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By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA

Robert Wolf
Robert Wolf

A forty-five revolver hangs by a nail on the wall through its trigger guard. Beneath it a small sign reads, "Yessir, this ain't the gun that killed Billy the Kid."

I am standing by the cash register in a general store in Duran. I have gotten a ride from Pennsylvania all the way to Duran from a young wiseguy who carries a pistol in his glove compartment. He's on his way to Las Vegas to gamble. We've made it here driving straight through, heading west from Pennsylvania until we hit Route 66 and swung southwest. By the time we get to Vaughan, New Mexico he wants to know how long it will take us to drive to the border. He sees from his map that Highway 54 leads south through Vaughan all the way to Mexico.

At Vaughan we swing south. I know it's a long detour to Mexico but going or not is up to him. I'm game either way. Thirty miles south of Vaughan we stop at Duran, at the general store on the edge of the highway to ask how long it will take us to drive to Mexico. Duran is a village of stuccoed houses with tin roofs and dirt yards.

This general store has shelves piled with tins of fruit and vegetables, shelves of hardware, racks of clothes (including a table filled with U.S. Calvary flat brimmed hats) and tack for horsemen. With the small store, the tin-roofed houses, and stone post office, Duran looks like it might be plunked down in the 1880s when the Kid was rustling cattle across the region from here to Lincoln County and into Texas. Now, seeing the sign above the counter I say to myself, "I'm coming back to stay awhile."

Flash forward seven months. I'm headed for Duran. I've ridden the Santa Fe Railroad from Chicago to Vaughan and at Vaughan stick out my thumb. I have worked much of the previous seven months running a transit for a survey company while living with my parents and saving money. In early February I pack my rucksack and take the train to New York's Grand Central Station and board the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago.

Melquires and Manuel Chavez

For some reason, known only to a nineteen-year-old mind nurtured in suburban Connecticut, I'm wearing a three-piece corduroy suit. So I'm standing outside Vaughan in this suit and a rucksack on my back, thumb stuck out. A battered pickup stops. A very dark Indian-looking Mexican-American is driving, accompanied by an old man. I squeeze into the cab. They speak heavily accented English and live in Duran.

Thirty minutes later they drop me off at the general store owned by Kasim Hindi, a small, dark Lebanese man with skin the color of sand.

"I'm looking to rent a room," I tell Kasim.

There's a small cluster of men in the store looking at this newcomer. Kasim speaks to them in Spanish. They talk among themselves and Kasim tells me to see someone named Memo—he has an extra room.

I walk down a dirt street to a house with a fenced-in yard and open the wire gate. Memo is big, fat. He wife and daughter are sized to match him. Memo shows me a room with a bed, chair and desk and names a price. It is more than I want to spend, but since I'm wearing a corduroy suit, I'm obviously rich. I tell Memo no and walk back to Kasim's.

"It's too expensive," I tell Kasim. "Is there anything else?"

"I have two cabins," Kasim says. "Come on."

Right beside his general store are two small cabins. He unlocks the padlock on one. This is a one-room shack with a cast-iron cookstove, a bed and mattress, a small, unpainted desk, a cracked chair and a light bulb on the ceiling with a dangling pull string. There's nothing to the walls except the exterior wood.

"How much?"

"Ten dollars a month," Kasim tells me.

"All right."

I have no idea how cold the nights will be. I have never heated with a wood stove and do not understand that you cannot heat a room with a cook stove, let alone heat a room in winter with wind seeping through the walls and a fire that will not last more than a half hour.

I don't have an axe to cut wood. I don't have a frying pan or pot, plates or utensils. I go back to Kasim's, pay him ten dollars and buy some cans of food, a frying pan and pot. Then I go back to the cabin and make some notes in a journal. That night, the first of many, I sleep fully clothed in my sleeping bag with all my other clothes stuffed inside. When the fire goes out I don't crawl out of the bag to rekindle another. It's just too cold.

The next afternoon, after a snow, the village kids arrive. They see how out of my element I am. They leave and come back, dragging small juniper and piñon limbs and branches, making a big stack of wood in the yard. One of the youngest boys, Jimmy Chavez, begins chopping away.

They bring newspaper and make a fire for me. In the afternoons, whenever I am in the cabin, which is not often, they hang out with me. I learn to lock my door when I discover that the kids have visited the cabin and read the journal in which I described the men who gave me a ride to Duran as "Mexican." "We're Mexican-Americans," they tell me.

Since it's too cold to stay in the cabin and write, I spend my days at the general store, smoking Lucky Strikes, listening to the old men, and watching their gestures. Out of politeness they will sometimes speak English, but mostly it's Spanglish, a mixture of the two languages. One of the men I get to know is the dark Indian-looking man who drove me to Duran. His name is Manuel Chavez.


Free River Press
American Mosaic with Robert Wolf


Robert Wolf is an award-winning journalist, writer and publisher.

All opinions expressed by Robert Wolf are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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