Taos, New Mexico

February 2020

I’m visiting my friend Tyrah, on what I refer to as a public transportation road trip, the first of its kind I’ve taken within the US. It’s easy in Europe to do this, not so much here. I got as far as Santa Fe by bus, where Tyrah and her boyfriend Ben picked me up at the local hostel. It’s the first time I’ve seen Tyrah since 2013, the year before Jackson died. 

They drive up in their newly acquired Sprinter van, which they are slowly kitting out, for the possibility of living in it for several months or a year. Ben is tall and lanky, with shoulder length greying hair stuffed under a ball cap. Tyrah is much as I remember her, and I marvel that she will soon be 40. She has seen and been through a lot in her life, I know this, yet I still see in her beautiful grown face the ten year old girl I knew all those years ago: my almost-daughter, along with her sister Sonya, for two years while I was engaged to their father. My heart aches again as it has so many times before when I recall how we lost touch for so long, and what transpired during those years.

Her old beagle Hank jumps out of the van and greets me like we’re old friends, while a younger, more energetic version of himself whines from within a crate in the back. They introduce me to Otis, then we head over to the farmer’s market and grocery store to pick up some food before heading back to their place in Taos. We spend a bit of time catching up, and they tell me what they like about living in Taos (the landscape, the slow pace, the artistic community) and what they don’t like (the majority of the residents, especially the transplants, are over the top woo-woo). I ask her to explain, and she tells me that time and again when she meets someone new they make some comment about how “the mountain” (referring to Wheeler Peak I expect, the tallest mountain in the area visible from almost anywhere) guided them here, or had plans for them. Which begs the question, WHAT THE FUCK? and leaves me wondering, for the umpteenth time, what has happened to the average American’s critical thinking skills. 

The next day we go to watch a ceremonial dance performed by members of the Taos Pueblo tribe. I learn the Taos Pueblo is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. The tribe was never forced to relocate, nor were they put on reservations as so many other Native Americans were. In addition, they have the unique distinction of being designated both a World Heritage Site (by UNESCO) and a National Historic Landmark. They didn’t escape unscathed however, from the white man/European influence (did any? I’m sure not). In their case, the most obvious reflection of this influence lives on today in the form of religion – upwards of 80% of the Taos Pueblo tribe today practice Catholicism alongside their own, traditional religion.

We arrive a few minutes after they have begun to dance. Because Tyrah and Ben know one of the drummers, who specifically invited them to this dance, we are allowed entrance without paying the usual visitor fee. We join the other observers and watch. Tyrah points out their friend. She thinks we should meet. Why? I ask. It turns out his daughter died last summer. She hasn’t told him about me, she says, just mentioned that she had a friend coming to visit. He said he’d like to meet me, merely, I presume, because I’m Tyrah’s friend.

It’s a cold day, and I’m wearing several layers including a hat and gloves. The dancers seem not to notice the chill, many of the men shirtless, their torsos elaborately painted, the women in sleeveless traditional dresses; none of them are wearing warm clothing. I don’t know how long I expect the dance to last, but not 4 hours, which is how long it goes on for. It’s mesmerizing, rhapsodic, and I can’t help but feel like a voyeur, like I’m witnessing something very intimate. They seem oblivious to the presence of onlookers. As it closes, I’m tired just from standing all that time watching them, moving as they have the entire time, yet they are dancing with as much vigor at the end as they were in the beginning. I realize that, while they have a paid audience around them, this wasn’t a performance, they would do it whether or not anyone was watching. For some reason I can’t quite explain, this humbles me.

The following morning Tyrah’s drummer friend comes by the house. I’m upstairs when he arrives but I come down while he’s seated on the couch talking with Tyrah and Ben. He shakes my hand, and we all sit together. I wait with trepidation for Tyrah to tell him what we have in common, or for the right moment when I myself will broach the subject. But the talk is of the previous day’s dance for the most part, and though he mentions his daughter briefly (“I miss her still”), Tyrah says nothing. My gaze flutters briefly to her and our eyes lock, but I find myself unwilling to leap in. It’s been less than a year for him, while almost 6 years for me, yet I know if I confess my status, I’ll cry. And if I tell him, and he asks me when and I give him the date, will he know the significance of this date, seeing as how he and Tyrah are friends? Will he make something of it, claim it has some mystical, spiritual meaning? Jackson died, you see, on Tyrah’s birthday. It could have been any of 364 other days, but it wasn’t. It was that day, and I hate his death even more, if that’s possible, for that reason.

Before he leaves he plays some music on a flute which he has brought with him. It’s beautiful, with a halting, quavering melody. He’s clearly a talented musician, and already in a precarious state of mind, my eyes fill with tears. I stand up as he prepares to leave, and he reaches into his pocket and hands me something. It’s a cd of his music. I’m extremely touched, and again, I trip over my tongue, wanting to tell him, but not feeling able. He hugs me and tells me he feels a connection to me, and I wonder if he says this to everyone he meets, or if he is just perceptive enough to recognize a fellow griever. He puts his email address and phone number on the back of the cd and encourages me to contact him if I want. 

The next day Tyrah and I go alone to a place called Ojo Caliente, about 45 minutes or so from Taos. It’s a resort with numerous outdoor hot pools in which, for a daily rate, you can soak to your heart’s content. It’s a cold windy day which makes the water feel hotter and the air, when you step out of the pools, seem colder. We climb out of one and scuttle as quickly as we can to another, hugging our towels around us, visiting all of them but one (the least warm) over the course of the afternoon. The location is idyllic, with red and orange rock walls towering around us. I feel like I’m at the bottom of a canyon. At one point I look over at Tyrah sitting next to me, breathe deeply and sink down into the hot water, everything but my head and neck immersed. I scan the rocks for movement, wondering what creatures make their homes in this wild place. I see only birds, soaring in and out of the wispy clouds. The contrast between the hot water and the cold air, the smell of the minerals in the pool and the desert plants, the wetness of everything below the surface compared to the dry of whatever is above, the sensuality of it all, sinks into my awareness in one sharp movement of Aha! and suddenly I feel terribly alive.

Later, back at Tyrah and Ben’s place, I’m exhausted, as if I’ve just run a marathon. 

The next day we drive up to the ski resort, high enough in elevation that they haven’t needed to make artificial snow; Nature has provided plenty. It’s cold but sunny, so we walk a bit, grab a chair on the deck in front of one of the eateries and eat a snack while drinking hot tea, then take the dogs and walk up into the woods. We follow a trail as far as we can, then Tyrah lets the dogs off leash and throws her arms into the air. “Go!” she commands, and they do, first Otis, up the hill and back, then down the hill and back, again and again, then Hank too, and we can’t stop laughing. They seem completely enthralled by the snow, rolling in it, diving in it, jumping up and down. 

On my last day, we drive out to the earthship community west of Taos (https://www.earthshipglobal.com/visit-us). I’d never heard of this place until recently. We take a tour and I admit I’m impressed. It’s weird, yes, but in a good way. Recycled materials are the basis for the walls (old tires packed with dirt, bottles and cans) and there are plants, lots and lots of plants, inside the perimeter of the structure that serve several functions: drainage, edibles, oxygen, warmth, and filtration. We learn that the earthship community holds workshops, where anyone can learn to build one of these homes, and that they go all over the world in the aftermath of disasters to help people build makeshift structures like these from the materials they have on hand. They claim to be sustainable, self-sufficient to a large extent, and environmentally friendly. The designs are incredible, some outlandish, many are creative and artistic, none what you’d call traditional. I leave there thinking they’re on to something, and we’re likely to see more of this type of home in the future.

My week is up. My bags packed, I say goodbye to the dogs, then hug Ben, silently grateful for his quiet, calm, easy-going presence in Tyrah’s life. Then Tyrah takes me to the bus stop. I struggle to stay cheerful, optimistic. I tell Tyrah to come visit me, that I’ll be back, that we will meet again; all the things people say when they want desperately to hold on to something precious, but want to seem casual about it, blasé. No pressure. I hug her tightly as the bus pulls up, then climb on board and pay my fare. When I turn around I expect her to be gone, to have returned already to the warmth of her car. But she’s not, she’s standing there just where I left her, smiling at me and waving goodbye. My almost-daughter. Just when I needed her most.

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