One of the great blessings of life is the gift of friendship. Like so much of Life itself, friends arrive unexpectedly, purely by chance— by good fortune to be sure. Here at the Zephyr, we often think of old friends now gone, like Herb Ringer and Toots McDougald and Reuben Scolnik, just to name a few. It’s impossible to imagine life without them.
For the last decade, the two of us have shared the experience of discovering unexpected friends together. In our travels and in the course of running the Zephyr, we’ve stumbled upon some of the most remarkable people on earth. And we continue to be amazed and grateful at our good fortune. This is the story of one of those unexpected discoveries: Nick and Zorka Pavletich, who run the Maverick Motel in Raton, New Mexico.
A couple summers ago, we were coming across Colorado and New Mexico from Utah, headed back to our hideaway on the High Plains. As usual, we stayed off the interstate and busy highways, choosing instead the backroads with their bumps and potholes and circuitous routes. It’s what we prefer. But the long way home takes more time, of course, and we found ourselves on the edge of the prairie, with night fast approaching.
We’d been camping, and we both longed for a hot shower and a soft bed, so we decided to see what we could find, that we could afford, in Raton, New Mexico.
Our cardinal rule is—no chain motels— so that eliminated most of our options. We decided to take the first exit off I-25, at the far sound end of town, and again, it was our good fortune that we did. The randomness of the universe continues to reward us. As we drove down the long grade on South Second Street, something almost immediately caught our eye. It was the otherworldly glow of neon, emanating from a classic vintage motel sign. It was magnificent. It was the Maverick Motel.
We decided to stop and check the rates and availability, but already we knew we were home. And we soon realized that the Gift of Neon was only the prelude to another unexpected friendship. In the next minute, we met Nick and Zorka.
In these impersonal, dumbed-down, “let’s get this over with” times, motel check-ins are rarely memorable. They’re perfunctory at best. You fill out the form, show them your ID, hand over your credit card and hope for the best. Maybe the electronic key card will work, maybe it won’t. At Nick and Zorka’s motel, they still use the same real room keys for the motel they’ve owned for 42 years.
“We like the old keys!” Nick proclaimed to us in perfect English but with a pronounced eastern European accent. “We have been here many years and these keys work fine for us.” And for us, too. On this particular evening, “check-in” lasted almost an hour. It was the kind of conversation that rarely happens and which we hope never ends. It was just our introduction to a new friendship and a remarkable story. It’s a story we’d like to share…
Since that random first encounter, we’ve returned several times to see Nick and Zorka, and this summer, they agreed to tell ‘their story’ to us, on the record. We knew immediately that we couldn’t hope to capture the wit and warmth of these two Yugoslavian immigrants in text. So we shot the interview on video. We hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did…
“I come to Raton,” Nick began, “on September 28, 1968. I come as a visitor to United States. Come to see my uncle. He was living in Maxwell, New Mexico….I come…on a visa for three months.”
He described for us his first job in America–being paid under the table at a Flour Mill in Maxwell. After three months, he moved to Raton…
Settled into Raton, Nick found a job with the Western Hollow Metal company, manufacturing steel frame doors. All at once, Nick was teaching himself to speak English, to learn American systems of measurement, to navigate a small New Mexico city and pay his own way in the world. Needless to say, Nick was a quick study…
After Nick had described his first years in New Mexico, we were curious to learn more about his and Zorka’s upbringing in Croatia. Both were raised on small farms in the countryside.
Zorka, we should mention, is much more tentative in her English than Nick is. She and Nick speak to each other in Croatian when no one else is around, and she hasn’t learned to read or write in English. So, while she let Nick carry more of the load when it came to talking, Zorka mostly communicated through her constant range of expressions–piping up occasionally to tell Nick if he’d forgotten to mention something…
Neither Nick nor Zorka have many pictures of their families in Croatia. Nick had a few from one visit home in the early 80s:
We were both struck by how much time had passed. Nick had only owned the Maverick for a few years, maybe a decade, when these photos were taken. Now he had owned the motel for 42 years.
Zorka had even fewer pictures at hand. She showed us one framed photo of her mother, and another of her father, who died young.
The world they knew, growing up in then-Yugoslavia, was a completely different reality from the world they found in New Mexico. Nick remembered what it was like to have been born under Nazi occupation…
When the Nazis fell in Yugoslavia, the regime that took its place was Tito’s Communist government. While it had some separation from the central USSR rule, life in communist Yugoslavia was a struggle. And Nick’s experiences in other countries as a soldier showed him that life could be different. He decided to leave Yugoslavia by any means necessary…
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Nick’s future wife had already fled the country. Zorka was safely in Winnipeg, Canada with her sisters, having paid a smuggler to navigate them over the mountains into Austria in 1966. She worked as a seamstress in a factory.
Nick arrived in Maxwell, courtesy of his uncle’s help. And he set himself to the task of becoming an American citizen. Even now, so many years later, he is proud of his knowledge of this country’s history and its government…
By 1978, Nick decided he wanted to be his own boss. He had an opportunity to buy a motel in Raton–the Maverick. It would be his home and his vocation for the next 42 years.
Nick can credit whole course of his career to one act of kindness. The town’s old banker Joe DiLisio had taken a liking to the young immigrant and helped him to borrow the money to buy the Motel…
Nick was happy, owning the Maverick. He was friendly with the jockeys and the various businessmen who came regularly to Raton when it was still a destination for horseracing. In time, he was able to set up a small trailer court behind his motel and rent those trailers to make a profit through the slower winter months. Then, in the 80s, he took on another motel down in Cimarron. He had energy to spare, and he was dedicated to his work.
But time and dedication can become a burden when you’re alone. Particularly when you’re alone and a foreigner, far from anyone who can speak to you in your native language and share your life with you.
Thankfully, fate intervened. Enter Zorka…
After a few years of long-distance communication, Nick was ready to bring Zorka to live with him in New Mexico. He visited Canada and told her, “I’m tired. I don’t want to live by myself anymore.” She agreed that they would be married, and planned to come join him in Raton. Neither of them knew, of course, how difficult a journey that would be…
Nick and Zorka learned what we have learned, and what every happy couple learns: that life is easier when someone else can help to carry the load. Nick offered Zorka the opportunity to retire in Raton. She could rest after a life of work, and enjoy the rest of her life. But she wouldn’t have it. “I can’t sit in the house all day,” she told him. She wanted to help run the motel.
And, as Nick said, “it made a hell of a lot of difference…”
Talking with Nick and Zorka reminded us of the special spark that made America such a unique place. We are truly a country of immigrants; they endured unspeakable hardships and crossed oceans, and faced uncertain futures for the chance to live here. As Nick put it, he just wanted “to come to this country, work hard, and show common sense. This is all I need.”
They came here to make an honest and productive life for themselves, and to be happy and free.
Nick, like all of us, had his own opinions about America’s current multiple crises. And he, like us, expressed frustration and anger at many of the decisions made by our leaders. But his patriotism wasn’t tied to one politician, or one year in our history. He still has the hopefulness of a traveler, with fresh eyes on a wide-open place where he and Zorka could be free and make whatever they wanted of their lives.
To us, they are the quintessential American Success Story…
Postscript: We only met Nick and Zorka last year and we regret that fate didn’t lead us to them sooner. We’re very sorry to tell our readers that Nick and Zorka plan to close the Maverick this fall. Nick’s health problems and the financial strain of this year make it impossible to keep running the motel.
We know we aren’t the only guests who will miss seeing Nick and Zorka and the Maverick. It has been a special home-away-from-home for thousands of people.
“Forty-two years…forty-two years,” Nick repeats wistfully. “We have made many, many good friends. So many nice people.
“This is what we will miss.”
Jim and Tonya Stiles are the publishers of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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