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Dad Meets Mabeltown

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 three years.  This was his second encounter with New Mexico, his first having occurred when, as an Army inductee during World War II, he rode an eastbound troop train across the southern part of the state.  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.  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 shrunken, 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 were treated to what I had by now regarded as one of the most exhilarating views in the Southwest: to the west, the vast Taos plateau, fissured by the massive gorge of the Rio Grande; to the east, the distant town and pueblo of Taos, both nestled in the lap of the Sangre de Cristos.  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 generations. 

By now, I couldn’t have been more satisfied, more grateful to The Land of Enchantment for the visual riches bestowed upon the two of us.  Unlike me, my father loved to travel, and I so wanted him 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, without warning, dryly remarked: “Shitty town.”

“Shitty town.”  Thus, Dad seemed to join the ranks of none other than D.H. Lawrence, who, decades earlier, derided Taos as “Mabeltown,” after Mabel Dodge Luhan, of course.  (Luhan is “very wicked,” 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.

Pffff!

My father’s estimation of Taos rose, however, once we reached the town’s center and he beheld the charmingly narrow streets, the aged 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 roped him. 

The following day at Taos Ski Valley, Dad 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, snow, 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.”

  

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Discovering the Southwest of La Veta Pass

In April of my 26th year, I had survived another winter in the brick and concrete of Denver.  I loved springtime in the Rockies, and one April day I headed due south from Denver, hoping to find a landscape similar to my cherished one outside of Buena Vista, where I would spend a night. 

I did.  It was a woodland on the western slope of La Veta Pass in the Sangre de Cristo”Blood of Christ”Mountains of south-central Colorado.  Lush with juniper, it also included another diminutive evergreen, one that bore nuts rather than berries: the pinyon, or, as the Spanish know it, the piñon.  It was part of a vast parcel of land owned by the fabulously wealthy Malcolm Forbes, although at the time I was unaware of this.  A friendly Colorado State Trooper, of all people, showed me precisely where to access it.  Today the woodland is webbed with carefully graded dirt roads and dotted with pricey homes.  Back then, however, at least where I was camped, it was undeveloped. 

Beside my parked car, after heating and eating a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew (the 1970’s novice car-camper’s default banquet), I sat on a foam-rubber pad and wrapped myself against the chill of approaching night in my Sears Roebuck cloth sleeping bag.  I watched the wild and relentless spring winds off La Veta Pass drive the blood-orange flames of my campfire in every direction, the spice of the burning juniper barely detectable amid the thieving winds. 

Beneath a gleaming field of stars, I studied the distant lights of Alamosa, Colorado, to the west, never imagining I would one day live there.  I was back in the spacious “desert” landscape I loved, and it was one of the most pleasurable evenings of my life.  From there, in pursuit of more rosy, wind-whipped sunsets, I drove farther south, to camp for the first time in New Mexico, still in the foothills of the Sangres, not far north of Taos, a town still little-known to me.