Poco de Todo

Motoring midway between Santa Fe and Taos on Highway 68, in Velarde, New Mexico, a roadside stand catches my eye. The sign out front of the stand reads, "Poco de Todo" in Spanish, "little of everything." I couldn't resist; I pull in. The building, situated at the intersection of the highway and a dirt road, is a corner structure of adobe, wood and stone, partially roofed, partly open, Ruben Montoya's Fruit Stand.

A woman just leaving, as I get out of my vehicle, shouts, "The peas are great." As I saunter across the gravel parking area a small Spanish man approaches holding out his hands. He takes my hand and fills it with a fist full of green sweet peas. "Welcome to Ruben's," he announces with a grin, "I'm Ruben and I grow these fresh." I say hello and taste one; they're delicious and I tell him so.

As I enter the adobe structure a friend of Ruben's, sitting in a chair by the entrance, welcomes me. The outside has a fruit and vegetable garden feel; red chili ristras, tied vertical bundles of both large and small red chili peppers, hang everywhere. Inside it is another world. Objects, desert artifacts: horns, antlers, pieces of antlers, jawbones, bleached skulls and a varied assortment of bones and vertebrae from critters who succumbed to the harsh desert life, hang and are strewn ubiquitously on tables and the ground. There are wagon wheels and lanterns and metal spoke wheels, a Model-T Ford tire and rim, even a rusty hand-crank machine to bend steel bands for wagon wheels and barrel rings.

Ruben also makes ladders. Various lengths of aspen poles lean against the interior walls. Ruben attaches, with leather strips, short lengths of aspen across two longer poles to re-create the ancient ladders you see leaning against garden walls of adobe homes or protruding out of their roofs.

Ruben is a pleasant, exceptionally friendly man. Part of him, I suspect, knows it's good for business, it's tough making a living in the desert, but mostly it's just him, just who he is. He could be sixty, or seventy perhaps older. He talks about his children and grandchildren but his age is indeterminate. His skin is worn, tight and beautifully weathered by the desert sun. My guess is he was quite the ladies man in his day; the sparkle is still present in his dark cocoa eyes.

We talk about the abundance of adobe homes in the area and Ruben's friend, sitting by the entrance, adjusts his straw cowboy hat and offers this straightforward philosophy, "When you grow up in an adobe house you want to live a modern house when you get older. If you grow up in a modern house, you probably want to live in an adobe house when you grow up, just human nature."

I buy a bag of fresh ground red chili pepper, ground from peppers grown with Ruben's hands. "It's good, important to grow things, bring them out of the ground," he reminds me, he also mentions the importance of enjoying your day, each and every day.

Velarde, New Mexico is situated on the eastern banks of the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande cuts a southward course from its origins in Colorado through the center of New Mexico, eventually angling to El Paso then on, defining the border between Texas and Mexico. The Rio Grande is a magnificent fast moving river.

West of Taos its centuries old current has cut a narrow 650-foot deep gorge into the earth's crust. A few days later when I cross the bridge, spanning this gorge on foot in a high wind, I find vertigo, something I seldom experience, to be a relentless companion all the way across and about half the way back. Still it is a view not to be missed.

In Velarde, twenty-five miles south and two thousand feet below Taos in elevation, the Rio Grande is a verdant, cottonwood lined wonder. It is along these fertile banks that Ruben grows his sweet peas and peppers.

A week later, on my return trip from Taos to Albuquerque, I stop off for a short visit with Ruben. I buy a chili ristra and a small collection of old bleached bones. Ruben gives me a bag of sweet peas, "for the plane ride home." He tells me the next time I come to New Mexico I should, "cut over at Chimayo and take the back roads up to Taos." Chimayo is south of Velarde and I explain to Ruben that if I cut over at Chimayo I won't be able to stop and visit with him. He waves that off with his hand and smiles, "Take the back roads. It is very beautiful. When I go to town I always take the back roads, it's much more beautiful that way and that's what we should live for everyday, isn't it?"

I return Ruben's smile. He takes my hand, "God bless you."

"Via con Dios, my friend," I say, then wave goodbye and I motor off heading south, Ruben's simple truth serving as my guide.

We'll talk next time, From The Road.

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