Last winter, after failing yet again to borrow a truck and chain saw to cut my own firewood, I headed over toward Woodcutters’ Corner on Old Las Vegas Highway. Even in these enlightened times, I wasn’t too happy at the prospect of standing by sheepishly while those moustache-and-ax men of men chucked firewood into the trunk of my pinche, 4-cylinder sedan. Halfway there, I thought of a way to save face: I turned around and headed to Canyon Road, toward the old Rios woodlot.
I hadn’t been on the Eastside for a while—somehow, I never really feel like grabbing a bite at Geronimo’s—and as I made my way through the cashmere-clad tourists, I started to wonder if the woodlot still existed. I passed 610 Canyon Road, the drafty adobe where my friend Julien grew up, now a high-end rug boutique; and the building that was once Gormley’s market, where shelves of canned goods and 40-cent Skor bars have been replaced by collectible works of art. As I turned onto Camino del Monte Sol, I recalled how Julien’s dad had once walked us up to the woodlot, stood us before those heaping piles of piñon, the handmade sheds and retired half-ton trucks, and told us that the owners, Jesus and Teresa Rios, had been offered millions for that little piece of Santa Fe—and turned the offer down.
At the time, 12-year-old “Fantasy Island” zealot that I was, I couldn’t believe that anyone would turn down anything for that much money. But now, when I found the woodlot completely unchanged by a quarter century of Sohoification, I began to wonder.
I introduced myself to Rudy Rios—Jesus and Teresa’s oldest living son—and after getting permission to load some 12 inch piñon into my trunk, I asked him if the multi-million-dollar story is true. “Stop by someday for lunch,” he told me, evasively. “We’ve got plenty of stories about my dad and mom.”
A year passed before I finally took him up on the invitation; even so, Rudy’s sister, Socorro, welcomed me into the kitchen as though she’d been expecting me all along. The modest room—family photos on white adobe walls, viga ceiling, wide-slatted oak floor—was dominated by a heavy, nine-foot table. Here sat Rudy, his brother Leon and a couple other members of the extended Rios clan. As Socorro answered my silent prayers with a plate of red enchiladas and pinto beans, two more siblings came in—Maria and Cecilia—and, true to Rudy’s word, the stories of Jesus and Teresa Rios, and their famous woodlot, began.
It could have been written by Gabriel García Márquez: A tall, dapper young Mexican shows up in Santa Fe in the 1930s and falls for one of the local counter girls at Taichert’s Five and Dime. They date for two months and then marry for life; he trades in his three-piece suits for work clothes and an ax, and starts selling firewood out of his mother-in-law’s yard. In the early ’40s, they buy the two-story adobe at 324 Camino del Monte Sol from the artist Frank Applegate’s widow and set up the Rios Wood and Coal Yard in front. Teresa gives birth every two years, always at home, suffering a stroke from the eighth and final childbirth but recovering fully to raise all eight and a grandson as well.
The woodlot grows. Gunnysacks of piñon are shipped as far away as Florida, and to Richard Nixon’s home in California. As many as 16 men work for Jesus and Teresa in a busy year, and some of them stay on for so many seasons their children begin working for him as well. Living by the motto “everybody’s got to eat,” Jesus hires men he can hardly afford, just to give them work; buys wood from his competitors when they’re suffering; and—when he starts a demolition and salvage business on the side—gives away enough recycled building materials that less fortunate folks are able build entire homes. (Even Woodcutters’ Corner, the roadside park-and-sell lot I’d nearly gone to the year before, is a Jesus Rios gift—that land was once his, and when the state bought it to build I-25, he insisted they kept a space open for his competitors.) He believes in using the earth gently, fishing with the family on Saturdays, breakfasting big and not wasting work time sitting in church. He works well into his 80s and almost never gets sick until, at the age of 95, he becomes nauseous one afternoon and passes away 14 hours later.
Ten years younger and a foot shorter than her husband, Teresa not only keeps the family fed and healthy, but also runs the business side of the woodlot, doesn’t skip a mass and holds, with perfect discretion, the varied and sundry secrets her children reveal only to her. She, too, passes away at the age of 95 and, even today, when they speak of her, her children glance over to the empty space by the fireplace where she spent the last years of her life, observing the family from an easy chair.
At the table, the enchiladas had gone cold, and everyone but Cecilia had wandered back to their lives outside the family home. Walking me out, Cecilia explained how her two grown daughters had moved away from Santa Fe, and none of her nephews or nieces had shown much interest in taking over. As Jesus always said, “no hay dinero en la lena” (there’s no money in firewood). When I asked her what she thought would happen to the woodlot 20, 30 years from now, she had little to say, but it was clearly painful for her to imagine the property falling, someday, out of Rios hands.
I thanked her and started toward my car, but then remembered what I’d come for. I found Rudy and asked him my question from the year before: Was the story of the multi-million dollar offer true?
Rudy looked over my shoulder with his good eye. “It was a couple of developers from Kansas. They told my dad they’d give him $6 million, I think it was. My dad put his hand on his heart. ‘Woah!’ he said. ‘That’s a lot of money!’ The Kansan developers looked at each other, thinking they’d got what they come for. Then my dad said, ‘But not enough money for this poor Mexican,’ and he sent them on their way.”