Taos: Making Friends with the Locals

During my recent weeklong Taos Writers Retreat I skipped the scheduled morning dance sessions. Free-form dancing in a group is waaaay too far out of my comfort zone, even though Jen insisted everyone keeps their eyes closed so no one is watching you. Instead, I walked a few blocks from the Mabel Dodge Luhan House to a local coffee house.

Possessing an instinctive homing device for caffeine, I found my way there by taking a trail that led off the property, slipped through an opening in the bushes that led to Kit Carson Park, and cut a diagonal line across the park toward the center of town. I passed the Taos Little League field, the graveyard where Mabel Dodge and Kit Carson rest in peace, and popped out the other side onto Paseo Del Pueblo Norte. I hung a left on the main drag, passed a restaurant and a few art galleries before finding my destination recommended by one of the staff at the inn: World Cup.

World Cup is a tiny espresso bar, one of the smallest spaces in which I’ve ever had a latte. About the size of a bedroom, it feels as cozy as one too. There’s a cash register, an industrial size espresso machine, and along two walls runs a counter with metal bar stools underneath. The place is so small, so intimate you automatically become part of any conversation.

Every day I saw the same people, the “regulars,” people who lived in Taos.

There was Jack, the barista. Reserved and intelligent looking, his clean cut-ness offset by his hint of a beard, he always dressed neatly in a collared shirt, vest, and bandana tied around his neck. I wondered if he was a folk musician by night.

There was Simon, the English mystery novelist who looked more like a rancher. He was tall with blazing blue eyes, and his booming voice with the British accent dominated the coffee house whenever he spoke.

There was Pat, the ex-hippie from Haight-Ashbury, a short, kind-eyed man who wore Hawaiian shirts and a baseball cap that hid his grey hair. When he smiled it showed the hint of gold rimming his teeth.

There was Marianna, another barista, with dark hair and bangs and an ever-present warm smile made brighter by her signature swath of power-red lipstick.

There was Lloyd, slightly soft and rumpled, always sitting at the bar, always ready to join in the conversation. He was a dead ringer for Norm from “Cheers.”

There was the man (whose name I never learned) who looked like an aging rock star turned mountain man, his hair long and shaggy, his jeans faded, his boots worn, his icy blue eyes weary.

And every single morning there was Joseph and Augustine, two men from the Red Willow tribe. Weathered and bronzed, with high cheek bones and black hair in long braids tied back into ponytails, they walked the three miles daily from the Taos Pueblo, where their tribe has dwelled for over 1000 years, to get coffee and wait for their ride from Joseph’s brother, Blue, to whatever work site they were headed to that day.

Joseph (left) and Augustine (right) making a point not to smile for the camera

It wasn’t just people who were regulars, but also their dogs. Pat with his ultra-shy black lab-mix puppy named Digger, whom he was attempting to socialize. Steve with a different dog each day (he had five), including a red chow, a black chow, and a brindled Mastiff-mix. A lab here, a scruffy white terrier there, a cattle dog, a Golden retriever, the dogs nearly outnumbered the customers. Because World Cup was so small, the combination of dogs and coffee patrons made for the Taos equivalent of an L.A. traffic jam. Without the road rage.

Often the conversations revolved around the dogs. Many of the dogs’ owners had made it their mission to rescue animals abandoned at the animal shelter, or capture feral dogs found on construction sites, and rehabilitate them until they could be adopted.

This was a reminder: There is still goodness in this world.

I heard one woman say she was on her way to a daylong chainsaw carving class. I heard a man say he was applying for a visa to move to Australia. I heard someone say he just signed a lease for the art gallery he had been working so hard to open. I heard another one say his New York agent had just given him feedback on his screenplay. I heard a four-year-old girl insist to her mother that she wanted the chocolate croissant not the plain one she was already eating.

This was a reminder too: There is still so much to strive for, so many dreams to pursue. (And a reminder that when in doubt, always go for the chocolate one.)

Given my affinity for café culture (especially the dog-friendly kind), my curiosity about people, and my chatty personality, I was more than happy to insert myself in these conversations. (And pet every dog that came through the door.) I was eager to be part of the group, not only because of my outgoing nature, but because I live a little too isolated for my disposition on a farm, 25 miles from the nearest espresso bar. I was starving for conversation, for community. Forget free-form dance; this was a week I could take advantage of being a 10-minute walk from the crossroads of an eclectic bunch of townspeople. And drink really good coffee.

On my second morning at World Cup, I was pulled into a dialog with Augustine and Joseph, the two Native Americans. Augustine asked me where I was from.

“Iowa,” I told him.

In reply he asked me, “Do you know Jim Leahy?”

Outwardly my face showed that I was trying to determine if, in fact, I did know a Jim Leahy. Inside, though, I was laughing at the notion that out of an entire state, nearly 500 miles wide, I would know this one person.

But then Augustine added, “He founded Overland Sheepskin Company.” He spoke so shyly, so quietly, I had to lean in to hear him. The background noise of the bean grinder and milk steamer and other customers ordering coffee made it even harder to hear. I got so close I could smell the cigarette smoke on his clothes. “I worked for him for 13 years,” he continued.

My eyes shot open at the recognition. “Oh my god, yes. I mean, I know his wife, Jennifer. She runs Blue Fish Clothing. They live in Fairfield. I spend a lot of time there.”

This is why I love life. These seemingly random connections are what I live for. Stumbling upon common links always tells me I am exactly where I need to be at exactly that moment. The world is a lot smaller and a lot more connected that we realize. With this realization comes a feeling of wellbeing. We are not as lost or as disconnected as we think.

As if reading my thoughts, Joseph chimed in. “Small world,” he said, flashing a grin at me, unselfconscious that his two front teeth were missing. Teeth or not, he was handsome, with his chiseled features, crisply dressed in his jeans and cowboy boots, and athletically fit. “We live up at the Pueblo. Have you been there?”

“No,” I said. “I just got here. I’m in Taos for a week, for a writers retreat. It’s a group of 23 women trying to get past their writers block. Coming here for coffee is my secret little morning ritual.”

“Come to the Pueblo. I’ll be your tour guide, “Joseph said. “There’s an adobe structure that’s an original five-story building. We grew up there.”

I looked into his eyes, brown and slightly slanted. What I saw in his eyes was a deep, bubbling hot spring of American history so dark and tragic I felt like I was going to drown. My heart splintered a little more at that moment, the broken pieces shattering into even smaller pieces—as if after all my recent grief I could afford any more cardiac damage. Talking with these Native American men stirred up something far down and unknowable inside me. I don’t believe in past lives, and I absolutely cannot comprehend the quantum physics of gravity, space and time, where life might exist simultaneously in different dimensions, but damn if I didn’t feel like there was something more going on between the three of us. Was this force of energy and this intensity of eye contact—also with Augustine, his brown irises surrounded by more red than white—because we were connected on a different plane? Or was it my nostalgia for simpler, more environmentally sensitive times? Times before smart phones and paved roads. Before combustion engines and Dakota Access Pipelines. Before the White Man obliterated the peoples who lived in harmony with nature, those who understood and respected the balance of ecology.

Who knew that a 7:30AM stop at the local coffee house would evoke such profound thoughts?

I had to remind myself to breathe. After a pause to shake off the mind-bending sensation, I answered him. “I would love a tour. How about Saturday afternoon, right after my workshop ends?”

For the rest of the week I continued my daily jaunts to the coffee house. One morning I met a woman while cutting across the park. She was older, with hair dyed scarlet red, taking her morning power walk. I walked next to her, asking her for directions which led to asking her about her life. In clipped British English she said she spends half the year in Taos and the other half—the winter—in San Miguel de Allende. Like Augustine asking me if I knew his friend in Iowa, I asked her if she knew my friend Angela in Mexico. “She’s a writer,” I said. “She’s also British.”

And then, in the way I answered Augustine, this woman stopped walking and turned to look at me. “Yes. I think I do know her. I’m sure I’ve heard her name. Yes, I’m certain I’ve met her.”

Once again, right place, right time. The world is so bloody small, people are so connected to each other—connected to me—it feels like I do belong in it after all.

On the last night of the writers’ workshop, our group of 23 formed a circle. Each woman took a turn professing what she got out of the week. In my allotted one minute, I said, “I got exactly what I needed: a sense of community, a sense of belonging. But not just from all of you.” Then I revealed where I had been disappearing to each morning. “I got a bonus community by going to the espresso bar, where I made friends with the locals.” The entire circle nodded in approval, and with, I dare say, a hint of admiration.

At the designated time on Saturday, I met Joseph at the Pueblo. As promised, he gave me a tour of his primary community. (World Cup, like it did for me, clearly served as his “bonus community.”) He explained how these earthy red adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years, making this place the longest continually inhabited community in the U.S. These mud and straw structures, still standing so solidly, were built between the years 1000 and 1050 AD. Its buildings are so impressive in how they’ve withstood the test of time (and weather and myriad attacks) that the Pueblo is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ranking right up there with the Pyramids and Taj Mahal. “It’s not a reservation,” he said, “because we have never left. Reservations are places tribes were moved to.”

I nodded, acknowledging this important distinction.

He pointed out the kivas, underground caves marked by a bundle of tall poles protruding above, where the men (no women allowed!) partake in rituals, initiations, and learn the unwritten wisdom and teachings of the tribe shared orally. “I’ve spent 40 days and 40 nights inside the kiva,” he said. Joseph is 55 and is an elder serving on the Tribal Council. “I’m young for an elder. They are normally in their 80s. But as they die off I continue to move up, taking their place.”

His revelation that he was an elder didn’t surprise me, given how articulate and knowledgeable he was. Maybe there was something about his elder wisdom that had moved me so much the day I met him. Maybe he was channeling the Great Spirit.

We walked along the front side of the largest structure, passing vendors selling carvings, beads, drums and art, and I spotted—what the…?!—a pie shop. “We have to go in,” I insisted. “I have to try the pie.”

Joseph knew the baker, the grandson of Crucita, the woman who opened the bakery almost 100 years ago. The two immediately started chatting in their native Tiwa language.

The Pueblo is off the grid—there are no power lines, no running water. They collect their water by dipping buckets into the river that runs through the middle of the village. The lights are run by propane, and the ovens—adobe beehive-shaped things called “hornos”— are fueled by wood fire.

Try running a pie stand baking in this

For a moment I imagined what it would have been like to run the Pitchfork Pie Stand using only an horno. I bristled at the thought.

I bought a slice of blueberry pie, a flat triangle that resembled a quesadilla, and shared it with Joseph. It was too sweet, and the filling was probably canned, but who cares? I was eating pie at the Pueblo. Pie made in the oldest inhabited structure in the land. Pie made by a Red Willow man.

Pie notwithstanding, after such a long and sad period, life was looking up.

I stayed in Taos a few extra days, renting a ridiculously cute one-room log cabin I found on Airbnb. It was too far to walk to World Cup, but that didn’t stop me from driving the five miles there to get my latte. But two days in a row I arrived too late to see my regular crowd. Determined to see my “friends” one last time, I gave Augustine a call in advance (Joseph doesn’t have a phone) to make sure the guys would be there on my final morning. I set my alarm for 6:30AM to be there by 7.

When I arrived at World Cup, they were there, along with a few other regulars who trickled in and out. I said hi to my Red Willow friends but told them I wanted to get my coffee before chatting. I went up to the counter and the barista, Marianna, said, “Large latte, three shots?” I nodded and smiled. You know you’ve become a local when they know your drink order. I reached for my wallet and she added, “The guys already paid for it. It’s on them.”

My hands reached for my heart to keep it from bursting out of my chest. I couldn’t stop the tears welling up in my eyes. “I wasn’t expecting that,” I said to Marianna, still holding my chest. I didn’t need to say anything as my reaction already told her. “It’s my last day here,” I said, wiping my wet cheeks. “I don’t want to leave.”

“Taos is a great place to live,” Marianna said. “There’s community here.”

Community. Yes. That is exactly what I kept experiencing during the 10 days I had been in town. I wanted more of this—needed more. I longed to stay. I had even looked on Craigslist for short-term sublets. But as the owner of my rented cabin said when I asked if I could book it for an entire month, maybe two, “You have people who love you waiting for you back home.” He couldn’t have known this, yet he was right. It wasn’t just people waiting (Doug) but dogs and cats and goats too.

I finally composed myself enough to return to Augustine and Joseph, and Blue. “Oh, you guys, thank you so much. I am so touched. But I’m the one who should be treating you to coffee.” They shrugged off my thanks, as if they were embarrassed by my gushing gratitude.

They couldn’t possibly have known—and I wasn’t about to tell them—just how down I had been before I came to Taos, how much I was grieving not just my dad and my goat, but the whole state of the world. Likewise, they couldn’t possibly know just how much their kindness had restored my faith in humanity. (Though I must add, taking a 10-day break from the news and social media also helped.)

Overcome by shyness all around, we sat on barstools, not really sure what to talk about, not sure how to say goodbye. Other regulars showed up, filling up the space between our awkward small talk. Pat with his dog Digger. Steve with yet another dog. And the guy opening the art gallery with his cattle dog. I bent down to pet each of the animals.

“We have to go to work,” Augustine finally said. “I have something for you.” He handed me a small bundle, a zip-lock bag wrapped in paper towel. “Don’t open it until you get home,” he said.

“You mean when I get back to Iowa, or do you just mean don’t open it until later?”

“You can open it after I leave,” he said.

Once I was in the car, I unwrapped his gift. I assumed it was one of his rock carvings he had shown me photos of—bears on all fours. “I like doing the detail,” he said as I studied his pictures, faded and dog-eared. But it was not a stone carving. It was a necklace made of chunky turquoise beads. I immediately fastened it around my neck and held the beads in my fist as I drove down highway 68.

As much as it made my heart ache to leave Taos, I reminded myself that life is about moving forward. Unless you know how to move in a space-time continuum, forward is the only direction we can go.

Eventually I pointed my car East, toward my life back in Iowa, toward my goal of finishing my next book, toward my pathetic little $39 Mr. Coffee Espresso Maker and my community of farm animals.

Back in Iowa, this is what community looks like.

I had a long talk with Doug on Saturday, while we were out canoeing on Big Cedar Creek. Immersed in nature is an ideal setting to discuss important issues. I told him about my desire to remain in Taos, to rent a place there, about my morning coffee house routine, and how I felt like I really belonged there.

“I need to live in a place that smells of sagebrush,” I said.

He understood. “You can go back, Bea. If that’s what it takes for you to write, you should go.”

His support came from a place of such unconditional love I realized the Taos cabin owner was right. This is home. The people here do love me—Doug loves me. And I can—and I will—readjust to a place that smells of fresh-cut hay instead of sage.

Instead of returning to Taos, I rearranged one of the rooms in our farmhouse and turned it into my own office. No more desk in the bedroom.

The first thing I did after setting up my desk was to create a shrine to my time in Taos—my journal filled with inspiration and motivation from the workshop, the “Write True” charm from Jen reminding me to write my heart out honestly, the postcard of Georgia O’Keeffe on the back of a motorcycle (she too was smitten with Taos, so much so she left NYC and moved there permanently), a sprig of New Mexico sage, and last but not least Augustine’s turquoise beads.

I have claimed a room of my own where I will write— with courage and confidence—my next book, my blog posts, magazine articles, and thank you letters to certain Red Willow Indians.

Thank god I skipped those dance sessions.

The (Snowy) Road to Taos

“Travel not to find yourself but to remember who you’ve been all along.”

                                                      — as seen on a plaque yesterday in a home decor store

In November, Hillary lost the election. In March, I lost my dad. A month later, in April, I lost my goat, Cinnamon. After all that I thought I was also going to lose my mind. Writing is my best form of therapy, and on his deathbed, my dad reminded me, “Words matter.” But my brain was such a muddled, grief-stricken mess I was stuck. I put my fingers to work typing “writers retreats” on Google and found one, one that I was sure could get me back on track. It was for smart, ambitious women suffering from writers block. It was in the spiritual Mecca of Taos, New Mexico. It was sold out.

I wrote to Jennifer Louden and pleaded my case. “I NEED THIS. DESPERATELY,” I implored, telling her how I had just lost my dad and my goat. “Please, please, PLEASE, can you get me in?”  I got a reply so quickly it was like a form letter. “We‘ve added you to the waiting list.” Period.

My friend Kee Kee assured me I would get in. Though she suggested I just go to Taos anyway, that a road trip might be as much as I need. But no. I wanted structure. I wanted community. I wanted someone to use their velvet whip on me to get me back in the chair.

I sent my plea on a Friday. On Monday afternoon I was told I had cleared the list but still needed to send in an application—which was a bunch of questions about why you want to write, what you’re working on, and what you hoped to get out of the weeklong workshop—a vetting process. Tuesday morning I was told I was in. Yes!

I packed my car (actually Doug’s car since his SUV was bigger and safer than my Mini Cooper) and left Iowa on Friday morning, April 28. The workshop started on Sunday, April 30. Google maps calculated the driving time at 16 hours. No problem.

When I left the farm it was raining. It kept raining all through Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Doug, who as a farmer is obsessed with his weather app, stayed in close touch, giving me regular updates about the latest developments on the radar. He told me it didn’t look so good. I didn’t need him to tell me that because I could see for myself—the clouds hung so low they touched the ground, the rain was turning to snow. I called him to discuss the conditions.

“There’s a storm system that is coming up along the eastern edge of the Rockies,” he said. That’s exactly where I was headed.

“Okay, then I’m going to make a detour and head south,” I told him. “I’ll just drive around it. It will add a few extra hours but at least I will be safe.” He agreed with me that it was a good plan.

As I pointed south, weaving my way through the Panhandle’s sea of wheat fields and oil rigs, I came to the town of Canadian, Texas. I was going to keep pushing on, but when I saw the Stumblin’ Goat Saloon I took it as an omen. The goat I had just lost, Cinnamon, was one of my favorites. She was the most beautiful out of the four, with her fluffy tan coat, white underside and a black stripe down her back. More striking was her humility. She was shy and polite, and unlike the others never pushed and shoved to get more carrots. As a tribute to her, I would stop and eat lunch. Big mistake.

Inside above the bar was a big stuffed white goat, not just a head and horns, but the entire front half of the goat’s body. It didn’t look like Cinnamon; it looked exactly like one of our other goats, Mr. Friendly. I should have walked out then. Instead, I stupidly ordered a $10 burger that looked—and tasted—worse than day-old McDonald’s. As I was leaving, I passed the mayonnaise-heavy salad bar and—wait for it—there was another stuffed goat. This time it was the full body of a small goat and it was being used as a—I kid you fucking not—a bottle opener. A sign above it said, “PETA Warning: This Goat may have been harmed in the making of this bottle opener.” I have never regretted a meal more.

But I digress. I was dodging a snowstorm in order to get to a writers retreat on time.

After 16 hours of driving I got as far as Amarillo, still 6 hours from Taos, where I chatted up a couple pumping gas at the Flying J. They had come from the west, from Albuquerque—the direction I was going. They looked pale and shaken. “It’s bad,” the husband said. “We had to pull off for three hours because of the snow.” If the weather had been okay, I would have already checked into my historic inn in Taos. Instead, I sought refuge at a Motel 6 in Amarillo.

Now it was me who was obsessively studying the weather app. I hit the refresh button every five minutes to see if the Winter Weather Advisory had been updated, and ideally canceled. Instead, it was extended. It was supposed to end at 10AM. Then midnight. Then 10AM Sunday. Then 1PM, 2PM, and eventually 7PM Sunday. The workshop started Sunday at 6. I barely slept.

I woke up to see Doug’s car buried under a few inches of snow and the trees blowing sideways from hurricane force winds. The weather radar showed the storm, which was supposed to move to the north, had shifted (or a new one had developed) and it was centered right over Amarillo.

I tried to wait it out. I stayed in my room until 11 until I became too restless. I checked out and went to Starbucks, drinking a triple latte as I stared out the window at the toppled tables and chairs, the canvas of the umbrellas billowing like parachutes after a botched landing. I could see the interstate from where I sat and there were cars and semis moving down the road. Slowly. But still, they were heading west.

I examined the radar again. If I could just blast through the storm cell I would pop out the other side where sunny skies and climbing temperatures were reported.

I hate driving in rain. I hate even more driving in snow. Driving on mountain roads in bad weather is one of my biggest nightmares (after tornadoes and snakes.) In the past I thought nothing of driving in adverse conditions. But with age comes fear. My vivid—and morbid—imagination takes over and I picture myself perishing in a fiery crash, my car flipping over and pummeled, with me bloody, mangled, perhaps lifeless, in the wreckage. I never thought I would become one of those fearful people, the little old lady hunched forward in the drivers seat, gripping the wheel in terror and driving way too slow, with other drivers giving her the stink eye when they finally pass. But when the weather is bad, the rain blinding, or the mountain roads too windy and narrow, I am that old-lady driver.

I may have become more fearful but I still possess enough determination, enough grit, enough impatience to talk myself into action. It took some serious self-talk to convince myself, but I reasoned that I would take it slow. If other drivers didn’t like my cautious pace they were welcome to go around me. As Marcus taught me how to relax when faced with drivers on the German Autobahn tailgating me at 120 mph, “If they don’t like your speed, it’s their problem.”

Holding my breath, I merged with the traffic on the I-40. The pavement was covered in extensive patches of snow and ice. No one could go fast even if they wanted to. In fact, once I pulled onto the interstate, no one was going more than 5 mph, because a snowplow was up ahead blocking everyone. My GPS showed a one and a half hour delay due to this traffic, and after that Grande Latte I had to pee, so I pulled off at a random exit. Bad choice. The only restaurant at the exit was closed—due to bad weather. Wishing I was wearing Depends, I had to stay on the frontage road for a few miles before there was another onramp. The frontage road was surprisingly clear of snow and as I drove west on it, parallel to the interstate, I passed the long snail line of cars, cars and more cars. And then, I passed the snowplow, and right after the snowplow was my onramp. Ha! I wanted to be happy about getting ahead of the traffic, but the unplowed freeway could have been covered in even thicker snow and ice. Fear kicked in again. But since there was no one behind I just whispered to myself over and over, “Go gently,” and drove ever so slowly. At least 30 mph was faster than 5. The road ahead, oddly, was clearer than the road behind. And soon, in a matter of a few miles—que milagro!—the road was altogether dry. Above, I could even see a distinct line marking the edge of the storm system. I was still making my way out from under the dark grey muck, but there was a cloudless blue sky dead ahead.

I explain all this because it matters. It matters because had I not taken that exit to pee, I would not have gotten in front of the traffic, and if I had not gotten in front of the traffic I would not have arrived in Taos at exactly 6:00PM, the minute the writers workshop started. It matters because that while I weighed out the safety factors and erred on the side of caution, I was still able to push past my fear, trust my snow tires, trust myself. It matters because bad luck eventually exhausts itself.

My losing streak has been followed by nothing but good. I went on to have one of the most outstanding experiences I’ve had in years. The workshop exceeded my expectations on every level. I made new friends. I wrote like a madwoman. I explored the beauty of the town, its earthy adobe buildings, and its surrounding mountains. Everything about the week went so incredibly right, like magic. Like a well-deserved winning streak.

I look back and realize that storm cell hovering over Amarillo was like a metaphor for my life. Grief had been hovering over me, keeping me stuck in a metaphorical Motel 6. I know grief. I know you can’t go around it. I’ve muscled through it before and I found that in spite of the brokenness of my heart, I still had the courage and determination—and driving skills—to blast through again. It doesn’t change the fact I lost what I loved, what was so important to me (most of all, my dad—and I will most certainly be writing more about him later), but it did remind me to have faith, that even when you’re in the worst of storms, there are always, always, always sunnier days ahead.

This post would not have been written if not for Jen Louden and her coaching. I wanted to go to bed early instead of writing, but I heard Jen’s voice, I felt the encouragement of the group, and thus I sat my butt in the chair and kept it glued there until this was finished. Thanks to Jen and the group for an “amazing” week. I intend to hang onto that encouragement and stay in the chair as I go forward, using my words to promote kindness.