Razor Blade Tightwire

wife on sofa with cat

Laughing ’cause the cat wants the cheese

The engine screamed cleanly climbing out of the canyon at 5,000 rpm in 3rd. With the road to myself on a sunny cool day, I was taking the curves as fast as I could, windows wide open and the heater on full. Back in the motel in Albuquerque, she’d told me this wasn’t a day to drive fast and I mostly obeyed. “You didn’t sleep, did you?” she asked and she knew. This business of spending the night near the airport before someone flies off has its drawbacks. One hundred fifty bucks to lie awake all night on a king-sized bed where I couldn’t even find her and hoped she was sleeping. She wasn’t, of course, when I followed the moan. “I’m panicky,” she said. “Please stay close,” and I did.

In the morning she left for a college reunion in Iowa. She wasn’t going to go, not being one who does things like that, until one of her beloved ex-roommates sent her an email revealing late stage cancer and insisted she come, promising to pay for the trip. (“It’s like a pair of shoes for me.”) Other ex-roommates will also be there, musicians like my wife. On Sunday morning, they’ll perform together at a memorial service for members of their class who died this year. The poignancy is all but unbearable anyway, even more so because other old friends have recently died, leaving her stressed to the breaking point, sad, and adrift.

“I just want to cry,” she says.

“What for?” I reply.

“The losses…the loss…”

Neither of us has flown much in the last twenty years, and so much has changed. To remember what air travel used to be like is to feel more loss on top of the rest. In the old days when one of us was leaving, we could both share a meal looking out at the planes, sit together and wait, have a soothing transition to each-on-our-own. This time she was shaking with nervousness, almost in tears as we stood by the big scary signs, figuring out which way she should go, then she walked on without me to have strangers paw through her things. I watched from a distance as long as I could.

She called me from Dallas, but the signal broke up. Once clear of the gorge, I pulled off the road and we tried it again. “I love you, I love you,” she said three or four times. The terror is less now. You live for the day.

Too Much

dead tarantula

Dead tarantula with flattened body. Probably run over by a bike.

The subject here is art fear, and I just remembered something else. Among my youthful talents was that I sometimes wrote things. There was this nature magazine, not one of the well-known ones, that I’d come by in my adventures. I had a subscription. One month there was an advertisement for a national essay contest. The prize was being one of twenty-four (?) high school boys admitted to the Student Conservation Program for a six-week assignment in Olympic National Park. All backwoods trail grubbing, hiking deep into the wilderness with bears and stuff. The essay was supposed to be about why I wanted to go.

Why I wanted to go?

And it turns out that I won. This was in the middle of our family’s extended move from Abilene, Texas to Massapequa, New York by way of six weeks in Chestertown, Maryland. Just the way you want to spend the last half of your junior year in high school. (I can’t recommend it enough. Aaaghh!) At any rate, that I was a winner in a national writing contest must have slipped through the cracks. When we finally moved into the new home on Long Island, I brought it up again. As I remember, the hardest thing was asking my parents for money. I still needed boots and a backpack, but the big thing was the bus ticket: fifty whole damn dollars round-trip, Manhattan to Seattle and back, four days each way on a Greyhound Scenicruiser. The worst thing about asking them for money was the grim moral inquisition that followed: was I worthy, and if not, by which penance could I achieve worthiness, and did I understand the awful responsibility of not embarrassing them?

Totally absent in all of this was how exactly it had come about. Namely, that I’d just won a national writing contest. No one said, “Way to go!” or “Do you think you’d like to be a writer?” or the ever-useful, “We’re really proud of you!” The result was I felt like I’d done something wrong because it was going to cost them money. As if by entering that contest, I’d gotten away with something I shouldn’t have. If I’d asked permission to write that essay, for example, there would have been a big long discussion over how I’d pay them back for the bus fare if I won, and I might have given up.

There probably was a penance or a duty or some such. The old man was freaked out by the cost of real hiking boots and backpacks—hard to find in those days, for one thing, and mostly made in Europe—so he took me to an Army surplus store in Brooklyn, where I found a British Army pack frame, a U.S. Army knapsack, an army canteen, and a smelly surplus parka. On the way home, he stopped at a shoe store and bought me a pair of sturdy lace-up work boots, too. (Good on him!) I was ecstatic over this equipment and didn’t mind a bit that it was olive drab or dented. I remember that he was somewhat ill at ease throughout, however. Who knows why, except I know for sure that he had never won a contest like that, ever done much camping, or been allowed to ride a bus all the way across the country at age sixteen like I was about to do.

I trained for the adventure by filling the backpack with fifty pounds of National Geographic magazines and wearing that while I walked the dog each night. It hurt like hell at first. I was a former Boy Scout, though, and ready to rock and roll. The rest is untold history that needs writing down. (Do you wonder why I haven’t yet?)

But there were bears, I met Ansel Adams in the mountains, and Marilyn Monroe died, too.

No Again, Alas [Updated]

Taos scene

Sunset lenticular clouds defeat the 6s Plus

From where I was standing to take this picture, I could smell exhaust fumes. The scene looks peaceful enough, but just before I pulled out my iPhone, about twenty pickup trucks and cars came by in an unbroken stream.

This is the view from the house we’ve been considering. Not bad, eh? Except for the traffic! In Maryland we used to live on a country road with sixty mile per hour traffic going by, but there wasn’t much of it, and the house was set pretty far back from the highway—you got used to the occasional vehicle whistling by, and it wasn’t a big deal. This place, the Taos house in question, is situated precisely at the junction of three local roads at a three-way stop. That means there’s traffic on two sides of the yard and plenty of it, also that two out of three vehicles that go by are accelerating hard. The speed limit is thirty, most drivers go forty plus. There’s nowhere to pass and tailgating is the rule.

What’s happened in Taos is that certain roads existed at one time, housing was allowed to grow all over (taking advantage of those existing roads), and now there’s no room to build new ones. Even if there were, that’s not how things are done around here. It’s basically too late, anyway, and there’s no point in assigning blame. The result, however, is more and more traffic squeezed onto the same old narrow two-lane roads with no shoulders. Most of them, if paved, are curbless wonders with asphalt roughly laid on top of something awful. Dangerous for drivers, impossible for bikers, no room for walkers. It’s difficult to describe the tension of simply going from point A to point B in such a road system.

We’ve been back to the property twice since seeing the inside. The photo above is from Friday evening. On Saturday morning we visited again and walked around while I inspected the fence. This time my wife was paying attention to the traffic noise. “It isn’t going to work, John,” she said. I knew that, of course. The best place we’ve seen yet is literally under assault from all the traffic. You wouldn’t want to sit outside despite the view, there are no birds, and at night the headlight beams would sweep across the walls.

This one hurt real bad because the house itself was perfect. We were going to go grocery shopping afterwards but couldn’t face it. The whole day turned essentially dysfunctional as I collapsed and took on all imagined blame.

UPDATE: Here’s another view. The road is even closer on the other side of the house. Two of four sides, in other words. Vehicles moving to the right are accelerating from stop signs—more noise than simply cruising by. “T” intersection not visible here, but just off camera to the left. This is the primary road residents on the heavily built-up west side use to reach north-south highway for local business (Walmart, banks, MVD, Ranchos P.O., hospital, doctors, dentists, motels, restaurants, supermarkets, drug stores, hardware stores, movies), or to head south for Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Almost constant traffic.

gopher damage in an old adobe

Stripped the toilet paper & Kleenex for their nests?

I hope we move before I find a pistol. This last stunt hit me hard. I was proud once, dammit. Kept the paint bright, planted trees. Saw the house a quarter mile away. Felt solid, taken care of. Boo-hoo batshit. Don’t let me walk across that bridge alone.

For at least a year now I’d go take a midnight bath and hear a sound like someone dropping rocks against the wall. Just a handful, only once each time. Knew it might have been a critter, but with old adobes, you never know. Sometimes dirt just falls down from the ceiling. This is even normal. I know that’s hard for you to grasp. But I could easily tell myself that walking on the concrete floor shook something loose. As if. Today I happened to be outside and noticed that the bathroom window in the dead landlord’s apartment was ajar and the screen was hanging loose. I fetched the secret key, crunched through the weeds, and gently kicked the old door open. Not too hard, or it would be in pieces. Inside, the bathroom door was barricaded with an upended coffee table. I’d done that when I saw the awful mouseshit. This after a good six years without ever going in the place, because why, you know? But I had to open it to reach the window, see, and when I did, a pile of dirt fell out into the room.

I stood there staring. The rocks and dust inside were over a foot deep. It had to be from gophers. What else? Wherever they were digging, they’d tunneled in (mud walls, remember) and used the dead landlord’s bathroom to get rid of the dirt. The way the place is laid out, this depository is just a few feet from the bathub on our side of the wall, so of course I heard them. How many gophers are we talking about? I have no idea. Doesn’t matter, either, except that I’m ashamed to let exterminators see us here. I can’t believe we’re living like this. I can’t believe it’s gotten to this point. This isn’t how it was supposed to be. It’s all perverse and backwards. Seventeen years before the mast… I couldn’t be more sick of being stuck and crazy.

Tomorrow we’ll go looking at another house for sale. I’m predisposed to hate it, though I’m curious. The previous owner died inside of natural causes—Taos, maybe—but the agent’s info says the interior has been “professionally cleaned” and certified free of plague. It’s a very nice home, by the way, and I hope it doesn’t smell. I doubt we’ll try to buy it since it’s too close to the road and costs too much, but at least we’re out there looking and I’ll bet there are no gophers in the walls.

UPDATE: Aside from acknowledging the melodrama that results from writing while depressed, I’d like to say the property we looked at wasn’t bad except for traffic noise. It has almost an acre of land and everything in the house is totally new, including the washer and dryer, and there are actual closets and high ceilings. The adobe walls are two feet thick. It’s like a bloody fortress! With the windows closed, the traffic fades away. The well is new as well. Not bad.There’s no dirt falling on the floor, no gophers, and a great big lawn with giant cottonwoods. Here’s the ole garage. It’s awful inside and the neighbors have big barky dogs, but what the hell is new with that, damn Taos and the dogs.

Nature Shock

Looking west from Llano Quemado

The neighborhood today

I couldn’t possibly make the left turn with a big red wrecker truck hanging on my bumper at sixy miles an hour, so I drove another half mile to where I had a turn lane, circled right back to the highway—empty now, thank God—and cruised toward town until I found the place again. There was nothing but a stop sign at the entrance to a gravel road. We turned and found to my surprise that we still had quite a ways to go. The mostly straight road ran steeply up the side of the mountain. There weren’t any houses anywhere until we’d gone about a mile and a half, and then we found a few. The one we’d driven up to see was where they said it was. What the listing info didn’t show was the view that kicked me like an atom bomb.

By that point we were high up in the trees, but to the north and west a panorama opened up to drive me crazy. Imagine a view roughly like what you see above except you’re looking down instead of gazing outward, and of course those houses aren’t there, either. There’s a thing that happens here when you go high enough in these mountains. Maybe it’s the cosmic rays. But something changes above eight, nine thousand feet. It’s like being in a temple. An impossibly huge and limitless holy space where you instinctively lower your voice. The air is clean and cold. I mean it’s really clean. Most people never get to breathe this air. It alters consciousness on the spot.

I guarantee you there are plenty of people right here in Taos who have never felt what I describe. Number one, you have to go there—it doesn’t come to you and will be hard to reach—and number two, you have to be receptive. Not everybody is. It’s not that such-and-such is “pretty.” It’s not. It’s goddamn scary. It’s more than you can stand and yet you can’t resist. It’s wild and beautiful and terrible because nothing human matters. It’s a completely different state of being, like dissolving in the juice of God. You simply never want to leave. That’s important, obviously. How else could you stay? No doubt I’d end up married to the sky, but I’d still risk it.

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