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Tuesday, 17 February 2015

In Memory of Ron Chavez


They have a weekly Farmers’ Market in Taos. It’s outside in the summer, but in winter they have it indoors. I went along on Saturday. Bought a fine-looking jar of chokecherry jelly (jam, we Brits would say) and was sorely tempted by various cookies and pastries.

Just as I was leaving I spotted a fellow selling books – second-hand, by the look of them. One caught my eye immediately. It was a collection of stories by a guy called Ron P. Chavez. I grabbed it, and my heart jumped – more so when I read on the back that ‘Ron… lives and writes in Taos.’

I met Ron back in 1986 when I was a British undergraduate exchange student at the University of New Mexico. I’d come over with my family and needed to earn a few bucks. I did gardening at the married student housing complex, later washed windows at homes and businesses around town. I worked in the mornings, attended classes in the afternoons and evenings. Mostly I studied western lit. and creative writing. It was in Rudy Anaya’s graduate writing workshop that I met Ron. He travelled in from Santa Rosa every Wednesday for the class, a round trip of 240 miles. He’d grown up in the same village as Rudy, was trying to write about the Spanish and Native cultures he was familiar with, and was keen to learn.

For the first month or two we didn’t speak. Then he read a piece I’d written, a fiction, in which a character made some disparaging remark about New Mexico. He took me to task immediately. ‘You’re living in Albuquerque,’ he said. ‘You cannot know the real Nuevo Mejico. Wait until the spring,’ he said, ‘then give me a call. Bring your family out to Santa Rosa and I’ll show you my part of the state.’

It was late May when I made the call. ‘Come on over,’ he said. ‘And listen, don’t eat.’

We piled the kids into the car and took off. What I hadn’t realised was that Ron at that time ran the legendary Club CafĂ© on old Route 66. As soon as we arrived he took us inside and fed us – a huge meal of chiles, tacos, carna asada; beer for the grown-ups, ice-cream for the kid. As we ate he told us about the illustrious history of the place, showed us photos taken in its hey-day, before the freeway, when three shifts of waitresses and cooks kept the place open twenty-four hours.

After the meal we all got into his truck and he took us on a tour. We saw the blue hole Anaya writes about in Bless Me, Ultima. We went to the village of Las Pasturas – Puerta de Luna in the book – and saw the old Spanish church. We visited Ron’s home, and the little factory he’d set up to make his own brand of salsa. Then he took us to some sand-dunes and showed us how his new truck could climb straight up the steepest slope. He was very proud of it.

Finally we went down to a spot beside the Pecos river where he unloaded a little inflatable boat and set up camp on a sandy island in mid-stream. We gathered wood and made a huge fire. He erected a barbecue and produced from the back of the truck a huge tray of home-made burgers. We feasted again.

I remember getting home late that evening, exhausted, still full, and my ears ringing with the tales he had told me about his family, their roots and the Comanche people on whose lands they had settled over two hundred years previously.

My year in Albuquerque was soon up, but I stayed in touch with Ron for some years. He sent me articles he had written for the Guadelupe County Examiner. He told me that we should get together on a project he had in mind. He wanted to get down the many, many stories he had in his head about Route 66 – and I was the man to work the magic with the words. That never happened. A few years later when I told my brother, who was travelling through the southwest, to call in at the Club, he reported that the place was closed. I wrote to Ron and found out it was all due to MacDonald’s, who’d set up and bled him dry.

After that I lost touch for many years. As recently as 2010 I traced him through the internet and found out he’d left Santa Rosa and moved north. That was all I knew.

I asked the guy at the stall, how much for the book? He wanted four dollars. I asked him whether he knew Ron Chavez. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘He lived in town for years.’

‘So how is he?’ I asked. ‘I need to look him up.’ That’s when he told me the sad news. Ron died just a few weeks ago.

He was a big man and a big character. I wish I could’ve seen him one more time.