I wanted to run away.
Or maybe just a get away?
(but I definitely thought about running away)
Maybe I was running to something?
Probably more like running from something.
But I was definitely looking for something.
Or rather, hoping something would find me.
Whatever it was, I found it in Taos.
This happened fast, (perhaps the most spontaneous thing I’ve done in 8 years), but after a quick review of my kid co-parenting schedule, I made a radical but necessary decision to get the hell out of Iowa. It was about as spontaneous as a type A 40+ year old person with control issues in a single home with 4 teenage & young adult mouths to feed and a gazillion bills to pay and lots of people counting on you to hold up the other end of a figurative white dress so it doesn’t drag along the hard filthy ground can be. But I did it. And it felt pretty damn spontaneous and GOOD and right.
7 days later I was heading West on a sixteen hour journey/quest/pilgrimage to some kind of hopeful savior in Taos, New Mexico (no pressure, Taos). I’ve never been there, I had no real reason to go there, it’s ski season, but I don’t snow ski and I was leaving snow to go to more snow but something about it was pulling at me, like a loose thread on your sweater that could either completely unravel into a heaping pile of nothing or is a complete nuisance just hanging there snagging on everything until you snip it. I had to find out which it was.
Road trips are my happy place. I’m not intimidated by long drives. More like exhilarated by them. Sunrise, play lists and podcasts, quiet time, road snacks and gas station coffee, the landscapes of 4 different states, sunset, nefarious weather, road closures, white-outs, followed by gigantic black mountain top silhouettes lit up by bright night skies full of stars as I entered New Mexico … this was definitely my happy place. I actually felt my soul shift.
The first best decision I made was my lodging – Hotel Luna Mystica. It’s a vintage trailer hotel with Airstream and other camper accommodations. I was glamping on the snow covered Mesa surrounded by mountains in a large camper fitted with 8 bunks rented by the night. It was so cosmic and sexy. I chose the ‘hostel’ camper because I’ve never stayed in one, it was crazy affordable ($25 a night), I wasn’t planning on being in it much except to sleep, and I wanted to meet people. Now it’s starting to sound sexy, am I right?
My camper mates included:
Pittsburgh, a kind, quiet woman roughly my age, single, successful career, living with her 21 year old daughter, a rich life of solo traveling, comfortable with herself in a very confident and unapologetic way (it was inspiring), with shared interests in travel, good food and beer, meeting new people, a love for adventure and the arts. I liked her.
Boston and Austin, mountain-weary young career men with friendly demeanor, nice smiles and kind faces that felt like mid-westerners, childhood friends that now live thousands of miles apart, one on the east coast, one in the south, spontaneously meeting for a weekend of snowboarding.
Lastly, there was Albuquerque times two, with their friend Saint Louis – a petite woman with a pretty-girl-next-door kind of face and bouncy blonde hair that mastered the French press each morning, filling our camper with the heavenly aroma of coffee like a long forgotten but once familiar Folgers commercial.
The next best decision I made was to take the infamous low road to Santa Fe.
The low road takes you south through the mountains, along the Rio Grande River through a myriad of small towns peppered with touristy stops, but most are closed due to being winter. I stopped at a few local wineries that were actually open, but my favorite was the Black Mesa Winery. Colorado was my wine server. He was at least 6’3, rugged yet handsome in a weathered sort of way, Irish-looking man, with a just-rolled-out-of-bed head full of red hair, his face sun-kissed with freckles and permanent tan lines from sunglasses worn year round, the scruff of a two week old beard and the stale sweet breath of last night’s beer. Colorado rafts class 3 rapids year round on the Rio Grande with a group of close friends, he never rafts a day without a dry suit or a hypothermia kit, he lost 3 friends on the river just this past year, and another 3 lost that he wasn’t close to. Colorado’s grandmother from Trinidad made choke cherry butter and wine but never drank a drop of alcohol in her life. His childhood love for cooking led to an early career choice, traveling and training with world renowned chefs and sommeliers which contributed heavily to his taste for the finer things but yet he chooses a simple-no-cell-phone-off-the-grid-lifestyle. His contagious zest for a life of adventure and appreciation for nature is so ingrained into the fabric of his being that you can’t avoid the contact high you get from the genuine joy and peace that radiates from his weathered soul. It was comforting … I felt grounded.
And we drank wine. REALLY good wine. Award-winning, taste-bud-awakening-melt-in-your-mouth-smooth-on-your-tongue, mind blowing wine.
We were briefly joined by Texas, a small in stature, thin but striking man with dark features, quiet and seemingly annoyed with our boisterous talk of water sports, but yet he peaked my interest … until all of the wine he opted to taste were sweet whites. I knew right then that it would never work. So I moved along my route.
In Santa Fe, I stopped at the Georgia O’Keefe museum. As I stood in front of her giant painting of the white flowers of the jimson weed, I was so overwhelmed by a powerful feeling of awe and appreciation that silent tears ran down my face. I detoured from my route to see the Ghost Ranch in Abiqui (ab-a-que) where she lived, I traveled the high road back to Taos and stopped and stood in front of the famous pueblo churches where she stood; the entire afternoon I was surrounded by the inspiration for some of her most famous paintings and for the first time in a long time, I felt centered.
Probably the best decision I made the entire time I was there in the magical land of Taos, was the day I hiked down into the Rio Grand Gorge in search of Black Rock Hot Springs. These are pools of natural hot springs that are settled along the banks of the Rio Grande River surrounded by giant black boulders.
To get there, you have to drive down to the John Dunn Bridge, along a very lengthy, lightly traveled, narrow red dirt road that had turned into a mud bog and slippery slush due to the recent snowfall. After you cross the bridge, you park in this small switchback that’s tucked into the mountain and continue your trek on foot, descending further and further down into the gorge towards the raging river.
There is no general path, so I followed what looked like tracks made by others in the same attempt to find this natural treasure. After climbing and ducking and avoiding treacherous ledges for a solid 30 minutes, I found it. I quickly observed the pile of clothes and shoes and gear strewn out across the boulders like carefree, hurried skinny-dippers motivated by 30 degree temps, unsure of how many people were already there. As I approached the boulder where I was eventually going to place my gear and clothes, I noticed there were 4 people immersed in the natural pool, quietly chatting, surrounded by giant billows of steam that weighed heavily in the cold air.
After my awkward entry into the small pool (because I am about as graceful as a giraffe on brand new legs) I took a quiet moment to take it all in and center my thoughts on not what others may be thinking about me at that very moment, but of where I am. It’s now about 3pm and the sun is behind the mountains, dusk isn’t too far away but the light makes the colors on the rocks shine in deep rich tones, the cool mountain air is so fresh and crisp and I take a long, deep breath; I close my eyes and pay close attention to the steam warming my face and bare shoulders and how suddenly I am very aware of my body in the hot water. I am living in the now. This is real and so incredibly cool.
But the coolest part, was who I was sharing this moment with.
There was California and Michigan, a young, adventurous non-frilly couple who met while teaching English in Israel and together they hiked the Sierras and the Rockies and other mountains I haven’t heard of but sounded cool, and came to Taos to ski and hike for the weekend and were making plans to be WWOOF’ers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Australia this summer and just moved to Colorado from California for a less hectic, more simple life. California, who had dark hair, a kind face with shocking green eyes and perfect teeth, asked why I came to Taos. I simply stated that “I was on a quest” and responded politely in a reassuring way with “that’s hot” … this made me blush.
There was New Jersey, a young Irish lad who is very quiet but had a sweet smile and didn’t stay long.
There was Hawaii who was recently displaced by the invasive volcanic lava and relocated to New Mexico. We were joined later by his mother and younger brother who mentioned that they have acres and acres of farmland where they grow taro root and how they cut their feet while harvesting the root on escargo snails that wash down stream into their ponds.
And then there was Wyoming and Wisconsin. A slightly malnourished looking Yuengling beer drinking couple, with sun kissed faces outlining the permanent pale shape of ski goggles, living in their truck by choice, enjoying a life off the grid. A life of adventure supported by a sweet gig as wilderness rangers at various national parks across the U.S. throughout the year. Never in the same place twice or for too long. Wyoming shared nail-biting stories of coming face-to-face with a big horn sheep who was impatiently waiting for him to pee so he could drink it and a night of cowboy camping when he awoke to his hands buried in bear’s coat while dreaming that he was petting his Pekingese in his sleep, claiming that when he finally realized what was happening, they locked eyes and both ran as fast as they could in opposite directions, both fleeing in terror. Wyoming simple stated, “it was not my day to die” and he took another swig of his beer. He taught us that porcupines taste trees until they find the one they like the best to nest in and shared with us how humans are disgusting and disrespectful in nature when they refuse to bury their poop and Rangers see deer munching on grass with toilet paper hanging out of their mouths and squirrels making their nests with dirty toilet paper. BURY YOUR POOP, people. I could have listened to Wyoming all day. But it was getting darker and I still had to work my way back up the mountain. We all said our good-byes and went along our way, never to see each other again.
Of all of the things that I did and I saw and I experienced, it was the anonymous, insanely cool connections that I made on that trip that were by far my favorite experiences and the most unforgettable. They changed my life.
I met Vermont while sitting at the Taos Mesa Brewing bar across the road, who was part of the first responding rescue crew for the people buried in the avalanche on the mountain the day before I arrived (the first in 15 years – lost 2 people); there was Taos, the Native American born and raised there, that I shared an insightful and delicious breakfast with at Gutiz, there was Chicago and Milwaukee that I met at a bar that just finished a contracting job in Taos and were flying home the next day … so many people, constantly moving in and out of your personal space at any given time, most people don’t even pay attention to.
I believe human connection is one of our basic fundamental needs as a person, it is a gift, and what we are meant for. We’re not meant to live a life in isolation and fear and loneliness, we are meant for connection. It’s part of our story. It’s where you find yourself.
Albert Einstein said it so beautifully with these words: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”