Monday, December 3, 2018

My Love of Landscape – Part 7

Part 7 of My Love of Landscape: Y2K and the Escape to the Southwest

Like a Desert Spring 12x16 Pastel
One of the early paintings.

It was 1999, and the year 2000 sat on the horizon like an ugly stormcloud.  If you worked in IT at the time, you'll remember the apocalyptic predictions for Y2K.  Thanks to shortsighted computer programming, once the clock hit midnight on New Year's Day, planes would fall out of the sky, power grids would shut down, nuclear power plants would go critical.  Fortunately, there was plenty of time to apply patches before anything dire happened, but CEOs were uneasy.  At the time, I was working for a law firm, and we had things under control.  Having patched systems and tested them, we in IT had a high degree of confidence.  Yet still uneasy, the firm offered us a big bonus if we saw Y2K through into the New Year—just in case.

But Trina and I had other plans.  Vermont winters and the 8-to-5 life (or longer, if you were on salary and worked in IT) had ground us down.  We already had sold our house and had set aside some money.  For some time, Trina had been subscribing to something called "The Caretaker's Gazette," and in it, she found an ad for a small ranch in New Mexico seeking a caretaker for a short-term position.  We'd had no experience other than doing simple house repairs on our succession of farm houses, and I doubted that would qualify us.  Surprisingly, we landed the job.

I'll never forget getting off the plane in Albuquerque where David picked us up.  It was June, and the oven had been turned to "broil."  That, plus the long plane ride and the the 5000-foot elevation, made me feel like I'd entered a dreamland for most of our drive to Grants.  From there, the curvy road ascended to 7000 feet and took us into the El Malpais National Monument—or the "badlands" as the early Spanish explorers called this vastness of broken-up, black lava.  (Much of it looked like a bulldozed parking lot.)  But beyond the lava, the landscape opened up into rolling hills made of pink Precambrian granite, dotted with ponderosa pine, and interspersed with grassland.  David and Betsy's ranch occupied a little pocket of private land tucked up against these hills in national forest.

Chaco the Goat

For a few weeks, we occupied a 24-foot travel trailer while our hosts traveled.  "Ranch" is a misnomer; if anything, it was a hobby farm, with six goats, a dozen chickens, a couple of lovebirds, two cats, a cockatiel named Jackson, and a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Molly. It was a sweet, easy job:  We watered and fed the animals, made an occasional trip to Gallup to get hay for the goats, and kept a general eye on things.  We also had a Volvo station wagon and a van at our disposal.  We made good use of our time by exploring the hills behind us, which had been mined for fluorite back in World War II.  A couple of the head frames still stood over seemingly-bottomless holes, and there were old cart roads down upon which the mineral had been hauled.  (The ranch was an old miners' camp, and the main house had belonged to the mine superintendent.)  I especially enjoyed sunset hikes into the hills, because from a high place I could look across the flat lava fields to the sandstone Narrows and even to the Datil Mountains, which glowed orange with the low sun.

Section 27 head frame
Summertime is monsoon time in New Mexico.  Mornings start cool and clear, but by noon, great, cauliflower-shaped clouds build up over the mesas, always accompanied by surprisingly bright bolts of lightning and deafening cracks of thunder.  These daily storm clouds are beautiful to behold, but the lightning and downpours are to be avoided.

A dangerous hike - I'm the tallest thing on the ridge

One morning, we hiked up a sandstone ridge to get a view of the lava flows, and by the time we reached the highest point, the lightning had begun; knowing we were the tallest objects on the ridge, we raced down, triple-time.  The storms also turn the back roads, which vary from sand to silt to lava, to deep mud.  One road, innocently named "County Road 42," displayed at the time an inviting sign labeling it as a beautiful "Backcountry Byway" and offered to take you past scenic cinder cones and lava fields.  We were advised by the locals not to take the road unless we'd had seven days of  no rain.

After waiting the advised period, we drove the Volvo wagon out.  The single-track road, hemmed in by blocks of lava, got even narrower the farther we went.  Then we began to encounter puddles, some of which spanned the entire width of the road.  Lava can be very sharp, and puddles can hide deep mud.  Trina got out a few times to move some of the smaller lava blocks so I could steer around some of puddles.  Finally, we reached a point where we couldn't even turn around if we wanted to, so we had to keep going.  And then we arrived unexpectedly at a fork in the road, but with no sign to tell us which was the right way.  But suddenly—deus ex machina!  A rancher arrived on an ATV and pointed the way out.

Later, after talking to a Park ranger, we learned that this 36-mile "Backcountry Byway" had lured many visitors into its trap.  One night, a couple with an infant got stuck and had to spend the night; it cost them $400 to be towed out.  Since then, the "Backcountry Byway" sign has been replaced with a warning sign.

Even though driving County Road 42 was difficult, it was indeed a beautiful trip.  Our other explorations were no less inspirational:  Zuni Canyon, Bonita Canyon, El Morro National Monument—I compiled a long list of favorite spots.  And it got even longer, because after our hosts returned, they decided it might be good to keep us around.  So, we moved from the travel trailer to a single-wide and stayed "on call."  We ended up living there almost a full two years, and explored much of New Mexico and the Four Corners area.

Mt Taylor - one of the four mountains sacred to the Navajo,
and one of our favorite hikes

The Ventana Arch - just off the Acoma reservation; at
the right time of day, light spills down into the window from behind

While there, we joined the local art association.  The El Morro Area Arts Council was relatively new, and it wasn't long before I'd joined the board of directors.  (To this day, EMAAC is a very active group.)  Trina and I sampled a number of workshops:  high desert gardening, building a straw bale structure, introduction to watercolor.   Although I'd been working on a novel while on this sabbatical, I felt I hadn't quite found the right outlet for my creative impulse, so I was eager to try different things.

One day, I took a pastel workshop that was taught by Jane Schoenfeld, an artist from Santa Fe.  It's difficult to describe the feeling I had when I first put pastel to paper.  The immediacy of effect, the brilliant color, the tactile nature of the medium—and what's more, Jane had us working from life, en plein air.  The moment was as if I'd discovered my long-lost child, and I wanted to take this medium, this process, and embrace it.  The paintings I did that day, of course, were a beginner's effort, but after that day, I knew I wanted to paint again, seriously.

Two things became clear to me.  First, painting heightened my awareness.  It was like some drug that made color more vivid and the world, more fascinating; it permitted, no, invoked a communion with Nature, something I sought daily on my walks but did not always find.  Second, whatever I painted drew an immediate reaction from the viewer.  I had grown weary of waiting for feedback on my writing.  In order to get feedback, the reader had to read what you'd written, and that might take a very long time, especially where a novel was concerned.  But with a painting!  One well-considered look was all it took.  As a result, I felt I could improve as a painter faster than I could as a writer.  Not to sound fickle, but at that moment I gave up writing to paint.

My first studio in New Mexico

Another early one - Green Soldier 12x16 Pastel

And another - Winter Holdout 12x9 Pastel

We stayed on at the ranch after that for a little while longer.  I painted and painted, and if I wasn't painting, I painted in my mind.  During that time, I also took a six-week pastel class in Albuquerque—a good hundred miles away—with artist Deborah Secor and learned all the basics.  I was so determined I even drove out in a snow storm, only to learn class had been cancelled.  We also went to Santa Fe, where we checked out every gallery that showed pastel.  This was also where I discovered my first issue of Pastel Journal, for which I began writing not long after, thus marrying my love of writing and my love of painting.  I also began to design websites part-time for a local developer, and at the same time, made a website for myself as a serious painter.

Finally, when a local gallery invited me to join its roster of artists, I was in heaven.

One day, a call came from my old law firm in Vermont.  They wanted to know if I'd be interested in returning on a one-year contract for a special project.  Because we didn't yet have any solid ties to New Mexico, but mostly because it would mean a lot of money, I said yes.  I decided I could commit to one year—so long as I also committed myself to painting as much as possible.  I flew out in March to look at real estate.  I remember it snowed every day while I was there.  But I found a beautiful old Cape in the little village of Burke Hollow, in Vermont's frigid Northeast Kingdom.  Come June, we were on our way to Vermont in a rental truck with our new dog, Saba. (To be continued.)

Somewhere, on the road to Vermont

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