Rocks of Ages

cliffs above the Rio Grande near Pilar, NM

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The Precambrian lava at the tops of the cliffs eight hundred feet above the Rio Grande near Pilar is something like 1.8 billion years old, some of the oldest exposed rock in the state of New Mexico. This rock, those rocks, freezing and shattering high above, dark brown with a hint of red, falling and rolling, bouncing and cracking, sliding into the gorge. The boulders in the river are so old, frozen magma exiles.

We drove to Pilar yesterday to see the Rio Grande high from runoff, alerted by a friend. From our rented adobe on the south side of Ranchos de Taos to “sea level” Pilar along the Rio Grande is twelve and a half miles. It takes about twenty minutes to get there. The difference in elevation between our house and the river at Pilar is almost exactly one thousand feet. It’s quite a plunge descending to the level of the bottom of the gorge, with a healthy high-speed climb to get you out. What a suddenly different place to be. It was markedly warmer than up in Taos, and the season was advanced. There were even forsythias blooming along one adobe wall in town. (Well, “town.”) If anything reminds me of other places, they do, although now I take them more as having a right to be just where they are.

I’ve fought this place so hard, this Taos, this northern New Mexico, blamed it for everything I left behind and couldn’t replace, even while I also cried for joy that I could live here surrounded by the stunning beauty of God’s earth, breathe the air, and feel the sunshine on my face most every morning. In this state of dynamic tension, nothing much got done. Maybe Taos wasn’t “perfect” and I had to keep on looking. We needed laws and curbs, more friends, a university, cheaper housing, freedom from the wacko birds, and shorter winters. There was always an “escape” plan in my pocket I’d remember as I lay awake at three a.m. and wondered what to do.

Maybe all of that was right. It was certainly a good way to avoid embracing life and hiding from the promise of my gifts. Joy and play were absent in the ever-roiling crises. Trusting nothing, neither relaxing in my heart nor allowing for surprise nor having faith that I was part of something larger and could do no “wrong”—like the rocks that tumbled down the gorge, older than the fucking dinosaurs, or the river rolling to the sea—I didn’t have to do the work or face my fears.

What makes a difference, then? I don’t know, but it’s here.

People dying where we used to live, perhaps, awareness of the ever-changing times. The pall of winter in my getaway dreams. The rolling, jerking thunder of the everyday, the force of gravity, a tiny place of quiet deep inside at last—let’s not go overboard, but this is true—a trusting in the journey, even in imagined stasis, a grace I neither fostered nor invoked. There’s a wildness and a beauty in my failures, too.

“So what comes next?” she asked me, after the movers hauled her two pianos to a different studio, where her books and music sat in boxes on the floor.

“Just unpack,” I said.

I was thinking of a drive across the mountains to Cimarron and enchiladas at the old St. James Hotel, ninety minutes each way with no traffic, antelope and turkeys by the road.

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John Hamilton Farr lives in Taos, New Mexico, U.S.A. with his classical pianist wife. “Possibly the only place I can get away with this,” he says. As New York Times best-selling author James C. Moore (Bush’s Brain) put it in a review of John’s first book, Buffalo Lights is the work of a man attuned to the world who sees it differently than you and I and writes about it with a language and a vision of life that is impossible to ignore.” John is the author of BUFFALO LIGHTS, TAOS SOUL, ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE, and THE HELEN CHRONICLES. He has been publishing online since 1996 (Zoo Zone, Farr Site, MacFaust, GRACK!, FarrFeed) and blogs regularly here at JHFARR.COM. See also → John’s Twitter profile, Amazon Author Page, video channel at YouTube, and website photos at SmugMug. To email John, please see CONTACT INFO on About page.  

  • Bob March 31, 2015, 2:45 PM

    Your post makes me smile. Pilar and the canyon – I know it. It ranks right near the top of my list of the rockiest places I’ve ever seen. Not solid granite walls like Big Thompson Canyon or slickrock sandstone rock like Southern Utah. Not just rock, just plain rocky.
    It’s funny, kind of. Of all the things I thought I’d miss, leaving Colorado for Louisiana, rocks never crossed my mind. I miss rocks. When we leave Louisiana (please, God) will I miss mud? Nawwww…
    It occurs to me, John, that we’re not all that different, you and I. That makes me something of a hypocrite, doesn’t it? You know what I mean. I make myself feel less bad about it by supposing that we’re all a little hypocritical from time to time.
    Here I am in a locale I detest, pining away for the aspen groves and canyon walls of another time and place. I’ll miss spending my autumns with a fly rod and a fleece pull-over.
    I have the wherewithal to be like one of you artists I admire so much. So why don’t I? Confidence and fear. Besides, it’s easier to go with the flow and be a corporate chimp. It’s a steady paycheck, healthcare, retirement sort of thing.
    Despite our similarities what sets you and I apart is that you are doing it and I only dream about it. So the question becomes; do you and I define our success in the same way? The next time I’m in Taos how about I buy us some enchiladas and we talk about it?

    • JHF March 31, 2015, 10:10 PM

      Hey Bob! Yes, I know what you mean. The thing is, I could never help it, just like my sister T. I don’t know what “success” is, really—always played outside the box, myself. Feeling good, maybe? I know a Vietnam vet (Green Beret) who walked out of a big-time suit-and-tie job because it snowed in Houston for the first time in 20 years and the boss man wouldn’t let him go play in the snow. What the hell was he doing there in the first place, though? He was an artist. Fantastic, too. Driven, burdened, eaten up with heavy karma. I don’t even know if he’s alive, or else I’d ask him.

  • Marti Fenton March 31, 2015, 10:46 PM

    Wow! John I think you finally got what Taos is about. It strips away neurosis or you go crazy. Your choice.

    • JHF March 31, 2015, 11:55 PM

      “Finally”? 🙂 Back in 2003 when I was way more young and stupid, I wrote this in a Horse Fly column for Bill Whaley:

      “There are forces here that tear your psychic muscle from the bone. If you live here long enough and nothing happens, you’re as solid as a child of God can be (and thank your lucky stars), but many mostly normal people go beserk before too long. You can hardly walk down the street without stepping in the bloody bits of broken marriages or smelling burning dreams. Impossibility abounds here, stomps around like giant invisible dinosaurs on crack. This is what real spiritual energy is like. You sometimes run across a person who seems normal and he maybe is, except that if you dig a little deeper, there is always something going on that no one back in Maryland would talk about but here they do. It’s hard to see how anyone could stand it all the time, like riding naked on a big electric eel or having root canal therapy on your soul.”

      That said, I think more people are immune than feel a thing. Too bad!

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