You could fit most of Pie Town, New Mexico, inside a single baking dish. Found along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, the population is barely 200 and the main street has no traffic lights and all of three stores. One of them, housed in a wooden structure that looks straight out of Deadwood, is called the Pie-O-Neer. The Pie-O-Neer is run by Kathy Knapp, whose car number-plate reads: Pie Lady.
Pie Town is not close to anything except the Gila National Forest. Albuquerque, the nearest major city, is a circuitous two-and-a-half-hour drive to the north-east. And yet people go very far out of their way to visit the Pie Lady at the Pie-O-Neer in Pie Town – including me, several years ago, after calling ahead to reserve a slice before the ravenous hoards converged. I have been dreaming about homemade apple pie with green chili and pine nuts ever since that transcendental moment she slid it across the counter and handed me a fork.
Pie Town could probably only exist in America, a country with a penchant for colourful place names. For the longest time, though, there were no pies in Pie Town at all. Clyde Norman baked dried-apple pies here in the 1920s; that's how the community earned its title. But then he went bust. The pastry ran out. The oven went cold. It was a decades-long pie drought before Knapp, who lived in Dallas at the time, found herself camping nearby with her mother, who noticed the pie-shaped dot on a map and insisted they make a detour.
"So we all hopped in cars and made the grand excursion to Pie Town," Knapp recently told me. "Then it was like, 'Um, what do you mean you're not open? Where is the pie?' We were so bummed."
They returned to their campsite. Then Knapp's mother suggested they buy the town's trading post and address this abominable absence of pie – put the pie back in Pie Town, literally.
Knapp thought the idea was a "black hole", a cash suck, but she figured it would keep her mother happy and occupied, and so she agreed.
That was in 1995. Knapp's mother took the reins, opened an establishment, and the next thing Knapp knew, "my idea of a little art gallery with maybe some music and some jewellery and some pie became a full-service breakfast, lunch, dinner, seven-days-a-week roadhouse.
"My mother went crazy feeding everyone and it was too much for her. We didn't realise it was too much for her until it was too late. She got very ill, she couldn't breathe, and I had to take over."
This is how the Pie Lady came to Pie Town: reluctantly. She hadn't planned on leaving Dallas so dramatically, for baked goods. At first she didn't even know how to make a pie. She copied a recipe off a cornstarch box.
She also recruited friends as kitchen hands. "I said, 'You've got to help me because I'm dying here and it's not pretty and I can't leave. This has got to work.' " And slowly but surely, after many hurdles, it did work. Today there is apple walnut pie, coconut cream pie, cheer-y cherry pie, apple cranberry crumb, and something called Starry Starry blueberry night pie.
Kathy Knapp has been on television talking about her pies. Filmmaker Jane Rosemont made a documentary about her that, just like the pies, has won various awards.
"I found a freedom here that I had never experienced before," Knapp told me over the phone, as I daydreamed about returning to her desert kitchen. She still sounds surprised at the twists of fate that have made her doyenne of Pie Town, a blip on the highway in the middle of nowhere.
"It's that wild west thing, you know?"
Pie Town is located on Highway 60, about 250 kilometres south and west of Albuquerque.
The Pie-O-Neer is open from March 14 (Pi Day) to late November (Thanksgiving), Thursday, Friday, and Saturday each week, 11.30am to 4pm. The Pie Lady has discontinued all foods except pies, to focus on their quality. Pies are available as whole pies or "buffet style," by slice. Call ahead to reserve or risk an empty stomach.
Lance Richardson travelled at his own expense.