This Is Madness

“Keep your booger hook off the bang switch.” Canyon Madness Ranch in Roy, New Mexico, is open to the public.

Bouncing across the plains of eastern New Mexico on a June afternoon, I wondered what I was in for. The area around Roy, New Mexico, was a place I’d wanted to visit for years because of the rumored climbing—bouldering, mostly. Climbers from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Los Alamos had been converging on the bullet-proof sandstone for years, enjoying its perfectly formed crisp edges and laser-cut cracks, easy approaches, and excellent scenery.

Somehow, through the PR and journalism community, I was connected to a man who had recently opened his multi-million-dollar ranch near Roy to the public and was invited down to check out the climbing.

Driving across the wide-open plains I didn’t see a whole lot of exposed stone and didn’t think the reports of great bouldering could be true. But the farther south and east we went, the more interesting the country became. Entering the Canadian River catchment near Wagon Mound, the land started to stand up all around us, and it soon became apparent that this place probably offered better climbing than did the areas around my semi-native Los Alamos, three hours to the west. We rattled along bumpy roads and took in dusty vistas. Then, miles from phone and google maps connectivity, we came around a corner and there it was, Canyon Madness Ranch’s main building, Teepee Lodge, a giant twin-peaked structure leaning out over a Cézanne-esque landscape.

Canyon Madness Ranch (CMR) is an anomaly among big ranch properties in northeastern New Mexico. It’s comprised of a wildly modernist main hotel, which looks more like two huge A-frames joined at the hip leaning out over a beautiful several-mile stretch of the Canadian River canyon, to the south. It’s the antithesis of a ranch-style building. In images I’d edit later, it almost looks as though a graphic designer Photoshopped a textbook example of a modernist building into an Ansel Adams landscape image—rectilinear forms, a rejection of ornamentation, industrial materials, form follows function, and all those other architecture school buzzwords, pasted onto some gorgeous southwestern hill country.

Dennis Law on the massive balcony of the Teepee Lodge, the Canadian River canyon behind him. Photo: Cameron M. Burns.

Besides the main building, there are a few outbuildings, a small firing range, some stables, and that’s about it. The fact that CMR sits on 14,000 sprawling acres makes the isolation complete. And isolation is the point here. Just ask the ranch’s owner, Dennis Law.

Dennis is the boss. To be cheeky, you could say the law. But Dennis’s view of life is expansive and inclusive, and it’s his story that makes CMR a fascinating trip.

The son of Chinese toymakers (his father was internationally known for Star Wars action-figures, Cabbage patch dolls, and other items), Law grew up in Hong Kong. Decades ago, he came to the United States to study medicine. His three brothers followed. He ended up doing transplants and trauma surgery for several decades in the Denver area, but the legal issues, and “all that blood,” got to him. He retired in 2000.

He then took a wild turn into the arts, and he began producing Broadway-scale traveling musical productions. The shows, like Terra Cotta Warriors and Monkey King, toured the western United States and Canada and won elite awards. To Law, the musicals were his own take on a cultural exchange program, so that Americans could see the beauty and majesty of Asian art, martial arts, costumes, and dance. He calls the shows “action musicals.”

Teepee Lodge. Photo: Cameron M. Burns.

Law already owned a 750-acre ranch in the Red Feather Lakes area of northern Colorado and numerous properties around the world (including a half dozen houses in Cabo San Lucas), but about five years ago he decided he wanted a “safe haven” from the world—a place to get away from saber rattling despots of Asia and the Middle East, as well as the growing tribe of politically motivated crazies here in America. Pandemics and disease, too. He saw the world as becoming a dangerous place, so he sought an escape.

He bought 14,000 acres about 150 miles northeast of Albuquerque and immediately began to develop portions of it for both his own luxury get-aways and for more ranch-like activities like raising cows and horses (he recently received a shipment of ostriches) and activities like hiking, horseback riding, shooting, sportclimbing, and bouldering. In the spring of this year, Law decided to open the ranch to paying guests.

My daughter Mollie and I arrived June 8, and, walking in the grand entrance, I was struck by the atmosphere of what I called the “great room” (more on that in a bit). We checked in. A little while later, my wife Ann and older daughter Zoe arrived.

Eight hours of bum-crunching road had taken a toll, and we needed to flex the botts, so we went looking for the bouldering this part of the world is famous for. Within a few feet of the hotel, we found it. I spent an hour playing on 40-foot cliffs of exceptionally hard sandstone that were no more than fifty paces from our room. Indeed, the modernist two-towered teepee sits right on top of a cliff of beautiful sandstone.

The rock here is Dakota sandstone, one of the best sandstones for bouldering. Its chunky, linear holds are incredibly solid, and the easier problems (which old farts like me seek) offer positive edges. And it goes on for miles in every direction. Thousands of square miles of impeccable bouldering.

Owen Summerscales, a Los Alamos-based English climber and author of New Mexico Bouldering summed it up best when in 2016 he wrote of the Roy area, “Perhaps one of the least likely climbing destinations you are likely to visit, the flat and desolate cattle-ranching lands of Harding County hide a secret: thousands of high-quality Dakota sandstone boulders lurk in a myriad of sunken canyons formed by the Canadian River. A lifetime of bouldering exists out here, and given its recent discovery, only a small fraction is being included in this guide. In the future a guidebook dedicated to just Roy will likely be written, given the volume of climbing here. The rock varies in quality, but the best forms a thick ‘merlot stone’ patina, bullet-proof and easy on the hands.”

An hour’s worth of early June temperatures sent us scurrying into the lodge for hydration and relaxation.

The great room, we soon found, was unlike any communal room you’d get in a typical hotel. It was, essentially, an outsized art gallery that served as a lounge, bar, restaurant, meeting space (or rather spaces), and as a hang-out spot for anyone wanting to chill out from the searing summer heat.

Artwork in Teepee Lodge. Photo: Cameron M. Burns.

The many styles of art come in many media: prints (great Asian prints dominate corners of the room); ceramics (of both traditional and modern influences); and even a beaded totem from Africa (my favorite, since I’ve spent many years climbing in East Africa). Dennis is a complex man and it’s clear that he appreciates the arts. The room boasted a vast collection of antique firearms, and the soaring ceiling and spectacular views of the Canadian River made the place atmospheric and spatial (“I wanted to bring the Indian cultures from the past in an abstract way by taking the profile of the shape of two teepees and connect them with a panoramic bridge,” architect Alejandro Uribe told me later via email.) Law didn’t want a simple log-cabin or cookie-cutter adobe design—designs that are all too common in Northern New Mexico.

Dennis loves sharing art, he explained later. He sees the beauty and expression in all forms of art, and he supports the arts however he can. He’s also clearly very inclusive. When we arrived a collection of friends from the Denver area were clustered around tables, drinking wine and sharing stories. These people, we soon learned, are folks in Dennis’s orbit. A handful of family friends, a chef (Tony) who owns a Denver restaurant (Golden Shanghai), Dennis’s wife’s friends, and several ranch staffers.

We sat down to dinner.

The dining here is communal. We all shared one long table, with Law at the head. Huge flat electric wok-like pans were set in the middle of the table and trays of various raw meats were brought out. The job is to grab whatever chicken, beef, or pork you want, then place it in the wok and watch it cook. Supplementing the meat was an abundance of vegetables and whole racks of Asian spices. The food was fresh, clean, and tasty. All our meals ended up being at the big community table, all served on compostable dinnerware (which is apparently a better choice for the environment here given that water for washing is a scarce commodity).

The next day we went horseback riding with Dusty Artz, the ranch manager. We rode several quarter horses around one of the flat mesas. Despite the heat, the mesa top was covered with lush green grass, the result of nearly nightly rains in this undulating, complex landscape (one of the reasons for the steeply pitched roof at Teepee Lodge is to displace rainwater). My wife and daughters are horse lovers, and they were impressed with a breeding program Law has undertaken at CMR, breeding rugged Gypsy Vanners, a strong horse from the British Isles, with Belgians and Percherons, big draft horses. According to Law, CMR offers reining, cutting, barrel racing, cow herding, and even English-riding to include dressage and jumping. One of his goals is to create a series of mounted shooting activities—an activity not very many ranches offer.

Zoe Burns riding on the ranch. Photo: Cameron M. Burns

Although our ride was a short version, CMR offers rides to nineteenth century Indian and homestead sites, and also to overlooks above Encierro Canyon, a box-canyon made up of red clays interspersed with dramatic 25-foot-deep cracks. It’s a geologic phenomenon rarely seen anyplace in the country (see the third pic down on the website).

Later in the day (after cool showers at the Lodge) we headed out to Law’s “Firearms Wonderland.” Here, on the side of a gently sloping mesa are a pistol range, a rifle range, and a long-range range (where you can take aim at targets from 800 feet to two miles away). Kip Rahmig, Law’s firearms instructor, brought out an astonishing array of pistols and rifles, some automatic, including a massive 375 CheyTac rifle. (Apparently CMR also has a 50-caliber Barrett M82A1 mounted on an Iraq War-retired Humvee, but the weapons Rahmig showed us was plenty.)

I’ve never been a big fan of guns, but my wife and I figured it’d be good for our daughters to at least know how to use them. Me too, for that matter. So, we shot our way through about a dozen different pistols (my favorites were a small Glock and something called The Judge, a five-shot revolver that looked to me like the business part of a mini shotgun). It was strange watching my 20- and 17-year-old daughters blasting metal plates with shotguns nearly as long as they are tall. My personal highlight was hitting a target 1,500 feet away.

“Just remember,” Rahmig said as he wandered between me and various family members handing out myriad weapons, “until you’re ready, keep your booger hook off the bang switch.” A fine expression that matched the current status of our adventure; I’ll have to get t-shirts made.

The author trying out a Glock. Photo: Zoe Burns. 

Later, we adjourned to the lodge and Law set up his clay shooting area, just outside the west wing. Apparently, my daughters are excellent clay shooters and they both hit more than 80 percent of the biodegradable orange discs launched over the canyon edge.

“As someone who’s never shot a gun in her life, it surprised me how fun it was to hit things,” my daughter Zoe said later. “And how good I was at hitting clay pigeons.”

Finally, it was time to do a little sport climbing. The cliffs here are small, but what they lack in height they make up for in quality. The dark brown sandstone is compact and well bonded. We top-roped a chimney and then I placed a few bolts on it with some top anchors. It didn’t climb as well as I’d hoped and after some thrashing in the sun, I was ready to head indoors. June days in northeastern New Mexico regularly see temperatures break the triple digit mark.

After a break we returned to the cliffs. 

Mollie Burns making the first ascent of Roy Toy (left) Photo: Cameron M. Burns.

I bolted two lines on the cliff band immediately below the hotel, them went and got my daughters who were playing pool. They liked the two short routes I’d put up and both of them carefully led the climbs. Zoe had led about a dozen climbs up to that point and Mollie hadn’t led anything. Proud Papa snapped a few photos.

That evening’s sunset was glorious and prompted a little wine sampling on the sprawling back deck, with the Canadian River creeping through the canyon below. One of Dennis’s friends started photographing the setting sun through her wine glass creating all sorts of weird, colorful light amoebas.

In the morning, we packed up. Life was calling us back. The sojourn at Canyon Madness Ranch was a perfect treat for my wife (it was her birthday), and the place offered everything we wanted to do on a three-day trip. It also made me realize there’s a lot more to New Mexico climbing than I’d ever realized. Thanks, Canyon Madness Ranch. I’ll definitely be coming back.

Cam Burns’s last book was published years ago, but he’s currently finishing up a biography of legendary Colorado climber Layton Kor. For more on Canyon Madness Ranch, visit https://canyonmadnessranch.com.

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