Above: Illustration by Brett Affrunti.

THE DOLL IS AS TALL AS ME, a girl on a patch of lush green grass. I talk to her and she talks back. A lone peacock ambles, wails, and dandies about. I barely remember the bird until my brother Carlos reminds me—and then I see.

In my mind’s eye, and through the frame of old photos, memories ebb and flow, sparkle and fade, like the river and the wildflowers and the aspens that root them in place.

My parents have given me the doll for my July 5 birthday, celebrated at the rustic, aptly named Wilderness Inn. Like a gift from the heavens, she comes to life in bright sunlight and balmy air, amid tall conifers that connect ancient woodlands to glorious skies.

I close my eyes and I am there. Snug in Dad’s lap atop a picnic table. Pouting beside him on a cabin porch. Sitting on a black horse and smiling wide under a shaggy brown curtain of bangs. In a bloom of family and friends, surrounded by wonder and beauty and fun.

Same place, same season, I am there. Pecos, New Mexico.Summer. 

SUMMER, FOR SOME FOLKS, means water, the Hamptons perhaps, or the Cape. For many landlocked New Mexicans, it means wilderness. The state’s scarcity of water makes its presence there all the more precious.

The name Pecos derives from a Towa Indian word meaning “place where there is water,” a reference to a source in the fertile river valley where Pueblo peoples settled over 700 years ago. When Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado traveled between the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the flat-topped Glorieta Mesa in the mid-16th century, he took notice of the pueblo of Cicuyé (later called Pecos Pueblo), then the largest, most powerful Indian settlement north of Mexico. He also made record of the Río Cicuyé, a great river formed by melting alpine glaciers during the Ice Age, now rising on the east side of the Sangres and flowing south to the Río Grande.

Read more: Alligators—the art of swimming in cool, essential ditchwater. 

Mom doesn’t exactly remember when we started making Pecos, the tiny town founded on that river around 1700, a summer destination. But come Fourth of July weekend, we packed into Dad’s Chrysler and drove a mere half hour southeast of our Santa Fe home to a place that felt a million miles away. By the time of the fireworks and my next-day birthday, we were comfortably installed at the cozy, 10-room Wilderness Inn, enjoying the company of its owners, our close friends the Adelos, whose name is synonymous with the story of modern-day Pecos.

It was 1910 when Samuel Adelo came to the United States from Lebanon. After Ellis Island, he made his way west to northern New Mexico. Like the many Lebanese families who migrated here, the local geography reminded him of the mountains of home.

For a time, Samuel peddled goods from a horse-drawn wagon. When he met Lourdes Varela, from Pecos, he settled there and grew a family with eight children. In 1919, he opened Adelo’s General Store across from the village church. His business sense was keen; the Pecos Wilderness beckoned, and burgeoned, as a tourist destination. As dude ranches rose along the river and the peaks, Adelo’s became king.

By the time I was born, in 1964, Samuel’s sons George and Basheer were running another family business, Adelo’s Town and Country Store, and George had built his own gas station next door. In 1968, George and his wife, Connie, opened the adjacent Wilderness Inn in an old Spanish hacienda purchased from acclaimed actress Greer Garson and her husband, Buddy Fogelson, whose Forked Lightning Ranch is legendary in these parts. Through the small-town ties between Pecos and Santa Fe, my parents, Reyes and Zenaida, and the Adelos had become close, so close I called them Aunt Connie and Uncle George, though we shared no blood relation.

My anticipation rose whenever Dad exited I-25 to Glorieta, then headed east onto the two-lane road into Pecos. The six-mile, tree-lined stretch felt like forever. Finally, the four-way stop at Main Street brought the gas station and the store and the inn into view. We usually stopped first at the Adelos’ house. A weathered wooden wagon with big spoked wheels sat out front, as if some 19th-century pioneer had just parked it. Soon as Dad pulled into the drive, Carlos and I bounded out of the car to climb on it.

From the splintery bench of the driver’s seat, the world looked different. My favorite TV Westerns had nothing on Pecos. This was the real West, that of pristine rivers and unspoiled wilderness, of rainbow trout and mountain elk, a place of utter wildness.

ON A BREEZY MARCH AFTERNOON, I drive to Pecos to see my cherished childhood friend Pancho, George and Connie’s youngest son. It strikes me that the trip seemed so much longer as a child. Soon we’re sitting on a bench in front of Pancho’s gas station, where practically every other customer stops to say, “Hey.” His parents now gone, Pancho has had the place for 20 years. An entrepreneur in his own right, today he also operates Pancho’s Gourmet to Go, serving delicious homemade New Mexican takeout and catering fare, including the best chi-charrón burritos this side of the Pecos. Literally.

Pancho knows Pecos. He remembers his childhood, when hard, snowy winters gave way to plentiful water that fed his family’s valley farmlands and the Elk Mountain forage their cattle grazed. “You’re just a kid running and the grass is above your head,” he says. “Or you’re grabbing a rod to go fishing for the afternoon.”

An avid outdoor enthusiast, he readily ticks off a visitors’ don’t-miss list, including Pecos National Historical Park, featuring the extraordinary ruins of old Pecos Pueblo. Hiking trails are abundant, and if the river is running, great fishing spots are, too. “If you can get away from the road, like just 10 minutes, you can get away from everything,” he says. To make the most of it, he says, midweek visits are best.

Read more: Go High—A southern New Mexican’s annual quest for elevation.

When Connie and George sold the Wilderness Inn in 1991, my family had long stopped staying there. Dad loved the high country, so we ventured north into Pecos Canyon, up past the original Adelo’s store, the Benedictine monastery, Brush Ranch, and Tres Lagunas. We rounded the curve at Tererro, just beyond Huie Ley’s 1940s-era general store, the last stop before entering the Pecos Wilderness. We snaked past the roads to Elk Mountain and Iron Gate to Cowles, where we stayed in a cabin at Los Pinos Guest Ranch, a historic mountain lodge operated by the McSweeney family since 1965.

Eventually, our family purchased a cabin of our own by the river, where new generations have roamed and grown. It sits in Cowles on the former Mountain View Ranch, one of those dude ranches that was just sprouting up when Pancho’s grandfather came to town.

“This town has been really good to my family,” Pancho says. “That, and the outdoors, are part of the reason I stay in business.”

LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE, Pecos has changed. Both Dollar Store and Dollar General moved in, while many family-owned shops closed. Pancho’s station still bustles. But Adelo’s Town and Country Store, just across the drive, is shuttered. Pancho is the only Adelo still living in Pecos.

As for the inn of my childhood, it’s now a private residence. The once-open view of the property is blocked by a tall fence posted with no-trespassing signs and security cameras. Still, I peek through a wood slat. A gardener works in the yard. I get the same feeling I had once when visiting my elementary school gym: What once seemed huge is surprisingly small. I ask Pancho if he remembers the peacock. He says it was an escapee from Buddy and Greer’s flock. We reminisce about how everything once was so connected in our small-town worlds that even that big-feathered fugitive felt like part of the family.

Read more: Coyote—A New Mexican travels the world, only to discover how much he misses his village and its tricksters.

I hug Pancho goodbye and hit the road. My mind teems with memories of so many Pecos summers. I marvel at the fickle flow of time and age and place. At all the things I’ve grown up with, grown out of, and now long to go back to. It’s like a river that flows one way until, one day, it changes course.

I haven’t spent time in Pecos in six years. Since I took Dad for a weekend at our Cowles cabin, our last time together in the wilderness he treasured, the summer before he died. I’m sure he was smiling watching me and Pancho shooting the breeze about the good old days. I’m sure he would tell us not to squander the memories and the friendship and the gorgeous beauty that remains. I’m sure he would say it’s time I go back.

This summer, I vow to do just that.

Love New Mexico? So do we. Subscribe today for just $3 an issue and we'll deliver our award-winning monthly magazine right to your door.