Across the Purple Sage Part IV – Jerry’s Journal

Jerry BarksdaleFriday the 13th broke clear and cool in Santa Fe. I had slept fitfully, waking up gasping for air every few minutes. After breakfasting on my usual “curds and whey” (skim milk and bran flakes) at the El Rey Motel, Bonnie Pitts, his 12-year-old son, Leslie and I drove downtown. The Plaza was a square of green, shaded by ancient cottonwoods where people were lounging on park benches and vendors were setting up their wares on the sidewalk. It’s where the 800 mile Santa Fe Trail that began in Independence, Missouri ended and, in 1846, during the Mexican War, General Stephen Kearny ran up the stars and stripes and declared that New Mexico was part of the United States. We crossed the street to the Palace of Governors built in 1610. The old adobe one-story building with three foot thick walls extends some 300 feet east and west. It was there in the late 1800’s that territorial governor, Lew Wallace wrote Ben Hur.

Beneath the front portico, Native Americans sat displaying their jewelry on blankets. I stopped in front of a man wearing a black cap with “1st Cavalry – Vietnam” stitched across the front. We talked. He was from the Santa Clara Pueblo, north of Santa Fe. “I guess everyone is much better off financially since casinos opened,” I said.

“I can’t tell any difference,” he replied. “Except that the tribal leaders now live in bigger houses.”

Across the street, at the Overland Sheep Company, a middle-aged Hispanic man wearing a western hat was leaning against the wall singing – Red River Valley in Spanish. We stopped and chatted. “Did you see me in All the Pretty Horses?” he asked.

I didn’t remember him.

“I also had a part in Young Guns,” he added.

It was at Overland Sheep Company during my meltdown days 27 years earlier, that I had seen a neck- to-ankle black wool coat displayed in the window. “It’s handmade from Tuscany wool,” the sales lady said. “The only other one like it is owned by Rod Stewart. It would look good on you.”

And it did – on the single occasion I wore it during an ice storm in Athens.

Later, I phoned Shannon, who had just returned home at 9 p.m. the previous night following a 12-day trip to New York with her boyfriend, Phillip. They have been seeing each other off and on for the last 15 years, including working together in the Alaskan Salmon catch. I attribute the success of their relationship to the fact that Phillip lives 1,200 miles away in Lebanon, Tennessee. In my opinion the most destructive factor in a relationship is living together. Men don’t like women messing with their stuff. And women just can’t resist moving things around.

We drove north to Espanola and angled off on Highway 68, which took us through the Rio Grande Canyon. The water was running clear and swift. Leslie was excited. When we met a raft full of screaming people running the white water, he exclaimed. “That’s what I want to do!”

Miles later, the road climbed out of the canyon and we rounded a curve. Before us was a breathtaking view of Taos nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

“There’s Taos,” I said, pointing where sunlight glinted in distant windows. At an elevation of 7,000 feet, the small town is bordered on the north by the pueblo where natives still live in ancient adobe buildings. West of town are sagebrush flats that stretch as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the Rio Grande Gorge.

The dusty little town has been home to Spanish Conquistadors, Mexicans, fur trappers, mountain men and, with the arrival in 1917 of heiress, Mabel Dodge, it became a mecca for writers, poets and artists. The old Hippies, New Agers and just plain nuts came later.

We were waiting in the lobby of the Taos Inn when Shannon entered, blonde, blue-eyed and radiant. I hadn’t seen her since Thanksgiving. We got a table at Doc Martins and lunched. She was excited, but sad. She and Phillip had decided to move to Maui, Hawaii for at least two years. “I’ll miss my friends in Taos,” she said. “That’s the sad part.”

“View it as a long vacation,” I said, which seemed to lift her spirits.

Following lunch, we headed to Shannon’s rental place on Wild Horse mesa. “Follow me, but in case you get lost, cross the gorge bridge and turn left onto a dirt road, go past the first junk yard on the left, then pass the second one where goats are in the road and then bear left. When you see a boot hanging on a fence post, turn left. You’ll see my place. It’s seven miles through sagebrush.”

The dirt road was washed out in places and not maintained by the county. People who live on the mesa are “off the grid.”

The rectangular, two-bedroom house where Shannon lived had a metal roof that caught rain water that was stored in a 500 gallon underground cistern. Drinking water was purchased. Solar panels provided power. There was no fan and no air conditioner, and one is not needed. A pole fence enclosed a court yard where Shannon had a raised garden, fire pit, chairs and a panoramic view of purple sage, and in the distance, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There were two bathrooms and a “one-holer” outside with a screen door, and a side window that offered a spectacular view of the mountains.

My granddoggie, Marley, greeted me with love and affection, but the chow that had once belonged to Shannon’s mom kept her distance. Good. I never met a chow that didn’t want to bite me. The cat, no doubt had heard that I was coming and disappeared. Also good.

Shannon emerged from the house chuckling. “Penni called,” she said. “She and Pat left Athens a little while ago in your pickup and wanted to know my address so they can put it in her GPS. That’s funny. I told her there are no streets, no roads with names, no mailbox and no house number.”

“Tell her to punch in the second junkyard with the goats in the road,” I said. I knew that both redheads were already dog-cussing my little red Toyota pickup. It was a modest, but honest little truck with straight shift in the floor and a bench seat. It wasn’t my fault they had short legs.

Near twilight, Leslie started a fire in the fire pit and we sat around its warmth as light faded to gray.

“I like living out here,” Shannon said.

“Is it patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department?” I asked.

“Are you kidding? No one comes out here. There are no addresses for one thing; no power, water lines and no fire protection. People want to be left alone.” She told us about two guys who moved to nearby Two Peaks and tried to take over. “Folks ran them off,” she said. “People are their own law. They work and ask nothing from the government.”

I liked that idea, not withstanding, I didn’t want Uncle Sam to forget to deposit my monthly Social Security check.

When I crawled in bed, Marley padded in to sleep with me. I tugged her ears. “No Marley,” I grunted. She departed, her feelings hurt. The window was raised allowing cool air to enter the room. I slid beneath the covers and was soon warm and cozy as coyotes yipped in the sage brush. Later, I woke gasping for air. A squirt of Afrin up my nose worked magic. My last thought; yeah, it was a lucky Friday 13th.

-To be Continued –