On another occasion, I drove down to Albuquerque to meet my father, who had flown into the city from New Hampshire, where he had retired, a widower now for nearly three years. This was his second encounter with New Mexico, his first having occurred when, as an Army draftee during World War II, he rode an eastbound troop train across southern New Mexico. After Linda―whom my father had previously met in Denver―and I welcomed him at the Albuquerque airport, my father and I headed in my car to Taos, where we would spend the night and ski the following day. I was my understanding Dad had never been to the romantic northern New Mexico town.
On the ride north, my father, in the passenger seat, said little. Understandable: he had always been a man of careful words; plus, his left ear had been failing him for some time and he thus had difficulty conversing even in a car. Nonetheless, I could see his great interest, in his wide eyes and the continual swivel of his head, as we drove through ancient Santa Fe, shared the street with low riders in the pastoral town of Española, and hugged the Rio Grande, now January somber, in the winding cañon between Velarde and Pilar. Yes, I thought proudly, Dad is as fascinated by New Mexico as I am.
When we finally climbed out of the cañon, we both took a deep breath, treated as we were to what I had by now regarded as one of the most exhilarating views in the Southwest: in one direction, the vast Taos plateau, fissured by the massive gorge of the Rio Grande; and, in a slightly different direction, the distant town and pueblo of Taos, nestled in the embrace of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Then we passed through the woodsy hamlet of Ranchos de Taos, where a sign indicated the iconic St. Francis Church, which had been attracting painters and photographers from all over the world for years.
By now, I couldn’t have been more satisfied, more grateful to The Land of Enchantment for the visual riches bestowed upon us. I so wanted my father to fall under New Mexico’s spell. But when we entered the south end of Taos, and the highway ballooned into four hectic lanes on either side of which was, amid the litter, a dreary succession of hotels and fast-food joints, my father dryly remarked: “Shitty town.”
“Shitty town.” Thus, Dad seemed to join the ranks, albeit in a cruder manner, of none other than D.H. Lawrence, who, decades earlier, derided Taos as “Mabeltown,” after the aforementioned Mabel Dodge Luhan. (Luhan is “very wicked,” the ever-forthright Lawrence once observed, “has a terrible will-to-power.”)
A bit stunned, I said nothing and drove on. Meanwhile, more amused than resentful, I thought: Well, perhaps it is “shitty”―when you live in a New England retirement community of handsome condominiums, manicured lawns, book and bridge clubs, a community garden, weekly trash collection and recycling, and cable TV, all located in a white-steepled Norman Rockwell village with a 150-year-old college, a lake with private beaches, a “Little Theater,” and a tavern serving crab cakes and shepherd’s pie.
My father’s estimation of Taos rose, however, once we reached the town’s center and he beheld the charmingly narrow streets, the pueblo architecture, the famous plaza with its majestic cottonwoods, and, especially, the Native Americans from the nearby pueblo and the town’s comely Latinas. After two martinis and a dinner of pan-seared trout at Doc Martin’s restaurant, and the promise of a night in a sumptuous bed surrounded by R.C. Gorman prints and traditional Hispanic woodworking at the Kachina Lodge, the Taos mystique had just about captured my father.
The following day at Taos Ski Valley, he struggled for air in a heavy snowfall and called it a day after several runs due to poor visibility and a dearth of oxygen. Nonetheless, he was thrilled by the wind, snows, and vertiginous slopes of the southern Rockies. On the drive back to Albuquerque, in the cañon of the Rio once again, he reiterated, in his own straightforward and quiet way, his high regard for Linda: “She’s a good catch.”