I kept my speed up as I pulled off the road into a heavy snowbank. Nothing had been plowed yet. Nearly two miles from the paved highway below, I was at the end of the county road, what some folks call the s-curves. The next two miles would take me down a steep series of switchbacks, through Garrapata Canyon, and up an old Forest Service road into the mountains, all of which, in this weather, would be impossible in my little car. I would have to walk.
But even here, at the end of the county road, I was in danger of getting my car stuck. So I plowed vigorously into the snowbank on my right, trying to pull as gentle a curve as I could, in the hope of keeping my momentum and getting back out onto the road facing the opposite direction. No luck. Full stop. I eased backward and forward, the studded snow tires on my car straining to break out of the scalloped holes I knew I had already dug. Oh well. I turned the car off and opened the trunk. Salvation. My snow shovel.
I dug myself out and repositioned the car on the road, blocking it entirely. No one would be coming this way. After lacing my snow boots and putting the essentials in my backpack - phone, sunglasses, extra mittens for Pema, a thermos of tea - I left the keys on the dash and walked away. My car, now reassuringly pointing the way back home, drifted out of view as I dipped below the ridge and into the snow-filled canyon. Flakes were still falling rapidly, and immediately began to cover my boot tracks. I was alone.
It was Saturday. An hour ago, just before noon, I was on a leisurely walk after a quiet morning at home in the Hondo valley. I had expected Pema imminently when I happened to check my phone and read that Megan, Pema’s mother, would not be coming. The snow was too deep, she wrote, and she could not possibly make it out on time. “I might not make it at all,” she wrote. “Maybe I can bring Pema tomorrow and you can keep her through Monday?” I looked down at my feet. Old worn sneakers. There was a dusting of snow on the ground, but not much. Glancing back up, I scanned the mountains a few miles north. A thick bank of purplish-gray clouds obscured the view. “I’m coming,” I tapped out on the phone screen.
I live in a community called New Buffalo, in the relatively warm and moist Hondo valley. It’s really just an accident that I landed here, but it’s fitting given the last decade of my life. With a tendency to hermit myself away, I seem to enjoy the discomforts and provocations of living with other people. It keeps me balanced. Previously, I lived four years at Lama Foundation, where Pema and Megan were now holed up in the deep snow. Though it’s only a few miles from where I live in Hondo, the ecology and weather is quite different because it’s nestled right in the mountains. Lama is also rigorously structured, with clear schedules, responsibilities and common practices. At fifty years old, it is the very definition of intentional community. In contrast, New Buffalo, though just as old, is relative anarchy.
Megan and I moved to Lama together in 2009. We had met in 2005. After a year at Lama, we were married in a brief ceremony held at the spring, the source of all life at Lama. Shortly afterward, Pema was conceived, and she spent the first two years of her life with us at Lama before we moved down the mountain and eventually into more conventional settings nearby in Taos. During that transition, Megan and I had separated, and she has since returned to Lama, where she currently resides. I eventually landed at New Buffalo.
Megan and I are very good friends. Though we are no longer living together, we are both dedicated parents and so we acknowledge the domestic relationship that remains as a practical layer of our friendship. We communicate often, and not solely about Pema. Though I no longer live at Lama Foundation, I remain their sole employee, doing their bookkeeping and communications, and the sort of administrative work few people move to New Mexico to do. Megan is now the Coordinator of Lama, which is sort of like the President or CEO, except that Lama is governed very softly and via consensus. In other circumstances, one might say that there is a conflict of interest involved, but at Lama our arrangement, though unique, doesn’t turn any heads. People trust us.
So, as I walked into the middle of the mountain snowstorm, I was nevertheless treading familiar ground. I could walk this road blindfolded.
The muffled crunch of my footsteps accompanied my thoughts as I dropped into the canyon. I stopped for a minute at the bottom, between its steep walls. The silence was golden. Everything was white. Tiny snowflakes drifted in every direction, filling and giving definition to the space. The oak leaves, still clinging to their branches, were wet and tannic, a deep brick red that stood out boldly against the snow. I recalled the fermenting tobacco a friend had once hung in the greenhouse, years ago. I nodded to myself in that familiar way, fortunate soul, to be here and to witness all this. Alone and silent, the world slid into my body, and vice versa. They were like two images of the same object, which, when held together by the stereo vision of my eyes, produced depth and shape.
I took my backpack off and set it softly on the snow, listening to the sound of the snowflakes being crushed underneath. Zzzzip! I opened the zipper and rummaged through the top pocket to find my sunglasses. It was only 1:30, but it was dark and gray as dusk. Still, the air was so thick with snow that I could barely keep my eyes open from the stinging snowflakes. Is it the cold, I asked myself, or is it that, at the very moment those flakes strike my eye they are as solid and sharp as crystals? Funny world this is. As I put on my sunglasses, my periphery spied a tiny rock, leaping as it were, from the bare, wet cliff and tumbling into the snow. I turned instinctively, watching it form into a thick white ball as it tumbled down, settling amongst a dozen others at the bottom, its track, just a scent of a shadow in the snow, white against white. Zzzzip! I closed the pocket, swung my bag onto my shoulder, and headed up the other side.
Thirty minutes later, I stood inside the door at Megan’s small house, a one-room dwelling with a loft for sleeping. A fire was purring softly in the stove. She and Pema immediately erupted into laughter, and I milked it. I had purposefully not wiped the ice from my beard, and a semi-frozen trail of mucous ran from my nose over my lip. My hat and jacket were comically dusted and the bottoms of my pant legs were heavy with clinging globs of snow. “You made it!” Megan shouted, “Dada, our hero!” It hadn’t been a difficult journey, but I played it up.
“Guess what time it is, pup!” I said, stamping my feet on the threshold and taking off my wet layers.
“Are you going to hang out for a little bit?” Pema asked, excitedly.
“Yeah,” I answered, “But guess what time it is.” Pema looked uncertain. She knew I was forming a joke. “Tea time!” I shouted, holding my thermos like a trophy. I drink a cup of tea, like clockwork, in the morning and mid-afternoon. Pema knows this, and she and Megan both mock me afterward, as I grow more talkative, prone to both sentimentality and slap-happy antics. The gentle ribbing from the two of them only makes it better, and the recent exertion of having walked up the mountain would make this a perfect moment. Thermos in hand, I sat down by the wood stove to dry off, smiling abundantly. Paradise.
“Thanks for coming, Joe,” Megan said, this time seriously.
“Yeah, absolutely. No sweat,” I answered. “But I can’t stay long. I’ve already committed to taking Ruby and Francis at four, and it’s going to take Pema and me some time to get down the mountain.” I had already been relishing the polite challenges of coordinating all this, but now, heart pumping, tea in my hands, I was basically on fire with a lusty excitement for life. “Hey,” I said to Megan, “Can I take one of the sleds?”
The whole thing was a story. I could have waited out the storm. I could have canceled plans with the other kids. I didn’t have to be on time. None of this was necessary, but, sitting by the wood stove, playfully chatting with Pema and Megan, I was immersed in it, wrapped in a story like a big child in the blanket of snow now covering the mountain. Everything is make-believe.
Here’s how the story goes: I had two hours to hang out a bit and then trundle down the mountain with Pema, dig out the car and get it off the mountain, arrive home in time to eat, and then be ready to scoop up Ruby and Francis before gearing back up and heading outside. One of my housemates was leading a dance at New Buffalo that night, which would occupy the room the kids and I would have otherwise been playing in. Instead, the three kids and I were going to go to Silke’s house, where, in her absence (she was going to the dance), the four of us would explore her little schoolhouse, full of marvelous German toys. I had just enough time to do all of this, and the challenge of it felt invigorating.
Half an hour later, Pema and I said goodbye to Megan. I had my warm layers back on, and Pema was dressed head to toe in her green and red snowsuit, green checkered boots, and pink mittens. She always tells me how boring I am, by which she means I’m not colorfully dressed, which is true.
Suited up, we stepped out the door into the snowstorm. It was already thinning, and by the time we grabbed the sled by the kitchen, there was even a thin gauze of blue piercing through the clouds on the southern horizon. From the mountainside in Lama, one can see for dozens of miles in every direction, a seemingly endless landscape of hills and valleys, distant mountains and canyons. Everything, now coated in white, stood out in dramatic relief.
This was the moment I had most been looking forward to, ever since reading Megan’s message earlier that day. Me and Pema, nowhere in particular, with nothing to do but walk through the snow. The muffled crunch of our footsteps accompanied us as we descended the first steep hill, just like it had a couple hours ago when I left the car. The last sign of Lama Foundation, it’s brilliantly colored prayer flags billowing in the wind, drifted out of sight, replaced by a cluster of towering ponderosas draped in white.
“Dada?” Pema asked, licking some snow off her mitten. “Can I ride in the sled now?”
“The sled?” I answered, feigning surprise. “You can’t ride in the sled. It’s just for holding.” I showed her the firm grip I had, as evidence. She knew I was joking, but she also knew I’d want her to walk as much as possible. We continued on for a minute, following the trail down a steep, winding curve. Snow was still falling lightly, but nothing like it had been on the way up. It was brighter now, more sunlight filtering through the thinning clouds, and I could make out the soft edges of the disc in the sky.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Let’s get to the bottom of this hill, where it levels off. Then I’ll pull you from there. Does that sound good?”
“Okay,” Pema answered.
We stomped down the path, each step a controlled fall through a thick layer of snow. I couldn’t see my previous boot prints anywhere. “You warm enough?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she answered.
We made it to the bottom of the hill, when Pema again asked promptly, “Can I ride in the sled now, Dada?” She looked at me eagerly. I nodded and set the sled down, fingering the frozen rope in my hands. She got in, beaming, dipping her hand in the snow and giving it a lick. We had another mile or so to go. I wished it was a hundred.