A seat at the table
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
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
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
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.