From Quarry to Countertop

On a striated escarpment 22 miles west of Belen, across vast ranchlands punctuated only by the occasional juniper tree, scattered mesquite bushes, and the dry bed of the Rio Puerco, three men carve huge chunks of travertine from the earth, tumbling them down in colossal blocks to the quarry’s floor. The sound evaporates into the desert silence like raindrops that never reach the ground—there’s no one out there to hear, anyway.

While quarrying monumental stone is an ancient practice—think of the pyramids—New Mexico Travertine’s Desert Gold Quarry uses modern looping wire saws and other power tools to shear the blocks away from these ancient cliffs. The wire saw whips a 100-foot loop of cable studded with diamond segments through pre-drilled vertical and horizontal holes. Running relentlessly hour upon hour, the saw cuts away a 300- to 400-ton block every two work days. This quarry is still an adolescent, just now yielding up the best rock that lies 20 feet down from the surface, but it will produce high-quality travertine for generations.

Scott Lardner, president of Rocky Mountain Stone and one of five brothers carrying on the family business that includes New Mexico Travertine, obviously enjoys the run from Belen across the Huning Ranch to the quarry. As his big one-ton Ford lurches off the pavement onto a skinny dirt road, Lardner shoots me a glance and asks, “Are you likely to get car sick?”

“Nope,” I reply, but as the four-by-four skitters over ruts and bounds like a porpoise out of sink holes, I begin to appreciate his concern.

At this remote quarry a process starts that eventually produces the custom hearth of a high-end home, the pink-stoned backsplash behind a granite kitchen counter, the stone veneer framing a grand entry, or the speckled stone wall enclosing a private patio.

After a slab of rock has calved off this mother lode of travertine, the workers wrestle cables around its cabin-sized girth, fire up a Paul Bunyan–scale front-end loader, and heave the block onto a semi, which hauls it back over rutted ranch roads to the New Mexico Travertine stone processing plant at Belen. There workers cut, trim, polish, and fill voids in the stone—not just the travertine, but limestone imported from other states and New Mexico sandstone, too. The plant produces slabs, building stone, tile, and rubble stone, all of which are then either sold out of state or trucked up to Rocky Mountain Stone in Albuquerque, where the slabs are finished off for installation at a customer site. Using the latest in computer-controlled equipment, the Albuquerque plant cuts sink holes, shapes the slabs according to customer specifications, grinds and bevels edges, and so on.

A stone’s throw away: Quarried and processed locally, New Mexico’s uniquely colored travertine makes an ideal accent for the home.