“Needs everything.” That’s how MLS describes the property we now face. Miles from anywhere, the century-old abandoned adobe is crumbling. Our realtor says, “don’t buy it.” She adds, “If you do, don’t put any money in it.”
Thus began our culturally rich and endlessly enchanting life on Mesa Poleo.
We had been warned that newcomers with white faces were likely not welcome in northern New Mexico. There had been armed riots, in recent decades, over modern rights to land which had been granted, in perpetuity, by the Spanish king, to conquering Spaniards, a couple of hundred years prior. Our neighbors would be descendants of these Spanish colonials and they had long memories. It was a risk.
However, we were basically adopted by a rugged, but charming, community of ranchers who have, for generations, inhabited “Mint Mesa.” Their private ranches still dotted what had, in modern times, become the Santa Fe National Forest. After a single incident, in which some kids broke into our cottage and absconded with an old hat and some beer, the community put out the word that we were not to be disturbed. They made sure we were safe and protected throughout our unimaginable 15-year adventure.
Every family on the Mesa, it seems, had a history with and stories about the old adobe. Given the paucity of street addresses on this picturesque forest road, they knew it as “Tio Pedro’s” place. Over the many years of work that it took to restore the old girl, neighbors dropped by to observe the transformation and to tell us how it used to be.
Marijildo had built the house. He was a sheep herder, who often worked for months, far from home. Later dubbed Grandma Grande by the children of their children, his wife ran the property and raised the family. It is said that, in her old age, Grandma Grande was still able to lift a 100-pound bag of feed.
Following tradition, the family had added on, room by room, such that one had to walk through the center of each room to reach the next. Built separately over the years, each room had its own unique floor material. By the time we came on scene, the current inhabitants— the rats—had contributed feces, literally over a foot deep in places. Startled by our invasion, they periodically dropped from the latillas above and scrambled across the concrete, wood, or dirt floor, depending on which room we entered. Our son finally got a pistol to deal with the squatters.
Later, neighbors told us that dirt floors were a matter for community and festivity. Everyone gathered for that phase of home construction. In the morning a cow was slaughtered for the feast that ensued. Its blood was harvested to soak into the newly leveled dirt floor. To compact and finish the floor surface, the children were enlisted to stomp and dance.
It was clear, we had entered a new foreign land. Unlikely Gringo neighbors, we are a retired naval officer, turned builder, and a diminutive French-speaking architect. Both world travelers, we became fascinated by, then fell utterly in love with, our new surroundings.
The old adobe lacked a lot of things. Water, for example. So we engaged a dowser, the self-titled Gringo Brujo from Cerrillos, to locate a promising spot for a well. It seemed beyond possibility that he could dowse water from a map of any given property, without ever having to visit the site. But he could. He showed us a plot plan, marked where a plentiful well now served. He had positioned the well long distance, from New Mexico. The well was in France.
Using a Y-shaped metal wire, that dipped strongly toward the ground as it passed over water hundreds of feet below the surface, he identified an abundant prospect, very near the house. But he disqualified the find, unwilling to disturb a row of venerable apricot trees. Moving on, he found a spot, which he liked a little less, but recommended it as a possible location. We drilled. Dry hole.
The process was repeated farther out in the front field. We drilled again. This time it yielded excellent, abundant water and a bill for $30,000. The dowser, later gave me my own dowsing rod, saying that he knew I could do as he did. I was moved that he had identified something I had learned about myself decades earlier, in India.
Many months after the well was functional, we built a cottage overlooking the canyon on the other side of the property. We needed to trench across the road to bring it water. As seasoned builders, we were accustomed to obtaining a permit to perform such a feat. But that was a first-world concept. After months of inquiries, from every authority we could think of, there was no reply. Each office deferred loosely to another. No one seemed to care. So, on a quiet Sunday, we finally decided to trench. Tired of asking permission, we were now prepared to apologize, in the unlikely event that the subject might arise again in the future.
That’s how we met Richard, a wide-eyed panicked neighbor, gesticulating wildly as he jumped from his pickup. “YOU CAN’T DO THAT,” he observed. It turned out that Richard was holding a huge celebration for his son’s graduation, expecting about 100 guests later that afternoon. The party was just beyond our gaping, partially completed, gash in the road to his house.
With apologies, we frantically finished refilling the trench, just as guests began to arrive. We were graciously invited to the festivities, where we met folks who were destined to become dear friends. Years later, it was Richard’s turn to apologize when his dog ate our Thanksgiving turkey… but that’s another story.
Over the years, many descendants of the original family visited the adobe, under construction, and shared their stories.
One of the daughters of Marijildo and Grandma Grande, herself over eighty when we met, told us that she and her siblings climbed wooden steps, outside the house, to sleep in the attic. For other necessities, they crossed the dirt road to a still-standing outhouse.
As we worked on the restoration, complete with indoor stairs, this daughter visited every now and then to tour with friends and younger family members. No longer an attic, the upstairs now boasted a master suite, a spacious sleeping loft, and a lovely guest bedroom. The guest room had a stunning view across an open field to the distant adobe home of cousin Elsa, and to the blue mountains beyond. This elderly daughter, revisiting the home she grew up in, never failed to explain to her touring friends that this beautiful new space was “her room.” Several times, we invited her to stay in her room. She never did.
A young family descendant, in his teens, periodically arrived with girlfriends, to walk through and show off “his grandmother’s house.” Others came, alone or in family clusters, to wander through the house and tell of how the old place fit into their personal history.
After nearly seven years, the renovation was pronounced complete. We thought some of the family might like to walk through the finished abode. So we arranged a backyard barbecue and invited all interested family members, expecting maybe 30 or 40 guests. A throng of over one hundred, spanning four generations, arrived to inspect the house, recount the past and celebrate the present. Together, we cheerfully opened a new chapter in the saga of this remarkable old place.
By: Michelle Morgan