hasta la vista
mud slinger

The desire to live simply inspires a Californian to move to the country and rescue a crumbling adobe at the confluence of two rivers.

This article first appeared in Spring 2009 Su Casa

When Erma Ruth came to the little adobe house on a hill between two rivers 20 years ago, she admits, it was “pretty dilapidated.” Still, she moved in and took the problems as they came. “The doors worked, the roof didn’t leak, it had water and power—but there were broken windows and cracks in the walls,” Erma says.

“I started slinging mud right away,” she recalls, patching those cracks in the mud plaster, then calling in help from the nearby pueblo when she felt the job exceeded her capabilities. And so began a long-term renovation project that rescued the house from slowly slumping back into the earth from which it sprang like so many other abandoned adobes scattered across the New Mexico countryside.

Probably first built as a one-room hut in the late 1800s, the house grew over the following decades as previous owners added several rooms, then Erma recently added the flagstone-floored screened porch on the west side. A photo of the surrounding mesa-and-canyon country from 1885 shows a faint rectangular shadow on this spot. The confluence of two rivers—la junta—appears more clearly, the rivers surprisingly barren of the now-dense cottonwood bosques where trees, on the autumn day of my visit, are fading toward gold in chromatic harmony with the chamisa and snakeweed that dot the rocky hills by Erma’s house.

It takes a sympathetic eye to spot the potential charm in a tumbling down future ruin. Erma had been living life in the fast lane in Southern California when she decided to head for the exit ramp.

“I had the goal or mission statement of ‘living simply and simply living,’” she says. “I just needed the place.”

On a visit to friends in Corrales, New Mexico, and their lovely cabin in the mountains nearby, “I started looking around,” exploring the neighboring villages, she recalls. “I kept saying I wanted an adobe on a river.” Then she adds with a laugh, “My friends called and said, ‘how about an adobe on two rivers?’” She pounced on it.

Restoring old adobe homes—50 percent art, 50 percent grunt labor—requires vision, patience, acceptance, endurance. One must work within the limits of the materials—mud, wood, stone—and within the skewed geometry of construction methods that have more in common with folk art than, say, engineering and building science. Then there’s the aesthetic: on the one hand we have Santa Fe style, which actually owes little to these rustic country homes, and on the other, a no-name style, beautiful for its up-from-the-land roots in history, in native materials, in pared-down simplicity and modesty. I don’t see any granite in Erma’s house, or Italian tile, but I do see butcher block and stamped tin paneling; no diamond finish plaster or honed concrete, but gypsum-coated walls and patched and varnished hardwood floors.

You enter the home under a recently built portal—the third iteration, according to Erma—and find yourself in the kitchen. Just right of the door sits a four-foot-high faded blue pie safe built early in the 20th century by her great-uncle, who cobbled it from fruit crates—open its doors and you can still read their printed labels. Above this cabinet an arched niche original to the home holds a statuette of the Virgin Mary. Erma retrieved it from a makeshift outdoor shrine set within the curb-high ruined walls of a structure on the property where the boys of a previous family slept, many decades ago; pack rats have since dragged in all manner of miscellaneous desert detritus.

Back inside the kitchen, over the simple sink, Erma had a matching nicho carved to hold dishes and cups and the like. She salvaged the chipped green hand-built kitchen table and bench, both made from locally milled lumber, from a neighboring home belonging to the same family who once owned her house and the furniture in this room. Against the back wall sits a vintage Copper Clad wood-burning cookstove, where Erma prepares her meals, along with an equally classic Griswold propane-fired cast-iron stove, consisting only of skeletal piping and two bare burners. It’s useful for making coffee. Erma brought the Copper Clad stove in all its Industrial Age glory from Ohio, where she grew up watching her grandmother cook on it.

An antique rocker and blanket chest look right at home in the adjacent living room—the parlor, Erma jokes—with its varnished, wide-plank floors neatly patched with sheet metal nailed down tight along the edges of the holes they cover, its tall narrow south window, its plain white walls plastered with gypsum, local sand, and local white clay, its cast-iron woodstove. Throughout the house, Erma sandblasted and refinished all the wood—vigas, decking, floors—replastered the walls, and hung new doors (well, new old doors).

It should be noted that these old adobes don’t have hallways, they have doors. One leads from kitchen to living room, one from kitchen to bedroom. The bathroom, reached from the bedroom, includes grandma’s old sink and freestanding tub and a flagstone floor that hides a secret: radiant heating, the only mechanical heat source in the home. In this cold north-side room, it seems an acceptable luxury. A boxed skylight lined with tin—it matches another in the kitchen—washes the sink and salvaged mirror with indirect illumination.

The west-side screened porch clings to the back of the house off the kitchen; Erma considers it “the summer living quarters.” With its expansive views and soft breezes, the room exudes celebrity-level charisma. An outdoor shower pokes from the wall beyond the porch. Outside by the door sits an old roller-wringer washing machine.

Erma had the home’s exterior replastered in a mud, straw, and horse manure mix; on the south side, where the weather hits hardest, it has cracked and crazed almost geologically. She had her contractor add stone and cement buttresses to anchor the four corners of the house and installed a new corrugated metal roof. “I did not want a bright shiny roof,” she says, so she ordered the panels to be pulled early from the production line, minus a coat of sealant. The roof now wears a patina of rust, giving no hint of its contemporary vintage.

When Erma first moved here, she mowed the weeds and native plants, planted a garden, kept chickens in the coop. Now she’s content to let nature take over, and indeed the hilltop feels a bit too harshly exposed to support much horticulture.

Outbuildings include the coop and a salvaged loggers’ “skid shed” once pulled around the nearby mountains, “the original mobile home,” she jokes. Rotting harnesses and other tack hang on one outside wall. But perhaps nothing suggests the depth of time here better than the crunching pottery shards underfoot. If you sunk a shovel, you’d unearth detailed evidence of ancient habitation. Pueblo ruins are so dense around here they almost escape comment, yet they create the backdrop and context for resuscitating an old home without denying its age. At Erma’s place you can’t help but feel the lingering presence of times and peoples past.