OCTOBER: TIME TO EXPLORE TOGETHER
“Wake up. It’s time to go. Come on, Mark, get up.”
I bounced on the bed next to him, poking him and tickling him until he opened his eyes. I waved a mug of black coffee in front of his face and set it down just out of reach. With a groan he sat up and looked at me with eyebrows almost touching his curly hair. I grinned sweetly.
“Happy Birthday, Boyfriend,” and kissed him sloppily.
He grinned back and drank a gulp of the French Roast before answering me. Or saying anything really, but that’s pretty normal. It takes him a moment.
“Good Morning, Girlfriend,” he said finally.
“You didn’t have any plans, did you?” I asked. I did, but I hadn’t told him yet.
Mark shook his head and leaned forward. He kissed me long and slow with a question mark of hope. I pushed him back down, kicked the dog off, and sang happy birthday as a Marilyn Monroe might if she lived in school bus in the desert.
“Well, let’s go. Wake up Mark, we need to hit to the road. Honest, I have plans.”
He smirked as I got dressed again. “Really? Already?”
I slapped the fool and reminded him that the coffee was cold and we needed to hit the road. “We’re going to Taos today.”
“Yep, it’s all arranged. I booked us a room at a motel near the plaza, we get to take Ms. Frida with us, and explore northern New Mexico. There’s even an Alehouse opposite the motel. Not bad eh? We can find you some birthday cake when we get there, but it’s time to go.”
I threw his tee shirt and jeans onto the bed and Frida followed me into the kitchen, all four steps away. I heard him rustling around back there as I put on another pot of coffee for us. Frida ate. I packed a bag of her food and the leash. I packed another one for us, the laptop, phones, camera, and a change of undies. That was that.
“Are you sure we can afford this? We don’t have to go just because it’s my birthday, Jenny. You know that, right?”
“I know, but it’s a treat before we buckle down, okay? And anyway, I have something for you.”
I sat him down at the small table and pointed to down. A present lay wrapped in the Santa Fe Reporter. He smiled stupidly as he took it all apart to find a pair of socks. Very nice striped socks. He laughed, “really? You bought me these? How romantic of you.”
I sat next to him. “Look inside.”
There was an envelope. Addressed to Mark and Frida: You are both cordially invited to join me in the search for the best breakfast picnic spot in the Rio Grande on the morning of your choice. Coffee and snacks provided.
A photo of some hot springs showed two full pools of steaming water with the Rio Grande rushing past in the background, rocks, cliffs, birds, dogs and bare shoulders of a family soaking. It looked idyllic, I wanted us to go in the morning, I explained. “To get up at the crack of dawn and drive out there and hike down into the Gorge. For your birthday. What do you think, Mark?”
He grabbed me and pulled me onto his lap. “I love it. I’ll show you how much later on…”
The Subaru rattled over the dirt road, “are you sure this is the way?”
Mark laughed. “Hmm, well, I used Google maps again. It looked like this would get us to the Gorge from the back road instead of us going into Taos first. Here goes.”
The highway had split off and we’d taken the left road past the village of Pilar and into a small narrow lush valley, with a river running through it and houses on either side. Camping grounds came and went, rafts floated past us, and a bridge marked the end of the maintained road. Ahead, straight ahead, the graveled road climbed up above the canyon, and hundreds of feet above us cliffs loomed with switchbacks the whole way up. The car slipped and slid and scrambled and made it. Finally. A few swear words later we’d found a place to pull over.
“Incredible, that’s incredible. No warning whatsoever. How are regular cars meant to get up that? They couldn’t. I’m so glad we’ve got all wheel drive.”
Mark lit up a cigarette and his hands shook ever so slightly. He leaned against the car as Frida got out to sniff around. She didn’t like car rides that much, but was definitely getting better, no more vomiting at least. She trotted over to the edge and I flinched. I froze. She sniffed and looked and peed on the shrubs. Mark called her back and I breathed out.
“Was that sagebrush? I want some.”
I started to pick it when Mark pointed out that we were surrounded by the low silvery green bushes, ones that hadn’t just been peed on by a furry dog.
“How about that one instead?” He pointed to one at my feet.
“Oh, right. Good idea.”
I bent down and sniffed. Wonderfully fresh sage. I picked a bunch and tied it together with a strand or three of dead grass. I placed it on the dash and the Fall sunshine warmed it so much that the car filled immediately with a unique smell even with the windows open. In the distance the mountains behind Taos reached for the stars, tall, craggy, sharp, they were nothing like the range near Santa Fe. These unbelievably flat high desert plains were empty but for the low silvery green shrubs and dried and dead grasses. The unending mesa was split open by the Rio Grande. All around this huge open space we were encircled by hills, and their presence was no gentle rise and fall like a breath in Mark’s chest; this was avalanche country in my mind. I had no intention of ever skiing at the Taos Ski Valley. What would the bunny hill look like? I shook my head and realized that Mark had been talking about something or other.
“It’s my birthday and you still tune me out? Typical, Jenny,” he teased. He passed me a wrap made with tortillas, cheese, and avocado. I sat on the rocks next to the dirt road and ate. He joined me on a nearby boulder of his own.
“This is beautiful, isn’t it? Thanks for bring us up here, Jen. This is perfect, just this.”
We both stared at the sun filled valleys and canyons, the empty blue sky above, and the distant rumble of the river below. Frida sighed as she watched us eat. She scratched her ears and lay down, facing my feet and hoping for scraps. Mark piped up.
“I wish I’d worn shorts.”
“Want to go look now or later?”
We stopped at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The parking lot was fairly empty and traffic slowed down as they drove across the huge divide. The canyon dropped three or four hundred feet to the Rio Grande flowing below. We pulled in at a rest area and took the west rim trail heading east and away from traffic. I held on to Mark’s hand even though the path stayed some twenty feet from the edge. The canyon was narrow and deep beyond measure, and I shuddered at the thought of Frida falling. I held her leash close and she yelped in reaction. I looked down to find her almost off her feet; I’d caught it that tight. I let her stand on her own two feet again. Four feet. You know what I mean. Shadows from three clouds created a movie of ever changing forms and colors, going from the peel of a Valencia Orange to a cowboy’s steel-gray moustache, all within minutes. Mark pulled out the camera and tried to capture a video but got frustrated instead. Poor boy. I simply gaped. Mark laughed as he clicked away.
“Another great photo of you there, Jen. Thanks, I can add it to my collection.”
It was true, he’d got quite a few none too flattering photos of me on vacation. Mouth open and eyes wide. Charming to say the least.
I sighed and turned back to the view. “Magical isn’t it?”
“Yep.” He put the camera away. “More importantly though, isn’t it time for a beer? It’s cocktail hour somewhere, right?”
We wandered back to the car only to find it had a flat tire. “Oh, damn. It was going so well. I’ll call AAA, shall I?” and I pulled out my phone and wallet. Mark shook his head, and opened the doors, looking for something.
“We’ll change it, it’s not a big deal, Jen. You can help, okay? Grab the other tools and I’ll loosen the nuts.” He crouched down in the dirt and got to work. I took a photo before asking which tools. He sighed as he stood and got them himself. “Just pass me stuff when I ask for it, okay? Oh, and block the other wheels with rocks so nothing moves when I jack it up. Don’t you know how to change a tire?”
I shook my head and grabbed some largish stones and a block of firewood. “Never needed to as I’d just call AAA. Here’s the jack for you, Birthday Boy. Get to work, we have places to explore.”
We pulled up at a brewpub and let Frida out to do her business before we went for a drink. We put her in the back seat and opened the windows widely. Mark was full of smiles, staring at the low adobe old and odd buildings lining the streets. Little cafes overflowed with tables and laptops, accompanied by a few locals by the look of it. The alehouse stood under three huge cottonwood trees in the dapple shade. Picnic tables were scattered in the back courtyard, with gravel pathways and a fountain off to the side. I sat down next to Mark at the one in the far corner.
“There are a couple of water bowls, dogs welcome I guess.” But then he pointed to a sign that said no dogs allowed. “Hmm. I don’t like leaving her in the car on days like this. It’s too hot out here.”
A small, petite almost fragile looking waitress came over with two menus and a couple of glasses of water with ice. Mark asked about the dog policy.
“Oh, that? We have a couple of regulars with really troublesome dogs; it helps us keep them out of here when we want. You can bring your pup inside the yard if she’s well behaved. No begging from the other tables, okay?”
Mark laughed, “me or the dog?”
The waitress laughed and asked what we’d like to eat.
“It’s his birthday, we’re celebrating,” I explained as I placed an order for a beer and some veggie stew.
“Thirty-two today.” He answered proudly. He shook his hair out, “not bad for an old man, eh?”
I poked him in the thigh. “Not bad, but don’t you want to order something too?”
“I’d like a well read chile burger, I mean well done, red chile…” He smiled sweetly and I couldn’t help but laugh with him.
The waitress wandered off to check on the other table and Mark went to fetch Frida. I sat and looked around. I liked the rustic funky style of the place; it was all very simple. I’d noticed tons of galleries on the drive into town, with a mix of pizza places, thrift stores, and whole food co-ops on the north side, and the chain stores were all on the south side.
Mark sat down just as the pints arrived.
“Happy Birthday, old man.”
“Hey, you’re older than me, remember.”
“Six months.” I toasted him with my chile beer. “Hmm, this is weird but I like it. It has a bite to it. Want to try?”
Frida sniffed around and I let her off leash. Only one other couple sat nearby and I asked if they minded her being free. The younger woman held out her hand and called to Frida, telling me of leaving her own dog at home for the day. She worked, well, volunteered at the local animal shelter in the afternoons, and painted in the evenings.
“Do you have anything in the galleries here?” Mark asked.
“Where is the shelter?” I asked.
The woman sat up and started to chat to us about town, how it worked as an artist of a certain kind. She wasn’t that kind; the ones with the landscapes or the Native American images sold and hers didn’t.
“Think dark thoughts, dreams, and put them into the jungles of South America, that’s my style. Magical, mystical, and just plain disturbing in a colorful way.” She took a sip of her lemonade and chatted about the shelter here in Taos. Small, underfunded, and a place of incredible challenges apparently.
“We Anglos have a whole different way of treating the animals, as if they’re our children, right? Take them everywhere, buy good quality food for them, and keep the vets and vaccination companies in business. The local Hispanics take care of the animals but they’re more likely to be outdoor dogs and cats roam free. Still taken care of but in less of a companion role, their animals have jobs to do, guard homes or catch mice, that kind of thing. The pueblo? They are a sovereign state, so they do what they want, not that I know what that is, just that there’s an overpopulation of skinny feral dogs and cats. Anyway, we all do things differently, I guess is my point. Who am I to judge?” She shook her head and toasted us self-consciously.
“I help, well, we help at a rescue south of Santa Fe. It’s a small independent place, Louisa takes on dogs that have behavior issues, she’s some kind of magician with them, most come around in the pack home life she offers them. There’s old dogs, big mastiffs, huskies, that kind of thing.”
“What do you do for them?”
The women came over and sat with us, bringing pints and bags with them. Frida kept close to me and watched for scraps to fall as the food appeared.
“We’re putting on a fundraiser in a couple of weeks, with an auction, a yard sale outside, bands and donations and all of that. We made flyers and posters for the event. Jenny here sent out the information to the local papers and radio stations.”
“Did you get any feedback yet?”
“Yeah, it’s been incredible. Considering we’re new to town, the community is behind us full strength. The radio station has invited one of us to come be interviewed the night before the event, but I think we’ll get someone else to go, right? Ask one of the other volunteers from Santa Fe. Oh, and the free weekly paper came out and interviewed Louisa at the rescue, she hated it.”
Mark laughed at the memory of Louisa’s reaction when we turned up with a reporter in the car. It wasn’t pretty. Funny but not pretty.
“I persuaded her we needed a face to the story, to get Santa Fe more involved. The article’s going to run the Wednesday before the show. Tickets are ten dollars, but sliding scale since not everyone in town has extra cash to throw around but we want the tavern to be packed. A friend of ours, Anne, is dealing with that side of things, bringing in the locals and their artwork and books and music, all the stuff we can’t do because we just don’t know. Her husband is bringing the volunteer firefighters to work as security and keep it all safe.”
Mark carried on babbling away about the show, how he’s going to get to play with that bluegrass band he jammed with before. Finally he’d have a real gig. He was thrilled to get some kind of musical career started here.
The beers were refilled almost without noticing, and the conversation picked up steam. The younger woman was called Kelly and her friend ended up being her sister from out of town, Janice. Both had light brown tanned skin and shoulder length dark hair and amber eyes, and once you looked, really looked, there was no doubt they were related. Kelly talked to me about the dogs and cats in town, another overpopulation explosion that was being slowly countered by free spay and neuter programs.
I talked of Frida showing up, and meeting Louisa later that day. We’re friends now, I told her. “I tend to help out on Saturdays when she takes a handful of adoptable dogs to Santa Fe. I usually end up with this husky, Nelson, who’s so shy, it’s really hard on him to drive or go anywhere.”
“So why not let him just stay at the rescue?”
“Because he’s very adoptable to be honest. Small and gentle for a husky but he must have been traumatized when he was a stray, the slightest noise or a raised voice and he drops to the floor and pees himself. Poor thing, eh? I feel sorry for the boy.”
We talked more of the fundraising events Kelly helps with in Taos, one was going to start in the morning at one of the pet stores, a subsidized adoption event with prices low enough to find homes for as many as possible.
“Overcrowded, the animals have limited time here. We just can’t take them forever. Did you know that last year some 55,000 animals were euthanized in New Mexico? That’s what I read somewhere.”
“Where now?” Mark asked as we drove around. I drove actually. I pulled off to the left into a driveway.
The lodge was an old-school motel with adobe low-slung buildings in a horseshoe shape, and the room I’d booked was in the far corner with the open grass courtyard in the front. I pulled up and parked in the shade and let Frida out.
“Wait here and let me get the keys for us. Take the pup for a pee, will you?”
I crossed the yard and did the paperwork and paid for the night. I wandered back slowly and found Mark lying on the grass watching Frida wriggling around her on her back, barking in delight as she rubbed up and down in the long grass.
“I wonder if she’s seen a lawn before? It feels great. I miss grass, Jenny. Come here.” He opened his arms and I lay on top of him laughing.
“What will the neighbors say?”
I woke at six and turned on the coffee pot. Mark snored softly to himself. I cleaned up the empty bottles and threw out the plastic glasses. The pizza box was empty but for one piece so I ate that. The sheets covered most of Mark, and Frida had climbed onto my pillow as soon as I’d stood up. She curled up in a tight little furry ball and kept an eye on me as I putzed around the room. I had a shower and took my time, savoring the never-ending hot water. Still Mark slept on. I’d worn him out apparently, either that or the late night movies until three am were taking their toll. The coffee aroma made me salivate and I went out to the car for my mug. Frida followed me and wandered off. I checked around but as we were the only ones up I didn’t grab her leash. We walked across the grassy yard and I stood under the Cottonwood trees in the sunshine as it peeked over the mountains behind the motel. I shivered slightly but it felt great after the heat of August, and I wasn’t complaining.
I poured out two cups for us and placed it within Mark’s reach. He opened an eye.
“Good Morning Girlfriend,” he murmured from under the sheets. Frida jumped onto his chest and head-butted him before rolling upside down and belly up. He laughed and sat up.
“Okay, okay, I’m getting up.”
We pulled up. No other cars were in the dusty parking lot overlooking the Rio Grande Gorge, and we let the pup roam free. I grabbed a thermos of coffee and Mark threw on the backpack with towels and snacks. The sun was well and truly up but the air still had a nip to it and I wore an extra layer of fleece. Mark wore shorts, determined not to suffer yesterday’s lesson in overheating again. Frida ran ahead and we followed her at a more sedate pace. She knew where to go seemingly. The gravel path wandered through sagebrush, grass and past a few low-growing cacti. Boulders and rocks lined the way and we climbed down, down, and again, down. For three hundred feet, the canyon side dropped and I slipped only twice. Frida ran back and forth, tail wagging so happily, and panting with either altitude or exercise. I tried to keep up with Mark but his long legs strode ahead and I found myself alone on the path. The Rio Grande was still in the dark, overshadowed by the huge cliffs on either side, and the river ran past on its way to Texas, the sound echoing up to me and speeding me on, keen to go soak. I turned one last corner to find Mark in his boxers on a huge river rock, with the towels spread out in the trees and within reach. Frida ran on further and sipped from the river. I stripped down and climbed in next to Mark.
The pool was ten or more feet across and built into the rocky cliffs with the hot springs bubbling up from within. The water scalded me to start with but my inner lobster self relaxed and I sighed in delight. Mark beamed. Frida panted. We lay, swam, dunked, and made out. The pup fell asleep.
I climbed out of the pool for a breather and poured us both a cup of black coffee and unpacked bagels and cheese. I cut avocado and passed Mark his breakfast.
He splashed me, “No, I hate this relaxed indulgent decadent lifestyle of ours. What did you think? You? Are you happy too Jenny?”
I smiled, “yeah, this really is perfect. Thanks for everything, Mark, for everything.”
“Oh, is it that time of the month?”
I wiped away the start of the tears, “No. It’s just how I feel, it’s no big deal…”
Mark stood up and climbed out to sit next to me. He wrapped himself around me and I leaned back against his chest. He pushed my hair out of his mouth, and kissed me gently on my neck.
“I love you too.”