10 Gallons at a Time


           Bundle up. Warm the car. Load the buckets and drive the snowy road to the well. Exit the car. Fill the buckets. Load the buckets and drive the snowy road home.


            Pour to water into the black pot. Light the burner and watch the blue flames lick. All the while warming your frozen fingers by the blaze.


            Carry the steaming pot to the floor by the fire. Straddle the pot. Let down your hair and lean over, feel the steam flush your face. Pour the hot water, cup by cup over your head. Soak your hair. Soap your hair. Scrub your scalp. Pour the hot water, cup by cup over your head. Rinse everything away.

Why Nature?

Once again I find myself living among nature with me on the protected side of a thin veil, a pop up camper this time, twice as spacious as the previous canned ham, yet a third as thick. Once again, I feel compelled to write about it. 

A dear friend gave me a gift recently, a leather bound journal and a book of essays by Thoreau. I intended to use the journal as a place to capture my thoughts after reading Thoreau's always inspiring words, but so far I can only advance a paragraph before stopping to transcribe his wisdom. I am afraid this beautiful leather bound journal is destined to be a more elegant version of Cliff’s Notes. 

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”-Thoreau

I remember scrawling this quote on the outside of a journal long ago, back when my dreams of the future were hormonal and expansive. It was a thought that resonated with my deepest self and yet confounded me with it’s simplicity. In art school I had a painting professor say to me, “Most of us chase an idea for the rest of our lives.” It seems this quote has found me again, almost twenty years after it’s first arrival, and I am still chasing it’s simplicity. 

Time after time I find myself butting up with nature in an ever increasing intimacy. While the initial shock of the loss of certain amenities feels massive, after a few days the “loss” actually becomes a gain. There comes a quieting and a slowing down. Without the technological distractions a massive slab of space appears, and in this gap my own particular brand of creativity arises. A creativity fueled by otherness and brine. One that does not come off quick, but takes experience in order to marinate. 

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” -Thoreau

Time is all we are given, that and breath, until they are both taken, simultaneously it seems. In the gap it is up to us to burgeon. I was blessed with another gift recently, a small cutting from a passionflower vine. At the outset, the cutting grew in undefinable ascent, yet with time it has cast its tendrils to grab hold and climb every inch of what it can find. 

Season Two

I am sitting at the camper table cooking a pot of beans and drinking box wine from a red tin mug. It is 15 degrees outside and this little metal camper holds heat about as well as the tin mug I hold in my hand. There is a gap between the small fridge and the floor and another gap at the corner of the camper door so a constant stream of chilly air blows across the woven rugs covering the linoleum, sometimes coming in from the fridge and out by the door, sometimes reversing direction when a storm is blowing in. 

It is November and life on the work front has finally slowed. While this is not good fortune for the retail side of the business it is a welcome relief for the guides who, after beating the riverbanks back to back for months, look forward to when the calendar turns toward winter. I have now completed my second season as a guide. I went into this season with the goal to double the number of trips that I took last year. I did not meet this goal, I exceeded it, five times over. At the start of the season a fellow guide explained breaking into the business this way: "Year one you survive, year two you learn and year three you become a guide." Looking back over my client list I can see the lessons as clearly as I can see their names. I remember back to a trip up to a high meadow stream where I learned to stand quietly and listen for the hoppers, when you hear them start to sing the fish begin to feed. I lost count of how many people mentioned that they want to learn to shadow cast like Brad Pitt. I learned again and again and again that I am a nervous wreck before EVERY guide trip no matter the clients or conditions and inevitably I care more about the clients catching fish than they do. I learned that these two factors make me a good guide. I learned that confidence and humility are two major tools in a guide's arsenal. I learned that it's just fishin'. Finally, the greatest lesson that I learned this season is that I have so much more to learn. 

Boxes and Books

Once again I am sitting among boxes, this feels all too familiar. It was only a short year and a half ago that I loaded up Loretta with the basics, boxed the rest and moved to Taos. While at moments painful, the process of shedding felt so very good. I love living the small life because it does not allow room for clutter. And for me clutter is a verb, I can't stop myself, if given the room I will fill it. So, limit the space, limit the stuff. However... there are some things I can not shed. So now, all of those boxes filled with un-shedable necessities are finally here, in New Mexico, lining the back wall of a cerulean blue shipping container that sits at the southeast corner of my land. I have peaked into a few of them, found an old pair of boots, canning stock pot, drawing pencils and books. Lots and lots of books. In fact, the majority of what I carry around in those boxes are words. Just words. But books are so much more than words. They are the city you bought them in, the person who handed them to you and the tree you sat under the first time you read them. They are virgin ideas and century old thoughts. They are maps and distractions. They are inspiration. The books in boxes in the back of that storage container have become friends, traveling companions in this wandering life of mine. I will often go back and re-read them, every time discovering something new: a new turn of phrase, a new scene, a new description that breaks my heart. Or I will meet a person who needs one of them. There is no better gift than a good book, for if it is the right one, it will be with you forever. 

The Land I Own

I spent the day today walking in the woods. This was not an ordinary walk, one where you have a destination in mind, like a waterfall or a spectacular view, but a walk where I was looking down, searching for markers in the earth that tell me where my boundaries are. I was searching for my corners. I unfolded the decade old survey, counted steps and followed the compass, getting myself to a rough estimate of where the corner should be. Then I looked along the ground, under scrub oak, crisp leaves and fallen trees, for a small, red cap sticking out of the earth with five specific numbers written on it. 11183. These are my numbers. The six numbers that mark the boundaries of my land. My land. As of September 1st I am a land owner. 6.5 acres of New Mexico mountainside with Ponderosa, Pinion and Juniper pine covering everything. This task of finding my corners is the first and most important as it sets the definition of what this land can be. It stretches the canvas around the frame. The possibilities are endless. 

The Landscape and My Soul

The southwest landscape has established camp within my senses. When I get out of my car at the end of a long commute at the end of a longer day I stand for a few moments and my mind’s eye pulls out and gains the crow’s perspective and I see myself standing in a land wider and more vast than an entire lifetime of dreams. When I make love I see myself driving a fast car down a long stretch of desert highway lined in sagebrush toward a distant set of mountains. When I dream of a place of my own, I see a round house sheltered by pine and illuminated by a half moon hanging gently in a massive sky. 

What does it mean to make the most out of living? This is a question that I have struggled with my entire life to date and one that I anticipate will always be around. What does it mean to take full advantage of place and time? I have not spent a full night among the stars in the months since moving onto the mesa. Instead I take it in doses, like medicine. I preach to my internal congregation about the necessity of nature and my connection to it. But at the end of my days I follow instead the routine of shutting myself in and turning up the distractions. 

This is because the land strips me bare. There is a stillness and space here that has found it’s way into my soul and forced a reckoning. The endless quiet presents a platform for the players in my head to stage an elaborate and dramatic tragedy. I have never felt a quiet as palpable as this. In fact, I have never felt quiet before. It has always been an auditory sensation and nothing else. But here, among the miles of nothing I can actually feel the still like space between my bones and it is changing me. If it is possible I believe that I am simultaneously becoming the most important and the least important person in my own life. I am all that there is and I can not see the world through any set of eyes other than the blue ones placed permanently in my head. I can only feel with these fingers and listen with these ears. Yet, I am nothing. A mote of dust among 1,000 acres of sagebrush.  

My Father's Visit

It is raining outside and the temperature continues to drop. By this afternoon the rain will turn to snow. I am sitting in the shop, listening to Otis Redding on repeat. The rhythmic piano is a perfect compliment to the steady rain and the romance in his voice turns this grey day magical.

It is now the off-season. Few people come by the shop, those that do are regulars and stop by mostly to chat, a welcome break in the routine of solitude that this time of year delivers. Another welcome visitor in these quiet days are memories. I started this blog the day that I left Nashville and although I have been less prolific than I intended I am so thankful to have record of those early days, and now, in the slow days that stretch before me, I am ecstatic to have time to fill in the gaps, blessed with quiet hours in which to get down these blushed memories, memories of all the trips taken, all the new waters explored, the bloom of love for a new land and the remnants of letting go.  

I start with the memory of my father's visit, only one week after I arrived. 

When I told my parents that I was quitting my job and moving out to New Mexico to become a fly fishing guide I got a response that was appropriately part joy and part sadness. This was not the first, second or even third time that I have sat them down and told them that I was moving out west. In fact, it was the fourth. Even though this has become a routine conversation in our relationship through my adult years it was none-the-less filled with sadness and excitement. The tears quickly turned to laughter when I looked at my father and said, "You know, this is all your fault."

My relationship with fly fishing started when I was 13. My father found and instantly fell in love with the sport. As part overflow of his new found passion and part giving my mother a much needed break from the duties of 5 children he took me along with him. I remember those first trips to the river in a palpable clarity. Waking before the sun, dressing in the thin light of my bedside lamp, walking out to the Land Cruiser which was always running, warm and already packed. My father waiting with a thermos of black coffee, a stash of peanut butter crackers and enough excitement to power the world. 

The first half of the drive was always silent. We would drink coffee, listen to the road peel beneath our tires and watch the sun rise ahead of us. Once the sun filled the cab and the coffee filled our veins my father would rifle through his cassettes and then to the soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac or Jackson Browne we would talk. It was on those early trips to the river, through the tumult of my teenage years, when some of my most meaningful conversations with my father took place. Fishing trips carried a confidentiality clause where anything could be discussed and it was on those trips, over the years, that I learned my first lessons in how to be vulnerable. I would talk about the many questions that come hand in hand with the terrifying ascent into adulthood. I talked about the many young men that I fell in love with and about the first young man that broke my heart. I talked about what I wanted to be when I grew up and all the places I wanted to travel. So, when my father arrived at my camper door one week after I moved to Taos, and said, "Let's go fishing" I burst into tears. 

We loaded the car, this time I was in the driver's seat, and headed east to the Cimarron River. As we left town and drove through Taos canyon, I cried as I talked about my fear of the unknown, of my exhaustion, of the unexpected weight of my loneliness, and he listened. We drove over the mountains and I questioned the huge decision that I had made which had changed my life completely and affected the lives of those that I loved, and he listened. On this new road, every turn revealed a new landscape, and in the raw light of new beauty I let myself be vulnerable just like I did as a teenager, and he listened just as he did all those years ago and on all the fishing trips in all the years since. 

The river gods were good to us that day, browns and rainbows a plenty, on dries nonetheless. As we sat on the tailgate at the end of the day and sipped whiskey my father reached over and grabbed my hand. He gave it a good squeeze, I squeezed twice in response, then he answered with three. One, one-two, one-two-three. Our handshake for when there are no more words to be said and when we both know that life is a grand adventure and that, in the end, it is about the risks taken, it is about being brave and it is a life well-lived when you follow your heart. Everything was going to be ok. 

On the other side

The heavy rains ceased at the end of May and then the tourists came to town. Every day followed in the same way: wake at 6, turn the kettle on, brush the teeth, press the coffee, pet the pups, drive out of the canyon, through the mesa and straight toward the mountains. Arrive at the shop, turn on the open sign, greet the eager anglers waiting at the door, some experienced, some wide-eyed and some unsure. The guides arrive with coffee in hand, make introductions, discuss plans, look up flows, talk equipment and inspect fly boxes. I fit the clients for waders, fit them for boots, print licenses, ring up hats, ring up t-shirts, listen to fish stories, look at fish pictures, shoot the shit and pour more coffee. Then they are gone, headed to the river, and it’s just the shop in front of me: I clean the desert dust that finds its way into everything, fold t-shirts, pull out maps, pick out flies, give directions and send unsuspecting fishermen into the wilds. Then the phone rings and I book trips, trips and more trips. 11 hours pass, the shop closes, the guides return with dirty boots and wet waders and stories from the day, they all talk about the big one that got away.

The months pass and the days lag: 6 o’clock brings the alarm and I hit snooze, I put extra grounds in the press, the pups don’t wake up to see me off and the drive seems to take just a little bit longer. The shop is picked through, the neon sign flickers, the shop coffee pot is on the fritz, the guides are disheveled and they all have perfect sunglass tans emblazoned around their eyes. Yet the clients keep coming, they are still waiting at the door, just as eager and just as unsure. 

However, this morning when I woke I noticed that the dark of night still clung to the canyon walls surrounding my house. I noticed that the sun rose a little further south on the horizon. I noticed that the air is crisp and carries a faint smell of roasting green chili. When I open the door to the shop I notice it is still and hushed inside. I check the calendar, no trips today. No trips today! I open the front door to find no clients waiting, the phone sits silently on the desk, I am alone among a multitude of fly fishing artifacts. I sit down behind the desk and pause. I realize that I have just passed through the squeeze of the season. Season number one.

Here are 10 things that I have learned:

1. The state of Texas single-handedly keeps us in business.

2. Everything in the realm of the fly-fishing world is a secret and every fisherman lies.

3. Wives always out-fish their husbands.

4. A guide trip is like a bar shift. An 8 hour therapy session followed by a beer.

5. If I am to be successful in this business I must be tenacious, hold fast and believe in myself.

6. It is possible to fall in love with a single moment. I have fallen in love with the moment in my morning commute when I emerge from the depths of the Rio Grande Gorge up into the vast landscape that is Taos. A landscape of mesa and mountains. The grandeur is, at times, unbearable.

7. Taos mountain carries a personality that changes by the day. Some mornings the mountain is clouded, grey and glum, on other mornings it holds the light in delicate, varied lines and stands crisp as if sketched in sharp pencil. Still other mornings it is a single wash of pastel colors, elastic and otherworldly.

8. I have started dreaming of rivers while I sleep, of tributaries, springs, currents, and eddies. 

9. The river is the consummate mother.

10. Saying “yes” to my soul’s desire for this adventure, taking the leap and making the move has restored my practice of faith and changed my life forever. 

Sunday 3:07p.m.

It has been raining here for three weeks. This unseasonable rain has great significance for a region that is forever in desperate need of this vital resource and for that I am thankful, but as a fisherwoman I groan, as it has turned all of the rivers to chocolate and put a temporary halt to what was a fantastic start to my first season on these waters. So I put my selfish desires aside, thank the gods for the gift and occupy myself with other things. I cook, tie flies, plan my next adventure and apologize to all those poor souls who stop by the shop and ask, “Where should we go fishing?” Here's hoping to more fishing stories soon...

The Red River

I am sitting in Yesterday’s Diner at a chrome and red vinyl dinette in Red River, New Mexico. Posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and the Rat Pack decorate the walls alongside pink poodle skirts and dirty roller skates. My server has a husky voice and an attitude. I order a Tecate and a massive burrito smothered in the famous New Mexico green chili sauce. Northern New Mexico is known for its green chili. Word has it that during fall roasting season you can smell it in the air throughout the region. They have red chili here as well, but my advice? Go green.  

The town of Red River sits at 8,750 ft in elevation surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountains which are covered in aspen, pine, fir and spruce trees. The town was established in the 1870's as a gold mining town and was named after the river which originates high in the mountains and snakes its way down through town cutting its own gorge eventually finding confluence with the Rio Grande. It is an exceptional fishery. I had the pleasure of fishing this river last Tuesday.

I entered the Red River gorge alongside my fishing companion above the confluence via a trail called El Aguaje. The well maintained path descends 800 feet down to the Red through a series of switchbacks, and despite the depth, is one of the easiest paths of the entire Rio Grande. At the rim I stuffed my vest and a water bottle in my pack and began to navigate the rocky turns with rod tip up. Less than a quarter of the way down I glimpsed her over the edge of a rock. At that height she was a thin silver thread disappearing and reappearing among sand colored boulders and tall pines. The first view of the water is always the most exciting. It starts my engine and the anticipation heats up with every step. I noticed that my pace quickened and I was almost jogging through the turns. As we got closer we got a better view and noticed that she was running slightly off-color, somewhere between cream and mint green. 

“When you guide this stretch of the Red if the water is yellow or brown turn around and go to plan B.” My companion for the day has been guiding these waters for five seasons and is a consummate teacher, taking every opportunity to share his wisdom. I make a mental note, “water yellow or brown, turn around” and continue down the path. When we hit the bank we turn up-stream and make our way slowly over boulders, through briars and under branches until we arrive at the first fishy stretch. 

My learning curve over the last four weeks has been steep. I arrived feeling confident in my abilities and although I am no novice I have been humbled by these waters which demand that I stretch and grow at every hole. These rivers are wild and rarely display the same character season to season, much less day to day or even pocket to pocket. Lesson #1: become instinctive. 

I took off my pack and rigged up, choosing a double nymph rig no longer than seven feet from fly line to final fly. I chose a #10 tungsten bead-head prince then dropped a#14 shit fly off the bend. The shit fly is a local gem, a simplified hare’s ear that consists of a bead head, red thread and grey dubbing. I have caught the majority of my New Mexico trout off this little fly which I learned to tie the first week I arrived. 

I waded in only slightly off bank and threw a small back hand cast onto the outer edge of the first run. Fish. It was a 10 inch brown. I stood in the same spot and threw another back hand cast onto the inner edge of the same riffle. Fish. Another brown. My fishing partner pointed out a good looking hole beneath a boulder on the far side of the river across fast moving water. I waded to the middle of the river and made a tight tip cast, bouncing the fly off the boulder and into the top of the pool, high-sticking in order to avoid the fast current between me and my fly dragging my line downstream and spoiling my approach. Just as the fly drifted around the bend of the boulder… fish. A juicy 13 inch brown. 

We fished for five hours, hopping around each other, sharing holes, trading off. He was continually teaching and I was learning and adapting. Toward the end of the day I stopped fishing and sat on a boulder beneath an ancient pine. I stared at the majesty of my surroundings, smelled the sage and listened to the chatter of the river and found myself giving thanks for the gravity of my passion. A pull so fierce it drew me away from family to a lonely land simultaneously foreign and familiar. I gave thanks for the solitude of streams and the rare experience of finding a life as wild and and unfettered as my own heart.

The Flight

I woke up this morning shortly after sunrise and drove down highway 64W to the Taos airstrip. I arrived there before my captain and took a few long, slow breathes to calm my nerves. His yellow Scout appeared in the rearview mirror and I took the last swig of coffee and folded a strip of gum onto my tongue. He pulled close to my car, "jump in and I'll drive us down to the hangar." I pulled myself up into the open cab and slammed the heavy metal door. It was chilly in the open air and I pulled my wool jacket close about me. We passed through the security gate and drove alongside a row of mint green hangars passing small planes scattered along the runway tethered to eyebolts in the pavement. We stopped at hangar #04 and he got out, opened the hangar door and there sat the tiniest plane I have ever seen. I took one more long, slow breath. He looked at me as he walked around maneauvering the plane out of the hangar obviously attuned to the fear all over my face. "You can ask any question that you'd like." "How does this plane stay in the air?" "Basic principles of physics. Air passes more quickly over the top of the wings giving it lift and the propeler gives it drive." He went on to explain that his grandfather bought this plane from a local hobbiest. "It was pieced together by hand, much like a model plane." Sure enough, as I climb down into my seat and buckled my four-point harness I read a disclaimer on the back of his chair, "PASSENGER WARNING: THIS AIRCRAFT IS AMATEUR BUILT AND DOES NOT COMPLY WITH THE FEDERAL SAFETY REGULATIONS FOR STANDARD AIRCRAFT." I cinched the harness tight.

We took off and climbed into the sky and my every nerve dissolved. We flew northwest through the Sangre de Cristo range over the continental divide and into the Colorado Rockies. We passed through the Chama Pass sideways at 12,000 feet and I felt close enough to the jagged, snow covered peak to reach out and touch it. We spotted elk grazing and wild horses running on the alpine meadows. We flew through the mountains to the source of the Rio Grande then turned back south and followed the river home, detouring slightly to fly over the Colorado sand dunes that lay like a silk sheet at the base of the mountains. 

Thus begins my third week in Taos. I am thoroughly enchanted and I haven't even told you about the fishing...

Day Three, Four, Five

2:27 p.m.

I have now been in Taos for exactly 48 hours. Loretta is tucked comfortably in RV site #5 at the base of sagebush covered hills next to the mighty Rio Grande, I caught my first New Mexcio brown trout last night and my heart aches every waking moment. 

Taos sits high at 7000ft. on a mesa above the Rio Grande gorge smack dab in the middle of Carson National Forest and horseshoed by three mountain ranges. To the north reigns the San Juans and Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico at 13,161 ft. To the east is the Sangre de Cristo Range and the Nacimento mountains border the west. You stand and turn a circle, every horizon is painted by layers of mountains, the highest peaks still holding snow. The elevation gives newcomers trouble and the arid climate sucks the moisture from the skin. I have never comsumed so much water and every morning, afternoon and evening I bathe myself in lotion although my lips remain dry regardless of how much chapstick I apply. I learned that the monsoons come in July and stay through August and everything turns from dusty red to vibrant green. 

The greatest surprises so far are the depth of my loneliness and the ferocity of the wind. Last night as I slept the wind blew in gusts that shook Loretta waking me and sending me to grasp the sides of my bunk. I placed my attention on the voices that I could hear in the wind and asked them with white knuckles to drop me peace on their way through. Eventually they obliged...


10:25 p.m.

Today I got battered by the road. So much for restoration.

I left Oklahoma City around 8 am and was met head-on by straight line winds from the west clocked at 20 mph with gusts that took poor little Loretta (my camper) and threw her all over I-40. I never achieved speeds above 45 mph. I spent the first six hours in agony, cursing the winds and tensing my body, at times "leaning into it" from the drivers seat with my whole being as if I could magically cut through the tension and break us free. Eventually, afer wrestling with that mighty, invisible wind, I gave in. 

I seem to encounter the same lessons over and over again. Today it was s.l.o.w. d.o.w.n., a common one for me. Once I gave into the inevitable pace of the day I started to notice more. I felt the breath in my body. I felt how my skin stuck to the leather seat. I felt the sun burning the bare, winter flesh of my left arm as it hung out the window. I watched the countryside change from high windy plains that sprout wind turbines to mesas that grow pinion pine and jet black cattle.  I came alive and I stopped fighting the wind. I moved into the right lane, flipped on my hazards, found a classic country station on the radio and drove at 45 miles per hour until the sun started to set. 

Where I ended up after 11 hours of that slow crawl was Tucumcare (pronounced too-kum-cary) New Mexcio. It's a gem off Route 66 where the first two people I met, upon hearing that I was moving to Taos, responded CONGRATULATIONS! and both immediately offered their own route of how best to get there, complete with a list of the best diners on the way and one cell phone number of a local rancher in case I get into trouble. The hospitality makes me feel like I am back home...

Day One

12:10 a.m.

It has begun, I have finally left home and started my westward journey. I left Nashvile yesterday at 7:15 a.m. and headed west on I-40 toward Taos, New Mexcio 1,199 miles away. As I pulled away, the tension that has been building over the last few months released and I wept all the way to Jackson. I believe that the tears come from a place of relief, anticipation, sadness and exhaustion. It is a relief to have passed through the gauntlet of goodbyes. I am anticipating the shape of my new life. I am so very sad to leave everyone that I love and I left town worn out from it all. One of my mates said to me, “exhausted is the best way to leave home,” andI agree. I wouldn’t want to leave any other way. It signals that I gave it everything and I am trusting in the road to restore me. 

This is the first of many entries as I chronicle what can only be described as a soul journey. Please forgive the brevity of this post. While there is much that I want to say on this first night my eyes are closing fast as the day's miles and emotions are setting in...