Self-explanatory but no less special. Two and a half weeks ago we were all alone on a holiday in this magnificent space and cool clean air. The very reason we left friends and home in Maryland 20 years ago, to experience more of this amazing Earth while still inside these bodies. No, really. That’s why. Onward!
Rio Grande Gorge in foreground, river far below. Photo taken just inside the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument from Cerro in northern Taos County. That’s Ute Mountain in the distance, 10,093 feet high. The extinct volcano is over two million years old. Dig it.
We were all alone for this, 800 feet above the Rio Grande. Sometimes it really is too much to take.
The wind was roaring at 45 to 50 mph across the plateau late May a year ago. It wasn’t cold so much as flensing, as the truck door flew out of my grip in search of bones to break. That kind of wind. I reached the spot you see above by driving west of town, over the gorge bridge, past the ugly earthships in the dirt, the llama herd at Tony’s ranch, and up the hill until I saw the BLM sign for Taos Plateau Access.
It was a weekday, close to noon. I only saw one other vehicle the whole time, a cable TV truck. The driver came out of nowhere I had seen, a spirit truck perhaps, around a curve near where I’d parked and hustled down a road I hadn’t taken yet. If he can make it, so can I, you know. I never saw his truck again.
Once over the distant rise, the road curved down, then straightened out, and kept on dropping. The mountains loomed and it was obvious I’d hit the Rio Grande—must be the way to ‘Hondo, huh. As soon as the chasm of the gorge came into view, it looked as if the road went off the cliff. The switchbacks down were so narrow and tight, all I saw over the hood was air. I’ll never get her out here unless I tell her lies. At the bottom there were hot springs and a bridge, and trees with bushes and flowers. The climb back up the other side was straight and steep and rough like idiots had bombed it. Ten years ago near here a poor guy’s German shepherds ate his mom, so maybe yeah, could be.
This May I wear a mask and dark blue gloves to buy the groceries. I have a debit card inside a baggie with a folded scrap of paper towel that’s wet with Lysol. The shopping list is clipped onto my sleeve so I don’t go fishing for it in my pockets with a plague glove on and get my clothes infected. I show up in the parking lot just after seven in the morning, follow arrows on the floor, buy three or four of everything and spray the bottoms of my shoes and head for home. We might as well be living on a mountain far away and everyone in town is dead. Traffic’s picked up over April since the weather turned. Who knew that zombies had somewhere to go? Waiting for the light down by the Ranchos Post Office, I watch them pull doors open with bare hands.
Never felt I had a stake in things the way they were and who the hell is going back so that’s just fine. Not leaving home except for food is liberating. New Mexico is in a drought again, the sun shines all the time. Sometimes a day-long meditation with the front door open so I hear the ravens squawk. I used to charge off for the slightest errand, now it’s safer to let go. The danger is remarkable. The mountains do not care.
Crush him, they said. He might be Leonardo or a Poe, a queerbait fuckoff dying in the the gutter with a needle in his arm, feared the young lieutenant (hi, Dad) haunted by a teenage circle jerk in Maryland, stoned inside a clapboard shack in Golts—yeah reefer in the ‘30s—not a soul would ever know except they did. An old black village on the Eastern Shore, leafy woods so dark you need a light at noon, a two-room school in Sudlersville? They knew.
It mostly worked for years. Eyeglasses in second grade, real glass. Scary baseball death. What if jagged shards shot into his eyes and blinded him? Next year the old man bought him gloves unprompted, a catcher’s and a fielder’s mitt. Maybe one would take. They played catch in the backyard like an execution. Threw the ball so hard it hurt and daddy left him all alone to pour a scotch and smoke and no one mentioned Little League again. Still he oiled the gloves like he’d been shown and liked the way they smelled and how they felt all manly and protective on his hand, like he could do it.
Everything is different now, the cage of smoke and shadow vanished in the wind. I’ve outlived everyone who hurt me out of ignorance or fear. The guilt trips are all done. It’s all right now, it really is. I’ve always been an artist, only now I know my worth and whence it comes and there is all this time. The isolation suits me. We might as well be living off-grid, since the mountains do not care.
Even if the madman lives, we’ll have electric lights and baths.
They’d found a house, he dreamt. It was on a hillside. “I like it,” she said, stepping down onto the gravel drive that curved off from a wider one that led straight back into the woods. Pine woods, with space between the trees, and at the end a larger house where strangers lived.
He had somewhere to go, however, all bent down with nondescript detritus that kept slipping from his arms, objects dropping to be picked up and rearranged. There was something yellow, something red. A green bedroll or blanket that unfolded, dragged, and caught on things. If he could only reach the parking lot, a gravel one, shuffling along in unbuckled sandals. He found the lot. His father’s 1954 black Ford station wagon would be there, the first one they made with an overhead valve V8 and automatic transmission, and he could finally unload. Everything would fit inside.
There were many, many cars. He walked around and up and down the rows but nowhere was a black Ford station wagon. The one the family took to Yellowstone after the earthquake and it overheated as it pulled their trailer up a hill in heavy traffic, and his father lost it, cried and slammed the door so hard he broke the glass. That Ford. The one that went to Germany and back at Uncle Sam’s expense, the one where he could stand up on the floor behind the front seat to hold on with his arms and look out between his parents’ shoulders as they drove along the back roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
All right, he’d find the Nissan, then. The two-seater 240SX SE, best car he’d ever owned, the one his wife took when she moved to faraway Dubuque to find a job and take care of her mother. Another gravel parking lot, this one by their rented condo, one last wave, crying as he held the cat as if she’d never leave them both. At least she would be safe. Three years later after Fielda died, she came back without the Nissan. He’d signed the title over to the young mechanic who told her it would cost more than the car was worth to fix the brakes, and so they left it. That car. That way forward.
He walked up a long hill on a sidewalk leading to another parking lot. An unfamiliar city, possibly Dubuque. Brick buildings, leafy trees. The Nissan would be there. The red and yellow junk kept falling from his arms, the green thing dragged, and people stared. He must look like a bum, he thought, but they don’t know these things are useful. Finally he found the place. The parking lot would be behind two small brick office buildings, converted houses, upper Midwest clean and soothing. There was a path that led between them. At the end a simple barrier, a horizontal tree branch with the twigs trimmed off and a straight nail driven into one end to make a kind of latch. He wondered at the rustic make-do that was out of place but pushed it open and stepped out onto gravel once again. There were tall trees nearby and hardly any cars.
The Nissan wasn’t there. He realized he didn’t have the keys and probably the tires would be flat, but the Nissan wasn’t there. He could see that at a glance. No doubt someone towed it. At the far end of the lot, though, he saw something else: a 1957 BMW Isetta 300, the first car he’d ever had—no lie—not his this one, but similar, parked askew and rusty by a pile of leaves and obviously dead. A group of young office workers stood around nearby on break. He envied them a little. They were thin and carried nothing, laughing in the shade. A dark-haired woman smoked a cigarette. He would have gone to get a closer look at the funny little German car, but he was too embarrassed.
Hi, excuse me, that’s just like my old car, my first one…
He awakened in New Mexico and told his wife. The sun was up and warming spiders in the window. No one had pushed the president down a mine shaft, all errands were forbidden, there was nothing to be done.
“That sounds like you,” she said.
A Sunday like a Friday, best one they ever had.