“Is that what I think it is?” I asked our artist neighbor 20 years ago. There were about a dozen flower pots arranged beside the window, each with several plants like this. (They’re not usually so photogenic. I edited out the little scrappy bits.)
“Yep,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Mind if I take a few pictures?”
The seedbed of my counterculture in a time warp. What a hoot. I’d never seen peyote “in the wild.” In Austin in the old days, you could buy it by the pound in gunny sacks from certain folks and that was legal. No one in their right minds ate the goddamn things, you processed it for mescaline. Not that I knew how. An art major friend of mine had a friend who did and in my circle it was plentiful.
We were lucky to get to Taos in ‘99 before they Aspenized it. You could still find a decent place to rent if you had three jobs. I had a session with a rain forest shaman who spoke no English and blew smoke into my hair, then freaked out when he found an evil spell my mother left. There were artists making do with shops and studios in old adobe buildings, wide-eyed hippie couples with their kids and gardens. It was like new things could happen while the history still breathed. Not so much now. If it weren’t for mountains and the Great Wide Open I’d have fled some time ago. My wife was ready long before I was, but we both came to love the richness and compassion of the local culture. (Moving to where Anglos were a minority was so fucking brilliant.) Now that Kathy’s dead and gone—which I still can’t believe—I have no idea what comes next. The memories confuse me. My heart breaks every day. I could leave or stay, but Lord this land is thrilling. The ancients have their tentacles in everything, of course, so watch out.
Change is in the air for me and maybe thee, but hasn’t hit yet. (Listen…)
Meanwhile back in Ranchos 20 years ago, the actual owner of the property next door with three hand-built structures and no toilets, partner of the man who grew peyote by the window, was a lady who had once been Krishnamurti’s girlfriend and lived with him in India for a time. She also owned several acres in a gorgeous canyon near a quiet little hot spring. In the years that I’ve been living here, the two of them built several plywood “houses” there beside a huge-ass pond created from a dammed-up acequia in a setting no one would believe. The gentleman—an excellent artist, by the way—had other interests, too. He once uncovered an ancient native burial site while digging for a water line or something and found a shaman’s skull he realized was his own from another lifetime… and with that, he put it back! I loved the guy for this and also for the fact he’d grown up in L.A. with a film editor father who was friends with “Moe” from the Three Stooges. In other stages of his life he’d lived next door to Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder on a commune in the mountains, been a fisherman in Alaska, and smuggled hashish from Asia Minor to Amsterdam by car, which might account for the assault rifle hanging from the rafters I saw when we were there for dinner once.
We all used to be good friends. The background for the falling out is here, written in a state of stress I no longer recognize. Drowned out by the thunder of my recent loss, perhaps. So much of what I used to dread is gone or turned transparent. It’s like I’m more prepared to die myself, but who knows how I’ll act if doing something counts.
I honestly didn’t know what happened to these folks (at first). Not sure I really needed to. The two of them moved out to their idyllic refuge in the canyon and may have rented out the property next door. It was all so hard to tell. Different people came and went. I suspected evil doings as was my wont, and the artist gent still showed up to get their mail. I met him at the mailbox once and probed a bit. It turned out they’d kept their old addresses because everything they’d built up in the canyon was off the books to get around the tax man and the building codes. The new residence didn’t officially exist, in other words. I wondered how he handled things like internet and oxygen delivery. That was the other new thing, the little tube inside the nose. I felt sorry for him since he used to be so active. He still smoked dope, though just a little bit—I knew this from a visit—and I wondered later if he’d ever had a joint blow up on him.
A year or two went by. The people situation next door settled down, and I realized I hadn’t seen him or the lady at the mailbox for a long time. More months passed and then came COVID. That had to have been freaky for someone with a lung disorder in the first place. I wondered if the two of them had moved to Mexico or died and took to reading the obituaries in the paper, even researched backwards to when I thought I’d last encountered him, but nothing, not a trace. I could have asked, of course, but this is Taos. Best to let things be because you might learn way too much. Peyote on the porch, a rifle in the kitchen, hundred dollar bills from out of nowhere. We were quarantining anyway, so that worked out. Stay alive and deal with life and wait.
Likely unfathomable but pleasant ancient video hint interlude below. Enjoy!
So now we’re in the present. Breathe deeply of the cool, clean air.
One of the fellows I often see next door is at least part Native with a braided pigtail hanging down his back. I’ve met him before and know his name but little else except he’s old friends with the owners (?), and I always thought he was a sculptor for some reason. Getting on but not as old as I am. He either has a studio behind the fence or does odd jobs there. For the longest time, we’ve only exchanged waves and nods. I’d call him serious, calm, and self-contained. He keeps his truck all clean and shiny, especially the alloy wheels, and leaves the push-out windows open like I do.
A couple days ago I saw him as I headed out to walk. He was stripped to the waist with a bandanna around his head, whaling away with a post hole digger near the driveway. It was one of those times you find yourself so close you have to stop, and we stood across the ten foot distance like you do to signal that you’re on a mission but you’ll talk. (Also, COVID.) The first thing he said after I hollered “Hey, how are you?” was:
“Good, and how is your wife?”
I paused. Something in me knew that this would happen the next time we spoke and I’d rehearsed it in my mind. Not that the words themselves were difficult, but could I say them out loud to someone who didn’t know yet?
“Aww, no! I’m so sorry, man…”
“On April 5th. She had a stroke a month before.“
And all the rest came tumbling out. I told him about the second time they took her to the ED, where the doctors told me she was done for but she lasted 35 more hours, how the hospital gave us a private room and let us be together while she died, how intimate and powerful it was. He listened carefully, nodded, and then spoke a little of his own life. He told me how he’d been there when his father died, and how another relative had Alzheimer’s and he helped with that. We talked about the mystery of death, meditation, and the holy nature of the mundane. “I’m actually having fun here standing outside in the sun, digging this hole!” I knew exactly what he meant. Not bad for two old guys with long hair standing in the road. And then he said, gesturing to the south in the direction of a certain canyon:
“I went up to [so-and-so’s] to help ‘em out. Got [the lady!] ready, wrapped her in a sheet, and took her up to Lama.* Dug a hole and laid her in it…”
Our long-lost neighbors! No word about my artist friend, though. Maybe he’s already joined the angels or gone straight to hell.** I could have asked again, of course, but I just nodded, stunned, pretending I was in the know. The two of them were members of the temple. Of course you’d put her in the ground at Lama and never need to tell.
Wrapped up in a sheet and buried in the dirt.
Kathy would go bonkers learning this and have me pour tequila shots! How I wish she could have heard him. Then again, I bet she knows.
* The Lama Foundation in the mountains north of Taos. (Lama, NM of course.)
** Not stopping at the mailbox, anyway.
I left a comment but it disappeared. I think that is a sign. I’m becoming a ghost like the Taos I once knew.
Sorry, Marti! I don’t know what happened. I did look through what the spam filter had caught recently and there wasn’t anything from you in there. What there were, though, were over a thousand long spam comments from Russia, of all places! At least the software caught ’em so I could trash them all.
I get the ghost reference. And then there’s Kathy and what do I do now… here’s what someone on Twitter told me:
The old adobe I rent is in a beautiful spot. I agree with the above, though.
That picture of Kathy is just how I like to think of her. Bringing happiness to the day.
That’s exactly what she did, every single day.
John, thank you for the verb “aspenize.” i have needed that word several times in the last few weeks. Now I have it.