The Old Man and the Weed

It was early last September when Raymond Gutierrez heard the helicopter circling overhead. He was washing dishes.

The way Raymond lives, washing dishes takes some time, and he often lets them pile up for days. Pushing aside the cloth that covers the doorway, he walks outside his one-story stone house and goes around to the back. There he ladles water from the barrels in which he collects and stores rain that has run off the metal roof. The first barrelful following a storm is usually browned by the dust that accumulates on the roof between cloudbursts; he uses it strictly for washing. But after that, the water is clean and sweet and good for drinking.

Inside again, Raymond heats the water on his white ceramic stove. It is fired by propane, since electricity hasn't made its way out to his place. Nor, for that matter, have paved roads, phone lines, gas lines or sewer lines; here the mail comes three times a week from a post office twenty miles away. Once the water is hot, he begins washing.

"I had a dish towel on my shoulder," he remembers. "I was happy to see the helicopter. I said to myself, 'We got some buyers for the ranch.'"

The 8,000-acre spread was homesteaded by Gutierrez's father nearly a century ago. The property lies on the cusp of a geologic transition point in southeast Colorado, where the dusty dry-wheat farms of the east-central plains disappear and the landscape begins to be dominated by red and white chalky bluffs, gnarled pinon and thick grasslands fed by the Purgatoire and Two Buttes rivers.

The whirlybird skimmed over the house, hovering close, and then banked away. "They flew around a few times, down to the ranch where I was born"--on May 24, 1916--"then back here to my place," Raymond recalls. "I waved at them, and they waved at me, and then they landed over by my wood stack."

Raymond's stacks really aren't stacks, but tangled hives of cut branches and slash. The house's only source of heat is the cast-iron stove in the living room, so gathering wood is a year-round chore. For nearly a mile circumference surrounding the house, Raymond has prepared and left heaps of the fuel. Only he knows where they are.

Curious and a little excited, he walked out of the house to meet the visitors. Outside of hunting season, guests are extremely uncommon in the area, which is called Villegreen. "You get a strange car in that area and people notice it," says Las Animas County sheriff's sergeant Robert Rose, who works out of a substation a half-hour's drive away, in Kim. Established in 1916 by a homesteader who named it after his favorite Rudyard Kipling book, the town's heyday was in the 1920s, when it supported nearly thirty businesses. But during the droughts of the late 1930s, Kim began to decline. Today, with a population of 84, seven businesses, the old community center built under the Works Progress Administration and the post office, it is what people here mean when they refer to "town."

Except for his distant younger cousin, who brings him groceries, Raymond doesn't usually see or talk to anyone. When the temperature is searing, as it often is in the summer, he fills the old bathtub outside his house with water and lies in it naked for hours without fear of discovery. (He also cuts the crotch out of new pants to make it simpler to pee--an accommodation to his 83-year-old bladder.) He is often alone for days or weeks at a time, a circumstance he has gotten used to ever since his father ordered him off the family ranch and up to the isolated house on top of the hill nearly a half-century ago.

Raymond is friendly, even generous, to those he does encounter, however. "Stop by anytime you want to hear some more lies," he will say. A couple of years ago, a two-man film crew from New York City was making a documentary about old post offices when their car broke down near Raymond's house. He told them they could spend the night at his place or take his truck into La Junta, an hour-and-a-half drive. (What use is a vehicle to a man who hasn't had a driver's license since 1954?) "Come back when you can," he told them when they pulled away. They returned the following day and thanked him, chatted for a few hours and then left.

After the helicopter settled into the grass, Raymond watched the men step down from the cockpit. "Two guys got out, and got down like this"--here Raymond hunches his shoulder and ducks imaginary blades--"so they wouldn't get hit. I said, 'How do you like the place?' They said, 'Oh, it's a wonderful place. But we've come to ask your permission to look down the canyon.' They said they had found some--what did they call it--'mary-jew-wanna.' They couldn't say it the right way: 'mari-whana.'