Today Red and I hit the road for New Mexico, from where I fly to Washington State and spend the week in Olympia, visiting family and friends and doing some research and thinking on a book idea.
Rain pattered on the roof when I woke in the darkness before dawn this morning, and as the day grew light, I could see a fringe of white stuff on the mountainsides below the cloud layer–yup, snow.
By the time I left town at just past noon, the sun was coming through gaps in the clouds. I checked the road conditions–wet, slush, snow, wet–and shrugged my shoulders.
It’s November in the Rockies. Snow is part of the journey. And it’s been warm enough that the snow on the passes would likely have melted off the pavement anyway.
The drive south to New Mexico takes me over Poncha Pass (a mere 9,010 feet elevation, nothing much in my part of the world, where mountain passes are often over 10,000 or even 11,000 feet above sea level).
The highway then heads straight as a ruler laid on the landscape south down the length of the San Luis Valley, Colorado’s Big Empty, a high-desert valley that is so sparsely peopled that the human population is only a little over twice as large as the population of migrating sandhill cranes.
(I wrote a book about the valley in collaboration with Idaho photographer Glenn Oakley. For me it was a chance to explore a place that both scares and fascinates me, and to think about the concept of home and what it means to live fully in a place.)
At the south end of the valley is a bit of a rise and Sierra San Antonio, a dome-shaped mountain that marks the boundary with New Mexico. As Red and I approached that dome-shaped mountain, the wind gusted hard and it began to snow. The road climbed gently, the wind buffeted Red, and snowflakes swirled in all directions. Pretty soon there was slush on the road and then an actual coating of slick, white ice.
Things got pretty slow there for a while (and I didn’t shoot any photos), but eventually the wind quieted, the snow turned to slush and then just slop, and the flakes in the air melted to big fat drops of water.
Then the high-desert scrub of the San Luis Valley gave way to the Taos Plateau and trees, first some fat but not tall ponderosa pines and then piñon pines, their shorter and bushier cousins which produce the fat-rich nuts, their furrowed trunks dark with rain.
Eventually Red and I dropped off into Georgia O’Keeffe’s peach and ochre mesa-country and wound our way downriver to our home for the night, happy to be warm and dry.
As odd as it was to drive four hours under gray skies and snow and rain, it is a relief to see water in the desert, a gift we desert-dwellers know as rare. It’s like a blessing that we soak up, as if taking that moisture in through our pores the way a frog can soak up moisture through its skin.
That blessing fills our souls, and we cherish the feeling of air saturated with water–of plenty, especially when the sun returns and dries the land to patient dust again.
The benison of leaving home is the chance to see our place more clearly, and remember what we love about it.
I love the piercing sunshine and pore-puckering, wrinkle-inducing dry air of the high-desert where I live. I also love the rare gray times like today, with their gift of rain and snow–joy in the soil at the knowledge that life can continue.