From Manhattan to Taos, Part One
I wake up in a house about ten miles north of the town of Taos, New Mexico, and step outside, wrapped in a blanket, clutching a mug of steaming coffee. Stretching in every direction is flat, scrubby landscape under a few inches of snow, sparkling diamond-sharp in the early-morning sunlight. To the west are dark mountains, dusted and capped with more snow; in the distance, roughly to the east, are still other peaks, gentler in shape because farther away. Above it all is a canopy of impossibly blue sky, nary a cloud in sight, giving the whole scene that kind of picture-postcard radiance that makes city dwellers like me blink our eyes in disbelief.
Before noon the snow will all be gone. The temperature will climb into the low 50s, only to plummet again around six p.m. into the 20s. This is the third day of my third visit, this time in March, and I’m beginning to think that I could maybe, just maybe, like living here. I am staying with my ex-husband in a rental hacienda (a subject to which we will return—the husband, not the house), a two-storied structure that sprawls across 3,000 square feet upstairs and down and rents for what seems to me the obscenely small sum of $900 a month.
After a few visits, I’m beginning to get the lay of the land. “Hondo,” as it is known locally, is a small community about 15 minutes north of the town of Taos. It was the site of an Indian raid on a place called Turley’s Mill, though I won’t learn that till later, and it affords drop-dead spectacular views from anywhere you park your butt or your car.
I don’t spend a whole lot of time researching the area, other than driving around, getting to know the stores and the local library, and a few of my ex’s new friends. From the bulletin board in Cid’s—which I will soon come to refer to as “the hippie dippy rip-off store”—I can get a sense of just how crunchy this place is. There are announcements for “tribal vision” ceremonies, “prophetic healing miracle encounters,” nature writing workshops, reiki certification classes, as well as ads for alfalfa grass, llamas, chicken coops, cross-country skis, and belly-dancing classes. Nothing wrong with any of this, but it’s not like the community board at the d’Agostino’s supermarket on 37th and Third Avenue in Manhattan. When my ex and I visit the bar at a local inn one night, I get the eerie feeling that it could be Woodstock circa 1968. Everyone is simply a lot older.
Nonetheless, by the time I return to New York I have fairly well made up my mind to take the leap. The handwriting is on the walls of my pricey one-bedroom apartment in a gigantic building that fills half a city block between 38th and 39th street (and how I often miss it now, especially the gym and indoor pool). My rent in an unstabilized 700-square-foot unit will probably go up by at least $500 when my lease expires in a few months; it is either get way the hell out of the city or move to a small studio apartment someplace like Bushwick or Red Hook. As a freelance art journalist, many of whose assignments entail extensive phone interviewing or travel to shows in other parts of the country, I can live almost anywhere. And so I make the decision to give Taos a try. “A house in Taos,” I say to a friend. “That has a nice ring to it, no?”
He scoffs. “Why does Ann in New Mexico somehow remind me of Helen Keller jokes?”
This is not quite as carefree and heedless a decision as I am making it sound. For much of my life, at least since high school, I have been a New Yorker. There were brief forays, lasting as long as a year and a half, when I lived outside the city, once when I was newly married, twice for the sake of my ex’s career, and once, as you have read, for a disastrous romance in Seattle almost 20 years ago. I’ve always bounced back to New York. It is both a magnet and an addiction, and a very difficult habit to break, one which in part cost me my marriage. I have doubts, I have fears, but economically speaking, I don’t really have much choice.
Unlike a lot of urbanites, I do not nurse any fond dreams of country life—of planting a garden, mowing the back 40, or raising designer chickens in my spare time. Two days after my ex and I were married four decades ago, we moved to Manchester, VT, for reasons that are still a little obscure to me. We lasted one winter in a snazzy-looking but poorly constructed ski house (we were so dumb we didn’t even realize we were in a ski community, with only part-time residents for neighbors). Isolation, boredom, and a 3,000-dollar heating bill drove us back to the city.
But Taos is different from Vermont, with its Currier & Ives houses, brutal winters, and humid bug-infested summers. I’m totally charmed by the adobe architecture, the gently rounded shapes that come in beautiful shades of ochre, sand, and even a deep magenta. The landscape is endlessly intriguing, with parts of the town resembling New England farmland and others—like the area known as the Mesa—looking like the far side of the moon. The skies, I’ve learned during my visits, can vary from dreary snow-bloated gray to lurid shades of tutti-frutti tropical.
This feels a little like moving to a foreign country, and I am both intrigued and terrified.
But once I’m on board the pony express, as it were, I leave the toughest part of the transition to my endlessly patient and supportive ex. He’s the one who finds me a house after looking at several offerings on Craigslist—a single story, three-bedroom adobe in a part of Taos known as Talpa. The landlady—let’s call her Raven Bear—is away much of the year, conducting “shamanic and transformational journeys” to South America and Bali, according to her online profile. Later I learn that she is renting the main house and living in a hexagonal “Ayurvedic healing hut” because she got in over her head in taking out another mortgage. In the course of a couple of phone calls and an email exchange, she says that she wishes she could meet me in person so that she can better gauge my “aura.” A notion that gives me the willies, but by now it’s getting close to bail-out time on my apartment, and I really can’t afford another trip to New Mexico. I will have to take the plunge without meeting Ms. Bear.
Moving day is scheduled for the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, when I had planned to accompany a friend to her husband’s family compound in Amagansett, on the East End of Long Island. But the movers fail to show up, the building’s freight elevator has to be rescheduled, and after four days of packing I am ready to be bundled into a straitjacket before I get to the beach. The traffic in the Hamptons on a holiday weekend is so obscenely choked that we spend the entire three days hanging close to the house after making one run for groceries. In a way, that makes me grateful to be saying good-bye to the overcrowded East Coast and its expensive playgrounds on Long Island.
I bring a single book with me that weekend, a biography of Mabel Dodge Luhan—who, in the first few decades of the 20th century, provided a salon and refuge in Taos for the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Paul and Rebecca Strand, and Aldous Huxley—but I can’t handle the stiff academic prose, and give up after 15 pages.
Which means I land in my new house without as much background as a I would like, but I figure I can make up for my ignorance with a certain boots-on-the-ground curiosity about the natives and their habitat. (I did make a few inquiries into available males in the area through Match.com, but that’s a subject for another chapter.)
Raven Bear has already sent photos (and there is one of her on her website), so I’m prepared for the New Age gypsy wardrobe and heavy silver jewelry. She is an attractive woman, broad-hipped and sturdy and with a flashing smile. Is she of Native American origin, as the name might imply? I never find out and the subject never arises. She’s been kind enough to lend me some of her furniture (like a long dining table and chairs) but I don’t have a bed as yet (it will take the movers another two weeks to get here) and so I stay with the ex, chastely tucked into a small downstairs bedroom, until everything else arrives.
The house itself is small by normal standards, but to a Manhattanite used to one-bedroom apartments since my divorce nearly two decades earlier, it is positively palatial, with three small bedrooms and two bathrooms decorated in the kind of exuberant floral and geometric tiles imported from Mexico and readily available in local shops. A garden in the back blooms with native plants and a few species familiar even to botanically challenged city dwellers like myself—aspen and holly, daffodils and irises. A stone Buddha squats placidly in the center of it all.
If only I were a more outdoorsy type, I might have spent those ten days waiting for the movers in robust physical activity. I might have hiked the wild and fabulous areas around Taos. I could have played tennis in the shadow of the mountains. But because I went to a private high school in Manhattan, the only sport I learned was shopping at Bergdorf’s and I wasn’t very good at it. No matter how much I might gainsay my origins, I think I was subconsciously groomed to be one of those women who run with the poodles.
I get to know a few of the ex’s friends better, including Sunny, who proves an immeasurable help in unpacking, hanging planters, making minor repairs to furniture when it does finally arrive, taking me to parties, and introducing me to Santa Fe, about an hour and a half to the south.
One night soon after moving in, I hear a low resonant humming sound, a little like the noise from a distant diesel engine. I hear it a few more times, usually at night. Sunny tells me that it’s probably the “Taos hum” and nobody really knows what it means. Internet research discloses that “many people who can hear it describe feeling blessed and comforted by the low-frequency noise. But others do not have such a pleasant experience….” Another online source claims it’s a warning to get the hell out of Taos. I ask Raven, who simply shrugs and flashes her 100-watt smile. I’m particularly alarmed because I am half-deaf and yet this noise is quite audible to me around nine o’clock at night. Eventually the hum stops, and I take it as a sign that the place is beginning to accept me. Or I’m getting in sync with the mountains.
I had hopes that perhaps my new landlady and I might become friends, but there are too many warning bells during the getting-to-know-you phase. It was, for instance, my understanding that the garden behind the main house was mine to tend and enjoy, but Raven often stationed herself at the edges, in full view, reading and sunning herself. When I gave a tiny dinner party for a few new friends and invited her to join us, she decided the chicken was underdone and indignantly took over the broiler to remedy the situation, holding up a drumstick—yes, okay, a little pink at the joint—as though it were some sad piece of roadkill I’d dragged home. Worst of all, on the one trip to Santa Fe I made with her, she complained that Sunny didn’t seem able to get over her status as a top fashion model 40 years ago. “She’s just so full of herself,” said Raven. In fact, I think Sunny mentioned that bit of her past to me once, in those first few weeks, and that was it. To call someone “full of herself” didn’t seem to me very spiritual behavior (but I have since come to realize that a nasty streak can often be the flip side of “spirituality.”)
There is also Raven’s propensity, already demonstrated, toward a woowoo-ness that would on deeper acquaintance probably drive me off the deep end. Returning that afternoon from Santa Fe, we were driving through a part of the mountainous terrain known as the Canyon, an area of steep peaks that appear almost to slide into each other, when Raven suddenly marveled, “Can’t you just feel the energy change?”
Well, no, actually I couldn’t. But I do marvel then and now at the way the Rio Grande gorge slices erratically through the landscape north of here, a zigzagging chasm that looks as if the earth’s crust simply separated like the gigantic top crust of a freshly baked loaf of bread. Now, there’s energy.
Raven, I will also learn, has a fearsome temper. In October, after returning from a press trip, I noticed that a largely vacant lot next to her property had mushroomed into a lively trailer community complete with a horse-training ring and makeshift stables. How they pulled it together so fast is beyond me. Where once there had been one single-wide trailer now there were three or four and what looked to be an ancient school bus parked at the far perimeter
Raven was enraged, because of course this affected her property values. So she rammed her Prius several times into a plastic dumpster at the edge of the enclave, a feat she boasted about to me but which seemed a pretty dangerous response in a town where more than 55 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino and everyone seems related to someone on the police force.
Nonetheless there were no reprisals and Raven went off to her winter “healing retreat” in Bali. When she returned, she put up around her property a 700-dollar “coyote fence”—a tall bristling structure meant to deter predators, and I soon moved into another house, one with an absentee landlord, which eventually presented its own set of challenges.
Top: the Rio Grande Gorge at sunset