This week I’m weaving a little history of my personal life into my column. I’ll be 83 in March and have camped out in Pagosa Country for about 50 of those years. We’ve lived in Dulce, N.M., for the last 18 years, where my wife, Vicki, has taught elementary school, we’ve pastored Dulce Baptist Church and, for nine years, I’ve taught GED and other subjects in the Jicarilla Apache Department of Education (JADE). I’ve given notice to the Tribe that I’m hanging up my boots here at the end of March.
The year has been rough on my body — a knee replacement in January, compression fracture in my back in April and pneumonia the last two weeks. I don’t plan to hang up the reins and walk away any time soon, just find a new hitching post.
Truthfully, it’s a time of sadness. I’ve known a lot of old-timers here, some of whom came in on covered wagons. I interviewed a number of them over the years. When I asked to interview Paul Decker who owned the “Feedstore at the Bottom of Wolf Creek Pass,” he agreed, but pointed out the risk considering “the last three old-timers you’ve interviewed passed on shortly after.”
Now I’m growing a new understanding of what it means to be an old-timer. Etched on a memory screen somewhere in my head is a picture of the late Pres Valdez, who has a lot of family remaining here and whose family has lived within a couple of hundred miles of Pagosa Country for several hundred years.
Pres was one of my best friends, but a lot of people could say that. He always had time to shoe a horse for me. For a long time, Pres ramrodded the Mill Creek Ranch where he and Stella lived in a well-scrubbed cabin behind the main house that was home to a well-scrubbed and well-loved passel of youngins.
For those who don’t know, Mill Creek Ranch nestles up against the mountains a few miles east of Pagosa Springs. It was first homesteaded by the Dowell family, specifically John L. Dowell, the first mayor of Pagosa Springs.
Pres was in his 60s when I first knew him, still irrigating pastures and chasing stray cows through the brush behind the ranch. He could still rope and ride as well as many half his age, and it is said he still wrapped his legs around the ribs of a bucking bronc or two every Fourth of July, just to see how long the bang-tail would last.
The time came for Pres to retire and he moved in with family members on 8th Street just past the library. One morning, I grabbed a few breakfast rolls and headed over to the Valdez place to see how Pres was doing. The family showed me into the living room where Pres was waiting.
There he stood, one hand in each hind pocket of his faded jeans, staring through a window eastward across the valley. Nobody needed to tell me what was on his mind. Across the valley snuggled at the bottom of the South San Juans was Mill Creek Ranch, and in every nook and cranny on that ranch snuggled a memory. Pres was slow in turning to shake my hand, and maybe there was a tear there.
Today, I know better than I knew then what was on Pres’s mind. As I ride down almost any road in the county; looking east, west, north, or south — it doesn’t matter where I look — staring back at me are the memories, some good, some bad. There they are, no blinking, no winking, just staring.