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Another Snow…

old Taos adobe in the snow

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It snowed all day. It’s the middle of the evening now, and light snow is still coming down. There’s almost half a foot on the ground now, heavy wet stuff that’s really hard to shovel. I think it’s safe to say I’m tired of this, mainly because of our peculiar situation here.

Everything was fine by Taos standards until a few years ago when the county reclassified the two hundred yards of dirt road from our house to the stop sign as a “private” road. Who it’s supposed to belong to is anybody’s guess, and ever since the nuts and bolts of living here have kind of gone to hell. The condition of the road, even when it’s dry, imparts a grimness to one’s life. The place? Still cute, though, and do we ever have the wildlife: bobcats, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, birds, and every now and then a cow. Once a bear broke down a plum tree. We look right out on Taos Mountain. In the summer, it’s a gas.

When the road was regularly graded and plowed, what little snow remained melted into the ditches on either side and drained away. In the years since the county cut us loose, the road itself became the ditch and turns into a giant bog. This year the ground didn’t freeze before the first big snow. When it melted, things got bad. The storms have come fairly regularly this winter, and without a chance to dry, the road gets worse and worse. All the more galling when when one drives two minutes away and everything is fine!

We didn’t get our mail today because it never came. The mail lady must have freaked out at the road.* (She has before.) Tomorrow I’ll bust the car loose if I’m able. Carrying in wood, digging paths in the snow, finding ways to deal with all the mud so we can walk up to the car or just go feed the birds… It’s so much physical work to live like this. That we can do it (and have done so) is a point of pride, I guess. Driving through the slop to come home and hang wet laundry on racks beside the wood stove isn’t, but a change is gonna come.

Oh yeah. This year. About which I feel really good.

* Oops! She did come, just awfully late. Figures!

Dawn in Llano Quemado

Dawn in Taos

A few degrees above zero when I shot this

Somehow I was up early enough to take this picture a few days ago. Who knows if the light breaking over the mountains here is any kind of portent, but I am having lots of fun formatting my new book for print. This interest in laying out a physical book is something of a first for me. Watch for Another Day in Paradise, coming soon, available in print and ebook versions.

Dust on the Dulcimer

dusty dulcimer on the wall in Taos, New Mexico, U.S.A.

Juanito gets his groove back on

Amazing follow-up in the comments! – JHF

That’s tiger-striped walnut you’re looking at. Audrey Y. H. Miller of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia made this Scottish dulcimer for me back in ’76 or thereabouts. It’s a replica of one a member of her family found hidden in the ceiling of an old log cabin, ancient as they get in that part of southwest Virginia, almost all the way to Tennessee. The original instrument had a mouse nest in it with several tiny skeletons.

This was in my metal sculpture days in Maryland. Self-taught and uncredentialed in the world of art, I pretended to support myself by selling mostly welded steel insects at any arts and craft show that would have me. I would travel to these places in my ’67 Saab V-4 pulling a home-made plywood trailer I’d bought from a crazy cedar chopper in the hills outside of Austin several years before. (Now don’t go and make me tell you what a “cedar chopper” is, because we don’t have time.) It was like a long white box box with little windows set on wheels—not itty-bitty trailer wheels, but real ones hanging on an axle from an old dead Ford. If I packed it right, there’d still be room to crawl inside and sleep. Anyway, I had a beautiful mosquito, a moth, a giant spider, a scorpion, an ant’s head you could stick a candle in, things like that. A sheet metal bat and welded mice provided contrast. The larger arthropods were up to two feet long and very accurate, as well as being nifty sculptures in the first place. I still have the spider, and I’m glad.

No one wanted to buy these things, at least not where I was hanging out. Not until I hit the big time at a show in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of Virginia Tech, where two Entomology Department professors relieved me of the mosquito and the scorpion. I think I made $200 on the sales. What with sleeping free inside my trailer, I felt like I was rich. I was also having quite the sentimental weirding out because my family lived in Blacksburg back when Tech was V.P.I. and I was nine years old. I’d driven by the house we used to live in, locating it entirely by memory of the lay of the land, I swear, and naturally I couldn’t believe how small and plain it was. The juxtaposition of these two disparate forces fairly well unhinged me, and there was also the backwoods woodcarver I’d met the day before as everyone was setting up. An uneducated son of the hollers, he told me how he’d been a no-good drunkard and outlaw before turning everything over to God and learning to carve these little wooden birds. There wasn’t an ounce of scripture-quoting in him, either. I believed him because he was happy, never mentioned Jesus, did damned fine work, and looked like someone who knew his way around a jail.

I also met a lady who was selling dulcimers. These weren’t just any dulcimers, but big ones like I’d never seen, gleaming beauties every one. The instrument I liked the best was made of what she called “tiger-striped walnut.” It was deeper than most, almost three inches for a fine rich tone, with a sturdy handle sort of thing down at the bottom and a long hand-carved tailpiece. Best of all, it made a sound like all the deep green misty mountains of the world. She played “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” on it, and I was hooked. Unfortunately, it was spoken for, but she said she’d make another if I didn’t mind the wait. By this time she’d filled me in about the walnut, the old log cabin, and the teeny-tiny skeletons, so I gave her $120 and my address before I hit the road.

Several months passed, and then one day I got a postcard saying it was ready. I was so excited! For one thing, I’d finally have my prize, and I’d get to take a road trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains without pulling the trailer or having any work to do. I’d also need to stay in a motel if I could find one. This was something that I almost never did, and of course there was no Internet or cell phones. As a practical matter, that meant you showed up in a town and banged on motel office doors if it was after dark. (Try that now, you’ll get a shotgun in the face.)

Finding Mouth of Wilson in the first place was an accomplishment. That an acceptable motel existed was a welcome find and not the only one. I’d left early and arrived about mid-afternoon. Once I had my room, I called Audrey, got directions to the house, and headed out. It was nestled way down in a holler—obviously—a large and rustic place, and there were lots of people there, which I did not expect and had no inkling of. It turned out that the day of my arrival coincided with a regular gathering where everyone brought food, played dulcimers, guitars, and fiddles, and had a high old time. I got fed and introduced to one and all and met the dogs, after which we sat around and played “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” until the sun went down. My dulcimer was beautiful. Audrey even gave me a hand-sewn custom-fitted heavy fabric case, which I still have, of course.

I played it off and on for years, along with my acoustic guitars, until a Gibson ES-335 12-string and a Fender Twin Reverb amp destroyed my will to live a normal life and ran away to join the circus with my soul. For the last decade+ in this old adobe on the hillside, a place as different from Mouth of Wilson, VA as you will ever see, the magnificent Scottish dulcimer has been hanging on the wall collecting dust and spiders. After I took the closeup photo yesterday, I remembered that there used to be a label inside the instrument and wondered if it was still there. It was, and that’s how I rediscovered Audrey’s name. I took the dulcimer down and cleaned it up. It’s still the same as when I bought it, except that years ago in Maryland, I let a local idiot convince me I could tune it far more easily if I paid him twenty dollars to replace the orginal heart-shaped tuning pegs with plain old fiddle pegs. For the record, that’s a crock, and I wish I’d kept them all. There’s one around here someplace still, a talisman of sorts, and I will have to find it.

Inside the dulcimer, the handwritten label reads like this:

Scottish Dulcimer
Handmade for John H. Farr Jr.
Audrey Y. H. Miller
Mouth of Wilson, Va.
no 16 Scottish no. 31

“No. 31″ is clear enough, but I’m not sure what the first thing in the last line means. It looks like there should be a period. Perhaps it’s faded. Is the right way to read this that she’d made thirty-one dulcimers at that point, and sixteen of them were Scottish?

Dreams don’t exist in or point to linear time, at any rate. The thing is in my hands again, and this is good.

Never Too Late

winter mountain scene from Taos, NM

Blue sky after winter storm

I worry too much. No, really. [ducks] What’s new is that I realized that worrying is pretty much all I do.

I worry in the bathtub. I worry in my sleep. And mostly, I worry about things that haven’t happened yet, which seems to be the essence of it. Worry, worry, worry, worry. Right now I’m worried about whether there will be too much snow or mud for my wood guy to deliver when we run out about ten days from now. I’ve been very worried about finding another affordable place to live that doesn’t make me want to shoot myself. I was even worried about the snow until it stopped, and look, the sun is shining. (This is New Mexico, you idiot, the sun shines all the time.)

For whatever reasons, I’ve always been this way. I’m lucky that I’m still alive, considering the strain that places on your body and your mind. I could worry about dying, too, but my late sister told me dying was “perfectly safe,” and I have no doubt she made it. Wherever she is now, I know Teresa’s having fun! And do you know why? Because she never worried about a thing. She had the capacity to worry and sometimes got depressed, but she knew how to refocus her attention on things that made her smile.

She was an amazing artist but never had much money. The circumstances of her life, however, never seemed to get her down. She once lived at the top of a steep hill in Austin, a couple of blocks up from a busy street below. One typical warm, sunny day a neighbor found her sitting by the curb outside her apartment with a fishing rod and asked what she was doing. “Cat fishing!” she replied, probably hoping someone would stop and ask her that. What she’d done was attach a weight and a piece of ribbon to her fishing line. She was casting down the hill and slowly retrieving the “lure” in hopes of attracting neighborhood cats, and of course it worked.

Another time that I remember, a bunch of us were having barbecued shrimp and beer at a table set up in the front yard at this same location. Present were Teresa and her boyfriend (my future brother-in-law), another couple, my wife and me, and maybe someone else. My wife and I had just completed the next-to-the-last leg of an epic summer journey that had taken us and Lady the Wonder Dog (a white German shepherd) from Maryland to Iowa and then all the way down to San Miguel de Allende and back in her ’65 Volkswagen Beetle. They don’t make road trips like that any more, and if you never did, you’re out of luck. Too bad!

Since we’d just returned from south of the border, everyone was drinking Tecate in those nifty red aluminum cans. After a while, there was quite a group of empties in the center of the table. I don’t know how it happened, but at one point someone was talking about the litter problem on the highways. Suddenly Teresa got this funny glint in her eye and threw her empty beer can over her head onto the lawn! This was so hilarious, it quickly spread, and soon everybody was throwing beer cans in the air and even paper plates. I’m sure the dog was barking, too. The yard was quickly filled with red Tecate cans, and some rolled into the street. We picked them up, of course, but to this day, it was one of the funniest things I ever experienced.

Having only just now seen how many years I’ve made more difficult, what did all the worrying ever get me, anyway? I’m still here, regardless, and could have had a better time along the way. I didn’t set out to write about my sister, either, but this is how it went.

Bird City

downy woodpecker

Nice of this downy woodpecker to pose like that

Man, do we have the birds. (I know, there’s just this one here.) This afternoon there must have been two dozen bushtits on that same suet feeder; it reminded me of those old African nature movies where you see a hundred giant vultures strip a zebra carcass. Hmm. Actually, I think you have to be like 150 years old to remember those from black & white TV, or newsreels at the matinee. My God, I remember newsreels! Ack!

Don’t everybody jump in here all at once, now.

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