Wednesday, December 10, 2014

O Taos

Mabel Dodge Luhan House, "Los Gallos," Taos, NM, December, 2014

"On another topic...

Last weekend was Our Taos Weekend.

We haven't been up to Taos for more than thirty years, and that time it was very brief, with a stop at La Fonda on the Plaza to see the D. H. Lawrence paintings, then turn around and get the holy hoo-hah out of there. Pronto.

Well, I couldn't breathe you see. I was a pretty heavy cigarette smoker in those days, and I lived essentially at sea level in Sacramento. Taos is at about 7,000 feet altitude, and anyone from sea level is going to feel lightheaded from the apparent lack of oxygen A smoker like I was is liable to panic, and I did

Ms. Ché, on the other hand, had a different set of issues. Earlier in the day, we'd stopped at Meteor Crater in Arizona. It's a remarkable formation, a remarkable site, and we spent quite a while exploring the crater rim, reading about the impact that caused the crater and otherwise enjoying the scenery and contemplating the Apocalypse.

The shop displayed lots and lots of crystals of one sort or another, and Ms. Ché picked up an amethyst chunk to inspect it more thoroughly. Immediately, she started feeling poorly, and she set it down. She said to me, "We have to get out of here. I just did something I shouldn't have."

I asked her what she'd done. "I picked up a crystal. They say you shouldn't do that unless you're prepared for what might happen. I wasn't. I feel awful."

She looked awful, too. So we left. We stopped in Gallup over the New Mexico line an hour or two later, where she doused her face with water and sat for a bit in the sun. Then we headed the rest of the way to Taos, and got there just before sunset.

I managed to find the Plaza somehow and locate La Fonda on the Plaza; the paintings were in a room off the lobby, and a man was there taking money (I think it was $4 admission) and allowing folks to wander around the room looking at the dozen or so rather naive but racy paintings D. H. Lawrence had created while a guest at Mabel Dodge Luhan's house somewhere in town. I had no idea where her place was, and at the time, it wasn't open to the public. I was interested in the paintings because I was involved in a project, a play (I don't recall the title now) that centered on -- or at least mentioned -- D.H. and Frieda Lawrence's time in Taos and I'd been doing a lot of research. Seeing Lawrence's paintings was one of my objectives in coming to New Mexico that time. I saw them. Once I did, it was time to go...

We drove back to Santa Fe and spent the night at a quirky old motel -- I want to say it was the El Rey, but Ms. says no, it was another, just as old, but not as well known. Of course, I'm sure we've stayed at the Crossroads in Albuquerque as well, and she says no, it was another, similar place, but not close to the freeway.

By morning, both of us had recovered, and we spent the rest of the week exploring New Mexico before we had to return to California and the drudgery of everyday life. Well, such as it was. (Our "everyday life" was often quite unusual... but that's another story for another time.)

I never wanted to go back to Taos, and if Ms Ché did, she didn't tell me. In fact, she says she barely remembers being there at all on that trip. I didn't want to go back in part because I couldn't breathe at that altitude, and in part because it was such a ridiculous place full of unreconstructed hippies, charlatans, new agers, and spiritualists who had no idea what the fark they were doing. And of course there were the Famous Artists, Musicians and Movie Stars. Yet another destination ruined by colonization. By that time, we'd had more than our fill of those types. Oh, yes, more than our fill.

We'd already been involved in The Show Business (as we liked to call it) for more than ten years and would be for another twenty or so, but when it came to those aspects that involved "fame" or the "famous," we tended to step back. At that time, I worked freelance as director and designer and was contemplating opening a theater that would focus on original works by women and people of color, developing brand new works for the stage, and seeing where that would lead. That project would be another few years off, however.

So Taos was a destination for the D. H. Lawrence connection but really nothing else, and when we traveled to New Mexico after that, we stayed in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Santa Fe was difficult for me in those days, too, because of its altitude -- also about 7,000 feet. Albuquerque was OK at 5,000 feet. Well, relatively speaking.

I stopped smoking in 1997 and gradually my lungs recovered, though the last time I had a CAT scan, the pulmonary doctor showed me all the "pockets of emphysema" that I hadn't gotten rid of. Nevertheless, the altitude doesn't bother me so much any more. Our place in New Mexico is at 6,300 feet, and I barely notice it's not at sea level. Santa Fe is a frequent destination these days, and the altitude has not been a problem.

Taos might have been a problem, but there was no reason to go there, so it wasn't an issue.

Then something happened. José Montoya died. Now José was a preeminent figure in Chicano literature, someone we knew in Sacramento through our associations with members of the Royal Chicano Air Force. We didn't know he was from New Mexico, that in fact had been born and raised not far from where we live now. I found out that he had died from a friend who had been with him only a few days before. There was a memorial scheduled in Albuquerque, and we decided to go, to pay our respects and to remember.

Many Chicano poets from all over the Southwest spoke at the memorial and read their own works and José's, and there was music and José's daughter made remarks, and it was a fine time. One of the poets was Jimmy Santiago Baca, who always makes quite a splash -- as is his way. He and José were apparently close for a long time. Maya Angelou had just died, and Jimmy made it a point to speak ill of her. Now wait, we thought. Dissing Sister Maya at a memorial for José Montoya? How rude. But Jimmy didn't care. He had things to say about the way certain authors of color  like Sister Maya were hailed and celebrated -- even though their work wasn't necessarily that good in his estimation -- whereas Chicano/Latino/Hispano poets and writers whose work was brilliant (in his estimation) were ignored by the market. Why was that? Racial discrimination was still apparent, wasn't it? It was just different now... certain authors of color could advance, but not Chicanos.

Jimmy read his own powerful poem and then he read something of José's and both were very good. The crowd at the memorial applauded lustily. He'd touched a nerve and moved the audience greatly.

Ms. Ché knew of Jimmy Santiago Baca long before his appearance at the memorial for José Montoya, but I didn't. It was my first exposure to him and his work, and I found both to be intriguing. I was very impressed with his poetry, his fierceness, his determination, and his warmth. But he dissed Sister Maya, and that was just wrong. 

Some months later, we got a notice about the premier in Santa Fe of a documentary film about Jimmy Santiago Baca called "A Place to Stand," and we decided to go. It's a remarkable film about a remarkable character, the writer and teacher himself, whose life has not been like everybody else's, not by a long shot.

He announced a writing workshop intensive in Taos to take place in December and invited attendees at the film to come on up. It would be at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. It would be wonderful.

Ms. Ché thought this might be interesting, so she got in touch with the organizer and after some back and forth, she made arrangements to attend.

The workshop was last weekend. She didn't want to drive herself, so I drove her up to Taos on Friday, but I didn't stay. I went back home then returned on Sunday to pick her up. She had, she said, an amazing time at an amazing place, among amazing people (she said there were sixteen at the workshop) -- and she had written some remarkable works even if she said so herself.

Really? Indeed. When I got there to pick her up, she met me at the car, looking a bit worn out, actually. I asked her if she was all right. "Oh yes, just tired, that's all. It's been quite a weekend." She collected her things from her room in the Juniper House and then we went up to the Big House to check out -- and pick up a couple of more books. As we did, we encountered Jimmy. He was effusive in his praise of Ms. Ché and her works. She had done something he had not seen before in his many workshops, and he was so grateful. She'd "opened up the sky." Whatever that meant, and he didn't know, but it sounded good. Other attendees said what she had done had helped release their own inner spirit, and helped them come to grips with what they needed to see and feel and write about... yep.

She was very happy and very tired, and she said she felt at home at Mabel's Place, "Los Gallos." It was, she said, one of the most intense and inspiring experiences of her life, and she was very grateful.

She said she felt that Mabel's Place itself was part of the reason why.

Seeing it, experiencing it for myself, was part of the reason I wanted to go back to Taos this time, finally, after thirty or more years. I'd heard about Mabel's Place in Taos, seen pictures of it, read descriptions, and knew some of its history. But being there was quite a different experience than the distant observation one can make from books and such.

I could see almost immediately why so many luminaries made the trek from wherever they were from and wanted to stay at this rambling, creaky old place adjacent to Taos Pueblo lands. It's a mile or so from the Plaza, but it feels like it's in another realm altogether. The Big House rambles and creaks along a ridge above an empty acequia. There is a spectacular view of Taos Mountain from the upper floors, an entire glassed room, the Solarium, is at the very top of the house and views go on for many miles. But the house itself, though large, is very cozy and warm and welcoming. It feels like "home" just as Ms Ché had said.

I can only imagine what it must have been like before Taos was ruined and became a tourist mecca, and this place, almost alone, was the center of a literary and artistic firmament.

At any rate, being there myself, with Ms Ché, I felt some of the energy of the place and the many that had been there before us. It was/is remarkable.

We're making plans to go back and stay for a while for the sake of it.


  1. I love it when you write things like this. They are always such calming, learning gems. Thank you.

    1. If I didn't have these alternative/grounding things to do and think about, I surely would go mad.

      I'm so glad there still are these places like Mabel's and adventures still to have that can give us hope.

      Thanks for reading and for your kind words.