Savoring Pie Town

Sixty-five years after Russell Lee photographed New Mexico homesteaders coping with the Depression, a Lee admirer visits the town for a fresh slice of life

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Never mind that I now also knew—in the so-called more rational and objective part of my brain—that the Thoreauvian ideal of self-reliance had foundered badly in this family. For Doris and Faro Caudill (and their daughter, Josie, who was about 8 when Lee took his pictures), the PieTown dream became closer to a nightmare. Faro got sick, got lung trouble, the family moved away (just two years after the pictures were taken). Faro sought work in the city, Faro ran around. An acrimonious divorce ensued. Doris ended up married to another man for 39 years. She even went to Alaska to try the American homesteading dream all over again. There is a beautiful book published several years ago about the Caudills and their saga, but especially about Doris: Pie Town Woman, by Joan Myers, a New Mexico author.

In 1942, when Faro Caudill hitched the gate at his PieTown homestead for the last time, he scrawled on the wood: “Farewell, old homestead. I bid you adieu. I may go to hell but I’ll never come back to you.”

And yet what you also get from Myers’ book about Doris in her very old age, not long from her death, is a deep longing to be there again, to have that life again. She told the author she’d like to have hot and cold running water, though. “As old as I am, I like to take a bath now and then. We would take a bath on Saturday night. We had a number three bathtub. I’d get the water all hot and then I’d bathe Josie and then I’d take a bath and then Faro would take a bath. . . . You kind of wore the water out.”

What happened in this dot of civilization, to go on with PieTown’s history, is that the agricultural dream dried up—quite literally. The good growing years lasted not even a generation. It was the water once more, a grapes of wrath anew, the old Western saga of boom to bust. Somehow, by the ’50s, the climate had seemed mysteriously to shift, just as it had in the places abandoned earlier by those Okies and West Texans and Kansans. The winters became balmier. The snows wouldn’t fall, not like they once did; the earth refused to hold its moisture for the spring planting. The corn and pinto bean fields, which two decades before had yielded rich harvests, as long as its tillers were willing to give to them the sunup-to-sundown work that they demanded, withered. And so, many of those once-exiled families found themselves exiled again. Some of them had already long moved on to cities, to jobs in defense plants and airplane factories. They’d gone to Albuquerque, to California, where the life was said to be easier, the paychecks regular.

But the town never died out entirely. Those who’d stayed behind made a living by any means they could: drilling wells, grazing cows, running mom and pop businesses, opening cafés called the Pie-O-Neer, recently reopened, or the Break 21. And new homesteaders always seemed to arrive, willing to try out the PieTown dream.

The highway had already taken me through and around the parched mountains and mesas and across a vast moonlike tract from the Pleistocene age called the Plains of San Agustin. The land had begun to rise again, almost imperceptibly at first, and then rather dramatically. It was still desert, but the land looked more fertile now. That was mostly illusion.

I couldn’t find any town at first. The “town” looked like no more than a wide spot in the road, with the Daily Pie Café and the post office and an art gallery just about the only visible enterprises. I just had to adjust my eyes, I just had to give it time—to find the drilling business, the realty office selling ranchettes, the mobile home campgrounds, the community center, the several churches, the fist of simple homes that stood along the old main street before they relocated U.S. 60, the long-closed old log hotel still standing on the old U.S. 60, home now to bats and spiders and snakes. Russ and Jean Lee had lodged there while he’d made his pictures.

I just had to look around to find the town cemetery—windblown, weedy, ghostly, beautiful. There were graves piled with stones, and under them were Americans who had lasted 90 and more years.

I walked into the offices of the Alegres Electric Company, a husband and wife operation owned by Judy and Bob Myers. They are both licensed electricians. The shop was in a little mud-dried house with a brown tin corrugated roof across the macadam from the Daily Pie. In addition to their electrical business, the Myers were also offering trail mix and soft drinks and flashlight batteries. “Hikers come through on the Divide,” Judy explained. She was sitting at a computer, a classic-looking frontier woman with deep facial lines set in a leathery tan. She said that she and her husband had chased construction jobs all over the country, and had somehow managed to raise their kids while doing it. They’d found PieTown four or five years ago. They intended to stick. “As long as we can keep earning some kind of living here,” Judy said. “As long as our health would hold.” Of course, there are no doctors or hospitals nearby. “I guess you could call us homesteaders,” Judy said.

I encountered Brad Beauchamp. He’s a sculptor. He had topped 60. He was staffing the town Tourist and VisitorInformationCenter. There was a sign with those words in yellow lettering on the side of an art gallery. There was a big arrow and it directed me to the rear of the gallery. Beauchamp, instantly friendly, ten years a Pie Towner, is a transplant from San Diego, as is his wife. In California, they’d had a horse farm. They wanted a simpler life. Now they owned 90 acres and a cabin and an array of four-footed animals. They were making their living as best they could. Beauchamp, a lanky drink of water recovering from a bicycling accident, talked of yoga, of meditation, of a million stars in the New Mexico sky. “I’ve worked real hard on . . . being calm out here,” he said.

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