Still, Life

Originally published November 1, 2014

New Mexico · USA

After several months back on a ‘new old’ job in which I had to divide my attention between two hospitals and a seemingly unrelenting caseload, I was feeling pretty overdue for some extended time away...from work, from home, from everything familiar to me but fresh air and the love of my life. A coincidental opening in both of our schedules finally arrived, so Ashley and I took the opportunity to visit some of her extended family in New Mexico and hopefully squeeze in a good hike or two just for some exercise. Accustomed to the lush greens and richly varied topography of the Pacific Northwest, I knew I was venturing into some unfamiliar territory, literally and figuratively, and I deliberately shelved my photographic ambitions to focus on rest and restoration and a rare stretch of consecutive days in which I could devote my time and attention to my best friend in a way she’s deserved all along.

New Mexico proved to be a revelation for me, and the decision to stay in Santa Fe a fortuitous one. Though stationed there for a mere seven nights, we firmly established ourselves as regulars at one of the finest coffee establishments I've ever had the pleasure of frequenting. Zestfully bandana’ed Bill was our personable and free-spirited host at Holy Spirit Espresso, a minuscule kiosk cheerfully stuffed to the gills with sundry photos, trinkets, memorabilia, and foreign currency dangling decoratively from the ceiling. If you're ever in the area, mark it down as an absolute must-stop, unless you're the kind that finds insufferable displeasure in a masterfully crafted Americano brimming with crema so rich you could use it as a flotation device.

And Bill was just one of the many friendly souls we feel blessed to have encountered along the way. People in New Mexico were remarkably warm, friendly, and courteous in a way I think Portlanders generally use to be twenty or even just ten years ago (we’ll table the discussion of why things might have changed for another story, perhaps...). There was our gracious timeshare host Carmen helping us get started on the right foot with a dizzying palette of options for eating, shopping, and hiking…geologic bloodhound Charlie Snell enthusiastically sharing his fascinating collection of rare fossils and minerals and meteorite fragments he's painstakingly accumulated over the last three-plus decades...and there was Mark, an ICU nurse/nurse practitioner-turned-popcorn maestro who gave up clinical practice to establish the aptly-named Popcorn Maven and is looking to open up another storefront soon in Utah (despite my impassioned plea that he prioritize Stumptown over Salt Lake City--a better white cheddar cheese popcorn you will not find, I guarantee you)...the three dapper and delightful ladies--Nodia, Susan, and Joan--behind the counter of the small but charming The Golden Eye just off the historic plaza of Santa Fe, smartly dressed and adorned to the nines and gracious hosts all the while (so much so that I felt compelled to give them our bag of white cheddar cheese popcorn)...the talented native artisans lucky enough to be among the few winners of a lottery that allowed them to peddle their intricately crafted wares on the plaza proper...and the immensely talented R David Marks, whose gallery of black-and-white images showcasing his remarkable eye for striking visual contrasts and poignant juxtapositions was a delight for both the mind and the heart.

The food was nothing short of amazing. Ashley had been working up her appetite for the local hatch chili for the longest time, but spicy food for me is not a dalliance without consequences, and so I couldn't really say I was looking forward to it quite as much she. Oddly, sometime around my mid-20s my GI tract began to betray my taste buds’ love of spicy food, and a meal that would warm my mouth would be followed by hours and hours of a deep and migratory burn. Not fun. But from the first bite of that blasted chili (albeit it a surprisingly mild rendition of it) at Atrisco Cafe and Bar, I was instantly hooked and began to throw caution to the wind. Unfortunately the heat only ratcheted up from there (especially her family’s home-cooked stuff!), and I willfully if begrudgingly paid the price in a recurring cycle of gustatory ecstasy and gastrointestinal regret. Other savory agents of culinary devastation included The Pantry, The Plaza, The Shed, Tomasitas, Tia Sophia’s, Best Lee’s Asian Gourmet (Albuquerque), and Anapurna’s.

And then there was the privilege of meeting Ash’s extended family and longtime friends. I usually struggle with new names and faces when they come at me rapid-fire in the workplace, but as personal acquaintances whom I enjoyed meeting tremendously, I venture to say I've been able to etch them all durably into cerebral stone. I'm something of a privileged peddler of human stories both by nature and by occupation, and it was an immense pleasure to be able to reconcile all the names with faces at long last. Of course, having said all that, I'm guessing I’ll totally bomb the name game the next time I'm lucky enough to see them… :/

For our first hike of the trip had set off in search of (wait for it…) waterfalls in Bandelier National Monument. The sunny but never unbearably warm hike took us down the dusty flanks of Frijoles Creek, which tumbles down consecutive escarpments of 80 and 90(?--no two sources seem to agree) feet before merging with the Rio Grande. Unfortunately only Upper Frijoles Falls would be accessible to us as we learned a landslide five years prior claimed the final portions of the cliffside trail beyond (and increased the lower falls’ height from 30 or so feet to what it is now). We stopped at the upper falls high above the canyon floor for several minutes to ruminate and replenish, regarding the blue skies and abundant sunshine above our heads. And although the lighting was unmercifully harsh and unforgiving for photography, we still enjoyed studying the epochal history of volcanism written in the rocky layers of red, brown, and white.

I did my best on the return leg to stay attuned to more intimate scenes of interest since the lighting was a bit too harsh to lend itself well to the usual wide-angle landscape image--not to say it wasn't breathtakingly beautiful despite the rather unphotogenic conditions...far from it! I knew Ashley was doing the same, not necessarily for the same photographic opportunities I was looking for but because she gets as geeked up over cool minerals and rock formations as I do about, say, hi-fi audio equipment. Now I'll be the first to admit that I get pretty jazzed myself about wicked cool natural phenomena, but I’m not quite sure the Ash’s enthusiasm mutually extends to my worship of man-made blocks of machined metal and circuitry that can cost as much as a small Caribbean island. She’s a little weird that way.

In any case, about two-thirds of the way back Ashley suddenly stopped dead in her tracks for the second time this hike (the first was on the way out when the largest garter snake either of us had ever seen zipped across the trail in front of her…): “Omigosh...A face! I saw a face!”


“There’s a face in that wall! Do you see it?? It looks like a Native American!”

Of course at this point I’m thinking maybe the sun’s gotten to her and she hadn’t been drinking enough water. But then she pointed across the creek to the opposite canyon wall, and my eye followed the line projected by her index finger. Sure enough, there within the ‘random’ cracks and fissures of the fractured basalt, the unmistakable half-shadowed face of a native chieftain seemed to glare out fiercely from the shadows at us as if to make sure weren’t remiss in respecting the land with each privileged foot strike upon the earth--lest we incur his wrath. It was like a Bev Doolittle image come to life, and suddenly the clear skies and truncated hike all made sense: a half hour earlier or a half hour later and the conviction of the illusion would’ve suffered under suboptimal lighting, and overcast skies would have surely snuffed it out altogether.

I See You

After I took a few shots, we returned to the parking lot of the visitor center and allowed momentum to carry us on past to the short loop hike that meandered through an area that’s been subject to human footfall for the past eleven millennia, when nomadic hunter-gatherers first made their way across this land. Remnants of masonry walls and caves carved out of the relatively soft tuff cliffside echoed the voices of the first permanent settlements by the Ancient Pueblo people almost 900 years ago. There they maintained residence for the next four centuries before moving on to the flanks of the Rio Grande and finally dispersing to tiny establishments that still exist to this day, such as Cochiti and San Ildefonso Pueblo.

The short trail first flanks a broad cliffside peppered with caves and petroglyphs, readily accessible were it not for the numerous signs admonishing you to stay well back in order to preserve the fragile relics for future generations. At a fork in the road, however, the pathway meanders up and through the multi-tiered pueblos, and a somewhat alarmingly ‘bouncy’ ladder fashioned in the traditional manner allows visitors to climb up and into one of the shelters. We both obliged, but fully immersed in the experience I completely neglected to shoot a ‘real’ photograph from the interior. So it goes sometimes.

Earlier during the first of two mini family reunions, one of her aunts who’s well-acquainted with our love of the natural world suggested we check out the short trail at Tent Rocks, a notion we sort of secretly (and ashamedly) shrugged off as a local’s pat recommendation for a couple of casual visitors. Instead we’d already planned a significantly longer second hike for ourselves, ambition trumping open-mindedness and burgeoning with prospects of taking a soak in some natural hot springs. As it turned out, catching up on sleep ended up trumping everything else on that day, and we found ourselves lazily rousing from our slumbers with noon fast upon us before we could wipe the grogginess from our eyes. So we nixed the longer hike and resigned ourselves to Tent Rocks--the New Mexican equivalent of Multnomah Falls and a serious hiker’s consolation prize at best, we figured. We couldn’t have been happier to be wrong.

After a beautiful drive through the expansive high desert beneath azure skies festooned with cirrostratus and -cumulus clouds, we found ourselves at the threshold of a completely alien landscape: Beige striated cliffs topped with massive boulders perched on ridiculously narrow cones of pumice and tuff rose up defiantly from an arid landscape pockmarked with shrub oak, yellow-flowered chamisa, and high-desert standbys of banana yucca, cholla, and prickly pear.

The laziness of our slow awakening seemed to carry over into our hike and synergize with a mile-high sense of breathlessness, and I found myself having to expend far more energy than usual just to spur my legs to some semblance of coordinated forward movement. Noting my apparent weariness and ever ready to state things that are painfully obvious to everyone but me, Ashley reminded me that I hadn’t really eaten anything yet that day, and indeed the vitality seemed to rebuild brick by brick with each delicious bite of my protein bar. With one basic need addressed, we set our sights on the slot canyon trail in the hopes of slaking another...

The slot canyon traverse itself couldn’t have been more than a few tenths of mile, but it seemed to ensnare us in a suspended state utterly devoid of distance and time. There was only a sense of dissolution into space and just the most primordial perception of form, light, and texture. Only the whipping winds and flying grains of sand striking our exposed skin at high velocity reminded us of our corporeal existence. Pastel volcanic rock strata of varying thicknesses undulated this way and that, by turns serendipitous and even chaotic at a strophic level, but unequivocally poetic in its summation.

What struck me most, though, was the expansiveness of being that came over me--a completely counterintuitive notion standing there surrounded on all sides by sheer rock walls. Despite the limited real estate, however, there was never any real sense of feeling pinched or squeezed even as the actual situation would have testified to that physical reality. Where confinement and claustrophobia should have prevailed there was instead liberating freedom and spaciousness, vast in its expanse...a paradox far more amenable to appreciation through experience rather than explanation. A deep calmness swept over me, and I came to further understand on some elementary level the deep spiritual and organic connectedness the native peoples felt and still feel today with this otherworldly land. If you ever get the chance to go, go.

As it is, we are both now back in our respective homes, back working in our respective hospitals, back doing our jobs to make ends meet and, hopefully, effect some positive difference in the lives of those in need. But despite all this, I know also that we are still there, back in that slot canyon, marveling at the wonder of its history and geology, thoroughly lost in one sense and fundamentally found in another. In a very true way, we didn't so much enter the canyon as the canyon took us in, subsuming and deconstructing us before finally, somewhere in the midst of that indefinable space, regenerating us from sinew to soul.

Enter: Solace

And so I’d be terribly remiss not to extend my sincerest apologies to Aunt Veronica: Please forgive us our completely unintended slight, and let our naïveté neither diminish nor obscure our deep respect and heartfelt you and to your amazing land known as New Mexico.

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