Bonito Lou’s

22 Feb

A huge part of my “growing up” occurred in the Bonito Canyon near Nogal, NM. Somewhere around age 12 I started working for a family friend, Robert Runnels, at his riding stable where I guided horseback rides from 1 hour in duration up to 6. I taught the basic skills of western trail riding and as I grew older rode fresh young colts until they were sufficiently gentle for “dudes” to ride. I learned to tell tall tales about ghosts and wildlife to make better tips and we looked forward to riding a horse that would buck because they would bring better tips!

A few years later my parents decided to buy the small cafe and store that began many years earlier with Louise Coe Runnels as the owner. Louise was Robert’s mother and our families have always been close. My parents were happy to take over the legacy of the store and it was a great opportunity for my siblings and I to learn retail skills and keep very busy in the summer months. The original store structure started to give us some trouble due to the aging infrastructure of it and in 2006 my parents decided to demolish the old building and start over. We built a beautiful new building that winter and resumed business the following summer.

Things went great until a little lightening strike occurred near Ski Apache in June of 2012. It had been a busy year already and we were filled to the brim with more merchandise than we’d ever had to prepare for the upcoming July 4th weekend. We watched with unease as the little lightening strike smoldered but didn’t feel too concerned because it was a canyon away. That night we went to bed with no clue what was about to transpire.

My husband is a volunteer firefighter for a local department so were awakened by the page requesting assistance to an area outside their regular jurisdiction because other crews were tied up. His group was paged to an area far from the fire burning at Ski Apache and they thought it might be an arson opportunist. It quickly became apparent though that the original fire was burning so hot and so fast that it was throwing embers miles away which caused patches to burn all over the country.

little bear

From my house I could see the flames high on the mountain. I watched it burn down into the canyon from the Ski Run and then watched it climb up out of the canyon on the other side traverse the peak and start down the next canyon. It burned down and up and down again with amazing speed. The next evening it burned into the bottom of Bonito Canyon. We helped Robert evacuate his horses and hunting dogs while embers and ash rained down on heads. Responders that were there reported to us that structures were burning and we could expect that Bonito Lou’s would be gone by morning. We went to bed that night with our hearts heavy with dread.

little bear2

The next morning we found that the store was still standing although most of the neighborhood was reduced to ash. Our porch and roof were littered with burned out embers but nothing was damaged. It was surreal to see only chimneys remaining of many of the old cabins around us.

Our elation at surviving the fire was short lived when we realized the struggle ahead. The devastation has left Bonito Lake unusable for fishing and the fragile burned trees have made the campgrounds uninhabitable. Determining what agencies will pay for restoration and how long it will take continues to be debatable. Nature is emerging from the tragedy on its own though and after summer rains the forest manages to show striking beauty in contrast to the charred trees.

We decided it was time for Bonito Lou’s to take on a new life and so our latest DIY project became it’s conversion from a retail store to a vacation rental. So far we’ve added a shower stall to the bathroom and converted a storage room to small kitchen. We’ve updated the paint and started adding furniture to make it homey.



Nothing happens quite as fast as I envision construction projects should but we’re making progress.



Today he got the sign hung inside as a tribute to the history.

bonito kThe hole he cut for the kitchen sink was the right size (whew)!

Stay tuned! It’s coming right along!



One Response to “Bonito Lou’s”

  1. Kenny January 25, 2016 at 2:43 am #

    I was very touched by your article about Bonito Lou’s Cafe and you mentioning her. I lived at Bonito during my last 3 years of high school in Capitan and lived with another family while my dad worked for the NM state highway department and had to travel from place to place.

    Louise Runnels was the bus driver for our road trip to and from school in Capitan during the winter months when the lake was closed to fishing. During the summer months after school was out and she didn’t have to drive the school bus she would cook and run her cafe Bonito Lou’s.

    It was sad to see there weren’t any pictures posted of the original Bonito Lou’s Cafe as it was way back in the early 1970’s when I lived there and remember so fondly.

    I’ve also looked at pictures of Bonito Lake being drained and pictures of the forest fire that took place there. Those images were very sad for me to look at.

    Once again, thank you for mentioning Louise in your article. It’s too bad you didn’t get the chance getting to know her like I did.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: