This is a story from a book I’m working on that I’m calling “Rootless Fish”
It was the winter of 91, our first year in the big house in Hondo. We had finally found a place that we could afford that was big enough. Ed was doing wall-sized abstract paintings and I needed room for collecting and drying and creating the nature sculptures and wildcrafted wreaths I had been designing. The quaint little rundown adobe houses in Taos that artists and other bohemian types had been renting for years for next to nothing were suddenly selling to starry-eyed new age immigrants from California for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Hondo was 16 miles north of Taos and we knew it wouldn’t be an easy drive in the winter but the house was wonderful. It was bizarre, actually. It had big rooms, high ceilings and French windows that went from floor to ceiling. I had never seen an adobe house like this. It had been built about 80 years ago by some eccentric fellow who had inherited a lot of money and built the house of his dreams.
There were two bedrooms and a large living room opening into a very large dining room with a pass-through into the kitchen. In front of the pass-through was a huge pot bellied stove, the heart of the house. The kitchen had a little antique wood cookstove which I learned to feed with small sticks of red cedar and keep the temperature steady enough to turn out delicious miniature loaves of whole wheat bread. I kept a pot of soup and a kettle for tea on top of the stove at all times. There was a little round table in the kitchen and that was my spot.
Out the kitchen door was an open back porch. The well was out there. Which was strange. I had never seen a well just out the back door but there it was. Off to the side, all along the back wall of the house, was where we stacked the firewood. We started off with six cords. It looked like a lot and I felt good when we had it all stacked neatly, ready for winter.
I had set up my crafting studio on the enclosed front porch. I had two six-foot long tables to work on and I gathered red willow branches and braided them into wreaths and then filled them with sage and chamisa and the wildflowers that I gathered down by the river.
It was very healing work. We had been through some hard times in Texas before moving here. We’d been publishing a small magazine about the artists and craftspeople in the hill country and our marginal little venture hadn’t been able to handle the downturn in the local economy. We’d had to really scramble to survive and be able to get up here but we were finally set and our creative spirits were starting to soar again.
Ed was painting exuberant, colorful, wierd, huge paintings. My wildflower wreaths were selling briskly at a shop on the plaza. Both of us had found part time jobs in town. Ed was bartending at a French restaurant on the Ski Vally Road and I got on at a little bookstore down by the plaza so we managed to keep food on the table and our faithful old Oldsmobile running although sometimes it felt like we were two ships passing in the night.
Late summer is when the wildflowers bloom in the mountains of northern New Mexico. After the summer thunder and rainstorms the air is fresh and cool and the world smells of sweet sage. The grassy banks of the little Hondo River were covered in delicate purple, yellow and white wildflowers with a few bright orange Indian Paintbrush thrown in for accent. I quickly found out which ones dried well and developed a technique for putting the wreaths together when the flowers were fresh-picked and letting them dry in place.
One day as I was walking along the riverbank watching the patterns as the clear shallow water slithered over the smooth rocks and sang its little river song, I felt a gentle touch on my cheek, a soft wind brushing through my hair, a coolness, the season turning. I heard a rustling sound and looked up to see the last of the yellow aspen leaves skittering down the path in front of me. I turned to look up at the mountain and saw a red-tailed hawk swooping and sailing the updrafts. The leafless trees held their naked arms up to the clear blue sky, waiting to be dressed in snow. I felt it, too, not far away.
The next day as I was scattering the seeds of the last of the tall hollyhocks on the ground in front of my house I felt a sudden quietness and realized that I was surrounded by silently drifting snowflakes touching the bare ground, touching my jacket sleeve, my hair, touching the cedar tree across the driveway. Fat, slow flakes descending steadily, heavier and heavier.
I pulled up my hood and stuffed my hands in my pockets and started towards the river. I wanted to walk in the first snow. I felt like dancing in the road.
I’ve always loved the first snow. You forget how, later on in the spring when you are so sick of it and the dirty snow banks pile up and ice over, you just want it to be gone. The first snow is pure and innocent, precious as a newborn lamb. The perfect snowflakes drift down and it feels good, like a big white comforter covering the earth and if you’re ready and have your food and firewood and warm house together, it is a joy to let the earth’s soft white blanket wrap you in its winter beauty so you can look into the heart of it, the heart of the fire that burns to keep you warm, and dream another world, the next year, into being. That love of winter must be in my blood.
Hondo was a small village, only 40 houses or so with small pastures and barns around them scattered along unpaved roads on both sides of the river just as they have been for a hundred or two hundred years, or more. Sometimes the only difference you could see between the last century and this one was the presence of automobiles. A lot of people still had horses and rode them. There was a little grade school, a post office set up in someone’s garage and the general store/gas station/bar and you might say village community center simply called “Herb’s”. There was also a Catholic Church, Our Lady of Sorrows, which did not have a full-time priest. Almost all the residents were Hispanic with a scattering of northern New Mexico type artists and a few leftovers from the commune days of the 60s. The New Buffalo Commune was born on the banks of the little Hondo River and had been a part of this community for a generation.
Almost every evening that Ed had off, we’d walk over to Herb’s and catch up on the latest and maybe shoot a game of pool or two. If it was a weekend and they had a band, we would dance. We loved to dance. This place suited us just fine. The bar was a family type bar where people would take their kids and when there was music everyone would dance – and sing! Usually the kids would be gone by 10 or so and then it was an adult crowd. Nobody got too far out of line. It was a small community. You would have to face your neighbor the next day if you messed up too bad. Besides there was only one bar in town so everybody pretty much behaved.
When they found out I was a writer, they would ask me to write for them, to tell their story. They would say, you know how to do it, speak for us. They wanted someone to tell their story before it all got lost – the land that had been in their family for generations, how they lived growing crops on little irrigated fields, running a few cattle, cutting and hauling wood down from the Carson National Forest, making adobes, the integrated tasks of the subsistence lifestyle, living lightly on the land in harmony with the seasons and passing down the stories and the customs and the recipes.
There has been a lot written about northern New Mexico. I can only tell you what I saw, how my breath caught the first time I saw a white horse circling round and round the outer edge of a cemetery tossing it’s mane in the wind, as a small group of mourners, all dressed in black, stood by an open grave. I know the sound of heartache and bitterness in the men’s voices when they talk about their neighbors selling out because they know that it means the taxes are going up and they might not be able to keep their own land and raise their children here and I’ve seen the anger glint in their eyes when rich folks come to town and throw their money around. But it’s not about money. It’s about a place and a whole way of life.
The newcomers driving fancy cars didn’t go to Herb’s place. They thought it was dangerous. But no one there was inherently violent; mostly they just wanted to be left alone. They are very close to this land. They spend a lot of time up in the forest, sometimes fishing, once in awhile hunting, taking an elk in the fall if they’re lucky, but mostly just being there. I felt like we were orphans and they took us in. Ed used to call us “rootless fish” because we couldn’t find a home. They opened their arms and adopted us.
So we got our firewood stacked and put heavy plastic over the screens on the front porch and topped off the antifreeze in the old car. We thought we were ready for winter.
It started snowing hard in early November and by Christmas we were already weary of the trek into town, especially Ed when he’d get off at 2 in the morning. Sometimes I would be the first one on the road to town in the morning. The road curved and twisted around the hill up out of the deep valley and then it was a straight shot across the mesa into the town of Taos, tucked around the foot of the 14,000 ft. Taos mountain.
On a clear morning with no ice, it was a piece of cake, a joy actually, to traverse the virgin whiteness and watch the soft colors of dawn run across the snow in front of me. But if there was ice, it was terrifying. I was not into ice skating in a 2-ton hunk of metal. Even worse were the blizzards, the white-out blinding horizontal, 50 mph wind, snow storms. You couldn’t stop and you couldn’t see. It was just a matter of faith – and luck – if you made it home.
It was getting colder and colder, too, and our firewood was going fast. We quit running the refrigerator. We used the spare bedroom for a walk-in and put the stuff we wanted to keep frozen in a bucket down the well.
The porch was completely unusable so I quit doing craft work and spent most of my time in the kitchen baking bread and making soup and reading. Ed had turned the big living room into his studio. It was open to the dining room so the heat from the big pot belly stove kept it warm, somewhat. We had chairs and a couch near the stove and they kept inching closer as the winter progressed. Sometimes I would fall asleep on the couch by the fire until Ed got home from work.
The high ceilings and tall windows made the place very difficult to keep warm but the views were spectacular. Out the dining room window we could see an old style adobe house about 50 yards down the road and past that an open field where a few buffalo were kept and in the far distance the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains that occasionally turned blood red at sunset and thus were named by the Spanish who came here 400 years ago “the blood of Christ”.
As the year turned from 90 to 91, all we could see of Hondo was white. Everything was covered in snow. Even the buffalo had capes of white on their woolly dark humps. White whisps of smoke rose from little chimneys into the sapphire blue skies on clear days and the snow would glitter like a million diamonds in the high altitude sunlight. It was very very cold.
Mornings were my time. Even the warmth of Ed’s body touching mine under the piles of fat down comforters couldn’t keep me in bed for long. I would pull my clothes off the chair by the bed and stuff them under the covers with me and warm them up before I put them on. Then I would make a dash for the woodstove to crumple up paper and stack dry kindling in a little tipi so it would catch quick and gradually feed larger pieces of wood into the hungry mouth of the big pot belly stove until the fire burned steady on its own, then I’d shut the door, adjust the damper and wait motionless, breath-clouds puffing in the chilly air, until the stove popped and creaked and began to emit warmth into the room and heat water for the precious first life-giving cup of coffee.
Then one morning I got up and couldn’t open the back door. It scared me. I had put on my boots and parka and wool cap and gloves to go out and get some firewood to bring in to thaw out by the stove and I couldn’t turn the door knob on the back door.
I was so alarmed that I woke Ed up which is something I almost never did.
“Pour hot water on it,” he grumbled. He had grown up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and told stories about winters of his childhood there that I could barely imagine, like leaving the house by the second floor window because the snow drifted so high around the house.
I got some hot water off the woodstove in the kitchen and sure enough that’s what it was. The door had frozen shut! It was a big hassle to drip the water and get it open but I finally succeeded. I clumped over to the woodpile and reached for a piece of firewood. It was stuck. I picked up the little hatchet we used to make kindling and gave it a whack. Nothing. I grabbed the hatchet with both hands and gave it my best shot. Nothing. I tried other parts of the woodpile. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The whole woodpile was frozen solid. I clumped through the knee-high snow over to the thermometer on the back fence. Thirty degrees below zero!
I ran back in and closed the door. My mind was racing. I thought it was cold when it was zero. I didn’t even know how to deal with this. I’d just have to wait until Ed got up. What do you do – put hot water on the wood in the woodpile? And what about the car? Oh, man.
I sat with my coffee as close as I could get to the stove and looked out the window. The sky was a deep blue and cloudless. There was no sound at all, no birds, no cars, no people, no dogs. Nothing. The only sound was the stove beside me crackling. It was as if the world had frozen in place, in this fantasy of wedding cake snow shapes and silence, and for the first time I felt the death force in this pristine beauty. I had never felt this kind of menace from the natural world. Storms would come and go, floods, even earthquakes but this was an energy field that was against everything that moved and breathed and had life, and it was right here all around me and it was not moving.
I had been feeling it lately when I went outside. No matter how many layers I put on, after a minute or two they would all be penetrated and the icy chill would soak right into my bones. Now I was looking at it, face to face. This was serious.
I put more water on the stove and before long Ed got up and we went out to the woodpile together. I dripped the steaming water from the kettle on to a log and he would whack at it with the big axe until it broke loose. Finally we had enough for a day to take in. We had to stack it all around the woodstove to thaw out and it steamed and chilled the air even though the stove was almost red hot.
At that point we decided to hang blankets over the opening into the living room and close off the bedrooms and just hunker down around the pot belly in the dining room for the duration. We dragged our mattress into the dining room and set up camp. It was kind of an adventure. At first.
Then Ed had to get the car going for work. Sub-zero temperatures were no reason to close the restaurant, especially when the town was jammed with ecstatic skiers. Fresh powder! After another round of boiling water and with the aid of a hair dryer, he managed to get the car started and took off.
After a week of this, things began to take on an air of unreality. The trudging to the dwindling woodpile with kettles of water, the steaming messy logs stacked all over the room, piles of blankets and heavy clothes everywhere. I kept the kitchen clean because I couldn’t stand it otherwise and it gave me something to do. The drains in the bathroom froze and we had to heat water to pour in the toilet so we could flush it.
Herb took to keeping the bar open every night after closing. He would lock the door and turn off the outside lights, stoke up the stove and pass out free shots of tequila so if anyone was running low on wood for the night they could hang in there and many did, including us sometimes for awhile. We really became family that winter.
Herb also extended credit and his shelves soon emptied out. The road got so bad that his delivery trucks couldn’t get through and he ran out of everything including gas. After 10 days we quit going into town to work. Ed stopped the day after a young man from the village who had been in town at one of the bars had broken down on the road around 3 am about five miles from home and tried to walk. They found his body beside the road the next morning. He had frozen to death.
Three weeks without going above zero, down to 25 or 30 below every night, and we were almost out of wood. I was baking up the last of my supplies and taking bread up to Herb’s to share with whoever needed it. Everyone was sharing what they had. One morning, Ed called to me from the back porch and said, “Look at this”. Someone had neatly stacked several rows of split wood in our woodpile overnight while we slept. We never found out who did it.
Eventually the temperature eased up above zero and we regrouped as best we could but some things had changed and would never be the same. That young man was gone forever and my love of the beauty of this place was tempered with the knowledge of how marginal – and optional – human life can be in this world. And those who survived had formed a bond that those who live on the land and depend on each other in hard times do and we were no longer rootless fish.