When I was a teenager, my family moved to the largest alpine valley in the world, the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, into a house that hadn’t been inhabited for many years. What appeared to be an insurmountable task, reclaiming the living space in an adobe shack, while we cooked outside and pumped water from a hand-pump, slowly became a passion. The old adobe had been built by a Japanese family many years before, and until we found it, had been a frequent gathering/party place for local teenagers. Infested with chipmunks from the attic to the floor, it began to take on a new life as we put in new floorcovering, and scrubbed and cleaned until we thought we’d die. By the time winter rolled around, we had moved in. It didn’t have a bathroom yet, so we endured an outhouse. Coming from southern New Mexico, we had no idea what 40 degrees below zero felt like, until that winter. Let’s just say if you left a shovel on the ground, you wouldn’t be using it until the Spring thaw, the ice was so thick. My siblings and I thought it was great, except for the outhouse part, and we spent many hours sliding around on Sangre de Cristo Creek, pretending we were ice skaters.
The “old adobe” as we refer to it now, was heated entirely with a big wood stove in the main room which served as kitchen, dining, and living room. All visitors were invited in and took a place at the table where they’d consume steeping hot coffee by the gallons, and whatever confections had been baked that day. My family got to where they groaned about “another peach cobbler”, I had made so many.
The next summer, the owner of the adobe, Luther Bean, a retired history professor from Adams State College, made his way from Alamosa many times, overseeing and helping with the building of the bathroom. We kids, along with “Mr. Bean”, sifted sand, gathered stones, mixed cement, sawed studs, and watched the laundry- and bathroom slowly become a reality.
The building project was in addition to preparing and growing a garden to the north, by the creek, and investing in chickens, hogs, goats, and one pitiful “pinko” sheep we named Baby. Thoughts of eating Baby vanished as she became an increasingly large family pet. We got a couple of dogs, Sandy and Curly, who, after Curly (a sheepdog) trained Sandy, were the keepers of the livestock. When the livestock would get out of their fences, the dogs automatically herded them back in. A seamstress for many years, my mother built an upholstery shop in one of the outbuildings just North of the potato shed (for non-Valley folks, that’s a huge domed, insulated-with-hay, underground structure designed to store San Luis Valley-grown potatoes in the freezing Colorado winters), which soon became a place to park vehicles so the blocks wouldn’t freeze. We did a lot of canning that next summer (hence, all the peach cobblers) and I’ll never forget how cold the water coming out of our well was, when washing spinach and other vegetables.
We’d raised chickens in Texas, so we knew the drill, and it was no fun, dipping and plucking those varmints. We didn’t have to cut their heads off, though, that chore was Dad’s. I will always remember one time when we lived in Texas and Dad was late getting home from work, Mom decided she’d go out and kill a chicken for supper. Dad did it by putting its head under a hoe handle and pulling it off in one quick jerk. Well, mom got it backwards, and put its body under the handle and pulled and pulled on that poor chicken’s head until she had to give up. The rooster walked away stunned and ruffling his feathers, and Mom watched dinner amble off into the barnyard. We had beans and cornbread that night.
The old adobe had electric wires running through conduit. There was no switch in kitchen, just two bare wires that you had to hook together to get the lights on. For years, we hooked and unhooked those wires and none of us ever got electrocuted. It must have been guardian angels that kept that from happening.
I didn’t really feel it back then, that we were very poor, because I didn’t feel poor. I felt very rich in many ways. Life was full and interesting, there were dreams to dream, there was always something new to read, and each day held its own excitement. When I left the Valley, for 24 years, I had a knawing homesickness for it.
That Japanese family had come through and were in tears when they found that we had restored it and were living there. It must have meant a lot to them, and I understand why, as I remember the smoke curling up from the crooked stove-pipe, with eight-foot-long icicles hanging down from every side of the house, making it look like a piece of iced gingerbread on a winter’s day.
After returning, I went to visit the old adobe, which my parents had long-since left, building their own home and moving from there many years before. I discovered that the old adobe was gone. I found out that one of the farmers around Fort Garland had bulldozed it down.There had been life there, for the Japanese family and then for us. We learned a lot about survival on that place, and what it’s like to truly live without all the conveniences like TV, running water, and central heating, which I call luxuries, we’re so accustomed to. I know I could do it again, if I had to. Wilderness…here we come.
? 2005 Dianne James