Message for the Fourth

Mills Canyon, NM

Mills Canyon (google the sucker)

A JHF Classic from June, 2006. A column from Horse Fly, actually, an alternative Taos weekly of the time, only obliquely about the 4th of July. It has to do with things that matter.

The last ten miles of rocky trail going down into the canyon took at least an hour, most of it in first gear.

When I got to the primitive campground at the bottom, it was obvious that no one had visited in quite some time. The views of the high canyon walls all around me were breathtaking. I went skinny-dipping in the river and afterwards sat in my chair watching shadows move across the cliffs. There wasn’t another human being for miles, and Verizon was dead. I could have fallen out of the sky, tumbled from another era entirely. The only sounds were bird calls and wind in the trees.

I have probably never been so physically alone in my life. Only my wife knew where I was, and she was in Maryland. No one had seen me go into the canyon. I had a book with me and of course my computer, but I didn’t want to read or write. I didn’t even want to think.

As it turned out, no thoughts came, and I had no visions. I hadn’t expected any, but I had thought I might get a little lonesome. I didn’t. I was completely at ease and felt no fear. When it got dark, I climbed into bed in the truck and simply went to sleep. I remember waking up a few times, looking out at the moonlight, and marveling that it was so quiet. There was never a thump, a skitter, or a scrape. No bears, no mountain lions. Not even a skunk. It was like camping in a church that had neither a building nor a name. In the isolation of my experience, I felt myself expand and fill the canyon with my spirit. From wall to wall and end to end, there was only me, the rocks, the trees, the birds, a turtle and a garter snake I’d seen down by the river, and flies that buzzed around my lemonade in the sun. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I felt calm and safe as warm clean sand.

The drive home was spectacular but uneventful. Time passed. Eventually I thought some more about the things I’d seen and the fact that something called or pulled me, how I had driven out across the plains with no more goal than simply going there, that I had allowed myself the freedom to explore.

I also remembered the raven.

It happened early on. I was standing on a rock next to a tall Ponderosa pine on the edge of a precipice at the actual entrance to the canyon, watching a raven banking in a tight circle in the stiff wind just above me. I was staring very carefully to make sure I had it pegged, because the bird had made a noise I’ve never heard a raven make before: it whistled at me with a sound very much like the shriek of a hawk, only more full-bodied, longer, and strangely piercing. This didn’t make sense: why would a raven, of all things, be whistling at me? I heard the sound again. Just then the raven dived in my direction, descending to land in the pine tree, I assumed, except it kept on coming. It was diving straight at me, and I saw the raven’s face front-on. Not with my eyes, however, but with my mind: instantaneously filling my entire field of vision was the close-up face of the raven, with gleaming black beak and big red eyes! I ducked, obviously, heard the raven whistle again, and decided not to linger. It was as if the bird had projected an image of its warning face directly into my brain.

Nothing like that has ever happened to me before. And what does America have to do with this? Nothing! Not a blessed, goddamned thing!

No politics, but think about it. I did.

Experimental Days

old Taos scene

Behold the mighty Arc of Mystery

You know I’m not a kid anymore but here I am still learning to drive this thing. A better metaphor might be discovering the clutch in the recesses of my brain. You have to make a conscious decision to bug out with a stick shift and need to know which gear you’re in at any given moment. My father taught me how to drive in his ’58 Volkswagen with four-on-the-floor. In driver’s ed at Jefferson Junior High we had a brand new dead stock six cylinder white Chevy sedan with a three-speed column shift. That thing was so huge and smooth. A ’59 Chevy, man, with bat wings.

Es La Hora

old adobe scene in Taos

Can’t identity the little black things no not that

I don’t know how other people live their lives but the other afternoon at tequila hour I rambled on into territory that my wife had never visited because she never thinks of going mad that way. It was kind of fascinating to see her lift the trap door, sort through this and that—which she grasped quite well enough—and have the visceral reaction that she did. “Who thinks that way?” she asked.

“Well, I do, all the time.”

[long stare]

“But I was just trying to—”

“I don’t think it’s productive to go any further down this road.”

“But—”

“Just do it!”

Fearless Vista Porn

Flag Mountain near Questa, NM

Forty-five minutes from town

June 2, 2019. This road is steeper than it looks. In wet times it turns into chocolate slop and dries to polished stone. The ruts are deep enough you keep away. Can’t send her out on a road like this, she’d have to learn to drive my truck. On the other hand there might be bears. Running on vapor but we’re running. Holy vapor of the sky. You feel the air and what the hell do we do now. Breathe it, that’s what. Part of you is coming home.

Farr family portrait

Yes, I’m wearing braces. Me and the two youngest are the only ones alive today.

That’s how I had to answer the phone when Dad was still on active duty in the Air Force. Even my mother did. For his part, when I entered the house in Tucson the night before he died, all he could manage from the bed was a softly croaked “Johnny…” and that was all I heard him say before he heaved and gasped himself to death on the potty seat the next morning. A lot of people go that way. That last little effort to move, you know. The last few molecules of oxygen.

A year or two before, we’d been visiting in Tucson and no one knew about the cancer. But as usual the tension was horrific. I borrowed a bike to get out of the house that night and he asked if he could come. Drunk by then and close to tears, he followed closely as I pedaled through the darkened streets and sobbed out when we slowed to turn around, “Johnny, no one knows what hell it is to be living with that woman…” I didn’t say a word. What son would or could?

No deathbed promises, then. No whispered benedictions or professions of love. The old man wanted to pee, we got him onto the seat beside the bed, and ninety seconds later the last bubble of drool between his lips refused to pop and he was gone. After I broke down screaming “No, no, no!” and pounding the pillow with my fist, my brother Bill and I and Alvaro (my sister Mary’s first husband) wrestled the lifeless sack of jello back onto the bed. It didn’t even look like him. I closed his eyes, surprised they stayed that way. Half an hour later, the funeral home attendants zipped him into a dark green body bag and wheeled him on a gurney down the street in full broad daylight to the ambulance parked discreetly half a block away. I peered out through the blinds knowing this was it, as close as I would ever get, and watched until they drove away, braking at the corner before turning left and vanishing forever.

The gaps in this man’s fathering of me were deep and wide. At critical moments in my upbringing, he set time bombs that all but killed me decades later, over and over again. He never said he loved me though I have to think he did. He never really touched me, either, not one time an arm around my shoulder while he told me I could do it, just get in there and be brave. When I couldn’t catch a ball or ride a bike at first, he turned away. My straight A’s in high school didn’t seem to matter. I never heard him say that he was proud of me and learned to distrust happy paths that didn’t fit the mold.

And yet he was a man and father in his way. He worked hard and provided for his family. He loved to fly and I was proud of that. He had a soft side, too, appreciated comedy, played ukulele, some guitar, and learned accordion in Germany. I know that he looked out for me at times and never told me. He taught me how to bait a hook and clean a fish, which way to turn a screw, and how to make a whistle from a willow branch. One time in Abilene, Texas, after a rare late night winter storm, he rousted me from bed to take us out on the deserted streets to show me how to drive on snow. To this day I remember several times a week his admonition to never back up more than absolutely necessary… These things may sound banal but they are golden. There are probably grown men and women alive today because I didn’t run them over in a parking lot when they were young.

My wife says all the time how much she misses her mother and father. In my case I can’t say I ever do, aside from honoring the elemental nature of relationships that formed me. The rage is mostly gone, at least. There has to be a reason for my karma and what I came into this world to learn. I’m self-aware enough at this point that I could almost be a father, too—won’t happen now, though, will it?—but I can say, “I love you, Dad,” and mean it, here, today.

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