Brad pulled into the parking lot in front of the motel office, rolled to a stop, and then shut the motor off. We all sat quietly, taking in the view while we listened to the “Ting, Ting, Ting” of the engine cooling off. Patricia finally looked sideways at Brad, in a manner which we called the ‘chicken eye’ when we were young and received that look from our mother, and asked “Are you sure about this?” Unspoken but in the minds of all four of us was the obvious answer to that question: “No, I’m not sure about this at all.”
The Elk Horn Lodge was a collection of one story, wooden buildings, some longer ones comprised of several units and some functioning as single cabins. These buildings were scattered almost haphazardly across the property in such a way that no porch or window seemed to face directly at the porches or windows of any other unit. Whether or not this was intentional or just good luck is anybody’s guess. The general appearance of the place, from first glance to last, was of a motel compound that was long past its prime, if it ever had a prime. It was hunting season however and every other room in Chama was already booked, so Brad and I tried to put the best face on what looked like a bad deal.
“The place looks OK to me” said Brad, and I chimed in with “I’ve stayed in a lot worse than this,” which was true but didn’t seem to help much. Patricia, who is a trooper, said “OK then. Let’s get the key and see what we’ve got.” Mom, who couldn’t hear half of what was going on, just sat in her seat and put the stink eye on the place. She knew a turd when she saw one. Brad paid up and we drove over to park in front of the cabin which was to be our shelter for the night.
The low wooden porch was sagging and the roof, which was supported by poles resting on that porch, was sagging with it. We mounted the porch and Brad unlocked the door, and then pushed it open. The hinges, which probably hadn’t been lubricated since the place was built, squealed their protest at being subjected to such treatment. We entered and stood in the tiny ‘living room’ space of our cabin. The place was not what one would call filthy; there was no old food lying on the table or dirt piled up in a corner. It was clear from the outset however that the definition of ‘clean’ would have to be stretched considerably in order to apply it in any way to our digs. Brad began to poke at appliances in the tiny kitchenette and found, to his surprise, that the stove and refrigerator worked. When he turned the knob of the faucet however it was an annoyed spider which exited the spout rather than water. Brad shut the knob off at that point, knowing that nobody was going to drink that water anyway.
We unloaded the car, bringing in our small suitcases and overnight bags and such things that we had brought along. It was obvious that we would have to stop at a store to stock up on drinking water and perhaps some other snacks. Then, after dividing up the sleeping quarters, we decided to take a walk and see what the countryside held for us.
As we walked through the lodge grounds the true nature of the Elk Horn became clear to us. This was a lodge for hunters. The vehicles parked in front of the other units sported license plates from many states that surround New Mexico. As we walked west towards the Chama River we passed a cabin with the freshly-removed head of an elk or a deer or some such animal resting on its severed neck, the eyes staring sightlessly at the New Mexico sky and a swarm of flied forming a dark halo around it. We all just looked at each other and then looked away and kept walking. For my part however I just couldn’t put out of my mind the sense that somewhere in the distance I could hear a banjo playing.
After picking our way along the river bank for a little while we decided that the effort was a bit much for Mom, who was 90 years old at this time, so we decided to return to our cabin and rest a bit. We knew that the road lay to the east and would present a much easier walking surface for Mom, so we turned in that direction and soon found ourselves in the parking lot of a new motel which was in the final stages of being built. I don’t know what the others were thinking but I was cursing our luck that they had not started building this motel a little bit sooner. A solitary worker emerged from the building and hailed us in Spanish: “Hola amigos, como estan?” Some of the folk in Northern New Mexico will put up with the Gringos who now run the state and who come to pour money into the local economy, but their language is Spanish and if you can’t speak Spanish, well, that’s just tough frijoles for you. As it turns out I do speak a little Spanish and replied “Bien gracias, y Usted?” My answer surprised the man and he smiled when he shouted back “Se habla Espanol! Bueno! Bueno!” “Si” I returned, “Un poco. Todo el tiempo estoy tratando de apender mas”, and so on. It was small talk and lasted but for a moment, but the man seemed well pleased to have run across a Gringo who had bothered to learn his language. We waved good-byes and resumed our stroll back to the dreary cabin, my stock having generally risen in the eyes of my family.
Later in the evening, after a pretty good dinner in Chama, we settled down to play cards at the kitchen table. Hearts is our favorite game and we played for quite a while, mostly trying to pass the time and touch as few places in the cabin as we could. At one point I heard nature call in a voice which demanded that it be heard, and retired to the tiny bathroom in the middle of the cabin against the back wall. Having settled upon the facility I was startled by an insistent scratching sound coming from the outside of the cabin, which was no more than an inch or two from my uncovered and unprotected backside. Some things are best not hurried and I tried to ignore the sound but it would not go away. At last the vision popped into my mind of some infernal creature managing to penetrate the plumbing and come up through the bottom of the toilet. That possibility was remote, but the vision of the damage that could be done was overpowering. I declared my business to be satisfactorily concluded and evacuated that bathroom with more attention to haste than decorum, and never set foot in that room again.
At last the time had come to turn in for the night. Mom and I each got a twin bed in the single bedroom while Brad and Patricia set up camp on the hide-a-bed in the living room. I settled in for the night fully clothed, wrapped loosely in one musty blanket and using my backpack as a pillow. Mom wanted to try a conversation from across the room; an endeavor that was difficult enough to be attempted with success from simply across a table, much less a room. I feigned sleep hoping that Mom would desist in her conversational efforts, and that plan worked. I also hoped that I would in reality fall quickly to sleep, but that plan was not crowned with nearly so much success. Every noise that I thought I had heard was turned by my fevered imagination into a mouse or a cockroach or whatever that damned thing was that was scratching behind my behind in the bathroom, crawling along the floor and up onto my bed. And every sensation on my skin; a moving hair, a faint breeze blowing through the poorly sealed windows or a slight itch on an arm, was a spider, a tick, a bedbug, or a demon straight out of hell. Or maybe the antler on the ghost of that poor slaughtered creature who’s head probably still lay outside of the cabin down the way.
While I lay there my mind went back to a post card that I saw in a restaurant in Ozona Texas sometime in the 1950’s. We always stopped at the same motel there on our trips between San Diego California and Tifton Georgia where my father had grown up, and always ate at the same restaurant. The menu at that restaurant on this occasion offered, among other things, “Two Stuffed, Deviled Crabs”. Brad and I were very young then and never needed much input to raise our natural goofiness to the next level. I instantly drew a mental picture of two obese crabs, perhaps stuffed with a Thanksgiving dinner, wobbling about in their portliness while being jabbed with the pitchforks of tiny, red-suited devils. I shared this vision with Brad and soon we were both brought to a state of giggling tears. Dad, who had just driven virtually non-stop more than one thousand miles on two lane roads that slowed down to 25 miles per hour through every poedunk town that we passed through, had by this time had only one nerve left, and we were unintentionally stomping upon it with cleats. Threats of worse than death ensued and Brad and I read the tea leaves, and opted to tighten up our act.
It was then that I saw the post card. On it was a picture of an outhouse with a rifle, presumably belonging to the person who was inside, leaning up against the outside wall. Also outside were two other hunters and one was saying to the other “Shush! I thought I heard a buck snort!” Brad and I began to laugh all over again but Dad could appreciate this one as well as we did and it became a family joke. As I lay on the musty, suspect twin bed in the Elk Horn Lodge I mentally renamed that miserable caravanserai the “Buck Snort Lodge”. I laughed out loud in the bed, but fortunately Mom was already asleep, or couldn’t hear me anyway. The effect of the humor was that it relaxed me sufficiently so that I could drift effortlessly off to sleep, and in that blissful condition I spent my last few hours of enjoying the hospitality of the Buck Snort Lodge.
Brad was up early the next morning, and the rest of us weren’t far behind him. I don’t believe that it took more than twenty total minutes from the opening of the first eye for the four of us to be in the car with the Buck Snort in our rear-view mirror. Coffee was the first need to be addressed, and the first little squat-and-gobble restaurant that we came to was the Happy Griddle. I turned out to be a fairly decent if predictable little greasy spoon, and a pile of eggs, gristly sausages and hash brown potatoes went down the hatch. An lots of hot black coffee. My potatoes looked a little more like hash whites, so I ordered a bowl of country gravy to slather over them. I’m not sure if the gravy was forty weight or sixty but I can testify with certainty that it was more liquid than gear grease, and it’s salty and oily deliciousness enhanced my dining experience and removed from me the necessity to chew; most of my bites sliding down the hatch with little need for masticatory effort.
With breakfast eaten and a roll of antacid tablets in my pocket for the inevitable heartburn which Mom would soon be experiencing (and perhaps me too, with justification) we exited the restaurant and drove straight to the train station. We still had nearly an hour and a half to kill before the ride started, so we returned to the gift store to once again paw over the gewgaws that we had not chosen to buy the day before. We were equally disinclined to buy them today and soon wandered out into the train yard where our engine and cars had been rolled out of their sheds to be made ready for their run that day.
The great, black narrow-gauge steam locomotive sat motionless on the rails which, if they were any more narrow than standard rails, I couldn’t tell. The feeling of mass and solidity emanating from the steel beast was palpable, and I felt a sense of my smallness as I stood beside the thing. I could not hear any sound coming from the engine, but I knew that a fire must already be raging in its metal innards, because in a very short while the steam produced in the huge boiler would push pistons that would then turn wheels and drag four cars of happy tourists up a couple thousand feet over a pass and then many, many miles into the high valleys and ridges of the Rocky Mountains. A little of my sense of smallness standing next to this ferrous goliath was dissipated by thinking of how this magnificent creation would simply sit on the tracks right where it then was and slowly rust until it returned to the dust of the ground unless frail men (or women) just like myself greased and oiled and painted and flung coal into the firebox and turned valves and pulled chains and levers, and generally made the monster dance to the engineer’s tune. I felt my pulse race just a little knowing that very soon I would enjoy one of the very best rides of my life because the engineer would conduct a symphony in steel by flawlessly managing all of those factors.