The casita I’m staying in is one hundred years old. In the mornings magpies and bluebirds picnic in the front yard; at nights the occasional deer wanders into the back yard, smokes a few cigarettes, and departs. When stepped on, the wood floors sound like the door-hinges of a crypt in a horror movie, and after a rain, the unpaved driveway doubles as the mud-run portion of an obstacle course.
I’ve been here for three days and I can already see why D.H. Lawrence fell in love with the area; Georgia O’Keefe too. Especially at sunset, when the sky turns everything golden, and a wind sweeps through the trees that sounds like a folk musician strumming an acoustic guitar.
It’s hard to believe that last week I was stuck in traffic on the 101 Freeway, watching two men scream at one another on the shoulder after a minor fender-bender.
My next-door neighbor—in fact, we share a wall—is a composer, so most mornings I awaken to the sound of a piano. Sometimes the songs are hers; other times the songs are Bach’s, or Beethoven’s. Once in awhile I go back to sleep and let the music soundtrack one last dream before I begin the day. Other times I have breakfast in the front yard, and try to imagine the perfect title for the song she’s currently playing.
I would say this makes me feel like Henry David Thoreau, but Thoreau didn’t share a wall with someone during his time in Walden.
Which is his loss, I figure.
There’s a movie theater on the main road, so four Friday evenings in a row I go to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
At the first screening the women in the audience applaud when Brad Pitt takes his shirt off; at the second screening I become homesick upon sight of the Sunset Strip; at the third screening I wonder how old Sharon Tate would be were she alive today; at the fourth screening I realize that Los Angeles, for all of its disinterest in its own history, hasn’t changed all that much.
In regards to that last point, I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not.
It’s on my second hike along the Rio Grande River Gorge that I see a family of four big-horned sheep moving slowly across the landscape. Occasionally they stop to look in our direction, but mostly they graze, and play, and occasionally look up at a rainbow which has appeared in the distance and nod in gratitude at the wonder of such a sight.
Or was that me nodding in gratitude?
It might have been me.
It was probably me.
There’s a small farm I drive past each time I’m returning from the local supermarket in whose modest pasture several llamas—or are they alpacas?—pass the time feeding on grass and discussing the relative merits of the many candidates involved in the Democratic Primary.
I can’t help but slow down every time they come into sight, amazed as I am at the thinness of their legs, the beauty of their coats, and the tranquility of their demeanors. Just looking at them for a few moments each day does better work than the anti-anxiety medication I’ve been taking for years.
One evening I go online to research how much a llama would cost. After only a few minutes of looking, it’s immediately clear that I might be able to afford a “high-quality” llama, but that even a run-of-the-mill alpaca would run me more than the average European automobile. Why this is I’m not sure, but anyway it doesn’t matter. After all, I don’t think the Irvine Company—a vast corporate entity which owns as much of the Southern Orange County real estate market as Darth Vader’s people did the Death Star—would allow me to keep a llama or an alpaca on my property.
There appear to be two swimming pools in Taos. One is located at the sports club on the southern end of town, so I sign up for a three-month membership in order to use it.
I’m usually alone—with the exception of the disinterested lifeguard who sits on a lawn-chair beneath an awning—and so I spend my hours of lap-swimming replaying scenes from some of my favorite movies in my head.
The scene midway through Heaven Can Wait where Warren Beatty, obsessed with becoming the starting quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, shows up at his try-out and, after a rocky first few snaps, starts throwing perfect spirals across the sunlit Southern California sky, stunning the players and coaches alike.
The scene towards the end of A River Runs Through It when Brad Pitt, Craig Sheffer, and Tom Skerritt spend what will be their last afternoon together fly-fishing the Bigfoot River on a perfect summer day, the sunlight turning everything—the water, the hillsides, the sky itself—golden.
The final scene of When Harry Met Sally when Billy Crystal—what took him so long I’ll never know—finally realizing that Meg Ryan is the love of his life, shows up at the New Year’s Eve Party she’s attending just in time to tell her how he feels before midnight arrives.
Another of my neighbors—a poet from Cleveland—is the only other person I’ve ever met with a Muslim father and a Catholic mother. We bond over our kindred backgrounds, along with our shared love of Mary Oliver, fish tacos, and the stretch of the Rio Grande a few miles from our casitas shallow enough to wade in.
One morning the two of us drive deeper into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in order to attend the Feast Day of Picuris Pueblo, a small Native American community which lies along the banks of the Rio Pueblo.
At this elevation we lose all radio reception, so instead we move in silence through a landscape rich in evergreen, cottonwood, and aspen, and wonder aloud what the area is like in the winter months, when heavy snows and freezing temperatures must make daily life difficult in ways the two of us—city kids to the bone—cannot begin to imagine.
Upon arrival, we park in a dirt clearing beside the river, and walk up a gentle incline to the pueblo, one side of whose small, circular town center features a variety of booths selling handmade pottery, jewelry, talismans, rugs, and turquoise.
There is a modest church of the type one sees everywhere in New Mexico, with simple clay walls, a wooden cross rising from the roof, and another one rising from the ground in the courtyard.
We stay for two hours, long enough to eat plenty of fry-bread, purchase a few Navajo pots, and be mistaken for husband and wife by several of the older women who are working the booths.
That night, back in the living room of my casita, I will look up more information on the pueblo, and find that the median income is $11,000 dollars a year, and that the Feast Day is in honor of San Lorenzo, one of whose miracles—I remember from my confirmation years—involved him feeding a large number of hungry workers by producing a never-ending supply of bread loaves.
Which, so far as I my adolescent self understood, meant St. Lawrence was to Jesus Christ what Chuck Berry and Little Richard were to the Beatles, or what Dr. J. was to Michael Jordan.
On one of my occasional trips into Santa Fe, I purchase a Yamaha acoustic guitar from Candyman Strings & Things, the oldest music store in town. Since I don’t have a television, or wi-fi, and since even the internet on my computer comes and goes, I play more in these three months than I have at any point in the past twenty years.
The magpies appear to be big fans of John Mellencamp; the bluebirds of Tom Petty. And, one evening, a trio of the largest blackbirds I’ve ever seen—so big, in fact, that I at first mistake them for vultures—descend into the yard a few seconds after I’ve strummed the opening chords to “Wild Horses”, and remain there until the song ends.
Further proof that the Rolling Stones play everywhere.
Taos and the surrounding region appears to be, like most places in the United States, an area where the first and third worlds are right on top of each other, each acting as if the other doesn’t exist.
I take to picking up the occasional hitchhiker. Most of them are men in their late twenties and early thirties thumbing a succession of rides that will eventually get them to Albuquerque, or Tucson, or Las Vegas.
But on one particular afternoon in late July, I slow for a woman in her late thirties just past the Saint Francisco de Assisi Mission Church. She’s standing at the side of the road with a small black duffel at her feet, and a beaten-up violin case strung across her shoulder.
Through the open passenger-side window she gives me a once-over and says,
“Didn’t your mother teach you not to pick up hitchhikers?”
“She did,” I say. “So let’s keep this between us, okay?”
During the hour-and-a-half drive into Santa Fe she tells me about the pregnant sister waiting for her in San Francisco, about the boyfriend that ran out on her sister minutes after seeing the ultrasound, and about the job her sister’s secured for her at a downtown hotel where the staff can eat for half-price.
We talk about baseball; about our hometowns (mine: Los Angeles; hers: Dallas); and about whether or not the current president is going to be a one-term deal.
When a deer sprints out in front of our car she throws her arm across mine as I hit the brakes.
When a Pearl Jam song comes on the radio she tells me about the three years she spent in the Army after high school.
When we part ways in front of the Georgia O’Keefe Museum she tells me she’s glad I wasn’t a serial killer before giving me a hug and telling me the green polo shirt I’m wearing isn’t my color.
“By the way,” I say, before she turns to leave. “I’m Kareem.”
“You look like a Kareem,” she says and smiles, before disappearing around the corner.
I’m lonelier than I thought I would be.
I spend a few weeks reading Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, which I pick up one afternoon at the Bandelier National Monument Gift Shop. The book, which focuses on the few summers Abbey spent as a Park Ranger at Arches National Park in the late 1960s, is basically Walden if it had been written by H.L. Mencken instead of Thoreau. Abbey is brilliant, cynical, prophetic, hilarious, and more or less a jerk.
Which means he’s entertaining as hell.
Animals seen over the course of the summer:
Big-horned steers; coiled rattlesnakes; mountain goats; red foxes; coyotes; deer; bison; wild horses; and, once, while hiking the Italianos Trail—which begins at 8,700 feet—a bobcat who seemed less interested in me than he was in the creek he was drinking from.
Animals not seen:
Bears, of any make or model.
At the Taos Pueblo Powwow in late July a friend and I marvel at the artistry of the regalia, the creativity of the dancing, the majesty of the sunset. A few hours in, while standing a few feet from one of the drum circles, we place our arms around each other and listen as the music gains speed while never losing its sense of patience. When the drummers add their voices to the mix, I feel as if I’m levitating, and then experience the type of feeling so rare to an American living in the early decades of the 21st Century: Complete Happiness.
My favorite living American painter lives and works in Taos: Ed Sandoval. In fact, his gallery is a few blocks away from my casita, and most afternoons he can be found in the small parking lot in front of it, working on his newest canvas.
I visit often to marvel at the paintings, and every time I’m in there he doesn’t just make sure to say hello, but to ask me how the residency is progressing, and whether I’ve been able to get any writing done.
On my last day in town, his studio is the final place I visit, and where I pick up a small original of his as a gift for my mother—it’s of an old man and woman leaning on one another as they walk down a crooked path—and the two of us pose for a photograph together in the main room of the gallery.
He’s holding his easel, and there are paint splashes in a variety of colors on his t-shirt. He’s wearing dark sunglasses, and a wide smile.
So, as it happens, am I.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/John Robin