Thursday, February 23, 2017

A chance meeting between strangers

    Let’s do it.” My husband and I were driving a rental car in the Southwest somewhere – I think it was near Gallop, New Mexico – when we saw a tumbled down wooden shack of a place with a rusted sign, “Fossils and Other Assorted Adventures at Your Own Risk.”
     We looked at each other realizing we might be on to something.  With no pressing agenda that morning, we pulled over and stepped out of the car into at least two hours of fascinating conversation with an old crusty codger about his relics and dinosaur specimens. You’d have thought that he hadn’t talked to a living soul in days — or was he such an expert at the art of entertaining that we didn’t realize that we were been taken right in? Good storytellers can do that, you know.
     Then again, I might have been attracted by the crusty codger’s long white hair knotted with a thin Zuni string-like beaded decoration at the nape of his neck. His face was etched in deep creases and weathering had done a number on his complexion like anyone exposed to the sun’s rays for years.  Here was an artifact from the 60s living among his collections as if Jimi Hendrix and Purple Haze were there playing in the backroom. It could well have been, too.
     That’s the advantage when you don’t lock yourself into a tight schedule. A simple pleasure like pouring around a dusty barn for treasures and getting a little bit dirty is what I mean. It makes a vacation all the more memorable, too, and some trips work out in that way naturally.   

     Regardless, whether or not the crusty codger was leading us on a merry chase of talk, we never did figure out. Sometimes the fun is in playing along, too. All I know is that we saw an authentic bit of New Mexico, and if I remember correctly, we added a dinosaur bone to our collection to put on the shelf for the neighbor kids to discover on their next visit. Certain people have that witty capacity with language and everything coming out of their mouth is a pun. We recognized that we would never run across him again in this lifetime and no photos were needed to recreate that morning. I think we did take a couple pictures of the crusty codger’s relics, but he didn’t want one of himself. “I’m running from the law,” he grumbled with a twinkle in his eyes.  I would doubt that seriously.
     The crusty codger told us tales of life in the “golden” days – I’m not certain he was much older than us – and where he had found his specimens braving wild conditions and fighting off other competing collectors. He would get distracted from his main story and wind into another one like a bunny rabbit on a trail moving abruptly to keep his audience enthralled. His friendly beagle would wander in and out requiring appropriate attention from us until something outside else got his ears pricking up.
     Springtime in the desert is plush and the colors were peaking as far as we could see on the blooming cactus. The distant mountains shimmered and the last of the snow was dripping away into streams. The crusty codger took out his red workman’s hankie and blew his nose lamenting allergy season for him.

     Mostly, the old codger sat on a stool in his faded denim overalls and plaid shirt whittling away at a carving and directing us in one direction or another. Nothing was priced, or organized, and still, I would imagine that he knew where everything could be located if need be on a moment’s notice. You’ve watched the show, American Pickers, and those two entrepreneurs have the art of the deal down just right. We weren’t in that category, and I bet he surmised we were simply “lookers” before we walked in.
     Several times we thought we were finished and started edging toward the open door, when the crusty codger would weave us into another yarn. Back we would come inside, and listen again.
     Once my husband picked up a beauty of a specimen – he has a good eye - and immediately the old codger came limping over taking it right out of his hands abruptly. “It’s not for sale.” Supposedly, we were part of the shed that was his private collection even though he told us with a broad sweep of his hands upon our arrival, “everything is for sale including my dog.” I was expecting him to say also, “and my wife,” so he rose up a notch in my estimation.
     As we were about to leave we asked him where we would find good home cooking at a nearby diner on the road back to Gallop. We were hankering for a bowl of chili by then as our stomachs were growling. Breakfast – Huevos a la Mexicana, or Mexican scrambled eggs - seemed like hours ago. With all his wealth of knowledge, we could see that he had no clue about the practicalities of life outside his immediate space, so we dropped the subject.
     We thanked the crusty codger for his time, waved good-bye and drove off laughing about our impromptu visit with an authentic charmer. If we spent five dollars, it was worth it all. I rather doubt he was in dire need of funds either when I glanced back at his silver Mercedes parked behind his shack.