It is well past dark on Friday night as we turn east off of Highway 68 onto the narrow road through the Rio Grande Gorge that runs through the small town of Pilar and past several camping spots along the river. We drive slowly as the road winds around the few remaining stands of cottonwoods and hugs the canyon wall; the Rio Grande flowing on our left. As we cross the metal truss bridge at Taos Junction, we hit the dirt. A washboard road takes us 800 feet up and out of of the canyon to the Rim Road, which runs along the western side of the Gorge. In the daylight the steep canyon walls are gorgeous with sagebrush, piñon trees and massive volcanic rock boulders threatening to tumble into the River below. Having driven this road what seems like hundreds of times, what is probably literally hundreds of times, I know what it looks like outside the car windows even though it is dark on our ascent tonight.
The air is cool, humid and heavy from a monsoon that appears to have let up only recently. The road is muddy from the rain and the mud flicks agains the bottom of the truck as we climb out of the Gorge. A rapid thump, thump, thump on the washboard. The contents of the center console and cup holders jiggle out of place and pop into our laps.
The dog girls don’t seem to mind. Elsa scratches furiously at the dog beds in the back seat making herself a perfect nest and circling several times before collapsing her little body into it. Lola stares intently out the windshield from the back seat. Her nose is twitching rapidly and she’s holding back from moaning with excitement.
At the top of the Gorge, we hit a paved road. The Rim Road. Paved within the last few years, presumably at the request of the business interests in Ojo Caliente, a nearby hot springs resort town, and the rafting companies that pick up tourists at the take-outs along the Rio Grande. Before it was paved, this road saw a lot less traffic. It was severely washboarded back then, and of course, dirt roads are slower and less appealing to many. Now it is smooth and fast and we glide through the night toward the cabin.
We drive about 9 miles until we reach the highway, which, since we left it about twenty minutes ago back at the turnoff to Pilar, has climbed up and into the Town of Taos, ran past the Taos plaza and Taos Pueblo, along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and turned west at the old blinking light intersection where it passed the herds of Rocky Mountain Big Horns and crossed the Rio Grande and then turned north toward Colorado. We do not regain this highway. We turn left, toward the Mesa.
Like the Rim Road, the road to the Mesa has seen a lot more traffic since we started coming here a decade ago. It’s actually a series of roads that lead to the various houses scattered around the Mesa. The roads follow the edges of the unit boundaries and sometimes the edges of individual tracks and because of this they only run on straight lines with sharp 90 degree turns. No one planned them. They have developed on their own, dictated by topography, settlement patterns and the will of the occupants at their terminus. About seven years ago, the governor declared the area in a state of emergency and the county did some grading and installed culverts. Ever since then traffic has picked up and the roads have gotten increasingly wider. As wide as a highway in some sections.
We cruise along, seat belts off, cool air blowing onto our faces through the open windows. By this time, Lola’s self control has faded and she is moaning audibly and occasionally jumps her front two feet up onto the center console to get a better look out the windshield. Small bunnies and large jack rabbits the size of Elsa scurry across our path. I scan the road ahead and the sides flanking for wildlife, and as soon as I see anything, I point it out to Andrew so he can avoid hitting any animals.
The last half mile into the cabin is the roughest terrain we drive. The road is seldom driven by those who don’t live here, and unlike the washboard super highway snaking through the lowlands of the Mesa, this road is narrow and rough. Including us, there are approximately seven people who inhabit this area of the Mesa, and we are only here occasionally on weekends.
As Andrew maneuvers the rocky terrain, I notice little tufts of bright green grass growing in the disturbed dirt of the double tracks. I wish grass would grow at our house in Santa Fe.
The rocky road is accentuated by the bright headlights on the truck. Dirt roads always seem much worse in the dark. The shadows create masses of dark spaces making you question what lies ahead. The holes and pockets and ruts are amplified. The rocks are enlarged. It adds an element of drama to a night-time arrival at the Mesa.
We drive down loose tread through an arroyo, which, although I can’t see it the dark, is home to an old torn up kayak. The previous owner of our place rode it down the arroyo in a wet year before getting caught up on some boulders. We come up the other side of the arroyo and Andrew turns into our driveway with the dark silhouettes of Two Peaks hovering over us to the north. The grasses are so tall that I can barely see the vertical two track down to the house.
The driveway is the most treacherous of all. When we leave the house, we put the truck in 4-low to be sure to make it out. As the truck lumbers slowly down the large boulders toward the house, my heart is racing, the muscles in my legs are tense. I realize that I’m breathing too fast.
The truck comes to a stop, securely nestled between two enormous piñon trees that tower over its roof. We open the doors and step out slowly - our legs stiff from the drive up and cautious of the muddy ground.
I immediately hear a loud humming sound. Andrew does too. He remarks that it sounds a lot like frogs. We speculate that the low spot out near the main road, where a rancher has built an earthen stock tank, has filled with water from all the precipitation that we have had lately and the frogs, who can live in the mud for years until a wet season, have now come out and are croaking. I agree that it does sound a lot like frogs, but there is a hum below it. An industrial, mechanical sounding hum below the rabbets.
Andrew begins unloading the car. I am walking Elsa around on a leash, a ridiculous scenario given that the closest neighbors are a quarter of a mile away. The Mesa is wild, and when dogs come here they should be wild too. But Elsa has a history of wandering off up here, causing me great worry and stress. The coyotes howl menacingly in the distance, and I don’t want to risk it. I decided before we left Santa Fe that I would leash her immediately upon arrival to quell my worries. I bought her two small kitten bells for her collar so at least her presence is audible, but in the dark of the night, I couldn’t risk losing track of her.
The dark of the night. As we drove quietly down the driveway minutes earlier, I admitted to Andrew, “Sometimes I’m afraid of the dark. When I was a little girl, I would pull my covers up over my head and sleep under them to keep me safe. I was so hot under the covers, but I was too afraid.” I guess a part of that fear still remains because the thought of Elsa wandering off into the darkness where I can’t see her is too much to handle.
Andrew fills the dogs’ water dish from the spigot on the cistern and comes back in to tell me that it’s like a nature show outside. As he was filling the bowl, a cicada or some large beetle flew into a black widow’s web. The black widow scurried out from its hiding spot, pounced on the beetle, wrapped its head in its webbing and then retreated again while the beetle writhed and rasped its legs against the branches of a dead plant within its reach. He encouraged me to come and take a look. That dry rasping was haunting, and it did not assuage my fear of the dark tonight.
It’s only been two weeks since we were here last. Two weeks is a short interlude compared to our recent history with the cabin. Ever since we were robbed, I’ve had a deep negative feeling about this place. The kind of feeling that can overtake me in the middle of the night when I wake up unexpectedly. It makes me feel panicked and my heart race and I can barely breathe. I’ve dealt with this by not thinking about the cabin. Out of sight, out of mind as they say. Prior to fourth of July weekend, I hadn’t been here since Thanksgiving. And before that, I don’t even know how long it had been. This place that I loved so much had become a source of stress and unhappiness.
In the two weeks since we have been here, I worried that someone would have broken a window or stolen a solar panel or moved in. That’s what I have nightmares about - that we come to the cabin and discover that someone has moved in and we have to make them leave in a terrible confrontation. And every time I have that dream, I plead with the person, “but this is OUR place.”
It is our place. It’s our hard work and our dreams and our love for New Mexico manifested. We have so much tied up in this place. So much.
So much that it felt cathartic tonight to arrive and hear the hum. I’ve never heard what I would consider the Taos Hum before. This was a special night and hopefully a turning point toward embracing the cabin and the Mesa and this life again.