It was one of the best summers of my life.
The resounding ka-chink of a framing hammer driving a 16-penny nail. A gnawing hunger at the end of day and sleep that rolled over me like a heavy fog.
It was 1995 and I was on the run from the demons in my life. A series of bad decisions, heavy drinking and some lousy luck.
I tried to avoid thinking about the past year as I roared down the gravel road, stones plinking off the frame and the rear end swaying to George Thorogood’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.”
I was heading west out of the Valle Vidal in remote northern New Mexico, cutting through a canyon straight out of the old western series, “Bonanza.”
This was cattle country and in the middle of a long, lonely stretch of pasture lay a great bull with his head held high.
I slammed on the brakes and a cloud of dust enveloped the van.
I got down and looked across the barbed wire fence at the bull. If he noticed me, he didn’t show it.
I backed up and sat down on the bank of the road and began to cry. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing or where I was going and I was scared.
But the fear, indecision and self-pity slowly passed and as I dried my eyes, I found the bull was now staring over in my direction.
I got mad and yelled out, telling him where to go. I climbed back in my van and went looking for a phone and a friend at the other end of the line.
I found him in Pagosa Springs, just over the state line in southern Colorado.
“Forget Wyoming, why don’t you come up here?” my buddy Reggie Larkin said over the roadside, pay phone in Cimarron. “There’s plenty of work, the fishing’s great, the people are nice, you’ll love it, c’mon up!”
I had just spent the last six months riding out the winter in Las Cruces, New Mexico, right back where I had started six years earlier as a J-school student at the state university.
I had gone to college on the GI bill after having served as a truck mechanic in the Army where my skepticism of authority had thoroughly matured. Being a natural born hell raiser who thrived on confrontation and a good cause, I naturally wanted to become a newspaper reporter.
It seemed to me that those were the qualities they were looking for back then and I excelled at the work, advanced quickly and landed a gig after graduation as a crime and courts reporter at the Albuquerque Journal’s northern bureau in Santa Fe.
But what they didn’t teach me in J-school was that a big city newsroom can harbor any number of ego driven, dangerously desperate, power hungry psychopaths and I ended up running headlong into a few of them.
Things turned ugly and my big mouth and stubborn streak didn’t help matters either and after what had been a sweet run, it was time to walk away from the game.
I found I really didn’t like looking over both shoulders, one for the bad guys I might have pissed off on the beat and the other for the ladder-climbing, ambush artists in the office.
So here I was aimlessly tooling about northern New Mexico agonizing over what to do next. I had fantasized all winter about going north to the big country of Wyoming where there was supposed to be lots of work, plenty of fishing and no one who knew me.
But now that push had come to shove, I was running scared. That was until I talked to Reggie.
High Country Hide Out
Me and Reggie had become friends after having met through a mutual acquaintance down in Las Cruces, a newspaperman named Bill Diven, but that’s another story.
Larkin was a grizzled, union, pipeline welder and a desert rat that drove a push-car at the local dirt track on Saturday nights. He was well read, knew his politics and more importantly, was a straight talking guy.
So when he told me to take a deep breath and just head up to his favorite summer hideout in the mountains, I found myself extremely relieved.
Reggie was taking one of his self induced sabbaticals from his nomadic pipeline welding gig which required working long hours at remote sites for months at a time while living out of hotels or travel trailers.
Needless to say he has a sensitive stomach and twisted sense of humor.
We met up at the Hogs Breath, a bar and grill on the north end of Pagosa Springs where Reggie had secured a summer job. They featured a full-length bar over which plenty of dead animals hung, great steaks and even better bar-b-que.
I was sitting at the bar that first night when the guy next to me struck up a conversation and told me his name was Bob and he was in town from Denver to work on a bridge construction project.
“What’s there to do around here?” he asked. “Seems like they roll up the streets by nine o’clock.”
Playing the role of the hardboiled local, I told him there wasn’t much else to do but fish.
“I ain’t here to fish,” he sputtered. “I’m here to work and screw some of your women.”
The whole bar turned and stared at this guy.
“Well, seeing as how you already got a job,” I said in my best western drawl. “Then I’d strongly suggest you learn to fish.”
With that everyone let out a good laugh and returned to their drinking.
It was a great little bar, the Texan tourists loved it but it was the locals who made it a great hang out. And there’s nothing like a local pub with a friend behind the bar to make a guy feel at home.
I spent the next couple days exploring the little town of Pagosa Springs. It sits in a bowl ringed by towering mountain peaks, surrounded by dense forest with a river running through it.
It’s a little town, maybe a couple thousand hardy year-round residents. Having been born during the lumber, mining and cattle era, the town now catered primarily to tourists and part-time luxury homeowners.
Pagosa Springs was a place where the locals wore Carhartt and the tourists L.L.Bean.
Recreational attractions include skiing the deep powder found at Wolf Creek, fishing the headwaters and forks of the fabled San Juan River and soaking in the town’s riverfront hot springs. There’s golf, hiking, camping, horseback riding, ballooning and plenty of shopping along the downtown historic district.
It’s a hospitable but not too nosey kind of town where locals are quick to ask where you’re from but reluctant to inquire as to what your name might be.
There may not be many available women but there sure was plenty of work. Especially for those willing to toil in construction, building high-end homes for wealthy retirees and others with cash to spend.
Big log homes with cathedral-like glass windows were going up all over the countryside when I had landed there in the summer of ‘95.
I had gone downtown that afternoon and was making the long, uphill climb back up to the northern edge of town when I stopped to pick up a young guy hitchhiking. He told me he had been down to the auto parts store and was heading back home to finish working on his car.
We exchanged the usual small talk and then I asked where the work was. He told me he just got fired for failing to show up at his laborer’s job for one of the local homebuilders, Southwest Custom Homes.
“I know they’re hiring, in fact that’s their office right there and there’s the boss’s truck,” he said as we passed a building on the roadside. “You should stop in and see Tim.”
“I think I’ll do that,” I said.
I dropped off the kid and went back to the office and asked for one of the owners, Tim Horning. A tall, rugged looking guy with a bushy mustache and thick eyebrows came out and asked what he could do for me.
I inquired about work and he looked me up and down and asked when was the last time I did a “day’s work.”
I had to laugh. It was true. I had been making a living off other people’s misery for the last four years and the only calluses I had were from banging on a computer keyboard.
But I told him I wasn’t afraid of a hard day’s work and had worked as a framer on a sub-floor crew when I got out of the Army.
He asked when that might have been?
I sheepishly noted it was back in the mid-80s, over ten years ago, building subdivisions for Pulte Homes on the plains outside of Denver.
“I even got my tool belt in the back of the van still,” I said hopefully.
“Okay, if you think you can still hack it,” he said and then gave me an address to show up at the next morning to help lay a foundation.
“And make sure you bring a pair of gloves, okay?” he said.
I shook his hand vigorously, told him I’d be there and went back to the bar to announce my success at finding a job.
Everyone there, carpenters, road workers, and other working stiffs seemed real happy for me, smiling and patting me on the back. But you could tell when they turned away that they must have been wondering, why anybody would be so happy about landing a laborer’s job on a construction crew and working on a Saturday morning?
Yeah it’s a bottom rung job and nothing but hard work but the way I figured it, that was just what I needed to get my mojo back, some good, honest, hard work and no office politics.
So there I was the next morning, tying off rebar, shoveling dirt and waiting with a bunch of other guys for the cement truck to arrive when a little Dodge pickup with a camper shell pulled up. A squat, barrel-chested, tough looking, older guy got out and came over to the site.
He was talking to Horning, smoking a cigarette and looking over the crew. It was obvious he was some kind of boss. He also looked kinda mean, so I stayed busy and out of his way.
Horning told us his name was Bob McNeil and he was a master carpenter out of Florida.
Sure seemed like I was running into a lot of out-of-towners named Bob up here, I thought.
By the end of the morning we had smoothed out the cement and were about finished for the day when Horning came over and asked me if I wanted to come back on Monday and work with Mr. McNeil. Horning had hired McNeil to be the lead carpenter on a custom home Horning was building for his wife. He said the job paid eight bucks an hour with a dollar raise if I survived the first couple weeks.
I looked over at McNeil as he squinted through his cigarette smoke at me.
“Sure,” I said with a grin.
And with that I had managed to land a job for the summer in one of the coolest little towns in Colorado. Suddenly Santa Fe’s petty politics sure seemed a long ways away.
Camping Colorado Style
Both Reggie and I were staying in our little camping trailers parked on one of his friend’s horse pasture located several miles outside of town.
Every once in a while I would awaken at night to find the trailer rocking as one of the horses outside rubbed himself up against it. There were plenty of flies too.
We had to haul in our water, there were no toilet facilities nearby and I soon went looking for a place, closer to town, where I could hunker down in my van and ride out the night instead.
One of those spots was under a couple of giant ponderosa trees down at Echo Canyon Reservoir, a few miles out on the south end of town. It was a little recreation area where I could park and cook up something on my Coleman stove and watch the ducks cavort and the fish rise as it grew dark. I spent many an evening down there casting flies to those rising fish, catching bluegill, perch, small mouth bass and the occasional trout.
Once it got dark I would try to pick up a ballgame or something else on my battery powered, transistor radio, but most of the times I’d just lay there in my bed listening to the wind in the trees.
I’d leave the van’s side door wide open, a curtain of mosquito netting to keep the bugs at bay and I’d nod off while the crickets chirped.
In the morning there was an outhouse nearby and while my cowboy coffee brewed in an old fashioned, blue and white spotted, enamel coffee pot, I’d stretch and do some calisthenics in the warm, morning sun.
My commute to work was a pleasant cruise through a nice, quiet little town to a job I found increasingly enjoyable.
The backside of Horning’s house was aligned to take in the view of the pasture and mountains and many times I would look up from my work to find a procession of billowing, white clouds marching across a piercing blue sky.
They’d cast a checkerboard pattern of shadows across a backdrop of towering peaks and I’d take a deep breath of that cool, clean Rocky Mountain air and feel my lungs expand and my mind relax.
My dog, Wiley, loved that job, too.
She’d sit out on the very end of the first floor’s main beam staring intently into the back yard, watching and waiting. Then she’d suddenly turn and scamper back across the beam to a plank leading to the basement steps, she’d patter down those wooden stairs, her nails clicking and then emerge from the basement patio at a dead run – just to scare the hell out some unsuspecting chipmunk.
She’d dig for hours out in that pasture, a steady stream of rich soil flying out from between her splayed legs. When she’d take a break and come back into the house she’d arrive with a ring of dirt around her snout.
It wasn’t pretty when she’d hit pay dirt and unearth a colony of mice, their little tails twitching out of the side of her mouth as she chewed them up.
Bob was a hard case at first, really coming down on me when I screwed up, messing with me to see how much I could handle, that kind of thing.
He was a blue-collar, Vietnam vet from Michigan who was on the run from his ex-girlfriend and the IRS. I was a second-generation hippie with a journalism degree who was afraid of power saws and heights.
One day Horning showed up as we were laying out tarpaper on the garage roof. I was crabbing around on my hands and knees while driving the roofing nails, too scared to stand up straight and risk seeing the dizzying height we were at.
Hell you could have jumped off that roof without getting hurt.
Bob started making fun of me and left me crimson with shame. Horning reached into the cab of his truck and pulled out a cold six-pack of beer and tossed one up to each of us.
“There,” he said with a grin. “Have a little courage in a can.”
It was cold, crisp and refreshing but lacked the kick I’d expected.
It was “3.2 “ beer, the only kind they sell at the convenience stores and supermarkets in Colorado, Horning explained.
I fell in love with that stuff, plenty of beer satisfaction and only the slightest buzz, what a concept!
“What a crew!” Bob said while shaking his head at me.
Then one day we were racking an outside wall on the second floor above the garage. Bob was yelling at me to hold the damn wall steady, as he got ready to nail it off. He held a 16-penny wedged between his index and middle finger, palm facing him, awaiting the framing hammer’s blow, when I grabbed his cocked arm.
“What’re you doing? Let go of me!” he raged.
“Look in your hand, Bro,” I said calmly.
Bob looked back at the framing hammer clenched in his fist and saw that he had the head turned around with the claw end facing his open palm. Bob twirled the hammer in his hand and drove the nail with a resounding ca-chunk.
Bob took me out for beers at the Hogs Breath after work that night and even let me play “my” music on the battered, boom box the next day.
It was kind of funny to watch a guy his age nod his head and hum along to the likes of George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
But Bob loved that tape and asked for it all the time after that. He liked to start the workday with some good, hard-driving music and we’d rock on throughout the day.
That house brought us together and we forged a bond building it.
Buy Ford Stock Now!
One day Bob said we were getting offsite and going on a little road trip.We were taking a borrowed Ford pickup with a Power Stroke diesel engine and hauling a flatbed trailer up over Wolf Creek Pass to the sawmill in Saguache to pick up a bunch of beams for the house.
We motored out of town and started up the mountain, past the scenic waterfall, the runaway trucks ramps, the overheated RVs on the hillside and hauled ass all the way up to the 11,000 foot, snow covered summit.
Man that Ford sure could pull, we giggled, as the motor roared and we soared across the Continental Divide and down the other side of the Rockies. Across the mighty Rio Grande, past the beer barley and potato fields, wondering what all those piles of rocks were in the corners were for, trying out our Spanish on the Mexican field hands at the crossroads’ store.
We loaded up at the mill, too much it seemed as the trailer wandered and swayed as we headed down the road. Back we went to unload a few and we were off again. That truck climbed the mountain going as fast as it had coming up.
I’d buy me one of those Fords if I had a good reason to.
I ended up spending many a day using an adze on all those beams, giving them that authentic, rough-cut look. Stripped down to just my shorts and boots, I’d stand astraddle one of those beams with the adze swinging down between my legs, chipping off a thin layer of wood, working my way back until I was done with one side. Then I’d muscle the beam over and get to work on another other side.
It was tedious work and you had to pay close attention or risk burying that adze blade in one of your shins.
The sweat would drip from my forehead and sting my eyes, somewhere a power saw buzzed like a horny cicada, a car passed on the gravel road, the crunch of its tires causing me to stop and stare.
Only a few more to go before we’d bring in the Pettibone to hoist them up for the ceiling, I’d tell myself as I got back to work and waited for Bob to call it a day.
But I did such a good job on those beams that Bob put me to work on some more for a log home we were building on the side for another guy.
That guy’s place was further out in the country, surrounded by thick pasture and tall ponderosas. I’d roll up in my van, crank up Deep Purple’s “Machine Head” and get to work on sculpting those mill cut logs with a Dewalt power planer.
The vibration from that tool left my hands tingling for hours afterwards but at least I didn’t have to worry about lopping off a leg.
Those logs sure looked pretty by the time I got through with them and all that hard work was melting the winter fat off my body, but it was also taking a toll on my 37-year-old muscles and bones.
So one of my favorite payday rituals was to go downtown to the hot springs and soak in the healing waters for a while.
I was able to manage that because they had a really affordable monthly pass for locals that I managed to buy by just showing them a payroll stub and a sincere smile.
I liked to slip a couple of cold ones into my gym bag and then sit in the upper pool sipping a forbidden but well-hidden beer.
From that vantage point I could watch from behind my shades as the tourists frolicked in the lower pools, their steaming, white bodies glistening under the setting sun.
One night I was doing just that when a couple of fine looking young women climbed into the upper pool with me. I was checking them out from behind my shades when one of the gals asked me in German-accented English if I would mind if they removed their tops.
I reached up and slowly lowered the sunglasses so they could see my eyes and said “Bitte.” – that’s German for please, I’d learned that when I was stationed overseas with the Army.
The Fräuleins giggled wickedly, stripped off their tops and I put my shades back up and slipped down a little further into the water.
It was a wonderful evening in Pagosa with two friendly, topless German women sharing my hot tub, a river slowly flowing by and a cold Coors in my hand.
And they said there were no women in this town.
What a summer I was having and as it progressed, it got even better. I was exploring and finding great fishing all over the place.
Within an hour’s drive I could be deep into the San Juan or Rio Grande national forests from which flowed the headwaters of the San Juan and Rio Grande and an abundance of creeks, streams, rivers, ponds and lakes.
One night I could be fishing the evening hatch on the Piedra River and sleeping in my van perched on a nearby cliff. The next night I might be found fishing in the San Juan behind the downtown ice cream parlor while the tourists licked their cones and watched from up on a deck.
When Horning let us go early on Friday around noon I might find myself a few hours later, knee deep in the south fork of the Rio Grande, under a canopy of trees, wading in a pair of sneakers and shorts, flicking a short leader armed with grasshopper and a dropper. I’d catch brown trout in the lower stretch, brookies in the middle and rainbows up below the dam.
And I’d be laughing to myself the whole way just like those crazy men you see on the street. I loved that stretch of stream on a hot afternoon.
Maybe I’d find myself high up in the mountains, wending my way between the pines to get to one of the lakes where I’d spend the evening trying to keep my fly out of the trees as I made an incredibly long cast towards the expanding ripples where a fat trout just rose.
It was a trout bum’s kind of summer and I was living it.
Back to Reality
But it all started winding down the day Bob left town, headed back to Florida and his real life.
I stayed on the job a little while longer working with another lead carpenter to finish off the roof and on what was to be my last day on the job I walked over to my van and cranked the engine, only to have it spin noisily and fail to start.
Reggie came over with a compression tester and we soon discovered the engine was shot.
Well, Tim Horning came to the rescue again, this time ordering me an engine at his cost from Knighton’s machine shop down in Albuquerque and then allowing me to stay at a mobile home he owned in a nearby subdivision.
We towed the van over and parked it and I did some work around town till they got the engine done, staining all the 2×6 wooden planks inside a woman’s newly built horse barn for $10 a hour one day and finding grunt work on a construction crew on another.
It seemed a man willing and able to work in Pagosa Springs could always find something to do for a buck.
In the evenings I’d sit cross-legged on the living room floor of the empty mobile home and sip a quart of beer as I watched the World Series on a little black and white TV perched on a kitchen chair.
I awoke one morning to find snow and my new engine in the driveway. A bare block of iron, encased in plastic wrap and a wooden crate sat there as the UPS truck pulled away in a cloud of exhaust and clattering gears.
For some reason I thought of the Blues Brothers’ line from the movie where Akroyd says “It’s a hundred and six miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”
I got an engine hoist and got to work on the van out under the carport, jacking up the body to pull the engine out through the front where the grill and radiator had been. I worked long into the night and finally got it all buttoned up, poured some gas down the carb and fired her up.
She roared and then died, I tried some more gas and she caught right off and then died again.
Hmmmm, I thought. She wasn’t getting any gas so I pulled the fuel line off and cranked the engine. There was no gas coming out of there like there should have been, so I pulled the fuel pump back out of the block. I hand pumped the arm that rides inside the engine and works off a cam on the crankshaft and watched as gas spewed out across the driveway.
Hmmm, I thought again, the pump’s working so that means what?
I looked over at the old engine block and saw the fuel pump’s crankshaft cam still bolted to the timing gear on the old engine.
I had forgot to swap it out. I hung my head and thought of crying, again. Instead I grabbed a wrench and got back to work, pulling out the radiator, water pump and everything else to get at the engine again.
I drove the van out of Pagosa Springs the next morning.
A couple of weeks later I was sitting on the porch out at Reggie’s place in the desert east of Las Cruces soaking up the sun while Reggie was reading the want ads in the local paper.
We looked great but we were both unemployed again and trying to figure out what to do next.
“Hey Moffatt, check this out,” Reggie said. “Wanted: Reporter wanted to work for a modest wage, during an election year, at the worst, small-town paper in the country.”
“Let me see that,” I said.
It was the fiesty Rio Grande Sun up in Española where there was plenty of juicy news, a legendary, old-school publisher and lots of good fishing to be had.
I called the editor, Mike Kaemper, who remembered me from my work at the Journal and invited me to come on up for an interview.
This was the guy who kicked the Journal’s butt covering the Ricky Abeyta massacre in Chimayo, a domestic dispute gone bad that left seven dead including two cops and a baby. At the time it was the worst mass murder in state history and the Sun outdid everyone covering it.
It’d be a pleasure to work for these guys so I took the cops and courts reporter’s position when they offered it to me and I went back to work in the news game.
One of the first stories I wrote on that job earned us a first place newswriting award from the New Mexico Press Association.
It seemed somehow I had gotten my mojo back