A seat at the table

The long, low-ceilinged room mixed gas station, general store, post office, restaurant and bar. It was the type of operation where you could gas up, pick up four tires and an oil filter, sit down for lunch and a beer, and on the way out, buy some fishing tackle, a gallon of milk and a sack of flour.

I nervously eyed the joint's four large lunch tables, each partially taken, and immediately felt like heading back to the car. Just then, the proprietor of the La Garita Store materialized calmly and put me and Rachael at ease.

"We do it family-style here," he said in reassuring tones as he grabbed two sets of silverware. "Take a seat and take a load off."

Snow and money had been sparse as the holidays approached that year nearly a decade ago. I was doing my best to peddle a few words and make a living as a writer. Rachael, my girlfriend (now wife), was splitting time between a high-end jewelry store, a high-end clothing store and substitute-teaching in an effort to eke out a living in that remote Colorado ski town. The total lack of snow put the finishing touch on our shattered ski country daydream.

So on that third week of a drought December, we left the strip of manmade snow behind, pooled our dollars, filled up the gas tank, threw the climbing gear in the back and pointed the truck for Penitente Canyon in the San Luis Valley. And after a day of sport climbing in that bright twist of sandstone, we found ourselves exhausted and famished in the adjacent town of La Garita.

La Garita was little more than a handful of houses, a Catholic church and cemetery, a couple of dusty streets, miles of potato fields and, of course, the La Garita Store, about the only place in a 40-mile radius where climber, traveler, rancher, welder or farmer could spend money and feed an appetite.

Feeling a little out of place with our climbing pants and our chalk-stained hands, Rachael and I were escorted past a jar of pickled eggs to the remaining seats at a table of five. As we took a load off in a set of mismatched chairs, the owner informed us in his kind voice, "I hope chicken and rice is alright with you two. It's what's on the menu today."

We nodded at him as he made his way back to the kitchen and then nodded at the others at the table. An aging Hispanic man doffed his cowboy hat and flashed a crooked smile our way through graying stubble. A life of labor had clenched his hands into perpetual fists, and the stain of decades of cigarette smoke yellowed the first two fingers on his right hand. Next to him sat two Caucasian old-timers, husband and wife. White hair beneath a ball-cap, the man held his 6 feet of height in perfect posture. His arms were ropy and strong in spite of his obvious age, and he raised one to bid us welcome. His wife sat nearly a foot shorter beside him, the type of woman who covers her hair with see-through plastic so the rain doesn't undo it. Like the others, her body told a tale of labor, but through bifocals, her eyes shone and she smiled a hello.

Then almost without missing a beat, they resumed their conversation speaking in a La Garita dialect that blended English and Spanish. As our massive plates of seasoned chicken and rice, frijoles and tortillas arrived, we heard about the family, particularly a son in the military who was returning home for Christmas. The conversation transitioned into hope that the price of potatoes would be going up next year and that the farm implements would hold out for another season. They did their best to explain a recent trip to Colorado Springs, where they'd felt like strangers in a foreign land and then offered each other advice on how to best wire electricity to the new shed and replace the fuel pump on the pickup. Then in heavier tones, they shared concern that the price of potatoes probably wouldn't be going up, that water was drying up in the valley, and that hobby ranchers had replaced some of the people who used to share the table.

Then with a simple "Been a pleasure," the couple nodded in our direction, settled up and grabbed a pickled egg on the way out the door. The Hispanic man smiled that same crooked smile, and on a slight limp, also made his way out of the La Garita Store. We were not far behind, although I did opt to pass on the egg.

As I rearranged my climbing rack and got behind the wheel of my Japanese truck, I realized that we'd been given a mighty gift that holiday season and it had not been the climbing or the chicken and rice. Instead, as we rolled past the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through the San Luis Valley and back to our ski resort lives, we had some pretty powerful perspective. For the first time in that dry December, we knew that there were people dealing with real hardship, and they were doing it in high style.

- Will Sands




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