Adobe Hell Motel

Adobe Hell Motel post image

The things we do for love. All kinds of love, in fact.

THE CLOTHES, THE CLOTHES… It was a beautiful day with pure white clouds in a deep blue sky and I went out and did it. The lady I trusted at the consignment shop suggested the Big Brothers Big Sisters donation bins at Super Save, but I opted for the closer Del Norte Liquors location for more privacy that morning. Good thing, too. The first thing I saw when I pulled up were two non-matching torn-up men’s shoes lying in the dirt out front. Oh God. Don’t stop, I told myself, then tested my resolve with the largest bag because I knew I’d be committed then. The lever squeaked in the dry cool air. The door opened wide and the bag disappeared with a terrible thump. I let go the handle and the green bin shrieked. Maybe some poor girls will love their Pendletons.

I’m sorry, Kathy. It still feels like a sin. But the clothes just aren’t you and you told me so.

All of these were summer items. I’d already consigned the best of them but there were many more. For two and a half years they’d hung in the bathroom “closet” in the old adobe or rested in dresser drawers, the cedar chest, or dusty piles on the bedroom floor I couldn’t face and learned to walk around. In the process of gathering them up, I set aside a few iconic items for keepsakes or to give to friends someday. I’d already taken her winter things to the storage unit to hold for early fall when I could sell the camel hair coat and all her sweaters. She had so many.1 Jeans and skirts and blouses, too, that filled the bags I loaded in the back. There was nearly a full pickup load.

I cried a little when the first bag fell. Then one by one the clothes I’d seen her wear for years went thudding into the bins. (I’d carefully folded everything into paper grocery sacks, then put those into nice clean plastic garbage bags.) Each one went more easily than the last and I knew that it was right. The goods would go to Santa Fe and Albuquerque so I wouldn’t see anyone wearing her things. When I finished I felt shaken, also different, like I’d suddenly grown wings. If I could do this anything was possible. The universe had shifted.

There was still much more to do. When I got home I transferred my clothes from what I call the “Methodist” dresser2 with the peeling veneer from West Virginia into the gorgeous cherry one3 we picked up from her grandmother in Keota years ago. Gram also gave us artifacts from the garden shed and a collection of high-fashion vintage hats from Kathy’s great-aunt Emily. All this went home to Maryland with us in my green Volkswagen bus. I couldn’t tell you which year that was, but as I worked I remembered how good it felt to be driving home in a van full of love and loot, the headers thrumming up and down the hills on clean Midwestern interstates, how young and ferocious we were.

Early ‘80s maybe, Big Bend National Park.

The memory gave me hope. I wanted to start all over in the bedroom so I could breathe and knew that she’d approve. Moving fast, I gathered up her jewelry, the Japanese music box, the Bavarian porcelain dresser set, the tiny perfume bottles we carried home from Venice, the postcard she sent me from Scotland, the scarves, her handkerchiefs, and more for sorting later. Replacing the brown wool Chimayó weaving on top of the dresser with a piece from an artist we’d known in Maryland4 was perfect. On that I centered my own burial urn4—empty of course—next to my bolo ties and a mysterious necklace I’d found in a drawer. The antique shotguns with my .22 rifles6 wanted to go in the space by the wall. The scary bronze cat skull sculpture ended up on the other West Virginia dresser (hers) for being so cool and utterly me. The piles were gone. I had a room. And every night since I’ve slept straight through.

Hope it keeps me honest, too.

[continue reading…]

Late Spring ’23

Rio Grande Gorge

The great rift valley of the Rio Grande south of Taos

Slowly building up my strength again, I hit the trails at dinner time to have the vastness to myself. The peaks in the far distance are over 40 miles away. Sometimes I see farther. The clarity cuts cleanly through the fog of thought and part of me is home.

WHEN I DROPPED OUT IN ARKANSAS IN ‘71, I never intended to come back either. I felt so close to secrets beyond my grasp and knew my path would open up in ways I couldn’t dream of. All I ever wanted was to drink from that clear stream forever. When winter came I realized I was unprepared and decamped for the thrills of pre-boom Austin, which I already knew quite intimately. But Austin proved to be too hot and bothered after several years—time to cut the cord again—so in ‘75 I packed up everything I owned and moved to Maine. I gave it a month, but it was cold and wet and everyone smoked cigarettes. Free housing at my granny’s place on the Eastern Shore of Maryland proved irresistible, however, so I headed south with welding gear, guitar, and faithful German shepherd to be a famous sculptor with no training. I soon fell in with local iconoclasts, met my future wife, and life exploded with a richness I’m astonished to recall. We moved down here in ‘99 and 22 years later she was gone. It still does not compute and I know less than ever. The only thing that sticks is that she told me “share the beauty and the joy” and this was after… Those obviously aren’t my words which makes them real and what a perfect mantra.

Flowers on an unmarked trail at Taos Valley Overlook

“Queen o’ the Mountains” (‘01 Dodge Dakota) beside the apricot tree in bloom

Adobe Hell in Llano Quemado

Inside looking out. “Old Taos” in spades.

High up in the mountains, Rio Pueblo flooding at Agua Piedra

Self-explanatory, also at Agua Piedra

Amazing colors on this side trail at Taos Valley Overlook

Wasn’t kidding…

One of my favorites

Evening walk at Taos Valley Overlook, Rio Grande del Norte National Monument

That’s it for now, take care. – JHF


photo of author

A man’s gotta eat, right?

A Juan del Llano Special originally published at my Substack, April 25, 2023.

HE MADE IT BACK from the grocery stores. Hardly any food but out two hundred. Juan didn’t mind because he couldn’t. Didn’t lose it on Hot Springs Road either as he passed the spot he pulled a U-turn when the nurse called though the hole in his heart was daring him to poke it. Instead he parked at the bottom of the driveway to unload and sat there in the driver’s seat a good long time with all the windows closed. It was a cold day and the sun was welcome. He stared out at the doorway with its rocks and steer skulls. There were hoes and shovels propped against the wall. A man lives there, he thought, that must be what I am. The setting was quite pleasant, even homey for a jerk with no ambition. He felt he had some though, at least a hankering, which meant that he was sane and anything was possible. And then he saw the door mat as the last view of his life and could he have another, please?

It started as a clicking sound. For the longest time he thought it was the valves. The ‘07 Pontiac Vibe had four per cylinder on the 1.8 liter Toyota engine. As long as they were only clicking, though, he figured he’d be fine. No reason yet to worry they weren’t closing all the way and burning white-hot on the edges. He took a week-long road trip to Iowa bury his wife’s ashes and the thing ran great. A whole year passed. The clicking was a little louder now and every now and then a muted clunk. But still he drove it up to Colorado in the fall, convinced the noises went away when all the parts warmed up and only idiots worried about the things they couldn’t see. The trip was flawless and spectacular. The engine sucked in air and revved like glory all the way home. Even so, at hot idle Juan could still hear clicks and knocks. Time passed like it always does. The days grew short, he switched and mostly drove the truck. It made no funny noises, 4WD was useful in the snow, and the Dodge reached heating temps a mile before the Vibe did. The smaller vehicle was still the economical ride of choice for his trip to Silver City after Christmas. He studied the map and saw the roads where nothing better break, then realized the noise might also be the timing chain, which would not do. The very day before he left he called the garage to make an appointment six weeks down the road and loaded up the truck, happy to have no choice because he loved the roar the V-8 made and never mind the gas. After he came back the Vibe just sat there while he waited. One day Metric Motors finally got their wrenches on it. It took them a whole week.

First spring of its purchase in ‘08, already running a temporary spare

Finally he got the phone call. He don’t know everything they’d done or why it took a week but they were good guys and he trusted them. They’d looked at the timing chain and it was perfect. After much befuddlement, they determined the racket was coming from the air conditioning compressor. To nail this down they’d taken the serpentine belt off and started the engine. Lo and behold, not a click or clunk to be heard. (The belt also drives the power steering and the water pump but the steering and engine cooling worked just fine.) The service manager explained that automotive AC refrigerant also provides lubrication for the compressor’s internal parts. Since he never used the air conditioning at 7,000 feet, the lubricant hadn’t circulated and the compressor had been chewing itself to pieces. Neither their explanation nor anything he googled told him how this could happen with a supposedly free-wheeling compressor clutch and pulley, but they said there were “bits of metal” in the AC system and the whole shebang would need replacing, not just the compressor, to the tune of $2,700 dollars! They assured him that he could certainly still drive until the pulley seized—“If you smell something like burning rubber, that’s what it is”—but then the belt would melt and fall apart and he’d be stranded. He took the car home. If anything the noises were even louder and he knew he’d never drive it again in that condition. The Vibe had been his wife’s car, purchased new. He’d always used full synthetic oil in the engine and transmission. It had never broken down, was fun to drive, and got 35 miles per gallon. Not time to junk it.

The Vibe was actually a Toyota Matrix with a General Motors body. A Twitter friend casually mentioned that he’d bypassed a busted AC compressor on an old truck once by using a special bracket and a shorter belt. Juan hunkered down and haunted online Vibe and Toyota user forums. The amount of bad advice was staggering but here and there a nugget gleamed. He followed the trail back in time to the late 2000s and learned that Toyota used to sell a Matrix model (and Corollas) without AC, whereas the Vibe had always been so equipped. Since the engines were identical, that meant there had to be a part number for a shorter serpentine belt that didn’t wrap around a compressor pulley. Searching databases was a game he played quite well and once he plugged the right words in, he found a forum entry at GenVibe that gave him part #5060605. He didn’t know the brand or whether he could even fix it on his own, but the belt and tools he needed (a 19mm socket plus a 3/8” drive breaker bar) cost less than $70 altogether and the lure of so much cheapness reeled him in.

This is the before photo. The serpentine belt is out of sight on the far left side.

The first thing Juan discovered was the job was basically impossible. He managed to remove the old belt using the 19mm socket and breaker bar to compress the tensioner spring—scary business in itself—and thus commit himself to finishing or having to call a tow truck. But placing the new belt over the power steering pump pulley and scrooching it down to the crankshaft was maddening. There wasn’t any room to place his hands. He couldn’t see. The belt flopped every which way, undoing any progress that he made. No wonder the clerk at the parts store suggested he take the right front wheel off for access through the wheel well. Ha-ha, tho. No way. The sun was going down, too. His tools and flashlight kept falling in the dirt. He’d planned on finishing within the hour but had already taken three. There was blood running down the back of his hand. He hadn’t eaten and it was getting cold. And then he had an idea. Other people had done this just like he was trying unless they lied. He knew how to thread the belt because he’d memorized the diagram. The belt had a mind of its own, though. Well then, maybe listen?

Instead of push, he pulled a little. Here and there a twist to guide it. By keeping just enough tension on the thing to keep it from jumping off the pulleys, he finally got it into place except for at the alternator. By now it was almost completely dark and freezing. He peered into the engine compartment with his flashlight, bending low to follow the track of the belt half a dozen times to make sure he had it right. It ought to go on now, he told himself. Just pull on the breaker bar to get some slack and wrestle the belt over the lip on the alternator pulley. That was all he needed. One last bit. He tried a couple dozen times at least. Another quarter inch of play would do it but there wasn’t any. He carefully laid his tools where he could find them in the morning, lowered the hood, and walked back down the hill. Maybe tomorrow he could do it. Better light, more warmth. A fresh perspective. Not cold or starving. Seventy dollars versus $2,700, come on…

This should tell you something. Alternator pulley above, bypassed AC compressor bottom right.

Editor’s note: see the photo above? The belt is ribbed on one side and smooth on the other. The pulleys where the ribbed side goes have vertical lips (edges) and grooves that match the ribs. The pulleys that take the smooth side have much lower lips and no grooves. Pay attention!

The day dawned clear and sunny with no wind. It was even warmer than it should have been. Juan allowed himself a bowl of oatmeal, the usual hour’s worth of doom-scrolling, and even washed his hair. Procrastination equaled power, he told himself. Only warriors know how to take their time. When he was ready, he walked out into the light, up the hill, and opened the hood. Calmly taking breaker bar in hand, he placed the 19mm socket over the nut cast into the tensioner bracket and pulled until he felt the clunk of full compression on the spring. Keeping the bar pulled tight with his right hand, he grasped the final loop of belt with his heavily gloved left hand and pulled it toward the alternator pulley as far as it would go. The missing quarter inch of slack had not been granted in the night, however, and it simply couldn’t be done. He spent almost an hour trying and walked back to the house for coffee and more research. What he found by using different keywords gave him hope for all humanity.

Everything he’d read about the job, every YouTube video as well, instructed him to place the belt over the alternator pulley last. Everything, that is, except the final post he found. Somewhere in America a real mechanic had entered a discussion and laughed at that advice: “Loop the belt around the grooved alternator pulley and then over the smooth water pump pulley. It’s so much easier!” By now Juan knew every piece of hardware like he’d invented it himself. He walked back up the hill, located the water pump pulley, looped the belt over the alternator pulley, hauled back on the breaker bar, and gently pushed the belt onto the water pump pulley with his bare fingers: good God, it popped right on! Imagine the triumph, the silent hosannas. His hands were beat to hell. There were ugly bruises on his forearms. The sun was streaming down. He felt like singing and wanted to tell the world. Better test it first, though.

Land of geniuses and God

He started the engine. It ran. Very well, in fact. There were no funny noises. He revved it a few times, turned it off, and looked at what he’d done. The belt was still on! He started the engine again and watched it for some minutes. With the shorter belt and one less pulley to turn, the happy four-cylinder ran more smoothly than ever before. Juan was flabbergasted. He took the Vibe on a half-hour run to the top of U.S. Hill in the mountains south of town. There were miles of switchbacks, long grades, and high-rpm climbs in lower gears. If anything, he had more power. At the summit he checked again and all was normal. Really? Oh, yes. The engine ticked like a clock. The Vibe was saved and tons of money, too.

His bruises were like medals. He drove home in a daze and had a nap, doing nothing else all day.


★MATTRESS★ post image

The old one headed for the Taos County landfill

A CARING SOUL OFFERED ME A MATTRESS not two weeks ago and I said yes. Up in heaven, angels cheered while devils lost their bets. What makes us do the right damn things? I wasn’t looking for a mattress although I’d said I wanted a new bed. Like knowing how I’ll have to move eventually and needed new clothes yesterday. The might-as-well-be-brand-new Puffy memory foam was said to be in perfect shape. I knew they cost a fortune and I’d never tried one. All I had to do was haul the old one to the dump all by myself and drive 133 miles to Albuquerque for the other. In 23 years I’d never visited the Taos County landfill and had only moved another mattress once upon a time to a rental in Pomona south of Chestertown where the general store sold “mushrat” meat in season. That one flew out of the back of Mickey Dulin’s pickup on the curve beside the pond in front of the country club and landed partly in the water. It was probably high tide and everyone was drunk.

It’s been two years now. Almost every day since Kathy died I cried at least a little when I made the bed.1 The tears came when I tucked the sheet in on her side, looking down on where she slept. We’d used the same old mattress—a premium model made by Sealy, sold by Sears—for more than 30 years. There were unseen indentations where our bodies rested but I could feel them if I brushed my hand across the surface. I cried because I missed her and because I felt I’d let her down. What kind of cheap self-sabotaging jerk would let a beautiful, accomplished woman live this way, I thought. And yet she never wavered. “I’m so happy you’re my wife,” I’d say to her. “And I have the most wonderful husband,” she’d say right back, putting down her book to smile and look me in the eye.

Taking the mattress cover off that last time wasn’t easy. I tried to count how many times we’d made love on that bed and couldn’t guess. So many memories centered on a single piece of furniture. Looking out from the second floor in Still Pond to watch the hummingbirds among the maple leaves. Nights in Ranchos barely hearing the coyotes through the thick adobe walls. How warm I was at 7,000 feet because I always crawled in after. The terror of the last night she ever spent beside me when she had her stroke. The flashing lights I followed in the cold to Holy Cross. Oh Lord.

Final teardown. Note cherry dresser on the left.

Apparently I had to cover the load to visit the dump. This led to the discovery that “tarp” is now a verb. It took four phone calls before I found someone in the Solid Waste Department who said I was free to bring a single mattress in strapped down. I had a tarp that I keep handy in case the next gale sends an elm limb through the skylight. Before I got permission to ignore it, I’d wasted hours trying to fit it over the bed in my 2001 Dakota, so I was grateful. The high point of my preparation was visiting Ace Hardware to buy the ratchet straps. New tools, you know. So “manly.”

Getting the mattress off the platform bed, through three rooms, and out the front door to my lowered tailgate took half an hour working slowly. Moving a heavy object a little at a time, making sure that nothing breaks, and living to tell the tale, all of that was something to be proud of and the ratchet straps were fun. (The joy of domination, the clacking of the gears.) My emotions staggered back and forth like little Johnny in the 40 mph wind and snow but primal fierceness kept me going. I wanted to follow through and “bust out” so damn badly though from what was hard to pin down in a word. Unkept promises perhaps, guilt, old narratives, piles of wreckage in the house. This was much more than a mattress and I knew it. I needed to be happy in the Now.

Two of my creative friends. Roger Landes (L) & Chipper Thompson (R) with me on March 18th. Musicians, artists, teachers all. Nothing to do with mattresses except it shows a state of consciousness. You may safely read on now.

The dump run was successful. I know where it is now and there’s no excuse for not returning with a full load once I find a tarp that fits. The hardest thing I had to do was pry the old mattress out of my truck, where it hung on like a limpet. Make of that fact what you will. I managed to stand it vertical in the blasting wind and tip it over into “Bin A” (me so clever), but I also slipped and fell down backwards in the pickup bed. The episode was so damn strange. Physically there but also watching like a movie in my mind, I couldn’t tell if I’d survived an exorcism or robbed a bank and no one cared. That evening I tried to spend a whole night on the sofa but I was scared of falling off and only got a couple hours in before the phone went off. At that point I realized I’d been dreaming and felt altered in a way I wasn’t ready to articulate. This boiled down to “Kathy kissed me in a dream” and I hoped I might remember.

It was bitter cold although the sun was out and there had been a little snow. Naturally the first thing I did as soon as I was barely out of town was nearly kill myself. There was ice along the highway with what looked like clear tracks from the tires, here and there a little road salt or whatever the hell that red stuff is. I had the cruise on 65 in a 60 mph zone, rolled up behind a raggedy old truck doing 10 miles under that, swung hard left, and gunned it: Look out! The rear end fishtailed wildly three times and stabilized somehow… I was hanging in the other lane behind the slow guy with traffic coming up behind and either had to ease slowly back in line or risk passing straight ahead. There was no one else in sight but maybe more damn ice. I always gamble on a clear shot (?) so I did. The V-8 bellowed, I aimed the wheels at what I hoped was nice dry asphalt, and blasted up the road. Everyone else had seen what happened to me and just stayed put behind the beater truck. I slowed way down like a little old man until I dropped into the canyon and the ice was gone. Coffee time and turn the radio up. Beautiful New Mexico all the way to Albuquerque. Life is but a dream and look at where I was.

Taos Mountain from the road to Arroyo Seco, 3-18-2023

My benefactress stood outside the house and waved. I’d driven past so I could turn around and back up in the driveway from the other lane. I rolled the window down to see a little better and never hit a thing. “Nice job backing up without a back-up camera,” she said when I was almost done, glancing at the screen-free dashboard of my truck. “I’m a pro!” I said. “Well, pro yourself a little farther,” she replied and signaled when I had. Her own new mattress had just arrived. We went inside, I met her husband, the three of us wrapped the old one (new to me) in the oversized plastic “mattress bag” I’d bought the day before, and dragged it to my truck. Once again the Miracle of the Ratchet Straps. I couldn’t remember how to lock them but she reached over and slapped the handle down. After thanking her profusely, I said goodbye and headed for the freeway. It was warm enough to leave my window down.

A few miles east on I-40 looking for the Turquoise Trail exit, I almost killed myself again in heavy traffic. The road was crazy curvy going up the mountain. All the semis slowed but still pretended they could pass. There was only one lane open on the left to get around the jam and I was on it. So was the city slicker charging through my blind spot. He honked, I swerved, everybody lived, and I decided crawling along behind a pack of howling diesels with the mattress cover flapping in the breeze was dandy. A little later farther north on Route 14 and I was cruising up an empty highway through open country past Sandia Crest where I could stop to pee behind a tree or in Cerrillos. New Mexico is easy sometimes.

Another option in Cerrillos. Please do read the sign!

After all of this however, and remember there were two whole days of mattress moving, I nearly left this world a third time. Driving back to Taos through the canyon, my sleep-deprived exhausted body put me through the worst oh-my-God-I-just-dozed-off disaster I’ve survived unscathed. (Someday I will tell the story of the one I didn’t.) Slapping myself in the face, running the window up and down, head jerk, head jerk, almost running off the road—if my wheels crossed the center line in front of you, I apologize. It was inexcusable. Who knows how many I might have massacred? Not surprisingly, when I finally climbed out onto the plateau and saw the mountains gleaming in the sun, the drowsiness blew clean away. I even had the strength to unload and wrestle the mattress onto the bed with no assistance, glory hallelujah.

For the record, the memory foam is just extraordinary. I’ve never slept on anything like it. This may be the single most dramatic physical and psychological improvement of my life. I didn’t toss or turn at all that night. Waking up without the usual minor aches and stiffness was a joy. Making the bed is easier because the sheets aren’t wadded up and pulled asunder from flopping like a stranded fish all night. There’s a deep somatic kindness working here. It resonates and puts me in a better place. There isn’t any hurry, everything’s all right.

In the context of the last few days I thought about the dream again and get it now. After all I’ve thought and done and gone through, maybe now it’s time:

Kathy and I were sitting together in a beautiful spot outdoors like on a porch or picnic. I was showing her a photo of a river view in Iowa or Maryland with a long dark bluff that reminded me of the Rio Grande Gorge. The association between Iowa where she was born, Maryland where we’d met, and New Mexico where she died was there without a trace of sadness. I could see her face like it was yesterday. She turned to me all smiles and beaming, raised her head, and kissed me slowly like she did the first time we were alone together 45 years ago, sitting on my lap in her ‘65 VW at the edge of the woods above the river on a glorious spring day…

The message is our circle is complete. She’s telling me to celebrate and live.

A cracking day in April. Everyone be well.

Frozen Dead

Frozen Dead post image


FIVE DEER MICE IN SEVEN DAYS. Not too shabby. This was the first one. I named him (?) “Victor” after the trap and no I didn’t catch him in a tree but in the kitchen. I’ve caught all of them in the kitchen. There hasn’t been any mouse poop, nothing gnawed on, not a single solitary sign of any rodents until I happened to be in there late one night and saw him sneak behind the washing machine. Yes, there’s a washing machine in the kitchen. A water heater, too. (This is “old Taos.”) I hook the drain hose over the edge of the sink and anchor it in place with a big cast iron frying pan. Sometimes I forget and then the floor gets mopped so that’s okay. I don’t know why the mice are in the house if not to eat, stay warm, or raise a family, none of which I’ve seen. The species carries hantavirus, by the way. That’s cool too. Everybody dies.

As I write this on a Sunday night the wind is blowing hard outside. I can barely hear a thing but it is there. If you even catch a whisper from behind the thick mud walls you know the blast is major. Big-time. What would be a harbinger of spring if such existed here at 7,000 feet, but never mind. You really came for this, recorded roughly 40 years in quite a different place and time. Listen and read on and maybe understand.

Sometime back in the early to mid-80s I applied for and received a local Maryland Arts Council grant to write two sets worth of original songs and put on a rock and roll show. I use the term advisedly but we were loud. The venue was a basement performance space at the local college where Kathy (now my angel wife) toiled all day long with joy and zest. She has little connection to this story other than being there for me in those heady times when everyone we knew was still immortal and all you had to worry about was better sex and Ronald Reagan. If only we had known.

We lived then on a 70-acre property in a huge eclectic farmhouse built years before by a local self-taught artist and likely madman who lived out his last years 20 miles away in Millington building life-sized concrete dinosaurs on a hilltop. “Our” 70 acres was called Castle Hill Farm, cost $120 per month, and sat beside a wide primeval tidal creek where deer and foxes emerged from woods and marsh to lap the brackish water while I puttered with my boat. The surrounding forest was filled with impossibly huge deciduous trees, paw-paws, birds, and poison ivy. There was a fountain beside the house with a deep 12-ft diameter pool where multi-colored goldfish lived year round until the herons found them. The sandy lane was almost a mile in length and turned to quicksand in the rain. We saw Halley’s Comet late one night standing in a frozen field of corn stubble while sleepy Canada geese murmured and squawked. In summer we took the crabbing skiff to town to buy a Sunday paper, seven miles each way along the river just for kicks. There were abandoned dairy barns and even a gigantic silo which took me several years to find, all covered with kudzu in the wildest kingdom I had ever lived before we ended up at 8,000 feet in San Cristobal here in Taos County.

It was something of a paradise, all right. Kathy worked, I stayed home to write my songs, produce cassettes, and mail them off to bewildered record company execs in London and Los Angeles. As far as working remotely goes, I was ahead of my time and also doomed. You had to live there, obviously, and hang out with these people in the clubs and bars. But still I persevered, my goal for the upcoming gig being to obtain a live recording of all my songs performed in front of an actual audience that I could edit and send out. Maybe that would punch things up, who knew? I used the money from the grant to hire my friends to form a band for just one gig. The college wouldn’t let me charge admission at the free venue so I paid them each myself. We practiced in the big old house beside the creek and called ourselves the Zoo Pilots.

L to R: John Hansen, Kate Bennett, Dale Trusheim, Johnny McBride, and me

The gig went fairly well. A couple dozen people I knew clapped and yelled and seemed to have a fine time. Most of them had never heard anything like “You Have Been Blown Up in the Name of the Lord” and I was happy to bend some minds. The one-shot wonder of the Zoo Pilots was exciting for the band and there was talk of our next gig, but as for me I’d already been around and gravitated to the comfy life. I had a great job as a faculty spouse although the pay was lousy. No charm in hanging out in smoky bars and staying up till 3:00 a.m. but ain’t it crazy how late I stay up now. I wanted royalties from selling songs, not drudgery and stage fright. Freedom, baby!

My friend Kate Bennett [above] fronted a band you may have heard of called Cowboy Jazz that played mostly Western swing and whatever else she felt like singing. I sat in briefly with them (if not someone else) one night at a local dive to play a song or two, but hauling my amp out to the car past open doors that smelled of piss and stale beer sealed the deal for me. One delayed benefit of putting on the show with friends however was that given everyone’s propensity for jamming, we did have fun reliving highlights. At one memorable party in the middle of the little village of Still Pond, we set up amplifiers in the back yard and made so much noise the neighbors called the cops. Talk about validation. I felt like teenage Buddy Holley for a good half hour.

Famed Horned Obelisk in contemplation

Being of an age considered nearly dead (supposedly) is strange. I feel fine, if it comes to that, but oh the mind… Losing my life partner focuses me on questions I would never think of otherwise, like did I help to kill her even just a bit by taking such a long time to grow up? She loved me though and always said she knew right from the first I was the one. There’s a host of things I’d take back if I could but she got through them and moved on. Please note I didn’t say forgot—that isn’t how this works—but one examines things when picking broken pieces from the floor. It’s natural.

I only realized recently the consequences of a life of fear. Imagining the worst and trying to prevent it. It always seemed so sensible, too. What my parents wanted for me, absolutely. About six weeks ago, however, I was outside in the sun up on a stepladder tying something useless to a branch when I missed the last step coming down. I fell over backwards in slow motion totally amazed and hit my head quite hard against the ground. In these parts that means dried clay hard as concrete with a blanket on it. Nothing broke apparently and I was fine although the headache lasted several hours and I was shaky for a time. That last part bothered me the most because that’s how Kathy described herself a few times in her last five years. “A little shaky,” and she’d take my arm. These could have been the kind of quiet heart attacks that women have and no one pays attention, as suggested by the clot inside her heart they found after the stroke that cut her down two years ago. (30% ejection fraction, people.) More to the point this day however was the cantaloupe-sized rock just two feet from where my head had struck I saw when I stood up. We’re all walking tightropes. I’m always careful on a ladder and I fell.

When my father officially retired from the Federal Aviation Agency, he and my mother left Oklahoma City in a pickup pulling a large travel trailer to vagabond around America. They left their home precipitously, giving all the furniture to a lady across the street the day they hit the road. My sister Mary had already absconded to New York City to marry her Colombian boyfriend she’d met while learning Spanish down in Mexico. All this after refusing an offer of paid college expenses from our parents if she stayed. They recruited me to ply her with dire tales of what might befall her if she left. Useless, obviously. As it turned out, she and Alvaro eventually moved to Tucson to work for IBM, had two kids, and eventually got divorced. So what. There was another marriage, she went to nursing school (I may have the order wrong), had a fine career, and now lives with her daughter out in Phoenix. She has my medical power of attorney and I’d trust her with my life, so everything is fine, I hope.

My father thought unencumbered life on the road was glorious. They’d stay here or there, visit family, oh what a wonderful time. He got up at dawn, downed a tumbler of vodka, smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and rode his bike for hours. I don’t know what he did the rest of the day or what my mother ever did. Plotted, I would think. Eventually she made them stop and buy a home in Tucson. To this day I don’t know how or why that happened or the hold that Helen had on John. The house was a pleasant if unremarkable place in a normal neighborhood with silly lawns. Dad had the good sense to hire a crew of lesbian xeriscapers who Southwesternized the place right smartly but then he started worrying. What if it affected resale value? Word was he couldn’t sleep. Eventually he freaked out, had the ladies take out the cacti and the rocks, and somehow put a lawn back in. I think. They sold that place and moved to a double-wide in the desert that was better anyway and then he died of cancer.

What you feel is gonna get you. ‘Nuff said.

View east across the Talpa valley with more editing than God intended

So here I am in yet another paradise. Some people would sell their soul to move to Taos like we did—and then she died, but no one thinks about the second part or should. It’s Tuesday afternoon as I sit here now, freezing with a down jacket on inside and I haven’t caught another mouse since Sunday. The sky is mostly gray, the wind is picking up, a little snow is on the way. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living where Kathy left for angel school. That said, a new home has to rise out of the ether. There isn’t any plan. I’ve been pretty down about that for a while but someone special set me straight by telling me I was too old to spend my remaining years “operating out of fear,” and it was like a match to tinder…

Immediately I felt more energy, and that’s still there. Shooting down bad thoughts is easier. I can let dilemmas be and not demand they fix themselves to save me worry. Something like a faith that “everything is fine” is growing in my heart. I have no plan for old age, either. Someday I’ll hit the rock, my heart will stop, and folks will cry. I’ll look down from the clouds unable to relieve their pain or save them from the chore of cleaning up. If I can do it, so can they. In the meantime here I am.

I get to be an artist all day long. I’m confident that dollars will flow into my bank account. I trust myself a little more. I’ve been writing, taking photographs, and playing music. Improvising, mostly. Yesterday I played about an hour on a hand drum and the worries went away. There’s a state of consciousness accessible this way that changes things. I have five (?) stringed instruments, two Native drums, some wooden flutes, and a piano in the storage unit. None of them however is a six-string electric guitar. I’ve always wondered what kind of sounds I’d get from something physically easier to play than my beloved 12-string ES-335. This thing crossed my gaze and wouldn’t go away. It’s me. I want it. Kathy would approve.

Neither my photo nor guitar but the exact same model

Long story short, the vintage cherry Epiphone SG Standard ’61 Maestro Vibrola is on the way. If I never picked it up and tried, I’d still be almost dead and never know. Instead of charging, I took cash right from precious savings, ordered a hardshell case besides, and added “pleking” for another three hundred bucks. If you know me at all you realize how radical this is although it’s still lots cheaper than the brakes and ball joints that my truck needs or whatever the hell is wrong with the Vibe. But I’m not worried about any of that or where I’ll live six months from now or who I’ll see or what. Those days are over. America will make it, too. As I tweeted out this morning:

There really isn’t any answer anywhere. Enjoy the Mystery, much love to all. – JHF

Magic Window in the old adobe



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