The Cubero Adventures: Searching for Ernest Hemingway

Posted by Johnny_Mango on April 28, 2009 at 8:00am


CUBERO, NM--For the last couple of years I have been reading rumors about Ernest Hemingway writing a good part of The Old Man and the Sea in the tiny village of Cubero, New Mexico. The story is that Hemingway stayed at the Villa de Cubero Tourist Court in 1951 for anywhere from two weeks to two months. While there he wrote much of his short novel about an old fisherman. There are only a couple of sources for this, but over a dozen retellings of the original tale all over the internet.


El Diablo Puerco
New Mexico writer Johnnie Meier interviewed the son of the owner of Villa de Cubero. He said Hemingway often wrote in the cafe that stands across the road from the tourist court. His mother worked there. Apparently she didn't think very highly of the author. And she had her reasons. For one thing he had taken the screen off his bathroom window and was throwing all his empty liquor bottles outside. For another, his room was always a mess...and he didn't seem to be changing his clothes too frequently either.

Once, as Hemingway entered her cafe, she turned to her staff and said, 
"Al viene el diablo puerco!" Here comes the dirty devil. Hemingway didn't react to the statement, but he understood Spanish very well. Quite a while later, the actress Vivian Vance who owned a ranch near Cubero and was a family friend, gave the woman a copy of The Old Man and the Sea. In it was the inscription: "The Dirty Old Devil, EH." Johnnie Meier has seen the book and documents it in a four-page article he did for the Spring 2008 issue of 
American Road Magazine.

Three Characters in Search of an Author
Well, that seemed to call for a road trip. MaryAnn and I drove to the north valley where we hooked up with David Johnson, a Conrad Richter scholar currently doing research at the home of Richter's daughter. Conrad Richter, author of 
The Sea of Grass andThe Light in the Forest, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1951...the same year Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea. Richter lived in Nob Hill: once on Stanford and once on Carlisle NE. His daughter, Harvena, still lives here in a rambling north valley adobe.

Anyway, now all together in a big white Volvo sedan, the three of us drove the 60 miles to Cubero in the early afternoon.


Old Cubero
In 1833 the Republic of Mexico granted 62 settlers a tract of land of about 16,000 acres to establish a village east of what is now called Mount Taylor. In the early days the Penitente influence was very strong. By the time of the Civil War a military force was garrisoned at Cubero, and surrendered to Confederate forces just prior to the Battle of Glorieta. Later, the 40 inch thick walls of the adobe church served to protect the villagers from attacks by Navajos and Apaches until 1881, when the attacks ceased. The village is named after the Spanish governor of New Mexico who succeeded De Vargas in 1697.

Cubero is on old Route 66. Prior to 1938 the road west was largely unpaved...and longer than it is today. In those days Route 66 ran down to Los Lunas from Albuquerque before turning west. That part of the road is now NM State Route 6. The famous Rio Puerco bridge was not a part of Route 66 until the road was straightened. In those early days Cubero was almost a full day's drive from the Duke City. That old road ran right through the village of Cubero, twisting north, diving through a large arroyo, and circling back south to rejoin the westward heading toward Grants and Gallup. After Route 66 in New Mexico was straightened out and paved in 1937, the new Route 66 bypassed the village. A motel, cafe, and store were built where the old route intersected with the new. That complex was named Villa de Cubero.



The Store
The three of us walked into the store ready for something to drink. We wandered through the aisles, finally settling on some root beer. I asked a woman who looked like the manager,
"Did there used to be a motel connected to the store?"
 she said, "The motel is in the back."

"Did you ever hear the story that Ernest Hemingway stayed here?"
" you want to read about it? The whole story is on the wall of the office."

We went into the office and read Johnnie Meier's article for American Road Magazine. I looked around for more information. I asked the clerk at the cash register. She didn't know who Hemingway was. We took our drinks outside and walked around to the back. The tourist court was vacant. We peeked inside the rooms. They had little kitchenettes and seemed comfortable enough.
                       VillaDeCubero3 VillaDeCubero4 





The Cafe
The cafe across the road was boarded up. It looked very small against the sparse landscape. But for writers, the only thing that counts is what ends up on the page. Maybe there was something about the room, the cafe, the people, or the mostly empty land that helped the words flow from the typewriter keys.

I know that Hemingway was said to prefer writing while standing up, using his portable typewriter on top of his 
dresser. If that particular uncomfortable posture was his routine, it is entirely possible that something in tiny Cubero could also have triggered his writing spirit. That he didn't seem to spend much time on his appearance fit right into such a purposeful and concentrated effort.

              VillaDeCubero7           VillaDeCubero6

Two Explanations
But to have written a hundred page novella in a 10x12 motel room? Not likely. David Johnson, the Richter biographer, had another explanation. 
"He may have been an imposter. Hemingway had many imposters over the years. Maybe he was just living the celebrity life."

I thought about it, but somehow spending a month or two in a Cubero tourist court hardly seems worth a
masquerade...especially given the comments on his appearance. But scholars seem certain that Hemingway never left Cuba in 1951 while writing The Old Man and the Sea. And Hemingway left extensive correspondence that seems to prove it. Yet there is that book inscription. And I have the feeling that the people involved would never have made up this story. Even published local Catholic Church histories refer to the Hemingway visit. I thought I really needed to talk to Johnnie Meier personally, and a few days later found myself calling him on the phone at his home in Embudo.

He was gracious enough to spend spend quite a while talking to me. He told me that he did indeed think that Hemingway had spent some time in Cubero, but that maybe the recollections of local residents got scrambled. He felt that it was more likely that Hemingway stayed here in 1948 while writing Islands in the Stream
. And that the inscription in Old Man and the Sea
 did not necessarily mean he wrote that particular book in Cubero. Hemingway scholars, he said, remain skeptical of any New Mexico connection.

Islands in the Stream, however, is generally thought to have been written at about the same time as The Old Man and the Sea. So the story continues to twist and turn much like the Old Road itself.

Taking Pictures of Real Indians
Meanwhile, MaryAnn, David, and I continued exploring the grounds. I took several photos of the broken down buildings. That must have looked so idiotic to some people that onlookers began to invent their own explanations. Two guys from a nearby pueblo got into their pick-up truck and one of them said in a loud voice, 
"I guess he wants to take pictures of real Indians!"

I walked over to the two of them. You see, I had another idea. There was something else I wanted to investigate in Cubero, just in case the Hemingway story proved to be a dead end. I had heard that the sculptor Federico Armijo was living somewhere in the Cubero area. Armijo, an absolute icon of the Albuquerque art scene for decades, had done one of those bus stop sculptures on Lomas near downtown as well as having done the doors for the Roy Disney auditorium at the Hispanic Cultural Center. But his real fame was in working with wood...especially laminated walnut carved in organic shapes. I had recently seen that one of his desks had been sold by a Los Angeles online auction house for $28,000. I wondered if I could find him.

So I asked the two men if they knew Federico Armijo or where he lived. They both said they did. And one replied, 
"You go down that loop road...go through the arroyo and turn right. It's the third house on the left." I walked back to our car and told MaryAnn and David that we weren't quite finished. The three of us got into that big Volvo and turned onto the loop road.