Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Finding a Groove Where Weird Energy Flows

There is only one road that runs from GJ to Durango and we were on it, cruising along in the back of a small 4x4 learning about the differences between the Army and the National Guard from a National Guard recruitment officer, our bags in the back in amongst a myriad selection of propaganda aimed at kids just out of high-school. We were back, those rouge travelers, adventures and explorers and finally, for the first time in 2 months we were headed south. Turning away from those majestic sunsets that once formed the goal at the close of our days and instead setting our sights on the waistband of the world and all the warmer weather, strange bugs and new cultures that come with crossing the equator.

For now though our immediate goal was Taos, New Mexico, transcendental meeting place for hippies of all types and home to the latest sustainable living must have, Earthships. And like i said we were hitching and it was working. Catching rides through the Rockies on the twisting and turning Red Mountain Pass was, in fact, easier than it ever had been before. At the end of the first day we caught a ride with an ex-welder who took pity on us standing on the one intersection in Ridgeway with night closing in and drove us to Ouray hot springs where we splashed about for a few hours absorbing the minerals in the naturally warm water. Following this surprise spell of indulgence we walked to the town's bowling alley, the place our new chauffeur Kevin had been whiling away the time on the two 1950's vintage lanes there, where the pins were set by hand by two boys our age with tattoos, piercing and hairstyles and where a lady sat in the corner keeping score on a type writer receipt type machine. Having had time to mull over his options and draw enthusiasm from his friends excitement over the British Boys Kevin had decided to let us spend the night at his, in the wooden house he built himself, and seeing as he was headed for Durango the next day anyway he could drive us all the way.

I awoke that morning to the hip sounds of the 60's and 70's on the radio and burgers made from an Elk Kevin had shot in the woods behind his house following a 3 day hunt. I felt reinvigorated as I sat there listening to songs I always knew but could never name, there had been a wholesale reinstatement of our adventure and of our faith in weird luck and the kindness of people to get us to our destination. We were once again free to travel the roads with nout but a vague goal and no time frame. I was ready for anything.

We got dropped off just outside Durango and trekked through a gap in the Rio Grande mountain range trespassing on a lot of land and being in constant fear of some paranoid fucker sitting on his porch, itchy finger on the hair trigger of his perfectly polished colt .45, chock full of bullets, just waiting to take advantage of Colorado's 'Make My Day' laws and shoot us dead without fear of repercussion, we were of course on his land after all. I never did find out if the actual law was called Make My Day or if it was just a colloquialism that everyone used but it fit so perfectly with a law that gives a person free reign to attack and kill someone who is in their house without their permission that I didn't even see the need to question it. At the end of this walk we reached the house of another Anarchist collective whose info we been given in GJ. We chilled for a while and smoked weed and watched cartoons, as seems to be the custom here, before heading into town to meet another friend and drink some beer.

We left early the next morning and got a ride from a guy who was putting up lost dog posters and who, as it turned out after a 30 minute trip to the casino for food, was a gambling addict. As we weaved through the maze of slot machines you could see his eyes get drawn to each one, his brain violently tearing his heart away from dropping yet another quarter into the hole. It was a sight to see, droves of pale people sitting all day in windowless rooms pouring their lives away 25cents at a time trapped inside one of the last visible remnants of indigenous culture in this country. A grim spectacle for sure. Our dog less friend dropped us in Bloomfield, a nothing town in the middle of the desert on the Northern edge of New Mexico with just one road running through the middles of a mess of chain stores and trailer parks. The state boundary was invisible but immediately we could feel the difference between Colorado and New Mexico. This was the desert, home to Sage brush and the Navajo people, the point at which every liberal weirdo who ever had to escape from where ever they were for whatever reason ended up. Sandwiched between two of the most Republican and most racist of the 50 States, Texas to the East and Arizona, where recently racial profiling of job applicants has been ok'd by law, to the West it seemed an unlikely place to find the milieu that call it home but for the people that migrate there I think all roads always led to New Mexico and that’s just how it is.

There was a fairly direct and relatively short road to Taos that looked perfect when viewed on a map so we hitched out of town only to get stuck 10 miles out in the desert where we spent the next few hours waving at vans that worked in the refinery that sat on the horizon to the East before giving up and catching a ride back into town. We later discovered that road is closed most of the year and therefore has very little traffic and even less chance of catching a ride, a little local knowledge goes a long way. Mentally preparing to camp in Bloomfield but still trying to make the most of our hitching magic hour as the light faded we managed to catch the most unusual ride. The car rolled up and its tinted windows slid down about two thirds of the way, just enough for the passengers to lean their heads out and ask if we needed a ride in exchange for gas money. We bartered a deal and exchanged $20 for a ride to Cuba, NM, $20 is actually enough for gas to do this journey 3 or maybe 4 times over but it seemed like a good deal at the time. The people in the car were Navajo through and through and two of them had Cholo (Mexican gangsta) style complete with tattoos, checkered shirts and bandanas. Naturally we were apprehensive. Crazy Horse seemed to be the leader and the most level headed of the guys, Window, his brother, was gay and very kind, he did his best to empathise with what must have been our obvious apprehension. Their sister, whose name we never did learn, drove the car well and calmly despite the two people on the front passenger seat spilling over onto the gearstick, and finally Max, a close friend to the family he loved Biggie Smalls, spent a lot of time teaching me Navajo phrases and was the most drunk of a drunk bunch. It was Max's unpredictable inebriation that left me and Riz on what could reasonably be called yellow alert. Fortunately it wasn't long until everyone calmed down and they regaled us with tales from Navajo lore and explained that having a black President in office, basically a world gone topsy turvy, was the reason for all the hurricanes and other strange happenings in the world, moments we navigated carefully with delicate questions and sometimes silence. It’s always a difficult balancing act when you discover a disagreement of this magnitude, does one choose guaranteed passage to their destination and in this instance safety or do you dash the free ride on the rocks and stand by the principles that so strongly guide the rest of your life. I'm sad to say invariably I take the former option.

Not wanting us to spend the night camping out in the cold brush in Cuba, Crazy Horse took us to his friend Ron's house where Ron agreed to let us sleep in his caravan. Before leaving and without an ounce of hesitation, clearly carefully practiced, Crazy Horse asked for another $10. I pulled out what i thought was $3 but turned out to be $8 so that’s what he got, the real reason for his concern over our temperature had become clear. The Caravan was dank, dark and very cold so in a move to avoid spending too much time in it and to put our minds at rest as to the safety of our luxury suite we went inside to introduce ourselves to Ron. What we found inside this tiny shack surrounded by old cars, beer cans and assorted bolts was pure Americana. A veritable hootenanny attended by 4 guys who could without fear of offense be called old timers, a dog who had but 4 hours prior given birth to no less than 7 puppies, more beer cans and assorted bolts and a pot of chilli made predominantly with ketchup and nachos.

Without a shadow of a doubt my favourite of the bunch was Ronnie. He had the most bucked buck teeth you ever did see, absolutely filthy overalls and he spoke with gusto about going to the Colorado River, the tone of his voice yo-yoing in perfect fashion. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect hillbilly. He was insurmountably kind to boot and tried to give us $20 for one cigarettes worth of tobacco and a few lugs on our pipe and he tried to give us his overalls for the cold nights, taking to us like the sons he never had. Tall John played the tragic role in this backwater sitcom and for me was yet another example of someone who had been abandoned by his country and like so many other downtrodden and unfortunate people has become part of its forgotten past and hidden present. John used to have it all, the American Dream, he was a fully qualified engineer, built desert race cars, had a nice house, a good car, the works. One day out cutting firewood he fell and broke his hip and had to sell everything to pay the hospital bills. Game Over. Now he lives in a house with no running water and hobbles around in constant pain because he can't afford the follow up work he needs, a scruffy folder with 5 photos inside the only remnants of his previous life. Ron, or Rotten Ron to his friends, was short and stout, he wore a denim jacket and had the grizzled face of an old bear, minus one eye which I like to think he lost in a bar fight. Generally he was pretty quiet but occasionally he'd grumble something about a hot girl on TV on offer some blunt but true wisdom along the lines of "if you can't be nice to people you don't deserve to be on this earth". Fucking Aye Ron. Last but not least there was Ray, the most normal of the bunch, the towns optician who grows copious amounts of weed as a hobby with relative impunity because his 3 brothers are judges. They had been drinking long before we arrived and doubtless still would be when we woke up (they'd just finished the 190th beer that day) so we joined in for a time and shared some stories before settling down for a slightly chilly night in the caravan.

In the morning Ray was going out for the day with his mother who had Alzheimers and was headed in our direction so he offered us a ride. In the daylight the landscape in New Mexico was breathtaking. Hot tones from orangey brown to yellow stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, flat desert interrupted by abrupt mounds, volcanic dykes forced out of the ground by the tumultuous Rio Grande rift, jutting up at sharp angles and rising to great heights standing alone silhouetted against the blue horizon. The layering of the rocks showed signs that this whole area was once underwater a fantastic juxtaposition of environments shifting and changing over millennia. We were driving at the bottom of the ocean, 1500ft up. We got dropped off in yet another tiny desert town and after a few hours of unsuccessful hitching we jumped on the train to Santa Fe a ride which turned out to be our cheapest per mile travel for the whole trip. Before the recent midterm elections New Mexico had been a Democrat state and everywhere you could see the results of spending on new public infrastructure, from the cheap train to $1 busses in Santa Fe and even nice new street signs. During the midterms the Republicans won back the state campaigning about the budget deficit left by all this spending and are now starting to cut back on a lot of these services that directly benefit many of the deeply poor people that live here.

In Santa Fe we met two travelers at the start of a month long road trip out to Vegas and back. We spent some time helping them plan their route and giving them tips on couch surfing which in turn granted us accommodation for the night in the place they were staying. It was gratifying to be the ones giving advice for once, only two months in and already we felt like kings of the road, riding high on the success of the last few days. Taking full advantage of the cheap transportation we took the bus to Taos and entered one of the most confused and meandering places on the planet. Initiating the standard routine we started talking to everyone about where to stay and what to do, we talked to a variety of washed out hippies who had clearly been too stoned for too many years, a BBQ ribs seller who wore purple sun glasses, had been sent here by God and apparently had nothing to sell and a retired music mogul from NYC who sure as hell was determined to by some of those elusive ribs. From a mess of mostly useless rambling we managed to piece together a few key things, firstly with regards to Earthships we should hunt down Mark Reynolds, the man in charge, and secondly there was a place called The Mesa on the way where we might be able to find somewhere to stay.

The Mesa is a dystopian commune of sorts, a scene straight from the reels of Mad Max. After a failed development project in the 50's the land ended up being divided up into acres and auctioned off at exceptionally low prices and even 15 years ago you could get an acre out there for a poultry $500. This led to an influx of hippies and dreamers all leaping at the chance to build their own home, a plan that from what i could see no one ever completed. Today what’s there is acres and acres of sage brush dotted with caravans, old busses and freight containers, the makeshift homes of The Mesa People. The roads are all but unusable, the police never venture out there, there is no water and no power and generally the people keep to themselves. It’s nice if you want to live a quiet, isolated and simple life well away from the grim realities of the modern world. The saddest thing for me about The Mesa is the lost potential, seemingly an almost free autonomous zone the possibilities here are many and with a little organisation and dedication a really promising alternative living project could flourish. Unfortunately this isn't the case and there are barely even neighbourhood meetings, there is just angry individuals living in proximity to other angry individuals all escaping the same woes but doing so alone.

As if it were foretold we got picked up, after only an instant of trying to hitch, by Sam a girl who lived on The Mesa with her boyfriend Mark. Sam was pretty and blonde and a fantastic alcoholic, she would drink Bloody Marys from morning til noon and then beer into the night. She used to be in the Navy and led a pretty acceptable life but she hit some sort of pre-midlife crisis and left it all behind searching for something new. What she found was Mark and he was just what was needed. Anarcho-As-Fuck, Mark new his social security number and his inmate number off by heart, he respected nothing that hadn't earned it and there were very few people left in his wake he hadn't said fuck you to and meant it, on principle more than anything else. We slept a few nights on the floor of their bus, jubilantly agreeing about things and swapping stories about how we fucked the system and smashed the state. We were basically best of friends.

Pursuing our original reason for coming to Taos we had managed to get ourselves on the workforce at the Earthship village across the road from the Mesa so we said sad goodbyes to Sam and Mark and moved into the intern accommodation. Earthships are the brainchild of renegade architect Mark Reynolds and basically are an off-grid sustainable house design that recycles rain water, treats its own sewage and grey water, grows food and uses thermal mass to maintain a stable temperature, all using savvy engineering and recycled materials. We made the long and slightly off course journey here for a few reasons most of which I think stem from my attempts to do something productive and feel a little less like I'm on a 6 month holiday. Primarily we wanted to see how this take on future living actually worked and if it presented any real answers and secondly it was a good opportunity to learn some building skills something I've been edging around doing for a good long while, also we presumed we would get a free bed and possibly even food in exchange for our work. Sadly what we found was the disappointment we had half expected and not the burgeoning utopia we had half hoped for. My biggest problem with the whole thing, if you ignore the fact that the buildings quickly loose viability as future housing solutions when you consider the amount of time intensive work that goes into them, taking 40 people 1 year of full time work to build just one house and the consequent astronomical price that gives them. If you ignore that and a few other small gripes about not actually being made from all sustainable materials (though what is?) then you are still left with the fact that this project that presents itself as the good Samaritan trying to save the world is actually Earthship Corp. and is only saving your world if you give it a whole heap of money first. Much of the way they operate is about removing autonomy and encouraging people to buy their Earthship home prepackaged, giving it as little thought as possible, just buy the ready-made water filtration system and have your plumber install it, buy the Earthship Volumes 1-3 to know what to grow in your home and buy the t-shirt too. The thing that really pushed it too far was the blatant exploitation of the interns. Interns, after going through what appears to be an intrusive and unnecessary selection process, are required to pay high rent to live in the intern accommodation which is failed Earthship that doesn't even work and is therefore freezing cold all the time. They then spend their days building an Earthship which will later become an over $100 a night hotel to garnish even more money for the cause. Due to the amount of time it takes to build one house it’s unlikely, unless you can give months and months, that you will learn much about how to actually build an Earthship, mostly interns spend a lot of time pounding tires or plastering. None of them seemed to mind much either, some were business students who saw Earthships as their career plan in their own country and the rest were slightly hippy folk who were totally into being sustainable and eating organic and had dreamed of coming here for years. They had a cultish following of Mark Reynolds, when the spoke of him they did so with wide excited eyes and would always say his full name or quote verbatim from the Earthship Volumes. We lived in the cheapest coldest place in the house, a tiny loft platform with just enough room to lay down, I learnt to plaster which I’m sure will come in handy and we learnt what we could from the Earthships that worked, and to be fair they did work well, always warm despite the blitzy winter cold some of them growing an impressive selection of food and retaining comfortable moisture levels despite the infinite dust and dryness of the desert outside. Everything here was dust, from head to toe, either desert dust or cement dust or both it was the most inhospitable environment we had experienced so far and one we tired of quickly.
Soon enough our week in Taos was up and it was time to start heading South again in time to catch our flight across Mexico. We left without paying the $15 we both owed for living in the loft, we hadn't paid to stay anywhere thus far and it didn't seem right to start now. We went back to say our final goodbyes to Sam and Mark, Mark gave me an authentic high quality cowboy hat that was too big for his head, wearing it made me feel (an look) like a fool but I had a feeling it would come in hand later so I strapped it to my bad just in case. Because Taos sits at quite a high elevation and because there are no lights out on The Mesa when you step out of Sam and Marks bus to piss on the sage brush that I both loved and hated in equal measure, you are presented with the most fantastic view of the Universe. The Milkyway stretches in a band across the sky surrounded by billions of stars and everywhere you look shooting stars race, flaring for a fleeting moment before returning to obscurity in the dark as if they had never been at all.

We travelled south, following the Rio Grande rift all the way from the bottom of the Rockies, eventually it would led us to Panama. We stopped briefly in Albuquerque where we met some delightful people, washed our clothes and caught our bus to Juarez, Mexico. A new phase of our journey about to begin.

1 comment:

  1. This is another amazing article. The Messa must have been an interesting experience. So much 'freedom' and potential in the place as a concept... but maybe a little too much weed and mistrust to get anything major accomplished?
    The car ride with carzy horse sounds... crazy, especially for Riz and the 'old timers' sound ace!