Spring Break, 2007, I journey to the wilds of New Mexico to write, drink red wine, and to eat green chili stew and sopapillas. This is back in the days when all I write is raw and repetitive and full of bad metaphors (today, I eschew metaphor). Through Craigslist I find a round adobe house in Abiquiu, near Georgia O’Keefe’s home, close to the icy waters of the Chama River.
The car is packed—a dozen bottles of red wine, a ream of heavy-duty paper, my vintage typewriter—ready for the long drive from Carpinteria to Abiquiu, by way of the Grand Canyon. I teach junior high in Santa Barbara, thoroughly unsuited to the task, my irony useless against the hormonally-driven wiles of my students. I need an escape.
My girlfriend, Maureen, says, “Go and write. Find yourself. Enjoy the process.” Selfless. Generous. She has already written two novels, published a prize-winning chapbook of poems, and is free-spirited and engaged in her art and writing in a way I don’t quite understand. She pushes me out the door and onto the road to New Mexico.
Between Barstow and Needles I floor the accelerator. Freedom, possibility, release, flood my body as I fly by eighteen-wheeler trucks and laden-down SUVs filled with Spring Breakers heading to Lake Havasu.
“You know it took me five minutes to catch you?”
“No, Officer,” I said. “Any chance you could let me off with a warning?” I give him my thickest Dublin brogue.
The retreat to the car.
He comes back with my license and registration.
“So, honestly, how fast were you going back there?”
“Oh, 135-140,” I reply, sensing that honesty is my only chance.
“I clocked you at 135. You know I could take away your license, impound your vehicle, and put you behind bars for that?”
“No, I had no idea, Officer. I’m very sorry, I was enjoying the car, seeing what it could do.”
“Well, it’s your lucky day. I’m going to let you off with a warning, but I’m calling ahead to the border to alert any other units that you’re on the road, and to watch out for you.”
I pocket my license and drive cautiously into the Mojave desert.
Arizona. Mountains stark against the skyline. A train inches along the earth. Sunsets in the rear-view mirror. I stop on the highway to take a picture of the setting sun, no other traffic for miles.
The route to Abiquiu is lined with roadside memorials for those killed in car crashes. Flowered, statued shrines to dead teenagers, to emergency room nurses, to Iraq war veterans. These shrines would make a compelling, but macabre coffee-table book.
On the patchwork of earth and snow surrounding the adobe, there are Jackrabbits the size of dogs, coyotes baying in the cloudless night, and the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In the fireplace, burning logs, and in the bedroom, underfloor heating. Outside, the stone birdbath is covered in a ¼” sheet of ice.
I type page after page on the old Remington, the metallic “schtup” of the keys on paper echoing in the arched room. Bottle empties, glass fills, the Cabernet flows, inspiration stains the sheaf of paper on the counter-top. At two, or three, sometime in the middle of the night, I stop to sleep. Retreat, withdraw, fill bath with hot water and sudsy bubbles. Here, there are no rules for living. Sleep when you want, rise when you want, eat meals when you want.
A morning spent at Chimayo, a New Mexican Lourdes, refuge for the afflicted—lame, sick, dying, bewildered. The walls are festooned with discarded crutches, wheelchairs, canes, walkers, the ephemera of the walking wounded who found their salvation here in the sacred red dirt. In the small room with the hole in the floor, I steal a glass candle holder and fill it with ochre-tinted earth. This palliative will follow me back to Carpinteria, to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and back once more to Carpinteria. But that is a journey years in the future.
I drive out to Christ in the Desert Monastery, a Benedictine retreat center 13 miles down Forest Road 151, an erstwhile dirt road. There, I sit with the monks and listen to None, the afternoon prayer. Memories of my father, and his devoutness, wash over me, and in the cool of the chapel the tears come. On the way back out the dirt track by the banks of the Chama, I spot deer on the opposite side of the river, and stop to watch them graze. Off to my left, on top of the cliffs that surround the monastery, white crosses stand out against the sky.
A day before leaving for home, I trek through the snow to D.H. Lawrence’s cabin at the Kiowa Ranch, on Lobo Mountain. There, I sit under Georgia O’Keefe’s pine tree, the clouds skidding across the blue, and dream of writing something brilliant. Instead, I wipe the grime off the window of Lawrence’s workroom and peer through cobwebs at the ancient, rusting typewriter within. I know he never typed his own manuscripts, rather choosing to hire a transcriber. Still, the machine is a talisman, and I am in search of magic. There is no way in to the cabin, no way to find my sign. Back at the O’Keefe pine a hinge hangs off the screen door and I worry the metal back-and-forth until the hinge falls into my hands. Up a narrow path sits the small whitewashed memorial where Lawrence’s ashes are supposedly mixed with the concrete of the altar. I saw a prayer to the writer, and ask forgiveness for my thieving ways.
Fortified by the charged earth of New Mexico, I return to California with my stolen red earth, and rusted hinge. I shall teach for another year, high school English this time, before taking the I-10 through the Atchafalaya swamp to Baton Rouge for my MFA. There, I shall learn something of writing, and take the rough typed pages from the small adobe in Abiquiu and transform them into a manuscript. And there, I shall discover loss, death, and myself, all in the course of three years. And the glass candle holder shall sit on our shrine, testimony to another time.
I give the hinge to an old friend who is a big Lawrence scholar, and who subsequently discards our friendship, much like Lawrence’s typewriter sits discarded in that dust-filled cabin in New Mexico.
And me? I am now a writer, Maureen now my wife, I’m a father again, and have come to the realization that in order to write, talismans may be useful to have around, but they are not necessary. What is needed instead is fortitude, patience, and the willingness, once in a while, to take journeys into the wilderness.