the road to angel fire

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angel fire. that kind of albuquerque morning where the sky is ablaze. magenta, cerise, amaranth, crimson.

6am, sad news reaches me on a day already planned to be in the car for eight hours to colorado, my sister, eventually london. I-25 seems too businesslike for all the many things in my heart this day, and when i pull into santa fe just before 7am, i know i’ll go off-course.

i consider the high road to taos and after a brief consultation of google maps in the alberston’s parking lot on cerrillos road, i realise i actually don’t know what the high road to taos even is.

we always took the low road. the two-laner carving its way along the reticent rio grande through the gorge, past embudo, the rafting center, then pilar. NM highway 68.

the high road goes through truchas, an unincorporated village with an adobe church. it set the scene for the 1988 film the milagro beanfield war, which, if you haven’t seen it, is worth a watch, if for nothing else than to understand rural northern new mexico (which is in fairness a skill probably of use to few not actively raised here). state road 76, up past chimayo and the santuario with its holy well and the good red chile stands; all the cañadas and miles of hand-dug acequias.

it was cold last night, a hard frost, and the 8000-foot altitude of the high road could mean ice. i’m in the mood for exploration, but not for off-roading particularly, and so set out on the well-trodden low road. this feels fitting – a road i’ve driven many times in my life, both in the back seat as a child for weekends visiting taos pueblo or tagging along to gigs my dad was playing at the sagebrush inn with bill & bonnie hearne, and then behind the wheel as an adult driving to and from something i seem to be revisiting in more ways than one, this trip home, this year.

it’s early and i make an unsuccessful stop at walmart in española to buy a six-pack of local marble red beer for my sister and to bring back to london. everyone present in walmart española at 8am on the monday after thanksgiving is either driving a mobility scooter and perusing ugly christmas sweaters or gossiping in norteño spanish or both.

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at the embudo station restaurant, i want to pause but forget where the turn-off is, and being tailgated by an impatient electrician’s truck, i push on. we used to make trips just to eat at embudo station, crossing the rio grande via a small bridge and settling onto a table under cottonwood trees, always shaded by the canyon walls which begin to climb here and higher as you go northwards toward agua caliente.

maybe the last time i drove this road was 2004, could that be right? on the way to and from the kind of last-hurrah tryst that signals the real and final end to a love affair you will never forget. three quiet nights in taos savouring all that, a glass of wine, things you’d rather not say, hot tears as you pull away from it and back down the canyon, not knowing where life will take you.

IMG_7262.JPGin taos, i pause at a blake’s lotaburger for one more green chile breakfast burrito. it’s a typical 1950s-styled white stucco fast-food joint with hard plastic red-and-white umbrellas shading hard plastic picnic tables no one ever uses out the front, and big letters spelling LOTABURGER in flintstones-esque font across the front. inside, a lady in a hair net takes my order from behind a red vinyl countertop and when i ask for the burrito ‘green’ she queries: ‘chile or sauce?’ i baulk here: how can i have been out of new mexico for so long as to be confronted with a chile-ordering question i’ve never heard. well…chile then, if there’s a difference?

from here, i follow the little 585 bypass across southern taos shortcutting to US highway 64, falling back into old habits. adjusting the music selection and steering with my knee while i unpeel the aluminium foil from around the egg-hashbrown-chile-filled burrito. there are no spillages, and no accidents – i’m still a new mexican after all.

US highway 64 is tremendously long. it goes right the way from the new mexico-arizona border to the whalebone junction at cape hatteras in north carolina – literally, as far east as you can go to the atlantic. i am at the western end of it and, out here, it’s just a tiny two-lane mountain byway that doesn’t feel like it would go anywhere at all except up over remote palo flechado pass and into angel fire and eagle nest. and in reality, that is all this highway does out here.

these places were the stuff of dreams on the evening weather report when i was a child. first of all, they have magical names that seemed even more magical as a kid. second of all, they were always forecast to get snow in the winter and for that i was constantly wishing to go to them.

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the high alpine deserts of southern colorado and northern new mexico were home to the muache, a southern tribe of the ute people, who came here specifically to perform fall ancestral ceremonies to the great spirit. they were the first here, and the first to notice the evening alpenglow that seemed to pulsate in blazing colours around a peak that later came to be known in spanish as agua fria: cold water peak. they called this glow the fire of the gods, and later in the 1780s, franciscan friars altered the semantics, poetically giving us angel fire. indeed, it was because of this burning colour that the spanish called the entire mountain range sangre de cristo: the blood of christ.

though it’s now just a ski resort (and a blissfully hidden-away one at that), angel fire is the sort of place where you feel in a bit of a dream. weaving my way down a gently switchbacking road through pine forest that had climbed to nearly 9100 feet at palo flechado pass a few miles ago, here opens an expansive, treeless brown valley surrounded on all sides by lumbering, dark-green peaks. swathes of this pasturous flatland are still covered in a snow that fell over the weekend.

there is not a single car heading northeast with me, so i pull off, roll down the driver’s side window, and begin snapping pictures of ‎13,167ft wheeler peak, the state’s highest mountain. though i know it’s treacherous, from here, it looks tame and seems almost ordinary compared with the mountains of similar altitude i crossed in tibet a few months ago.

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eagle nest – a resort village of under 300 – is next, and its lake is already partially frozen despite the white november sun that has come out and is bleaching everything in my windshield into a washed-out instagram filter. effectively it’s a one-street town lined with mining-style clapboard buildings. nothing is open. i pause briefly at a pull-out with a bathroom just past the village limit and spend a few minutes gazing at the lake until my eyes can’t take the sun glare anymore. then back into the camry, belle & sebastian getting me through new mexico like they did tibet, too.

minutes pass like hours for the rest of the 35 miles to cimarron, turning from high heaven to hell, as the road winds into a landscape of charred pine trees and burnt earth. it sometimes takes years for an arid landscape to recover from a forest fire in the southwest, and i mentally scan my memory for a fire that might’ve caused this devastation when i was younger. later, i read the damage was far more recent: in june this year, the ute park wildfire devastated nearly 37,000 acres right here and i am driving through ground zero of the aftermath. homes gone, animals lost, memories vanished in seconds, minutes, long and tortorous singeing days. and a few short months later, cars so casually zipping through a place that was literally engulfed in flame.

how long i will have to wait to drive this road again to see things growing?

the land flattens off at cimarron – another place-name-of-dreams (it could mean ‘where the wild things are’) – an all-but-forgotten town that once was a centre of trade for wagon trains and coal miners – at this point, US 64 is now following the course of the santa fe trail. a few signs posted along the highway through town denote outlaws and miners and fur trappers that once made this place busy, now a dusty memory in roadside black-and-white.

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after this, you wave goodbye to the mountains for good. to the son of god peaks, the rockies, to the pine trees, to any trees at all. from a 10,000ft apex less than 50 miles west, here is the flat desert, occasionally dotted with far-off buttes and blue mesas, eventually to give way to the kansas prairie.

before that, i’ll reach I-25 and then turn north to colorado and a plane home.

but i’ll go with new mexico – with angel fire – in my chest.

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two poems from 2004

last week, a trip back to new mexico unearthed many memories, feelings, a person from a lifetime ago, and a journal from my first trip to china. these are two poems written during that summer, which the universe seems to have circled back on now, 14 years later.

‘poem from a nanjing evening’ – 30 july, 2004

feels like lightning
he says
running through my veins
every time i look at you.
but you’re not seen now
away from eyes
out of brain.
your magnificent
disinterest,
the brownness of your skin
in shallow muddy waters,
hardly compare
to the frail moon
frosting monsoon mountains
and walkway lamps
in a rippling reflection here.

i know how i’m not yet beyond you.
not beyond
the melody of your finger whispering
songs along my spine.
but this night is simmering with
the brew of farewell.

 

‘untitled’ – 19 july, 2004

here is rest
and china makes
him matter less
or not at all.
makes his scent
evaporate into
the smallness of my
memory and
bigness of the heat
and water
on the far side of the world.
all the soreness
of shoulders laden
down with anxiety
or hope for the hopeless
is carried away across the
pond
on a breeze that smells
like ginger
and humid haze.

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the bund, shanghai, a july night, 2004.

poem of two autumns

we got (un)lost
somewhere between a september gone
and now.
i went to the silk road
the tien shan
the himalaya.

tea on kaohsiung sand
with the sun setting auburn
over ships in the taiwan strait.
doors frozen over on the
train to lhasa
like us trying to silence
hearts hell-bent
on happy.

like winter rivers in russia
where my marrow refused to ice
last christmas;
a moscow december couldn’t darken
such starlight love

– we’ll walk these pathways
ticking off the map
while planets whirl past
a patient lesson
to be what we are,
and when it’s done
all that spirits will still
entangle us,

for these lifetimes
those universes
to come.

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paths i’ve walked before

walking along a portion of the north downs way, unexplainable experiences. i’ve never walked here before. otherwise known as the pilgrims way in reference to the fact that pilgrims have come here to walk along the route that st augustine (of canterbury) trod from lyons and rome to canterbury in the late 500s.

the sun is bright and high and a light breeze notes it’s now the first of september and i can feel the beginnings of the end of the year on the air. sunflowers point their faces southward toward the star, now starting to make its own pilgrimage south from this high latitude for the winter. a magpie hops in his tuxedo colours along the path ahead. everything is still in late summer heat, then leaves rustle. the dry chalk path is lined with a gentle layer of dust and small white stones not unlike many trails i’ve walked in the desert.

when did i start believing in signs? maybe i always did. doesn’t the modern world we’ve made teach us to put aside the things we feel but cannot see?

augustine was not the first person to walk here – trading trackways from folkestone to stonehenge followed these chalk hills as early as 1800 bce. after augustine died, canterbury became a pilgrimage site and several centuries later, this formed part of the epic road, the via francingena, along which christians travelled to and from the holy see.  later still, thomas becket became a figure of great veneration after he was slain in 1170 by four of henry II’s knights on the stairs to the crypt inside canterbury cathedral. canterbury’s status as a destination of pilgrimage was solidified, though the modern-day trackway that one walks through southeast england now was lost for at least two centuries and rediscovered in the 1970s.

the day wears on, the trail winds between the tunnelling green of holloways and out on chalk downs with views to yellowed hayfields already harvested and gone stalky for the autumn. i take my lunch on a bench at the lenham war memorial below a giant white cross carved into the hill.

later, past lenham, then harrietsham. more holloways, more fields, more hillsides, northwest forever. the path is straight and unwavering with few ups or downs and virtually no turns. just before hollingbourne, where i’d planned a refreshment at the 13th century coaching inn (and aptly named) the dirty habit, the path opens and the air stalls and becomes almost unbreathable. the whole world goes quiet.

i couldn’t say how long ago i dreamed of this exact spot on this exact path. several years, perhaps. the dream had lain dormant in my subconscious until the moment i arrived on the path and remembered it completely. in the dream, the sky had been covered in thick, grey cloud and the atmosphere was foreboding. nothing further happened in the dream, beyond my presence on that path. i stood for many minutes, staring at the ground ahead, trying to convince myself this deja vu was some trick of memory i’d already walked somewhere else, but the thick air remained and my soul knew for sure this path was the path of my dream.

what are dreams? the feelings of having been somewhere before. the sense you’ve met in some other lifetime. or that you can talk to someone on some other vibration. that your soul knows something your 3D body can’t quite define.

empaths, seers, mystics, those who can sense. we are told that this is nonsense. in different ages, these people have been cast away, hanged, tried by court, locked into prisons or mental asylums, burned at the stake, until science found some explanation for their feelings.

in the 17th century, galileo knew that the earth revolved around the sun. he could feel it. he could even observe it through his telescope, but he couldn’t prove it in a way that the ruling people of the day would make sense of. society blocked the idea as being unbiblical and galileo was put under house arrest, where he died.

the world is flat. the earth is the centre of the universe. there are no such things as other galaxies. the atom can’t be split. it is only ‘natural’ for humans to behave this way or that, until some other social norm replaces it, and we’ve completely lost track of the unseen world, our intuitions, what feels right. these days, most of us can’t even see the night sky, let alone work out what it means to follow our souls in the face of social onslaught.

let’s not be afraid of the magic, the unseeable, the things that move us which we cannot explain, the love we feel that seems contrary to what is acceptable. let’s recognise the paths we’ve walked in our dreams. let’s look for the signs and follow them. let’s love.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 
1 Corinthians 13: 12-13

some summer

dog day nights
fan blowing rounds over lavender limbs
the rings of saturn lapping along the periphery

remnants of grass, gone to hay in tardy sun,
picnic blankets used on blythe hill fields.
squint and you see a vortex of canary-wharf towers

veiled
in convective undulations.

she is a listless star, settling herself upon shropshire
connemara, the gulf of st lawrence.
jupiter steadfast come night, a lantern over the garden,
southampton, nantes.
a crescent moon and venus in the azure settling
over by bristol, kinsale, prince edward island.

and then there will be
the perseids,
another year gone,
the expanse of august,
longing.

i think i will look back on this riot time

as an eclipse.

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independence day

it’s late afternoon in 1988 and we are in the car – my dad’s AMC eagle with faux wood panels down the sides. no air conditioning, and it’s hot in early july. a dry, still new mexico heat, the kind that makes your hair go all static-y and melts the plastic on the steering wheel if the car is parked too long in the sun. we pile out at santa fe downs – the racetrack my grandfather always took credit for building. as a girl, i imagined my larger-than-life ‘papa’ nailing up planks and dragging dirt, his face shaded by a huge stetson and his alligator-skin boots getting dusty driving a backhoe, though later i came to understand that his claim on the track was merely financial and, like a lot of my family history, complicated.

we pile out and walk for what feels like a year from the car to the entrance, where a giant concrete tunnel seems to pass underground and back up again, right out into the middle of the racetrack, over which looms a covered grandstand. for a horse-obsessed girl of almost eight, standing on the soft soil of an actual racetrack gave me the same feeling i’d later experience standing on the great wall of china and ascending the eiffel tower for the first time.

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my sister is four and being pushed in a stroller by my mother while my dad points out the details.

back behind there are where the horses live.

can we go see them?

not today. he indicates toward a semi truck parked across the grass infield. look, see out there – that’s where the fireworks are going to come from.

the sun drifts downwards west behind the slate blue ortiz mountains, lighting the sky to their north above us in a crayola box of shades. a blanket is produced from the basket on the back of the stroller – an upright, spartan sling on wheels made of plastic piping and synthetic polka-dotted material and with a small pull-out sunshade that had done me no good as a baby and was currently not shading much of my sister.

we sit all evening and get hungry and cranky so that by the time the fireworks start going off, i am in an inexplicable rage and my sister, who’d been gazing upwards at the purple and blue blasts, gets a piece of ash in her eye and has to be bustled off to an ambulance waiting somewhere nearby. (she was fine but we were all traumatised and i wonder now what this experience was like for my parents who, i presume even at that point in their marriage, didn’t really like each other very much).

there were other fourths of july. the hour-long drive to albuquerque, past small juniper trees at the turn off for la cienega and down la bajada hill, beyond the pueblos and then bernalillo, where a ribbon of the rio grande could be glimpsed between rows of cottonwoods in years when there was rain, to the airport. my dad said this was the best place to watch the fireworks, which were set off somewhere from adjacent kirtland air force base, and i suppose the 1980s were a time when knowing you could use the open-air top level of a parking lot for a free family fireworks outing (hopefully one where no one got ash in their eye) was the essence of cool.

july 4th is the only holiday i remember us celebrating as a foursome; hell, one of the only things i remember us doing as a foursome full stop.

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when you’re a kid, people ask you dumb questions like ‘what’s your favorite holiday’ and my answer always was the fourth of july. at fifteen, this was highly idealised: it’s not a commercial holiday. i wasn’t wrong, but then time goes on and your family turns out to be messy and then so does your country and you move away to another state and then another country, and start to wonder how you could possibly have loved such nationalistic nonsense.

it was the shitty hot dogs. being smushed onto a blanket covered in pet hair, fingers smelling of ketchup and potato-chip salt. the wonder of fireworks cracking off against an indigo sky. sucking the last juice droplets out of a deflated capri sun bag through a strangely sharp straw that might slice your tongue. making cut-offs out of your old jeans with a pair of scissors and hoping you might get your first kiss under the cover of all that magic. swirling sparklers into fairy shapes that lingered on the thick air for an extra moment.

i loved that the fourth of july made me feel like, for one night a year, perfect life was possible. maybe my parents could be happy together. maybe i would be a normal kid who would meet an amazing crushable boy who liked her just as she was. that i lived in a great state in a great country where things were safe and happy. realities, of course, are different: my parents were so much better off apart, and as a result so were my sister and i. being a normal kid is overrated and turns out to be boring, and yes there have been several boys and there will be others, and so much the richer life is when you allow people to pass in and out of it in their natural time. there is no such thing as a great state or a great country – these are imagined things, it turns out – but the people that collectively make them up can be great and so can their cultures.

the fourth of july represents the unbridled optimism of childhood and a memorialised version of america – my version. it is nostalgia. but then maybe nostalgia is merely a yearning for things you think you remember having but that never really existed.

it’s late afternoon in 2018 and i set a pitcher of sun tea out to brew in the unusually sunny warmth of this year’s british july and think of my grandmother, who taught me this skill. she loved me but openly hated my cousin and it turns out people are really incredibly complex, and we never see all of their sides, even the ones we believe to be soul mates, or family, parents or anyone else.

it’s hot. i stick on a fan and some ani difranco, and sit down to write.

poem from the may stars

god how many tears have i cried
drops in the gaze of arcturus
sad, hot rain in conversation with jupiter
the chill-hard rules you decided on without my consent. you were
suddenly gone
but spica and the moon
in a may’s eve dance
a rotation of centuries that flee while they last.
us in a series of lives.
there’s still time for this to be the one where we
meet eyes in a felt-tipped dream
but if not, i’ll find you

in the next universe.