns of the Sandia Mountains"— a historical book filled with facts, photos and trivia about the area— said the year or so he spent writing his book and getting to know the area often makes the Sandias seem like something he owns.

"I look up at those mountains now and I feel this sense of almost villainous ownership— 'I have documented you,' '' Smith said in a comical and sinister voice. "I've explored everywhere I could possibly explore up there."

Smith began his quest to uncover the history of the towns of the Sandias a little more than a year ago. Although he missed his publisher's deadline twice, Smith said, it seems his hard work has paid off.

Already, the book has sold almost 2,000 copies, is getting close to a second printing and has held a spot as the No. 1 nonfiction paperback book at Page One Bookstore in Albuquerque.

On Friday, Smith talked excitedly about his writing and research experiences, flipping through the book to point out pictures, speaking about the area's history and sharing interesting facts he learned while researching the book.

At 125 pages, the book spans 10 distinct areas, including Carnuel, Tijeras and Cedar Crest, and touches on the lesser-know Hobbies.

"These days, Hobbies is a rustic trailer park, but in 1918, as the 'white plague' of tuberculosis devastated America, it was a place for TB victims to attempt to heal among fresh air and sunshine," the book says.
Smith, who grew up in Cañoncito, said it's always been his nature to dig into his surroundings.

"My brother and I have always enjoyed exploring dirt roads and back roads and the hidden-away places and trails, and finding this cool stuff and that was always really fulfilling for me," Smith said. "This was an exploration that added a new dimension."

The new dimension, Smith said, was the element of time— looking at the East Mountains not just as a location, but a place rich in history, culture and life.

During a brief drive through Carnuel on Friday, Smith provided facts about the area like a private tour guide.
Each rock, crevice and decrepit brick structure seemed to hold hidden stories.

One such example is the now-toppled Elephant Rock that lies among weeds and debris south of Old Route 66 in Carnuel.

In its glory days, Elephant Rock— a huge, precariously balanced boulder— was photographed for postcards, used as a natural billboard for local businesses and was a choice hangout for local teenagers, Smith's book says.

Elephant Rock eventually fell victim to freeway construction in the 1970s, blown off its rocky pedestal with dynamite and two bulldozers, the book goes on to say, but the rock ended up not being in the way of Interstate 40.

"I can't drive anywhere up there now without nearly crashing my car, because it's like, 'Oh there's that!' '' Smith said.

Smith said his original list of informational leads for the book's historical data started out thin and included just a handful of businesses and groups as starting points. As research progressed, though, new sources were continually uncovered, with people from all over the East Mountains sharing stories and photos of the area, he said.

In all, Smith said, he collected roughly 1,200 photos. Just more than 200 made it into the book, which left Smith plenty of photos to begin casually working on a second volume.

Smith said he hopes that people who read his book have as "transformative (an) experience as I had."

"Everything is different up there to me, everything is like a place that has a history, a past and meaning to it and it's exciting to drive through," Smith said. "I hope people will have the same experience when they read this book."

For some readers, the information is history, but for those whose families have lived in the area for generations, it's memories.

"We're going to be the people in the pictures in the next 70 years," Smith said.

When Smith isn't working on his next novel, he said, he delivers the Daily Lobo across the University of New Mexico campus, takes history and English classes at UNM, spends time with his wife and daughter and writes a column for the Daily Lobo called "My Strange New Mexico."

The column, found in the Lobo on Thursdays and at www.mystrangenewmexico.com, features interesting and weird stories from throughout New Mexico. It was inspired by Smith's research for "Towns of the Sandia Mountains," he said, because of all the stories he heard that seemed too weird to be true.

Smith will hold a book signing for "Towns of the Sandia Mountains" from 2-4 p.m. Saturday at the Borders bookstore in the Albuquerque Uptown shopping center on Louisiana, near Coronado Mall.

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