Trip Bits #7

Pilar, New Mexico is a twenty-minute drive into the desert mountains from Taos. Its name comes from the cliff which overlooks the place and resembles a pillar. The village consists of a tiny café called World Cup and about twenty houses spread along the mountainside and connected by dirt roads. I got there after a six-hour drive from Lakewood.

I was surprised I was able to find my friend Rob’s cabin because the directions went something like: “When you see the ‘Pilar’ sign turn right at the mailboxes and go down the dirt road, but veer left, and then look for my red truck outside the last house on the right.”

But I found it and Rob gave me a quick tour of the cabin. The main part, consisting of a kitchen and a bedroom, was built in the 1880’s. There’s a disused outhouse on the property too. The later addition of a long, low side room and a bathroom was completed about twenty years ago. Rob uses this side room for his office, artist’s studio and music room. The cabin’s water comes from a well and is quite pure. He uses it for showering and doing the dishes but since it has a lot of minerals Rob prefers to get jugs of drinking water from Taos regularly. He waters the trees and flowers and vegetables on the property by using an irrigation ditch that was built about a hundred years ago. It’s supplied by a small pond further up the mountain. The gas stove and water heater in the cabin are hooked up to a propane tank outside, which Rob refills about once a month for $52. During the winter the cabin’s only heat comes from a modest wood-burning stove in the bedroom. Rob told me he goes through about two cords of wood every season.

He pays $600 rent a month.

Rob had told me that he was arranging a “dinner party” for my first night there. Well, it ended up consisting of the two of us plus his friend Alix. He’d invited another girl but she’d begged off, saying, “Hey man, I can’t make your party because I have to drive into Santa Fe for some beads.” It was Saturday night.

Rob made roast chicken, rice with turmeric, and a salad made from greens grown by his next-door neighbor. While he was making dinner Alix and I sat at the kitchen table and drank some white wine Rob found in his fridge. She’s an interesting character. She’s 38 and had been an actress in New York, San Francisco and Boston. She’d done a movie with Campbell Scott. Then she’d gone through some kind of life-change and dropped out, and she’s been living in Taos for the last four years. She told me her family doesn’t understand her and rarely asks questions about her life. They live in eastern Pennsylvania and are puzzled by her choice to live on the side of a dusty mountain.

Before dinner Rob passed around his pipe, which was filled with the most potent marijuana I’ve ever sampled. It’s ultraconcentrated, northern New Mexico stuff. Rob showed me his little plot in the front of his yard. It’s screened behind a modest twig fence. He told me he sprayed the leaves with cayenne pepper to keep the grasshoppers away.  “This plot yielded enough to get me through all of last winter,” he beamed. When I expressed a certain wonderment that he was growing it right here, in the open, he said, “Oh man, one of our neighbors is a state cop. He just drives by and laughs.”

Dinner was simple, wholesome, satisfying. After Rob had cleaned up we drove down the dirt road about 5 minutes to where Alix lives. It’s technically a guest house, across the property from the main house, but it’s still awfully large: a kitchen, panty, living room, dining room, bedroom, bath, and then a second-floor loft bedroom accessible by a ladder.

Alix opened an amazing bottle of chilled pinot noir and we sat outside on the patio and enjoyed it. Her cat, Spotty, joined us. Night had fallen and with it the most delicious mountain silence, which is not silence at all: crickets, birds, hidden night creatures rhythmically sawing away. The climate is very dry, of course, and there was just the hint of a breeze. A bong was produced and loaded and after a single hit I was stupefied. Flattened into peace.

Then, a neighbor of Alix named Jean randomly stopped by. A middle-aged woman with a smoker’s voice whom you might imagine watching “General Hospital” each day had she lived in suburbia. But no: Jean and her husband moved to Pilar some twenty-five years ago and now own a grocery store in a nearby town. Anyhow, Jean came by unbidden with a large plate of homemade brownies and a pint of ice cream. She only stayed long enough to tell us what was in the brownies and to say, “Welcome to Pilar,” winking at me.

We had the brownies and ice cream and enjoyed a drifting conversation, not much of which I remember. It was about ten o’clock and I was worn out from my drive. We said goodnight, hugs all around, and Rob and I drove back to his place. Then we stood outside and stared at the stars.

The last time I had seen so many stars was in fifth grade at the planetarium. The night was just pristine. It was a riot of stars. And planets. There was truly a Milky Way. Rob got out his binoculars and we traded off gazing upwards. I had an inkling of how it was Rob could live here, in this place in the little cabin for the last five years, and be happy. Utter calm. We went to bed and I was asleep within fifteen minutes.

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