Corrales, New Mexico is a narrow, meandering patchwork of a village lying low in the Rio Grande Valley. It consists of horse paddocks, orchards, skinny vegetable gardens, slightly jarring retail strips and ancient adobe buildings jammed into the space between the river bosque and the mesas to the West. Its citizens are a mix of artists, craftsmen, farmers, shop keepers and upscale business types longing to find an escape. Tall, spreading forms of gnarly old Cottonwood trees seem to stand guard and protect the village from the incursion of too much reality.
A lack of such incursions led us, a few years back, into the New Mexican Handmade Furniture business and meeting Mike. We’d heard he made tortilla tables and wanted to see one.
Mike was a transplanted Tejano cabinetmaker, from Buffalo Gap. He plied his gouge and his mallet with the best of them. The red bandana and twin, red braids hanging down on either side of his bearded face made him instantly familiar. He could have been Willie Nelson’s twin brother. There was enough grey hair and creased, tanned skin to instantly communicate that he’d been living full-time, but his laid-back manner affected his customers and his crew the same way. It didn’t take long before we all fell into an easy friendship.
Mike’s handmade furniture shop and factory sprung from a crumbling, 100 year old adobe on Corrales’ main street. It had settled into the surrounding buildings the way stones in a fieldstone wall visually merge together, until they appear to be a single entity. The color of its mud stucco perfectly matched the color of the dusty, unpaved alleyways.
In what was once a front yard, Mike displayed hand painted examples of the work produced inside. He piled it all up on garishly bright, handwoven Mexican rugs and serapes. A broken-down two-wheeled cart, decorated annually for the local Day of the Dead celebrations, completed the scene. There would usually be at least two or three middle-aged touristas gathered while Mike or one of his compadres explained their use of color, the quality and the price.
“Can you believe this price? We can’t either,” he’d exclaim. The easy patter almost always worked. Later, we’d notice the same women struggling to overload their rental cars’ trunk with local treasures.
His dealer entrance and loading dock was found around to the side, at the end of a dirt pathway that wandered through some tall weeds, where the lingering smell of Ponderosa Pine sawdust and cedar chips greeted your nose long before the sounds of saws and hammers hit your ears. Inside, the shop attitude was relaxed. Slaps and bangs interspersed with a quick laugh, or a comment in softly accented English punctuated with a long, drawn-out whistle provided cheerful background chatter.
We arrived one afternoon, to pick up a completed order, including a full office desk which he made for my wife, Candy. Candy ran the business side of our operation and had once complimented Mike’s desk in the corner of the shop, so he made her one. He was very proud of it, and personally covered each revealed edge – including inside the drawer front tops – with impressive rows of colored “bullet carved” decoration and a big, carved sunburst at the back. When I leaned into it, it didn’t budge.
Having some experience woodworking, I remarked about the accuracy and precision of the gouged “bullets”, to which he replied, “You ain’t seen nothing, yet! I’ve gotta take you over to see my house!”
Mike piled us into his 1940-something Willys Jeep and headed down one of the long side streets of Corrales, sending up billows of dust while his ancient ride squeaked and rattled in protest.
In Spanish Colonial Mexico, of which Corrales was a part until 1848, property owned by a family – in many cases, granted by the Spanish Crown (with yellowed parchment to prove it), was divided among the sons at the death of the patriarch. As a result of the traditional measuring process used, these lots were usually three to four times longer than they were wide. The bigger the family, the narrower the resulting lots. In this way, there would always be room for the house, some room for a garden, access to the acequia (irrigation ditch) and plenty of space left to graze livestock. It also made for narrow and very long side streets and farm roads.
We were passing through a cluster of 1960’s vintage, suburban ranch houses, when Mike made a hard left into a partially hidden driveway. There, before us stood Mike’s venerable home. We wiped the dust from our eyes to get a clean look. Candy nudged me in the ribs. I knew that nudge. She liked what she was seeing.
Mike’s home had a long, rambling front porch, or portal running the full width of the house that faced the street. The comfortable home was of the same adobe construction, or even older vintage, as his shop in the village. It was plastered with actual mud, no cement stucco at all. We noticed shiny flecks of golden straw shining through here and there across each wall. The porch roof was held up with fat sections of trees – full logs, called vigas in New Mexico lumber yards and atop each was a heavy, carved wooden corbel to support the main beam and rafters. A five-pointed star was carved precisely into the face of each one.
Candy and I squeezed sideways past an intricately detailed, wooden stage coach right out of a John Ford Western, parked across the short pathway to the front door. Stepping carefully over the harness poles, we approached Mike’s front doors. They were massive, paneled and carved wood with an iron-grated spy-window set into one. Mike unlatched the passage door and led us, into his living room, with a grand flourish “Well, this is home!” The sudden darkness made us blink a few times and open our eyes wide.
The ceiling was lower than I expected, maybe 8 feet or so, and running from the front wall to the back of the room were huge, exposed wooden beams. 13 in all. They were dark with age and from the fires built over the 150 years or so the house had been part of the landscape. Each beam had been painstakingly detailed with a rounded edge bead, and bullet carvings from one end to the other on both sides. Every carved bullet had been painted in alternating pink and turquoise. The room ran the full width of the house, some 40 feet wide.
I was standing there staring and wondering how long it had taken, when Mike came up next to me, and said with a laugh, “Me and a buddy got drunk one night, and this is how it turned out!” He mentioned that it continued into several other rooms, and that he’d finish it someday, when the inspiration hit him again.
Mike spoke for a few more minutes about the technical difficulty of carving beams that were already in place under a ceiling, as opposed to lying on some saw horses. I couldn’t believe the accuracy of the work. The rows were perfectly straight. Mike’s watery, blue eyes followed the line back along the nearest beam to the back wall, calculating, he said, the number of mallet strikes. “A whole lot of ‘em. We were up to our ankles in wood chips before this was finished!” he added, smiling.
A sharp knock came from the front door. Mike opened it to a lanky cowpoke right off the back lot. He was wearing a vest, a collarless, long sleeved shirt, big silver buckle, his black pants tucked into knee-high boots. He drawled a greeting to Mike from under a huge, drooping mustache, then seeing Candy, doffed his ten gallon hat, nodding to each of us in turn.
Mike introduced him as Will, explaining he’d come to pick up the stage coach. No kidding? I thought. It felt like a movie set. I just soaked it in, confusion and all. While my eight year old boy cowboy movie fantasies came alive – the more adult part of me seemed to distrust everything I was seeing. It almost felt like a performance for the “greenhorns”, expertly set and cast.
Will was the stagecoach builder, from Southern Colorado. He’d trucked it down for Mike to add some carved detail and had it sold to a rich Texan that was coming up to collect it next week. Mike brought out a couple of beers, and we all sucked down the tasty suds as Will went into a lecture about the various methods used in re-creating a period stagecoach.
“My coaches”, he proudly explained, “are built on hand-forged leaf sprung frames, so the cabin’ll rock slightly, for the comfort of the passengers.” He added, proudly “Unlike some of the cheap copies that‘re seen out there at fairs and cowboy shows. This-un’ll do miles on a rough road! It’s the real deal!”
He then looked down and turned away, mumbling about how hard it was to find a team of draft horses that could be worked together right, for a stage like this. “It’ll probably never see a team hooked up to it. It’ll sit in his backyard, for the kids, or something!”
Mike shot out “Yeah, maybe so, but he’ll have paid you royally for the privilege!”
Will nodded his agreement with a grin, and while Candy stood safely at one side of the front porch, Mike and I helped Will run the stage up the ramp onto the waiting flatbed trailer. As Will climbed up into the cab, gunned the turbo-diesel into life and pulled out the driveway with a wave, I was beginning to realize I didn’t know which card was coming up next.
Somewhat numb from the day’s experience so far, Mike loaded us back into the Willys and took us back into the village. When we got to the turn for his shop, Mike said “That beer made me thirsty. How ’bout you?”
Across from us was a fading, painted sign that said simply, “Tijuana Bar.” It was stuck precariously, to the side of another ancient adobe building with no visible windows, jutting out over the alley. He turned into the alley. I glanced at my wife, my eyes signaling some alarm. This was apparently where we were going.
Like a pair of fresh-faced kids at the state fair, we rolled into that saloon with Mike leading the way, making introductions and doing the ordering. It was to be Negra Modelos all around.
“These’re a whole lot better than those Coronas” explained our host. The beer was dark – but it tasted like a lager, and after a few sips, I had to agree. Mike knew his beers as well as he knew wood chips.
We eventually lost track of the afternoon, drinking our lunch. I couldn’t decide if the regulars along the bar, disappearing into the shadows at the far end, noticed us at all or just wouldn’t give us the satisfaction. Their furtive glances and hushed Spanish conversations led me to believe that Candy was the only woman who’d sat at the bar for some years. I’d been fluent in Spanish by the sixth grade, but had lost most of it along the way, leaving just enough to barely get by.
After the light coming through the single window began to dim, Mike got to his feet. “We should go see ol’ Chris. He’s a good ol’ boy!” he told us, then asked Candy, “You like horses?”
“Of course.” she replied. Who doesn’t? We’d both been around horses a bit and enjoyed the little riding we’d done. I’d also worked as a stable boy when in High School, taking care of four Arabians, so I had some experience with them.
Mike said “Then you’ll have to see Ol’ Major. He’s a good ol’ Quarter-Horse.”
We rattled out of the Tijuana Bar parking lot, and down the side road in the antique Jeep, along changing fence lines. Sometimes barbed wire, sometimes stock fencing, sometimes Coyote fences made from cut saplings and twigs – each enclosed a tidy bit of bright green. The Jeep was open, and the road dust spread everywhere. We laughed about it, trying to wipe it off our jeans and shirts as Mike turned onto a relatively manicured front yard lawn, spreading out from a modern, very large, suburban ranch house.
“That’s a big one”, I pointed out. Mike told us ol’ Chris was …”some kinda real estate mogul or somethin’.”
I wasn’t sure this was the right time to meet a real estate mogul, but I kept it to myself. We were dusty, and more than a little wobbly, but Mike just led us up to the front door with its beveled glass inserts and rang the bell. Nothing. I glanced at my wife, hoping she would follow the unspoken relief in my eyes. Nobody home.
He rang it again, and this time, a tall, youngish, man with a beard and blonde hair answered the door in an unexpected Hawaiian shirt and pleated slacks. No shoes. “Hey! Mike!” he exclaimed, with a smile, then putting out his hand, added “you’ve brought some friends, too!” We were ushered inside quickly. It was as complete a scene change as you could imagine.
Chris seated us all on a huge, crème leather sectional sofa that took up an entire wall of his living room. The fireplace was maybe 16 feet away, across an expanse of the highest pile white shag carpeting I’d ever seen. He excused himself to the kitchen, and came back with Tecates all around. Some country music played at a really low level, from another room and we drank our beers, enjoying a few minutes of idle, getting-to-know-you chit chat. Mike explained we were his customers, and I added that we’d just bought a house across the valley, in the mountains. Another round came out from the kitchen.
Mike began explaining to Chris that we liked horses, and Chris immediately brightened, asking us “Would you like to see Ol’ Major? He’s a good ol’ horse.”
We nodded, expecting to being taken out to the barn before we left. Chris disappeared again, towards the kitchen. After a short wait, hoping for fresh cold ones, I asked Mike where Chris had got himself off to.
Mike just shrugged, and replied “he’s gone to get Ol’ Major. Probably having trouble getting him up the back steps!”
Really. After another couple of minutes, Chris came marching proudly into the living room leading a Chestnut gelding by a short halter. He stopped so that Ol’ Major, in all his glory, could stand between us and the fireplace, providing an unobstructed view. We looked him over with our clearly inexpert eyes. Chris was beaming. Ol’ Major just looked straight ahead, not moving a muscle. The horse was quite at home in the living room on the white shag carpeting. He nickered a bit, then glanced back towards us, on the leather sectional, then back to Chris, as if to ask “Who’s the company?”
Chris held the halter while we asked a whole slew of questions about Quarter-Horses, cutting cattle, which Ol’ Major was very good at, and lots of others, which were all patiently answered. He suddenly looked at his watch, and let the halter trace drop to the floor, walking around to Ol’ Major’s hind quarters while in mid-sentence. As he finished answering the question, which for us had already been forgotten, he put out both hands, thumbs touching, and placed them under Ol’ Major’s tail. Without any visible exertion, Ol’ Major filled Chris’ outstretched hands. We were speechless.
Mike started to chuckle, and asked Chris, “You do this often?”
Chris strode, his hands in front of him with their steaming contents, to the front door, opened the lever latch and tossed the load into the front yard, before replying “Sure, lots of times. Major knows how to behave indoors.”
He returned to the halter trace and the conversation continued for another half hour or so, interspersed with new rounds of Tecates, along with two more, perfectly timed trips to the front door to toss Ol’ Major’s effortless deposits onto the front yard.
Finally, I couldn’t keep still any longer. I took a moment to phrase my next question. I didn’t want to blurt out What the F_ck? – Chris had been a perfect, if slightly unusual host. Instead, I asked him, “how do you know when he’s going to drop a load of shit? Does he ever have any misses …on the carpet?”
Chris gave me a look that said why would you ask that and answered, “Ol’ Major’s like clock-work. Every 15 minutes, like most horses. That’s why I’ve been looking at my watch!” So now we knew, which would come in really handy if we ever planned to bring a horse inside our home.
Glancing about the walls in nervous distraction, I noticed Chris had several, framed displays of period revolver pistols around the room. I asked him about them, and he launched into a new lecture about his collection, especially his favorite, which his great grandfather had carried in a civil war battle. He asked us if we wanted to pet Ol’ Major before he took him back to his stable, and we did, marveling again at Chris’ choice of house pets.
Mike asked him how his wife did with the horse inside, and ol’ Chris replied “She didn’t like it much. She’s gone now anyway.”
He led Ol’ Major back through the kitchen, to put him down for the night. As he left Mike told him “Good thing he didn’t have to whizz!” Chris only replied that he never watered him before he brought him in. Of course. I should have known that.
Chris returned with a few more Tecates, and one of the last things I remember clearly, that night, as Chris was taking down three or four of his Colts from the wall, he asked “Have you two ever shot a six shooter?” Terrified of the implication, I answered a weak “Not really…” This began a foolhardy foray into firearms I’d rather forget. Suffice it to say no blood was spilled, despite the shag carpet receiving a liberal dusting of plaster.
Hours later, we somehow made it home all the way across the river, living to tell the tale. I’ll always remember that day and night as our proper initiation into life in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, with all its bumps, warts, dust, guns and of course, horse shit.
A couple of years later, our friend Mike folded his tent in Corrales, and headed South to work, we later heard, on Mexican Cruise Ships, following his own “next big thing”. We never saw him again, but not a night goes by, if I’ve seen a Chestnut Quarter Horse during the day, or if I’ve sat behind that great big desk a while, I don’t open a beer, think of him and wonder how he’s getting along.