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That Great Big New Mexico Sky

clouds over the Rio Grande Gorge at Taos Valley Overlook

Approximately my 3,000th shot from this spot, but they’re always different

This isn’t even the half of it. Holy god. Those clouds are moving, you know. And I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t gotten out of the house today to walk again at Taos Valley Overlook. It’s the only place I ever seem to go, but I’m not bored yet. Marking my progress on the same trail is helpful, too. By noting how I feel at different points along the way, I can monitor my fitness, such as it is. The old “use it or lose it” advice is totally true. What with the weather, the plumber, and other obligations—I’m formatting a book for someone, actual paid work—I only managed to exercise twice in the last two weeks. That’s not enough. All the little bones and ligaments start floating apart. (Scary business!) I’m glad I went, though. I told my wife I want to be in shape so I can live as long as she does, so she’ll always have someone around around to put a hand on her cute little butt. These things are important.

Here’s something else that happened. I read an article online about a restaurant opening in Washington, D.C. that serves “artisanal ice” with your drinks for a dollar per cube. This isn’t just any ice. According to the manager, it’s made from “purified water” with none of that “mineral-y taste.” They don’t even make the ice in-house, they buy it from a supplier! There’s a company that pushes fancy ice to idiots. (Man, some people need to have their taxes raised.) My wife could hardly believe it. She glared silently a very long moment and then softened a bit—whether from incredulity or gratitude I couldn’t say, and said, “We are so far from caring about anything like that,” which I took to mean both culturally and geographically. Certainly financially, but that’s not the point.

I may be dead tomorrow, but I saw that sky today.

It’s Different Here

big ole mountains near Taos

Notable for what one doesn’t see

Sure, but then you knew that. This is a telephoto view looking west toward the Sangre de Cristos from Taos Valley Overlook about six miles south of Taos. The town itself lies beyond and below the sagebrush mesas in the foreground. That huge hulking thing is mostly Taos Mountain and belongs to Taos Pueblo. The snowy peak in the distance is Old Mike, the moronically renamed former San Miguel. “Old Mike,” my ass. Anyway, it’s over thirteen thousand feet high, which ought to give one pause. You can hike up there, in fact. Oops, I missed another year. (Whew.) Might as well wait until I’m old enough to be some kind of hero news thing, right?

Scenes like this just mess me up. I still feel a deep longing for the intimate fertile green landscapes of my past, but this methamphetamine lunacy is so addictive. I may never return to those perfumed fields of yesteryear, wherever the hell they are.

One Fine Week in the Mountains

Mountains south of Taos, NM

The thing once seen that never goes away

I never told you about the coyote, did I? It was maybe a week ago. For some reason I was standing behind the glassed-in screen door from the bedroom to the back yard looking out. A second later, a big brown coyote came up the path from “down by the acequia” and paused ten feet from the house or twenty-five from me, partly hidden by the sagebrush. I could see the front third of the animal. He or she was beautiful and seemed to look right at me. Neither of us moved. I stage-whispered to my wife in the kitchen, “Come see quickly! Come, come, come!” But the sound of her footsteps hurrying into the bedroom caused the coyote to whirl and vanish. (Funny it should walk right to the house, no?)

A few days later, I discovered the source of the year-long dripping underneath the kitchen sink: not a leaky drain pipe, as I’d long suspected and couldn’t prove, but a cracked cold water supply line, or so I thought. I called Gilbert the plumber who lives nearby. He’s seventy-four—and full of light— but came right over, took a look, and declared the faucet dead. Not the cold water line, but the actual cracked and leaking Chinese faucet he himself had put in just last year. He said he’d come back later with a better, brand-new item. I was grateful, but my heart sank at the news.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a privilege to be with him just to hear the stories that come pouring out. But the job is all-enveloping. He has no assistant, so I help and watch…Gilbert is no slave to panic over missing pieces, for example, and I am. Before he comes, I work out tactful strategies to steer the enterprise, should this or that occur. But a plumber is a force of nature when released. No matter how long the actual repair work takes, the event expands to fill the day, leaving me exhausted at the end.

This time he came back after lunch with a contemporary single-handle faucet with a spray. A higher order of imported gear, for sure, and our lives were looking up. The installation didn’t take too long, amazingly. An hour after he left, I noticed the fixture turned and shifted in a funny way. I didn’t like that, but you pray and hope, and after all, we’re only renting. Ninety minutes later, there was water on the floor.

At least two connections were dripping badly. Given the hour, I improvised, taking the soaked boxes of cleaning supplies, light bulbs, and assorted household chemicals out from under the sink and placing an ancient dishpan there to catch the drips. I’ll just call him in the morning, I thought, feeling calm the way you have to if you’re waiting for the bears to leave.

Our rental situation—a consequence of finances, the evil housing scene in Taos, my own delayed maturity, and the sweet location of the place—has already gone on much too long and driven at least me completely mad. Part of this is having no control. We used to own a house in Maryland that I could fix right if I wanted to. Soon after moving here, we sold it for what a Taos doormat costs these days, a fact I’ve worn around my neck like some dead chicken ever since. I was meditating on the stench, in fact, before I went to bed and thought to check the dishpan: it had overflowed already, spilling water all over the floor for the second time that night! Many paper towels later, I shut the water off completely and left my wife a note to please not use the sink when she got up. Oh boy.

The morning dawned with much expression, shall we say, and the chicken truly reeked. I waited until nine to call my man. He came over, fiddled briefly with the faucet, and pronounced this shiny new one faulty. It was a little before ten in the morning. He had to take his wife to the doctor and buy yet another fixture—reverting to a more old-fashioned two-knob model this time—but promised to return by one o’clock. A little before four, he pulled into the driveway:

“Those doctors, they put you in a little room, and then I think they just forget you!”

Everything went well until he tried to fix a tiny leak I’d bravely pointed out, and the drain pipe fell apart. Not his fault or mine, you understand. Another facet of collapse. He screwed the pieces back together, but somehow they wouldn’t fit. “This piece is too short!” he said, begging the question of how we’d managed all these years, but never mind. This meant I’d have to sacrifice a third day, and remember, it all started with a single leak. At least the faucet worked, I told myself. Too bad about the sink.

Another day, another visit. Yesterday we put in fresh new plastic drainpipes. (I didn’t know you could bend the T-joint that way, but it works.) In the process, I learned all about sheepherding in Wyoming and why people in Talpa have to marry their fourth cousins. Gilbert is a treasure and I love him, even if figuring out the bill together took longer than the job. Everything is back to normal, then, if that counts as a condition in these circumstances.

I told my wife about the chicken, too:

“BUT THAT WAS FIFTEEN YEARS AGO!!!”

No lie, and now the trickster’s at the door. Who tricked whom, I wonder, and what for?

Look Fast

yellow cottonwoods in Taos

Biodegradable adobes, yellow cottonwoods, & more

There they go, the leaves, brilliant yellow and then they’re gone. Another cold front with 60 mph gusts like we had this afternoon and that’ll be the end. Seems like we hardly just got started, and now we’re at the end again. I don’t know about this mountain shit. It’s just so impossibly, terribly, beautiful and thrilling, even as it sucks your brains out and you give yourself another day.

Something big is going to happen, though. The coming winter makes no sense to me this year. I’m not ready to hunker down, I’m ready to explode. The feelings, the emotions are too much for my person. They want a bigger space.

There was this little incident of cargo shifting in the hold, but in a good way. Instead of taking licks for all the things I haven’t done, I somehow knew I’d won the prize. This takes off so much pressure. There’s nothing left to lose! Not sleepwalking any more, either. That hurts, the time thing, if I think about it, but the amazing thing is that I still did great. No matter what, I killed ‘em dead. The only thing I haven’t done is make a million dollars, but the night is young. I’m glad something is.

And now you really must play the video. It’s Leo Kottke singing Tom T. Hall’s “Pamela Brown” and owning it. I could write many pages about what feels so validating here. One is released to become whole, in a way, by lessening of struggle and relaxation into joy. There’s clearly pain beneath the bounce, and that big booming twelve-string! I’ve played it a couple dozen times since I found the video two days ago. (Kottke’s coming to the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, and that made me want to look it up.) Hearing it again triggered a wild cascading boojum. I remembered how the song helped me meet a friend I haven’t seen in twenty years. I don’t even know if he’s alive. His name is David Ashworth, and this is how it went.

Something like almost forty years ago good-god-just-shoot-me-now, I was at a party in Maryland and put a Kottke LP on the turntable to play this one song—I must have heard it on the radio before, implausible as that may be, considering where I was. At any rate, someone’s brother and a class-A jerk decided it was “shitkicker crap” and yanked the tone arm off. I was plenty mad and told him so, got in his face the way I’ve rarely done with other guys. He pulled a whiney “Oh, I’m so scaaaared!” and backed away. I dropped the needle down on “Pamela Brown” and cranked the volume up.

While I was standing there enjoying my music, this very tall, bald-headed, instantly discernible über-Texan wearing an Army field jacket strode across the room and handed me a beer. A dark green Yuengling, I believe, which we called “ying-ling” at the time and maybe everybody does, cheap and plentiful from nearby Pennsyvania. He’d seen the whole thing and wanted to congratulate me. I was glad of that, because he was also kind of scary.

In what seemed like less than thirty seconds, I’d learned he was a Green Beret who’d fought in Vietnam, a potter, and owner of a hot-rod Bronco four-wheel-drive. That I was from Texas too helped make for instant bonding. There was something of a fatal Buddhist in him. He had a voice as low as rocks. I knew this was someone who could kill me with his bare hands in a second if he had to. Later I discovered he was also monster smart, enjoyed his laughs, and had a streak as black as death inside. We got on famously, of course, although next to him, I was strictly third-string when it came to women, alcohol, or danger. I had the impression he’d come from darkest redneck poor-boy hell, been struck by God and given brains, and had to pay the price.

The key thing here, boys, is authenticity, and who or what confers it. I don’t know, but I am off the hook a little bit somehow, and we are out of time.

Bunnywhop (Aural Landscape)

Taos Valley Overlook scene

Sagebrush, piñon, juniper, gorge, at least eight or nine extinct volcanoes

T is a new one on me. I was walking along today right here on a perfect afternoon in the terrible high desert. There wasn’t any wind. It was very quiet. Just then I heard the weirdest whoppety-whoppety sound, loud and up close. It was a medium-sized cottontail rabbit! The animal was running at breakneck speed back and forth between the clumps of sagebrush to get away from me. Its feet made an audible impact on the dirt, whoppety-whoppety-whop. I’d never seen one move that fast. Usually they just freeze, which must be when the coyotes get them. I’d certainly never heard one whopping around in the sage.

When the wind does blow, it hisses in the piñons. (A second after my shutter went “click,” a mountain bluebird flew out of the close one in the photo.) Sometimes it sounds like people talking when you can’t quite make out what they say. If a raven flies by low enough, you hear the whoop-whoop whistle of each wing flap.

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