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Frozen Nightmare Musings

front door of an old adobe in the snow

What force of will to melt a frozen brain?

Here we go again. Not Thanksgiving yet, and two snowstorms already. The first one was bigger. Snow, snow, snow. Just means you have to stay home. Maybe you even want to at first, with a wood stove six feet from your chair. It’s just so confining inside thick adobe walls with proto-winter settling in for six long months. Maybe this is what television is for. I wouldn’t know, we’ve gone for years without. But Jesus, it was 80 °F and sunny in Austin yesterday. People got out and did stuff. (Not complaining, just observing.) For that matter, it was 58 °F in Eugene and probably rained. My wife looked out the window and keened, “It’s so gr-a-a-a-a-y!” So much for my new log cabin home in the sky. What does it all mean?

I had a visitation from a lunatic the other day. (I know I’m crazy, but I’ve only been here fifteen years, comprendo?) He drove up in the mud and slush while I was walking back from the mailbox as the sun went down. I was looking at an extra from a Wild West movie: cowboy hat, long hair, and beard. Friendly fellow, though. Voice like a cement truck. Former tenant in the same house as us, lived there ten years before the heroin addict. I wish I were making this up. He was looking for the people who used to live next door because he needed someone to help take care of his two horses, or maybe I got that part wrong. How would they have been of any use? Like leaving a dead van with flat tires parked out front “to show that someone’s there” (a neighbor’s innovation), there was no logic to the tale. It was getting dark, and I was sinking deeper in the mud, standing by the open driver’s window, trying not to stare at the giant silent devil-dog in the back seat. Did I mention he was friendly?

“Say, if I come back here again, would it be all right for me to knock on your front door?”

Oh sure. I waited a few beats, but fine. What else am I going to say, freezing in the dark? Who are you? Just please don’t ask to see the old place and what became of the “improvements” that you made, because it ain’t a-gonna happen.

“What do you do? You don’t work. You’re old.”

Jesus Christ. The guy was sucking data from me like a vacuum cleaner, not to mention I was standing in the mud, holding important mail for fruitcake offers from Corsicana. I also didn’t want the Ghost of Ancient Hippie Madness running loose around the place again, not after exorcising so damn much. What did I have to do, sacrifice a goat? Dennis Hopper used to live around the corner, down a dirt road where he roared out wasted once in a big sedan and nearly ran over a dog belonging to someone else who doesn’t live here any more. This stuff is everywhere, it’s in the dirt. Fucking pot shards, arrowheads, old bones. Dead volcanoes and the mindset.

Just then my apparition’s cell phone rang. To my surprise, he picked it up (“Hello, honey!”), oh holy intervention. I waved good-bye and slipped away. As if.

No matter what you do, you can’t escape the past in Taos, especially the painful parts. All of it is painful, really, if held up to the present. People talk of art and creativity, but I haven’t seen much liberating spirit. It’s more a matter of the deepest plunge, good for getting to the bottom if you need to. The chthonic forces here are like a yoke. Even in this little neighborhood, I feel the pull from down below. Sometimes I mistake it for an inspiration. Every now and then, it is!

As someone told me recently:

You’re one of the few who arrived and immediately experienced the spiritual imagination of the place and appreciated it in an articulate and instinctive way. What intrigues me is how many people move here and are tone deaf. I can’t figure out why they are here since they might as well live in Colorado: beautiful but soul-less…the chthonic spirits are absent. Course sometimes a man needs relief from the resonating spirits. They can drive you mad.

If only I were tone deaf, but I’m not. So yes, I’m driven mad. I need the pill that makes you never notice—money?—or we need to find expansion and relief. Maybe buying in would make a difference. It would still be cold, of course, and Taos would never change. That’s the bottom line. Here it is, not Thanksgiving yet, and I would be invisible again—exactly what I do not need!

Good Man Gone

snowy mountains outside Taos

Immortal sons of energy and light

There I was, sitting in front of the wood stove on Wednesday afternoon with the computer in my lap the way I always do, when all of a sudden I thought of someone I hadn’t seen or spoken to for a long, long time: Leo Sullivan, one-time manager for John Clay and the Lost Austin Band, the gloriously flawed and weirdly genius native Texan string band hardly anybody ever heard of, where was he now—sick, alive and well, or what?

“The reason we’re called the Lost Austin Band is because whenever we play, nobody knows where we’re at.”
                                                                                   – John Clay

Leo did a lot more things than work with the band, but that was how I met him. I can’t remember exactly how it all transpired. He must have known someone who knew me and that I played guitar—not amazingly well, but good enough for I, IV, V in the key of G. From early ’72 to ’75, I played or didn’t play rhythm guitar with John and Gary and Doug and Johnny, always under Leo’s watchful eye. The times I didn’t was when I was too pissed off to drive to yet another gig where we were supposed to be headlining or maybe actually get paid but ended up doing an “audition set” for free beer when the main act took a break. No matter what, though, Leo always made us feel like things were just about to break for us: so-and-so might be there, we could leverage this into a weekly gig, the barmaid’s boyfriend had a PA we could borrow next time… I was young and ambitious. I wanted us to go to Europe, where I thought John Clay would knock ‘em dead. (Leo thought so, too.) Authentic West Texan, and not the way you think. Authentic deadly brilliant child-of-God West Texan, if that’s not redundant, with the soul of a drunken poet burned alive by Baptists. For several bars of just a couple songs each night, we sounded like real music you had never heard before and never would again. That was the thing, all right, though. You never would again.

I think Leo knew that. For all he loved John and wanted the best for him, it was the doing of it then and there that counted. During those years I saw Leo almost every other day at Les Amis, a university area hangout in Austin where I’d find him with his cigarettes and coffee, taking in the scene. I never really knew that much about him, but he always seemed to know a lot about everybody else. You just wanted to be in his orbit. Years after I moved away to Maryland and email was invented, Leo showed up again online. We didn’t communicate all that much, but that’s the way it sometimes is with real old friends, you know? You honestly don’t need to, because you’re cool.

I guess you know where this is going. I googled Leo’s name plus “Austin,” and the first thing that came up was an obituary in the Austin American-Statesman. I knew he’d had health problems for a long time—one of the things we did exchange some words about—so this wasn’t a total shock, but I was sad I’d missed his passing. Then I saw the date: he’d only died a couple of weeks before! Well, damn. I read a little more—ye gods, the burial was that day, Wednesday, November 19th, in a veteran’s cemetery in Killeen! Calculating for the time zones, probably that very minute.

This shook me up right good. He obviously wanted me to know that he was no longer of this world. Why else would I go looking for him on the very day they put him in the ground? I went out in the fading light to pull some firewood from the snow and felt an energy I recognized. He seemed to say that it was “wild” where he was, and that he could go wherever he wanted. Any country, any planet. That would have been just like him, having a good time on the other side. It was as if he were telling me that everything would be all right, for everyone.

Back inside beside the stove, I read the whole obituary. It wasn’t all that long but full of heart. Here’s my favorite part, italics mine:

Story-teller, sound-man, sage, friend, father. Leo was at the center of the Austin music scene while it was young and free. His knowledge, humour, perception, gentle, kind-hearted equanimity and untamed imagination are beloved still by all who knew him… Leo served his country as a veteran of the Korean conflict. He was a peace-loving, steadfast, independent, good and honest man who loved kids and understood dogs.

That last sentence really killed me. This is all we need to be. If someone says those simple things about you when you’re gone, you have lived a mighty life. Catch you later, man. Take care.

After the Snow

Taos Pueblo land in snow

Taos Pueblo lands

Make of the beauty what you will, it’s awfully cold. This must be what winter looks like, only it’s November. I had to go outside again to get the shot. (There’s a window beside my desk that faces the mountain, but there are treetops in the way.) What I do is climb the driveway to the road and walk about sixty yards to where it goes up a little rise, then turn left into the piñon and juniper until I reach a certain spot. You can’t see the cactus under the snow. A couple of times I’ve picked up spines.

That’s a slice of Taos Mountain to the left. The white shapes at the bottom on the right are burned areas from a major fire the summer my wife moved to Dubuque. Not only was I on my own, there was heavy smoke and ashes falling in the parking lot outside our rented condo. Hot and dirty, couldn’t breathe, I had to find a cheaper rental. Turns out this was where I ended up, a one-bedroom adobe on the side of a hill across from Taos Mountain. She came back a few years later, piled her stuff on top of mine, and we have been here ever since. I don’t know how I got so lucky. Whenever I want to run away, I must remember this. For all my criticism and paranoia, our lives have been incredibly full.

Think of how much more I could have piled in if I hadn’t been complaining.

Ghost Volcano

San Antonio Mountain

Looks to me like it’s advancing

This is San Antonio Mountain (10,9o8 ft), a free-standing volcanic peak in the Taos Plateau volcanic field of the Rio Grande Rift valley. I took the telephoto shot at 5:37 p.m. Mountain Time two days ago before the big snow on Sunday. You’re looking at that weather coming here, in fact. The leading edge of whatever, the thing that snowed that night. The peak is about forty-five miles in a straight line from Ranchos de Taos. It’s a very spooky place.

Phasers on Stun

old adobe house in Taos, NM

Good luck to me, I’m gonna need it, or maybe it’s already here

Gorgeous, ain’t it? So I decided to share it with the world. Twitter is the fastest way to do this, since I have many times more followers than visitors to this blog. As I tweeted yesterday in quick succession:

Hahaha! But oh so true. The best response I got to those was:


This afternoon we’re actually looking at an “old adobe farmhouse” for sale. It’s crammed behind another old adobe and comes with a wonderful (?) cleared half-acre yard behind it we don’t need. Approved for horses, the listing says. You never know, right? These old adobe compounds are hell to divide in any decent way, and this one probably wasn’t. The house in front of the one we’re looking at has been for sale since 2009, which speaks of some disturbance. That’s why I also tweeted:

But we will see.

[several hours later]

As usual, a) there wasn't any need to be defensive, and b) close, but no cigar. There are two houses for sale at 34 Ortiz Road. We looked at the one in back. Before the property was divided, I suspect it was a family compound. What would have been a spacious parking area and turnaround is now the back yard of the house in front, leaving just a little strip of gravel for parking at the house we saw. The result is that there isn't any way to turn around! I know, I tried. All you can do is drive straight in along a narrow lane and then back out again. That kills it for us right there, but know that otherwise the house was warm and livable, if somewhat dark—thank you, radiant heat—and that the 18-inch thick adobe walls that date back to 1860 were very reassuring.

The tiny bathroom wasn’t. The sink and mirror were hard up against a wall, completely in the corner. To see what that was like, I stood in front of the mirror and pretended to brush my teeth. What comedy! My elbow smacked against the wall and then my shoulder. This is not the way you want to live if you can help it, and we won’t.

That’s the way it is with old adobes. A lot of things like bathrooms got added on later. Consider too that many of these homes were built by folks who lived in them and some of us aren’t experts. In Taos it makes no sense to have the kind of housing laws you probably enjoy. People have been pretty much winging it here for four hundred years out of sheer necessity. This is the world you enter with an old adobe. If you can navigate the pitfalls, you might end up with something special or one that drives you half-insane, especially if it’s been “renovated” by one or more new owners.

We like them, though. And so it goes.

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