It’s hard to feel morose when crossing the sage flats of northern New Mexico, so soon enough I rouse myself to tell Jim that if he thought the view from the cliff’s edge at Wild Rivers was good, he should see it from the bridge outside of Taos. Chod mercifully says nothing, for I’m being a real dope here. My half-hearted map-checking of our itinerary apparently enlightened me not at all, for as we wend our way southward I realize our trajectory will skirt Taos and leap the Cañon del Rio Grande.
Good Lord, my heart’s getting hammered. How much of this can I take?
The emotional whipsaw now lashes me another direction. Thirty-three years ago Lori and I walked out onto the selfsame bridge, newlyweds of less than 24 hours, and here I am without her. I had no idea us codgernauts would be here and the suddenness is a fist to the gut. Ironically, prior to our departure Lori asked if the others knew what they were getting into by inviting me. The question should have been if I knew what I was getting into.
Thinking of her brings a smile and a sense of peace. The mood-setting CD is still playing but it’s become an aggravation. At my request Chod ejects it.
Jim says he’s always wanted to see Taos. I tell him he wouldn’t like it. Noise, congestion, it’s too expensive, everybody acts like a celebrity. But I’m not sure he believes me.
The bridge, though is mind-boggling. It’s the second highest cantilever bridge in the nation, a delicate silver arch stretching 500 feet from rim to rim and 650 feet above the emerald Rio Grande.
Sullying its splendor is a bloodclot of vendors lining the parking lot. Fronting them is a brown-skinned man with an old beater car covered with vegetables. He’s flailing a guitar and loudly shilling folk tunes while staring vacuously into space. A beautiful black woman twists into a lotus position atop her vehicle, eyes closed in meditation, as her boyfriend hawks cheap silver jewelry, his ragged clothing and waist-long blonde dreadlocks doing little to entice customers. The others are equally bizarre.
“These people inhabit a world of their own,” Jim muses.
We steer clear and step onto the bridge. It’s something like walking on air. Flexing and thrumming with each passing vehicle, the span transmits an electric vibration that sizzles from sole to gut. People approach the railing like it’s an optical illusion, uncertain of its solidity until their fingers grasp the cold steel. And grasp it they do, vertiginous, giddy, almost queasy.
We were so young. I remember her standing there braced against the rail, eyes shining, long hair fanning in the wind, a smile that encompassed all possibilities and all futures. If there were others with us I can’t remember. There was only her. And now—bad singing, cheap trinkets, tourists dressed like celebrities, old geezers for company. Such a future I could never imagine.
But I wonder if these memories are carried by us alone or if the past is ingrained within these steel beams, these basalt walls, only to be released at the right impetus. Such as me looking around for her. Camera shutters snap like a gaggle of paparazzi. Tourists crowd the rail. Without her it’s just a big empty hole.
West of the bridge we encounter the first “earthship” communities. Self-sustaining, energy independent, constructed of recycled materials, theoretically they’re the future of housing in a world depleted of resources. But mostly they’re grotesque conglomerates of part-berm, part-fantasy structures like hobbit holes only far more ornate, festooned with turrets, pennants and colors like rainbows on steroids.
In keeping with the spirit of the codgernauts, Jim becomes incensed at the sight.
“It’s too much,” he gripes, hammering on the dash. “Simple is elegant! Why don’t they get it?”
His idea of architecture is the adobe casas we occasionally drive past, with dark-wooded vegas and smooth earthen walls melding into the landscape, or the Taos Pueblo, which can be seen in the distance. The natural colors are seamless with the golden cottonwoods outlined against a turquoise sky. These fever-dream monstrosities only vie with their neighbors for outlandishness.
I can’t be certain but I sense a change in Jim. If the sight of housing fashioned from old tires and beer cans arouses his ire, those made from the earth itself creates a deep resonance. It’s more complex than simple shade and hue, or primitive nostalgia, but centers on being one with the land, as integral as the aromatic sage, the gnarled juniper or the rounded knoll of San Antonio Mountain. He grows silent as we leave Taos behind, climb a saddle and disappear across the riven land.
A sign outside Tierra Amarilla shows a Che Guevara-like head and the words, “Tierra o muerte.” Land or death. It’s a sentiment dating over a hundred years, fueled by the outright robbery of land grants issued by the Spanish crown. On June 5, 1967, this tiny New Mexican village was the focal point of the struggle to return land to its rightful heirs when Reies Tijerina, leader of the La Alianza movement, raided the Rio Arriba Courthouse to free several of the group’s members. In the ensuing kerfuffle two law enforcement officers were shot, followed in short order by the largest manhunt in the state’s history.
My family’s sentiments then were common to the Anglo Republican elites we thought ourselves to be: kill them all. Only after living in Las Vegas did I realize there was complete justification for the uprising. My sympathies still lie with the locals, but I wonder if they know that.
Heron Lake State Park is only a few miles away. We find a level site to pitch our tents and set to it as shadows lengthen. The camping part of our trip is finally here.
(To be continued)