In July of 1991, out of the blue, my wife asked me an interesting question:
“Do you remember that little Colorado town we drove through that had only one stoplight?”
“No.” I shrugged.
“Well, we’re moving there.”
And with that little exchange we started planning a trip to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Perhaps this sleepy little mountain town would make a good home? At least according to Jaye’s research.
Six months earlier we had moved back to chilly Santa Fe from tropical Maui where we rented a small house. We had loved living in Hawaii and were heartbroken that we would be leaving the Islands after only one year, but our beloved seventeen-year-old son Tait had become ill. Tait was autistic with congenital kidney problems and was extremely hyperactive. He had been living at the Los Lunas Hospital and Training School (a New Mexico State facility) for three years. We had left him in good hands as the caretakers and supervisors were wonderful, compassionate people.
Tait was loved by all and seemed to be content… but Jaye and I were not.
In life, timing is everything.
One fine morning – without a care in the world – Jaye and I drove north out of Santa Fe and took HWY 285 all the way to Alamosa, CO. We headed west on HWY 160 enjoying the spectacular mountain scenery along the way to our Promised Land. We had taken this circuitous route so we could enter Pagosa Country from the infamous Wolf Creek Pass.
Atop the pass, I downshifted and proceeded cautiously down the steep, winding road through ancient, craggy canyons; and around every turn our hearts seemed to beat a little quicker. Finally the vertical, sky-scraping canyons gave way to a magnificent, expansive view. We had died and gone to heaven! My first impression of Pagosa Country was indelibly etched on my mind. It was like falling hopelessly in love with a mysterious, sultry siren who had bewitched me with her beauty and charm. It was love at first sight.
As we headed into Pagosa Springs Jaye and I felt very hopeful. The downtown business facades were charming and harked back to older times when rugged pioneer folk had first settled here on the banks of the frigid San Juan River. Suddenly Jaye looked at me with disgust as she cranked down her window. No, the pungent odor was not emanating from inside our SUV, but from the Great Pagosa Hot Springs on the other side of the river. Sulfur! Fire and brimstone, the Devil’s bathtub. We hoped this was not an omen.
We passed through the downtown area and started climbing the hill to the west. We spotted a little motel called Sky View and pulled in. As it turned out, a lovely young couple owned the place. Ray and Shellie Tressler and their two boys welcomed us and we hit it off in no time. The Tresslers had left Alaska to find greener pastures in Colorado and wound up in Pagosa Country. Jaye and I asked a lot of questions about the town and it’s inhabitants, real estate, cost of living, nightlife and music venues (I am a professional musician), on and on. They answered everything we threw at them and commented on other aspects that we hadn’t really thought about: such as winter in snow country. Ray was relieved we had a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Hmmm…
Bright and early the next morning, Jaye and I got up and enjoyed a hearty breakfast downtown. Afterward we took off exploring the surrounding countryside. Of course we wanted to live outside of the town limits where we could “be as one with nature.”
We ventured up Piedra Road and in minutes found ourselves in God’s Country.
The winding road took us higher and higher with amazing views to the west. Finally we crested over the hill and the asphalt straightened out, heading directly to the Continental Divide. At the four mile marker the view opened up to reveal Pagosa Peak and her sisters peering over a thick blanket of low lying fog. The early morning sun was starting to burn off the ethereal mist in front of Coyote Hill and majestic Lake Hatcher. I pulled into a gravel drive heading east, stopped the the car and killed the engine. We were parked at the edge of the swirling mist, quietly admiring the incredible mountain vistas.
In a few minutes, to our astonishment, a phantom coyote wandered out of the fog and slowly approached us. He never removed his gaze from us. We sat frozen in awe. The beast was twenty feet away when he stopped and boldly stared holes in us. And then the mystical creature slowly turned and headed back into his ghostly shroud.
Jaye and I agreed that this spiritual moment was a sign of some sort. We decided then and there to backtrack to the real estate office we had noticed on the corner of Piedra Road and 160 (now home of the Giant gas station). We were ready to get down to business.
A senior real estate agent led us into his office and asked how he could help us. Jaye and I announced that we were looking for acreage in the county with a fixer-upper and that we needed great views. Then we related the strange story of the mystical coyote up Piedra Road. He grinned as he pulled out a file. He said he had a fishing buddy from New Mexico who was thinking about selling his eight acre parcel with a trailer that had been remodeled nicely. And it’s exactly four miles up Piedra Road!
Jaye and I looked at one another and shook our heads.
In minutes we were turning into the driveway at the four-mile marker. To our amazement, the three of us were admiring the breathtaking views only a quarter mile shy of where we had seen the coyote. Some people claim that there is no such thing as coincidence, that everything happens for a reason. Well, I don’t believe in preordained happenings but this development sure got me wondering. All I can say is that these consecutive events verged on being paranormal.
The realtor contacted his fishing buddy and told him that he had a couple of live ones on the line and to get out the net. A price had been set and the seller said he would “owner finance.” We had a lot to think about.
We hurried back to the Sky View and let Ray and Shellie know that we had found our new home. They were amazed at our story and could hardly believe that we had gone directly to the vicinity of the ideal piece of property – without even checking out others.
“If we moved up here, would you guys be our friends?” I asked. They both hugged us and said, “Of course!”
A few weeks later, on August 15 1991, we took possession of our new property in this mountain paradise. We immediately started fixing up the place with a coat of new paint, landscaping, reparations, and many other projects including an office for me in the third bedroom and a work area for Jaye in the second bedroom.
We would hike around the neighboring hills including Oak Brush North and Coyote Hill among others and enjoyed the magnificent views with the amazing sunsets. Looking up Martinez Valley to the north, one had a great panorama of Pagosa Peak and her sisters with Plumtaw Road snaking its way through the aspen forests below. And on moonlit nights Jaye and I held hands and watched the shooting stars sail across the heavens… wondering what our son was doing at that moment.
Our land butted up the the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) property where – once upon a time – the old Job Corps once resided. The BLM still had a large maintenance building down the hill and there was a cabin nearer to our house that was home to a husband and wife team of rangers in the warmer seasons.
I envisioned setting up a small RV Park so that hunters could take advantage of the elk on BLM land. We’d turn the trailer into an office with laundry room and rec room including snacks and a Coke machine. We would build a log home on one of the old baseball fields on down the property and live happily ever after in our dream house. Jaye nixed the idea of an RV Park full of “drunken” hunters, but certainly approved of the dream house. She wanted to run a dog boarding business complete with kennels and a pet graveyard.
Right. Barking mutts and a creepy pet cemetery. No thanks!
In the meantime I would commute to Santa Fe and continue playing in my bands and sleeping on my stupid cot or someone’s feculent couch. I wasn’t looking forward to the commute in the winter months, but this then was the plan. Jaye got a job at the old animal shelter at Stevens Lake and also served on the board of the Humane Society as Secretary. So far, so good…
Our new home had a deep well and a pump house with an elaborate filtration system designed by a mad scientist. We had tried the water before we purchased the property and knew that it tasted like iron, but it kinda reminded me of the water at my church camp when I was a kid in Pennsylvania. Once we moved in and did some laundry we realized that we had a real problem: the water had dyed the load of laundry completely orange. And when we took showers, we had to clean the shower stall after each use. Not to mention that the water brewed a particularly rancid pot of coffee. Now I knew why they had installed the intricate – but ineffective – water filtration system.
All the while, Ray and my new drinking buddies were giving me advice and helping me with irritating little problems that popped up every week. I insulated the over-sized pump house and installed a few bare light bulbs to provide heat when the temperature bottomed out. (I can’t remember who gave me that brilliant piece of advice.)
By the end of September we had settled into our new “country” life. It was a soul-satisfying experience to awaken in this idyllic utopia, realizing that we owned eight acres of mountain paradise, and that God resided high above us on Plumtaw Road. But the temperatures were dropping and there was a chill in the air. Old Man Winter was coming – and he wasn’t happy.
On 8 October 1991 – three weeks before Halloween – it started snowing. It snowed non-stop for three days and remained on the ground until the middle of May. That’s six months of snow. Welcome to Pagosa Springs, Antarctica!
The sudden appearance of Old Man Winter was a shock to us, even though we knew he was coming. Once we got over the initial shock, we could appreciate the beauty of the snow. Cold-hearted winter had covered our whole world with thick, white icing as if it were a gigantic wedding cake. The skiers were ecstatic! But the rest of us chumps went about our business shoveling the wretched stuff while cussing under our breath.
I changed tires, installed a line heater and a CB, bought snow chains, adjusted my life insurance, scraped the windshields and windows, and basically learned ‘on-the-job’ how to drive in all kinds of dangerous winter conditions. Sometimes I would take off for Santa Fe in the early mornings through big snow storms. I’d have to wait for a snow plow to follow down south 84 to the border and then wait for the New Mexican snow plow. But on those dark horrifying nights coming back to Pagosa from some God-forbidden gig through a ‘white out,’ I’d have to pull over and wait it out… expecting they would find my skeleton in the spring thaw. Once on the road again I’d play tag with the elk and deer and occasionally lose control of the vehicle (for a long moment) over bridges covered in black ice. Once in a blue moon I’d get stuck in the slushy crap, usually trying to pull some other miserable soul out of a ditch.
I learned to slow down and concentrate and keep an eye out for wildlife and crazy “flatlanders” — especially those speeding in SUVs who had a dangerous false sense of security simply because they were driving their new, invincible 4-wheel drive Jeep that they had just picked up in Dallas. Your 4-wheel drive will not help you stop on a slick road. Going down steep icy hills I learned to downshift and squelch the urge to apply the brakes. Once the brakes lock up you are instantly out of control. There’s no way to steer, fool!
On the other hand, the winter reveals a side of Mother Nature that is at once fearsome and beautiful. She bundles up in her white finery and looks every inch the Snow Queen. Her awesome beauty is undeniable; and her chilly breath is crisp and fragrant. The snow seems to purify every thing it touches. It can even make a junkyard seem picturesque.
One morning on the way to Santa Fe I was going through Chromo where I witnessed an incredible sight. Up ahead was a gigantic herd of elk crossing the highway. Made up of mainly cows and their young ones, the herd stretched as far as the eye could see, from the east to the misty west. They jumped the fence on the eastern side of the road and hurried across the asphalt and jumped the west fence to catch up with the others. High on a hill to the west I spotted a group of magnificent bull elks watching proudly over their charges. The whole scene was awesome. Some of the cows slipped and fell on the highway but regained their composure and got up and carried on. I was experiencing a microcosm of life unfold in front of me – a humbling experience.
After a while several cars were backed up behind me. I figured it was time to move on, as the herd kept coming, more and more. I started my Jimmy and slowly moved forward. Then a few jittery cows decided that they would head back over the fence to the east. Suddenly I had been given the right of way and proceeded on down the road to New Mexico.
Somehow I survived that first winter without wrecking my ride, but there were a lot of close calls and hours of nerve wracking, white-knuckle driving. It was always an emotional homecoming, ending up in my baby’s arms!
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it was time to enjoy the snow. We had acquired a new purebred Golden Retriever puppy. Her (fancy) name was Gold Dust Mountain Girl, but we called her Dusty. We loved her so much and consider her the best dog we had ever parented. We were actually thinking of getting a male Goldie. We were going to name him Boom Town Mountain Boy and call him Boomer. I told my friend Jim about the idea and he thought the name was cool. About a week later he shows up with his new puppy. He had named him Boomer. After that we’d lost interest in acquiring another dog.
Dusty and I would hike together and play in the snow. She had webbed feet and I had snow shoes. To the east was Oak Brush Hill where the Job Corps had long ago built a tiny ski area. The towering poles that had once supported the Palma lift were still there. I carved channels in the snow from the top of the hill at two different spots. Plastic toboggans were the perfect ride down the steep hill. The north course was named S.O.S. (Save Our Sled!) and the western course was called 911. All the while Dusty, the Snow Princess, kept up with the sleds.
By December we thought we had this winter thing licked. Not quite…
We spent Christmas in Los Lunas below Albuquerque with our son Tait. My parents came out from Dallas and we occupied two rooms at a nearby motel. My dad Spike actually brought one of our old Lionel trains, set it up – and it worked. We also had a little fake tree with sparkling lights, and lots of presents. We would bring Tait over from the State School and enjoy being with him and my parents.
Having an autistic, sickly kid brought our family together, although it was bittersweet. We were very close. My younger brother Robert, the artist, had died on Easter of 1991, so this was the first Christmas without him. It was very emotional for us all. We always made those visits special, and I’m glad we did… Tait had only four more Christmas celebrations left in his short life.
By January the temperatures began falling below zero.
There were consecutive storms that accumulated an abundance of snow; more snow then I had ever experienced. At one point we had over four feet on our roof. After shoveling the roof I had to punch out port holes in the snow berms so we could see outside the damned house. Out on Piedra Road the berms were about eight feet tall! I spent hours digging out our mailbox so I wouldn’t have to mush downtown for the mail. Shoveling and more shoveling.
Jaye, Dusty and I were quite comfortable in our little home, despite the freezing cold. But sometimes even the most mundane task could turn into a catastrophe. Jaye got stuck in the snow and ice in her little sports car and burned out her clutch lickity-split. I’ve never seen a woman so mad. And then I had a few falls coming down the frozen stairs out front, my feet sliding out from under me, and crash landing on my tender sacroiliac. One time I even thought I was paralyzed.
I started calling this miserable ordeal “winter boot camp,” and wondered why we had moved to this frigid hellhole in the first place.
Piedra Road became an icy race track with cars off the road up and down the dangerous hill. Putt Hill turned into a demolition derby with multiple accidents every day and night. The main drag downtown had a ten foot berm smack dab in the middle of the street. Law enforcement and snow removal teams were overworked and exhausted.
By January the temperatures had plummeted as low as -25 degrees! I made sure to plug in my line heater on the car so I could possibly start the damn thing in the mornings. But before we could leave the property, I had to shovel the berms left by the snowplows. (And don’t even think of relieving yourself at twenty below!) The berms on both sides of the road were at least eight feet tall and sliding down Piedra Road was like traversing a spooky alabaster canyon.
One morning I got up and discovered that we had no water and on further examination found that the pipes in the ridiculous pump house had exploded. The water had sprayed everywhere and transformed the tangle of pipes, worthless filters and ancient tanks into an ugly ice sculpture.
I got on the phone and called every plumber in the book without any luck. Every available plumber was out fixing damaged pipes and were hustling for many long days. Unfortunately for Jaye and Dusty, I had to play Taos that evening and would be gone for three nights. Luckily our friends the Tresslers invited Jaye down to the Sky View to collect drinking water and to bathe. I felt sick about leaving as Jaye was driving a little sports car with chains, but I had no choice – music was my income.
When I returned from the gig in Taos, in the evening I ventured over to Jim’s house to commiserate over a few beers. While he and I were bitching, his friend the plumber showed up to fix a busted pipe in the powder room. After the plumber fixed the pipe he joined as at the dining room table with a winter view of the mountains. He introduced himself as Bill Price and turned out to be a lovely person. I immediately asked Bill if he could come over and fix my pump house – of course he was booked solid. I lowered my head and asked for another brew.
Well, we three had a very nice conversation. Bill had gone to Baylor University in Waco and I was from Dallas. He said he used to travel up to Big D on the weekends with his girlfriend. At one point I asked if he had ever heard of my old band called the Bee’s Knees. Not only had he heard of us, he and his girlfriend were big fans and he said he owned both our albums but had misplaced them a few years back. I told him I had copies of those albums at home and if he could come over the next day I would give them to him as a gift, and of course I’d pay him too. He was very pleased and agreed to come over the next morning – at the crack of dawn.
Bill also said that he had asked his girlfriend, Angie – at one of our shows at Faces in Dallas – if she would marry him. She accepted. (I was beginning to really believe that “there is no such thing as coincidence.”) Jaye and I became good friends with the Prices and actually babysat their kids.
From that point on, our rough winter had become much more tolerable. Jayebird and I had faith that we had made the right decision in moving to Pagosa Springs, and we discovered that good friends that you find along the challenging path are a huge part of success – and true happiness.
It has been twenty-six years since we moved here and we have grown to love Pagosa Country. Besides the gorgeous views, abundant wildlife, laid-back lifestyle and many more attributes, I have to say that having so many wonderful friends and confidants is what makes me the happiest! I consider my loving friends, collectively, a large support group. I love you all…