“WELCOME TO THE VALLEY,” Ricky Medina said when we signed up for a post office box. We had no idea what we were getting into. At that time, San Cristobal had the only legal water system in the entire United States that operated without a treatment facility: just pure water piped into a small number of homes from San Cristobal Creek high up in the mountains. Oh God. Almost 8,000 ft up with 90 mile views to the west. Mostly Hispanic with a few Anglo hippies, artists, and professionals who liked their privacy. A scattering of trailers and adobe houses up and down the two dirt roads. Wretched barking dogs. Elk bugling in the fall and running through deep powder snow illuminated in our headlight beams. Bears, coyotes, golden eagles, hawks, and prairie dogs. The occasional mountain lion. Hummingbirds that flew inside through unscreened windows for me to catch with my bare hands. Stars that strobed instead of twinkled. Bulls in the driveway, rats in the attic.
This was our rented adobe cottage, built in the ‘70s by an Anglo hippie lady and her local boyfriend. It was heated by three wood stoves, including a tiny one in the bathroom. (Now that was a trip: sitting on the toilet, feeding sticks into the thing.) Carson National Forest starts 30 yards off to the right, no roads or houses back in there for miles. You crossed a roaring mountain stream, actually an acequia, to hike into the woods. Thirty minutes to town, 28Kbps dialup. Nothing in this way of life resembled anything we’d known in Maryland. I used to sit out back at night next to the forest and look at stars until I realized anything could walk straight out and say hello. Once I found a pile of gray fur beneath a ponderosa pine. The branches high above looked plenty strong enough to hold a leon opening a dog or something else—good enough for me—and hiking was never quite the same again.
The hippie lady returned to live there again, by the way, while we were temporarily renting an adjacent house. (It’s complicated.) She’d sold the property years ago, possibly to our landlady at the time, who lived next door in a one-room studio with a raised composting toilet in the middle like a throne that she covered with Oaxacan weavings when not in use. What you need to know, though, is that the original owner was a weird-ass psycho oh-no gal who wanted her old house back, spending hours sitting outside in a field facing Lobo Peak chanting prayers and voodoo incantations in hopes of making it all happen. There may have been strange herbs involved. She also had an idiot sociopathic boyfriend and no money. Eventually our landlady, a tolerant artistic soul, somehow got them out of there so we could move back in. I went over after the evil ones had left and found her inside smudging all the rooms with white sage smoke and ringing a bell to scare away the spirits.
The hummingbirds came sweeping through in waves. We’d never experienced them in such numbers. The adobe cottage’s windows had no screens, and occasionally one would fly inside. For whatever reason, they’d immediately head for the highest part of the ceiling, not back out through the window, which meant I had to stand on a chair and grab them gently while they were hovering... Holding a hummingbird inside your hand is will fool you since they never struggle and it feels like nothing’s there.
Sometimes there were casualties. This young male rufous collided with the patio door and never woke up. That was rare, however. A much greater danger was our landlady’s cat. There were flowers planted everywhere that drew them in, and the beast got one or two a day. I can still hear the crunching—flying potato chips, I called them. There was constant carnage and eating all around. We fed flocks of birds out back that attracted three or four hawks at a time, though I never witnessed a successful kill. Once I saw a golden eagle swoop down into a field and snatch a prairie dog. Coyotes rested in the yard like domestic dogs. A bear broke into our landlady’s van. A rat stole a whole geranium plant and pulled it under the bed while I was watching! (That last bit’s in the book.)
Behold a few of our neighbors on San Cristobal Day, a yearly get-together at the community center in September. The folks above are listening to three local kids who’d started a band. The wind was blowing hard and cold but no one seemed to mind. One of the women in that picture is a published author now but moved on long ago. What a feeling this evokes. The strangeness and the losses, on so many different levels, for having left our lives and friends in Maryland and the things we’ve seen along the way. The horrors and the wonders, all the people who have died. Maybe “home” is actually the journey, not the place you pull the covers up around your neck.
This was and is the closest grocery store. Someone else must own it now, but the place looks just the same. A taciturn abuelita used to sit at a card table at one end reading magazines. There was a long counter with a few stools where you could sit and drink a Coke. (I never did.) Aside from racks of candy bars and snacks up front, there were actual food items on the shelves behind the counter. No produce, nothing frozen, only cans and boxes. Those you had to ask for, and the proprietress would get up from her table, shuffle behind the counter, and take down what you wanted. I remember once we needed sugar. I leaned across the counter and peered: along the top shelf were two bags and a box, each of them different brands all thick with dust, that had to have been up there for a long, long time. Sugar doesn’t spoil, I reassured myself, and bought the largest one she had. When I visited again a few weeks later, there still were just the other two.
Across the road from the store was a modest herd of scruffy cattle like I’d never seen before. One day I asked our landlady, “What kind of cows are those down the road a ways?” “Those are the cows,” she said, “descendants of the original ones that came with the conquistadors 400 years ago.” Living museum pieces, then. That explains a bunch, like weaving old chrome bumpers into fences or putting tires on the roof.
The post office above where Ricky welcomed us is gone, reverted to an extension of the Medina house where his postmistress wife Winda would go for lunch by walking down the hall. (The old community center where we celebrated San Cristobal Day is now the new post office.) To get to this place from the adobe cottage was a longish walk past every kind of craziness and glory. The cottage is long gone, ruined by rich idiots from Texas, but the mountains are still there.