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Fiat Lux

27 May 2005

Lake City

It's been years since I spent any time in Taos, New Mexico. Back in my skiing days much of my winters were lived here, or planning to be here. As I wandered down off the ridge road into Ranchos, I was struck again by the strong light.

I don't know what makes it different. It may be the altitude, or the relative moisture in the air, or the prevalent dust, or simply divine intervention, but the fact is that Taos is favored by an extraordinary golden light that comes and goes and comes again, limning the simplest objects with an unexpected and enigmatic significance.

It renders some things insubstantial, even unworldly, such as Taos mountain glowing over there, floating in the near distance. Other things seem preternaturally solid, imposing, and distinct, such as the Ranchos church, or the mud tumble of the Pueblo. If you have ever been to Italy, and walked along the summer streets of Florence, you know the sort of light I mean.

It is as though one can see not only the surfaces of things, but a little into them as well, into their essence. I once overheard a fellow in a hot tub say, "It's like discovering a whole new season: winter, spring, summer, fall... and Taos."

Perhaps it's only a happy illusion.

Part of the effect may be the earth colors that predominate here. A good bit of Taos is made of sun dried mud, and the rest is modern cinder block covered with a sort of artful stucco pretending to be mud. It is a cheap and elastic architecture that unfortunately requires constant maintenance. The rain washes it away. You have to replaster with a will, or soon it will be with the houses as with those within: "from dust to dust."

This image of apparent solidity and demonstrable impermanence might also be a metaphor for the business community here. Gauche tourism is the ticket. T shirts and trinkets. But decades ago I also mined this place for affordable and interesting art, with some success. Taos has been an art colony to varying degrees for a century now.

All seems changed since I was here, and yet remains the same. I walked down Ledoux street to find my favorite gallery, once obscurely known as the Ledoux Gallery, only to find it had been replaced by an importer of Asian novelties and "objets d'art". I miss that old man and his cat. And now this gallery is itself closing. Most everything was half price. I bought a simple carved wooden bowl and lid of some glowing wood, and a rather heavy little brass Buddha from Thailand to complement the worn wood-and-plaster Guadelupana who serenely watches over all my numerous naps and journeys. You can't be too careful. The Taos light may be a function of the Sangre de Christo mountains, for it attenuated as I passed west through Tres Piedras on Hwy. 64, and then up and over into Chama. Still bright, the light grew thinner, flattening the aspect of things.

It was a slow fade to ordinary.

I stayed the night at the Riverside Campground east of Pagosa Springs. The Spa Motel downtown still runs one of the hottest soaking pools I've ever forced myself to enter. They advertise 108 degrees, but I believe that is the lower part of a substantial range. They also furnish large cotton sheets you can wrap up in and steam, while laying back on wooden benches. Five minutes in the pool, 15 minutes under wraps. Repeat three times, and you too will emerge as wobbily complacent and loose-limbed as Gumbi.

Meanwhile, back at the campground, the San Juan River overflowed its banks, and was threatening to take out a line of motorhomes whose owners had paid extra to camp there, right up next to the river. Be careful what you wish for. Snuggled among the tenters, I simply sighed into the covers. Unaccountably, I enjoyed all that night the sort of sleep reputedly reserved for the Just. Nary a worry in the world. Ahhhhh.

The motorhomes were still there in the morning.

And now I've been three days at the Wupperman campground, on the bluff above Lake San Cristobal, Colorado. This used to be my favorite campground on this earth. Since my last stent, though, 9800 feet is just too high, too stinting on the oxygen, too rare on the air.

It makes sense, really. Five years ago, I had a stent inserted in a critical artery that feeds the heart. Then, in 2003 up in Canada, I had another stent placed inside that one, further narrowing the channel. Since then I have turned into an amazingly accurate altimeter. Up to 8000 feet I am ready as I ever was to do a day's work. At 9000 feet I'm tired. And here at nearly 10,000 feet, all I want to do is sleep. After two days the high left side of my chest begins to hurt.

Time to go.

Even the 600-800 foot descent into Lake City makes a big difference. Some of this altitude effect, of course, has always been with me. In Georgetown I live below 600 feet. It is normal to feel a little fagged for the first few days above 10,000. After that I used to adapt, and soon began to bound around like an amiable mountain goat, right at the tops of these mountains.

Not any more. Stents are little coils of metal. They do not adapt.

So if I should ever contemplate suicide, I know how to do it. I'll just climb Mount Uncompahgre again. It's only a little west of here. A simple 7 mile walk, up switchbacks through alpine flowers and rubble to the top. Sean climbed it when he was 5 years old. 14,309 feet.

I'll just go up. And never come down. Somewhere along the way, it would be the same to me as being exposed to the vacuum of space.

Bye, bye.

But don't let my luck stop you. Lake City is a beautiful place. This morning I'm going down to Gunnison and visit with a friend, shed a little of this dull ache.

I've stopped on the way at the Lake City Bakery. I'm sitting outside at an expanded metal table, consuming a fresh warm calzone stuffed with spinach, tomato, and ricotta. It smells wonderful. The sun is bright. I close my eyes and turn my face up toward it. I am for the moment as phototropic as any flower.

In that moment, all the world is reduced to a narrow pulsing room of blood-red light. Warmth is a gladness. I can hear... my heart... the caliche crunch of a passing car... a dog snuffling... an awning flap.

You know, there are times when there is no mystery to life at all. It's quite simple, really.

You just have to look at it in the right light.


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