Just outside Lake City, Colorado, my daughter and I came upon an Alpine pond ringed with October snow, thin layers of ice on its surface. We agreed. It was a good place, very near where our family used to tent camp. Then we said a few words and scattered some ashes from my late wife, my daughter’s mother.
A few hours later in Montrose, I dropped my daughter off at the airport and started my trek back to Texas. I wanted to make it to Raton that night, but a state highway closure and a long white-knuckle detour with hairpin turns had different ideas, so the next day, waking up early in Salida, Colorado, I was determined to get as close as I could to the Fort, but sometimes, on the road, the unexpected happens.
By noon, I’d decided to stop for lunch for one of my favorites, New Mexican food, so just as I got into Clayton, New Mexico, I pulled into the Santa Fe Trail Cafe. Still lunchtime, the parking lot was packed, which I took as a good omen. As I got out of my car, an older gentleman with a mane of white hair and the build of a linebacker asked if I wanted to eat in the cafe.
“Yep, I’m planning on it,” I answered, a bit suspicious.
He then informed me the cafe was closed for a dinner after a funeral mass. Disappointed, I thanked him for the info and added that I was sorry for his loss. Then while backing out, I noticed him talking to a middle-aged Latina in the parking lot but didn’t give it much thought because my stomach was just then urging me to get to another cafe PDQ.
What stopped me was one hard rap on my passenger side window. It was the old man. I rolled it down.
“We got plenty of food here,” he said. “We can spare you a plate.”
“Really?” I said.
“Of course, come on.”
In the cafe, the middle-aged Latina from the parking lot described to me some of the dishes that awaited. Then she explained it was her mother who’d died. I gave her my condolences and thanked her profusely for her generosity. She answered by asking me if I wanted fried chicken. How else could a boy from the South answer?
“You bet!” I said.
She wasn’t the only one to ask what I wanted. Others were equally solicitous. I was bowled over by how friendly everyone was. At 64, I’ve experienced enough of mourning to know it doesn’t always bring out your best. Someone they knew had died, and because of that, they had every reason to not be generous, especially to a stranger like me.
I ended up leaving that cafe with much more than a plateful of food. I left with two platefuls and two bowlfuls of just some of best food I’ve ever had. Before leaving, I haltingly asked them where the nearest picnic table was, as if I’d suddenly lost the ability to speak. They figured out what I was getting at and directed me to a picnic area a few miles east of Clayton.
In a desolate place with a couple of ancient wooden picnic tables but no garbage cans in sight, I feasted on pasta salad, tasty frijoles, arroz, New Mexico-style stacked enchiladas with chiles, a spicy squash dish, and fried chicken. Having lately subsisted mostly on fast food, it was a veritable feast to me.
Buffeted by a constant wind rustling through high, dry prairie grasses, I ate food that was simple, made with fresh ingredients and, yes, love. But it wasn’t just the food. Those people back in Clayton didn’t know me. They didn’t need to be generous, but they were. Sure, it’s corny as hell, but sitting at that picnic table, that fact filled my heart. Maybe it’s what we’ve all gone through the past twentysomething months, social isolation along with a heaping helping of societal breakdown.
That day I ended up driving 13 hours, a feat I hadn’t done alone since I was in my 20s. Part of it was maybe the good, nourishing food, but I also think it was finding such unexpected generosity. Of course, now comes the hard part. Here it is the holiday season, the time for paying it forward. In my mind, classic Christmas movie scenes flit by: Jimmy Stewart happily rushing home to be arrested, Edward Gwenn’s Kris Kringle arranging an X-ray machine donation. So how do I, not a particularly giving person at any time of year, ever pass on what I was so fortunate to be gifted with?