An excerpt from
Fresh Water In The Salton Sea
My planned route took me a half an hour south back to Taos, where I would hang a right and push west over the Rio Grande and into Carson National Forest. The bridge over the Rio Grande Gorge is one of the highest in the country, a reputation earned by a massive steel arch that floats nearly seven hundred feet above the rocky river below. Droves of artisans, using the span’s scenic draw as a business opportunity, were peddling their wares along a dirt and gravel turnoff directly beside the near reaches of the bridge. I parked by them, deciding to take in some of the view, and I spent a few minutes checking out their goods before walking knees-weak out onto the wind soaked crossing.
The bridge, much to my dismay, shook with every passing car and gust of wind. Its pavement was cracked and the cement sidewalks that bordered both sides of the road were worn— in some spots exposing its skeletal rebar. A soda can blew from the row of artists and began to clank its way down the middle of the road, hugging the double yellow lines. A passing school bus blew the can onto the sidewalk and over the railing and I watched it flutter helplessly in the wind, spiraling like a leaf falling from a tree until it landed impossibly small on the banks of the river below, a good two minutes after it had departed from the span. I’ve never been afraid of heights, but if I were forced to spend a lot of time on this less than sturdy bridge I assume acrophobia would easily become yet another quirky character trait on which I would helplessly pick up. Not looking to add to my already lengthy list of mental ticks, I decided to head back to the van.
I retraced my steps, again passing the rows of tables all neatly lined with jewelry and desert stones. As I neared the last table, I noticed that the older man sitting behind it was watching me. Our eyes met and he waved his hand in the direction of the bridge.
“Most people spend more time out there,” he said.
“It was a little too wobbly for me, I’m afraid.”
“Afraid of heights? That’s not a good place to be if you’re afraid of heights.”
I nodded with a smile and began looking at the rings that rested on the Navajo blanket covering his table. I picked one up and turned it over in my hands.
“For your wife?” He asked.
“I’m not married.”
“Your girlfriend, then?”
“I don’t have a girlfriend, either,” I said.
“For you… I see… that ring doesn’t suit you,” said the man. “You are a traveler. That isn’t meant for a traveler. Here,” he said after mentally inspecting his inventory, “try this one.”
The man reached into a worn leather suitcase and retrieved a large silver ring— a feather coiled into a circle. “Put this on your right ring finger.”
I took the ring from his outstretched hand and slipped it onto the identified finger as instructed. It fit perfectly. Uncoiled, I thought the feather to be about the length of the finger upon which it was now resting. I liked the way it looked and I told him so.
“I knew you would. I made it for you.”
Somewhat puzzled, I looked at the man.
“You made this… for me?”
“I did not know it at the time, but yes, for someone just like you.”
“Someone just like me, but maybe not me? Are you sure you want to sell it? What if someone comes along who would wear the ring better than I can?”
“I don’t mean someone in particular. I mean someone like you. A traveler. A seer of things. The feather represents a path to higher understanding. I assume that’s what you’re doing— you’re looking for something, aren’t you?”
“Uh, well I… I guess so. I mean, I didn’t come to this bridge looking for something, I just thought it was a nice place to stop and look around.”
“So you don’t know what you’re looking for?”
“On this bridge?”
“On this bridge, on this road, on this earth. Anywhere.”
“Well, I guess I do know what I’m looking for…”
“And have you found it?”
“No, I don’t suppose that I have,” I answered.
I looked at the ring on my finger, and I looked back towards the bridge, blinking in the mid-morning sun, before turning back to the man.
“How much?” I asked.
“Ten dollars.” I looked at the ring again, and then I reached into my pocket, retrieving a crumpled up ten. I smoothed it out and handed it to the man.
“Thank you. I knew this ring was yours when I saw you,” he said.
I studied the man. The lines in his face were distinct and ancient. He smiled more with his eyes than he did with his mouth, and they were smiling at me now. After a moment I thanked him for both his thoughtfulness and his skill, and walked back to my van. I sat in the drivers seat for several minutes before putting the key into the ignition.
I’ve just been played. I bet he lays that on everyone that stops in front of his table.
I turned the key and looked back up at the man. He was packing his rings and his rug back into his suitcase. When he finished he placed the suitcase onto the passenger side seat of his tiny pick up truck and lifted the table into its bed.
Done for the day? It’s only 10:30.
He pulled the truck directly in front of me, waved, and then nosed it out onto the side of the road heading back into Taos. I watched him ramble away in my rearview mirror, and then following his lead, pulled out onto the road heading in the opposite direction and lumbered across the bridge, a bit unsure as to what to make of the events that had just transpired.
Other than a few passing birds, the sun was the only thing in the pale blue sky. Sagebrush stood on either side of the road exuding a light purple against the browns and khakis of the high plains that lead up to the feet of the mountains to the north and south. Every once in a while a settlement of airstreams and old Volkswagen vans could be seen from the roadway in circled-wagon formations a few hundred yards removed from the asphalt. Some were silver, some were painted pink and purple and turquoise— the colors of a desert sunset. They were the easily-moved settlements belonging to a people that, after careful thought, I decided I would most likely never come to know. A people who had traded the confines of society for the freedom to do whatever it was that they chose to do, unhindered by the interruption of strangers. For as much time as I spend traveling as a nomadic musician I always assume that I should feel some sort of innate kinship with this breed of others, but as I passed them one after another I felt no feeling other than that of loneliness. At least they had found some people with whom to shun the outside world. I spent my time with one foot in solitude and one foot in celebration, never truly feeling like a part of either.
I’ve been told that great art is almost always bred from conflict. Many of my songwriting heroes had found that conflict in failed relationships or in the dangerous arms of addiction— which is probably why they’re usually referred to as having been great artists rather than being great artists as most of them are no longer with us. I find that conflict in travel— for all of its drawbacks, however, it actually does wonders for longevity, and it’s a little less self-destructive. The only sticking point in the comparison to my life and theirs is the word ‘great’, of course.
After an hour I stopped in front of the large wooden sign welcoming me into the confines of Carson National Forest and pulled out my atlas. I was on Highway 64, which would take me up over the forest’s mountains, through Los Ojos and across the New Mexico Colorado border to Pagosa Springs. A left in Pagosa Springs and it was maybe an hour’s drive to Durango.
Carson National Forest grew increasingly more lush and green the deeper into it I drove— the roads that stayed perennially closed during the winter months were wide open in the warm July air and I took liberal advantage of their cutting an unimpeded route to Durango. Other than the occasional RV the traffic in front of me was light, so I eased up and conversely coasted down the mountainsides as they presented themselves with my windows wide open and without the worry of keeping with the flow of others— just me and the road.
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