Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Bend in the Road

Paul Namkung of Three Ravens Coffee House

I set out on the final leg of my impromptu road trip south from Pagosa Springs through northern New Mexico. The day started out sunny and cool, after an overnight rain storm that left the potholes in the roads and parking lots water-filled, with another near-perfect breakfast at the Victoria’s Parlor café.

This time of year, just before the aspens in the high country begin to turn yellow, is idyllic yet mournful; we know it can only get worse from here, as we try not to think too far in advance about the impending winter, when these lush, green-covered mountains will be snow-encrusted and the roads treacherous and icy.

The ups and downs and curves of the highway take me further south as the NPR radio station from Ignacio fades out, and I’m much too far north for the signal from Albuquerque. I put on a blues CD and continue enjoying the drive. I pass through the towns – villages, really – of Chama and Brazos. Soon I pass the sign and turnoff for Tierra Amarilla, as I’ve done many times before; there’s an official-looking announcement indicating the county courthouse, site of an infamous standoff, decades ago. As I cruise up the hill, past the turnoff, toward the junction with highway 64, I think “why not?” and make a u-turn; I have no schedule, the day is early and the morning is beautiful.
An abandoned building in Tierra Amarilla

As I round the bend in the narrow road that leads to the courthouse I spot a recently remodeled building with the sign “Three Ravens Coffee House.” I park and commence to capture a few images of the local architecture; I’m drawn to the rustic and dilapidated, yet hopeful of avoiding mere cliché. My wanderings inevitably lead me across the narrow road, to the sound and aroma of fresh espresso. Three metal ravens peer anxiously from the overhang of the sheet metal roof above the entrance. Inside is elegant and rustic, yet somehow modern and fresh; an unlikely combination that speaks volumes about the talents of the man I was fortunate to have spent the next half hour conversing with.
New growth in an old village

Paul Namkung came from northern California to this tiny, Hispanic village in northern New Mexico some fifteen years ago. He fell in love with an old, dilapidated building, site of a former mercantile store, then church school and finally condemned to destruction. His family and friends called him crazy – or worse – because he held a firm conviction, borne of a strong, inner vision as an artist, that what was at the time decay and rubble would someday be a simple yet elegantly furnished coffee shop.
Metal ravens examine each visitor

Paul makes his living as an artist, craftsman and musician, specifically fashioning a unique design of drum from elegantly crafted woods, which he has had little trouble selling as of late. They are crafted with the same evident attention to detail, as is his coffee shop, which he has slowly renovated and brought back from death over the last fifteen years. His neighbors have taken notice, too, over the last decade or so, as the building had begun to take shape and the finishing touches applied. As we talked, and he showed me around, I took the liberty of documenting Paul and his environs. I felt blessed to have finally stopped, turned around and headed back to the turnoff that I so often had ignored in the past.
Three Ravens Coffee House interior

As I finally drove out of the tiny village of Tierra Amarilla, Paul and I exchanged waves; he was outside, near the bend in the road, telling his story no doubt to the two ladies who had stopped in, midway through our conversation, as a prophet or visionary of hope would do; an Evangelist of Second Chances, who had brought back to life the hopelessness that was a collapsed and decaying past. He had told me a story when, just after the coffee shop had opened, an elderly lady, a lifelong resident of the village, came by to thank him for “saving our culture.”
Paul playing his homemade bass instrument

“I’m just building a coffee shop,” he replied. But her insistence and gratitude brought him to tears, as he realized what one rebuilt ruin could do to the life of a waning village.
Paul playing his unique handmade drums

This was a fitting way to end my vacation. I thought about Paul during my drive back to Albuquerque, and also about Adam, back in Durango, having to sell his antique Schwinn to get gas money to make it back home to Cortez. You just don’t know what the road has to offer. I didn’t make it to Canyonlands or Arches or the Bisti Badlands; but I think that I came away from this trip even richer, because of these people that I met along the way.


Blogger Mike Speegle said...

So cool. It's nice to hear that the the spirit of independence and entrepreneurship is still alive and well out there.

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Joe Van Cleave.
Someone sent your post; that road is familiar to me, driving south from Durango.
Your writing is evocative, your images pristine, and the content is compelling. Thank you for these late morning gifts.
Mary Anderson
Bainbridge Island, Washington

12:41 PM  

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