“When you travel in an unplanned way, you are free; there are no have-tos or shoulds. You are structured at first only, perhaps, by the date of the plane departure [or Airbnb reservation]. As the pattern of people and places unfolds, the trip, like an improvised piece of music, reveals its own inner structure and rhythm. Thus, you set the stage for fateful encounters.”
-- Steven Nachmanovich, Freeplay
It started at the bar of Tomasito’s, my first venture out on the town since landing in Santa Fe and settling into my casita on Don Diego Street. It was a bustling night at the infamous New Mexican watering hole. The pungent scent of roasted green chile hung in the air and set me salivating beneath my facemask as I navigated through the crowded lobby and followed my instincts straight to the bar.
As a solo traveler, I dislike table seating. I feel self-conscious taking up a two- or four-top all by myself. At the bar, I belong and rarely feel lonely with the bartender or a fellow customer to talk to. Though, oftentimes, I enjoy the feeling of company around me as I sit with my drink and journal jotting my thoughts of the day.
At Tomasita’s that Thursday night, there would be no chatting with the bartender and no journaling. The place was a zoo. I was about to u-turn right out of there when two seats at the end of the L-shaped bar were vacated by a couple. I thanked them profusely, through fogged-up eyeglasses, as I plopped my tired rear and crooked spine into the high-top chair and removed my mask with a relieved exhale.
Two stools down from me sat a distinctive indigenous woman, black flowing hair, enjoying a steaming bowl of what looked to be menudo. I turned to her to confirm my suspicions – yes, she nodded, enthusiastically, tearing pieces off a flour tortilla and submerging them in the soup. “My favorite.”
My stomach growled, though I was not a tripe fan.
“The chile verde’s good, too,” announced the fellow in the Yankee’s cap sitting on the other side of the menudo woman. Turns out the fellow, Jimmy, was a New Yorker, a school teacher in Brooklyn on his annual jaunt to Santa Fe for Christmas break.
I licked my lips; I had found the right place.
Though the two people I was really meant to meet, that night, were just arriving, hovering by the bar, eyeing the empty seat next to me. I scooted over, so at least there was room for one,
as it occurred to me: these are awfully close quarters with the latest variant, Omicron, lurking.
New Mexico was a mask-mandate state. People were respectful in public. I was boosted and had been Covid-clean, thusfar. As the woman scooched in, I shrugged and ordered a margarita from the bartender who was busy pumping two shakers, like maracas, over his head. It wasn’t five seconds before Mary Lee, with her mild Texan drawl, glittering rings and flowing cream sweater coat, introduced herself and her beau, Duane, a tall bristly-faced follow with waves of silver hair cascading from his greasy felt sombrero.
The pair were hard to figure: they looked opulent and rustic at the same time.
It wasn’t another minute before they were asking me questions and I was revealing to these friendly strangers: "I’m on a healing journey." My words surprised me; I hadn’t referred to my cross-country road trip in that way before. But two days in Santa Fe, I suppose the healing vibes of the land and people were already seeping into me, giving me some hope for my relentlessly crooked spine.
My words touched Mary Lee, too, who nodded with knowing. "Been there, girl," she said, then excitedly told about the ponds of Montezuma, a place they frequented, a three- hour drive for them from Amarillo. And, by the end of the night at that vortex of energy bar, the mariachis strumming away, our margarita glasses clinking, Mary Lee and Duane and I had made a date. They were taking me to the ponds on New Year’s Day.
January 1, 2022, I awoke to a blazing blue sky and a vanilla icing coat of snow covering the rooftops, the rungs of the kiva ladder, the tail of the raven sculpture perched on the fence post.
I padded across the casita’s ceramic tile floor, chilly as ice against my bare feet, as a shockwave of pain shot from my lowback down my left leg.
I was still not quite recovered from my journey, seven hours from Balmorhea, Texas, through the austere fields and tumbleweeds of refinery alley, and across the border into this Land of Enchantment. I hobbled to the bathroom feeling resistance bubbling inside me.
Why and how had I made such a plan with such strangers? It must have been the tequila talking.
A whole new year, I could and should hunker down and get some writing done, start off on firm, creative footing, I told myself as I proceeded through my bathroom routine, as if, just in case, I was going.
Perhaps the couple had forgotten about the plan; perhaps it was an empty invite, I secretly hoped, or so did Worrisome Fish, the side of me that questioned and second-guessed everything.
Just then I heard my phone chime, a text from Mary Lee. “Morning, happy 2022, we’ll see you at the ponds!”
Without thinking another second, I was in the bedroom pulling on my bathing suit, and on top of that, long johns.
Adventuresome Fish had won out. I packed my bag, pulled on my boots, and was out the door sweeping fluffy white snow off my windshield and warming my engine as Worrisome Fish needled me with her doubts.
The backroads were slick and there were unknowns ahead. Though, as I merged onto I25 North, I was overtaken by the beauty and vastness of the snow-covered land stretching out in all directions, the ribbon of clear road before me cutting through sheer rock. Head swooning, adrenaline pumping, I felt my toe tapping to Lou Reed’s bad boy beat.
When, suddenly, my foot eased off the gas. The car decelerated from 85 down to 50.
In the way far-off distance, I could see what looked to be a storm cloud, milky blue and hovering right over the town for which I aimed. Worrisome Fish tugged on my steering arm to exit immediately.
But my last message to Mary Lee had been: “Let’s do this!” I wanted that to be my mantra for 2022 – think less, surrender more.
I forged ahead into the milky stormy blue.
At the All-Sups gas station, in Las Vegas, awaiting my guides, in the frigid 23 degrees, flakes began to fall from the dim sky.
By then it was too late to turn back. By then my scardy-cat back was tightening up.
After our rendezvous in the parking lot and visit to the bathrooms, I followed behind Mary Lee and Duane’s Suburban, a winding five miles out of town, along the ridge, over an icy bridge, until we spotted cars pulled off on the side of the road. There, we u-turned and parked, stepped out into the shivery air, disrobed down to our bathing suits and flipflops, and, whooping, crunched across the sanded road.
Over the galvanized barricade, there they were, like a pair of monster’s eyes: the dark, steaming mineral pools of Montezuma.
“You start in the cooler one,” they instructed. “It’s 95. Then work your way up to the lobster pot, 105.”
Shivering on the rocky ledge, snow falling on my head, I stepped in, my toes, a foot, a limb, then entire body up to my chin sinking down in the bubbling mineral cauldron.
“I feel like a Baked Alaska!" I giggled, giddy as a kid, catching flakes on my tongue, noticing my cheeks soften and muscle melt off the bone. Worrisome Fish was nowhere to be found.
I listened to the chatter around me, between my pair of guides, and another woman in the pool with us named Kelley, tatted bikini-ed blond with dangling cassette tape earrings and a raspy voice. But I was too relaxed to utter a word – my brain could hardly track what they were talking about – all manner of mystical experience – not a thing, thankfully, about politics.
Auras and ions and energy fields and something about a general who knew the truth about them – whoever they were – the government? Aliens?
I didn’t care. We soaked and they talked and I drifted in and out of semi-consciousness for two hours. And by the time we got our boiled, pruned bodies out of the water into the freezing air, the roads were covered with inches of snow and the sky was a dusky violet.
Kelley gave me a CD case to scrape my windshield as the defroster blasted and Worrisome Fish made a reappearance, telling me I told you so – a 60 mile drive through the mountains in these conditions?
Mary Lee and Duane had a room at the Plaza Hotel in town; that put them an hour closer to Amarillo for the trip home in the morning. “Maybe you should stay the night too, Anne.”
“Nah,” I waved them off. The plan was for me to follow Kelley’s car, a sporty Audi; she had 20 years’ experience on these roads. If she could do it in a sports car, I could handle it in my 4-wheel Tiguan.
But as we got going, our pace barely twenty, the roads dark and slick, wipers flapping, glasses fogging, hands gripping, back re-tightening, Worrisome Fish started screaming. Even Adventuresome Fish was hesitant.
I had to make a decision and quick, cutting through the fear to hear the voice of Anja, my wise intuition. I flashed my lights as we approached the All-Sups, signaling Kelley to pull over. Through the open passenger window, wind whipping, snow swirling in, I shouted: “I going to stay!”
Just hearing those words, I felt my entire body exhale with relief and blood rush into the knot in my low back.
Kelley nodded, thumbs-up, and I waved back. “Be safe!” I called out, as she pulled back onto the road into the treacherous night.
That decision, improvised, spontaneous and, yes, fear-induced, may have saved my life, certainly an abundance of gray hairs. Kelley messaged me back later that night that it had been the most harrowing drive in recent memory, and she was glad I’d stayed.
I got the last room at the Plaza Hotel, room 212. I had a hot shower to rinse off the minerals and sediment.
And drinks were on Duane and Mary Lee!
Someone was looking out for me.
Over French 75s and chili cheese fries, in the cozy bar, snow shimmering in the Christmas-lit square outside the pane glass window, the three of us chatted about mystical things. Turns out Duane was something of a celebrity, the owner of Blind Frog Ranch, in Utah's Utinah Valley, a place with ionic energy and a strange breed of pink albino frog inhabiting the underground caves and...maybe gold in that ground. The Discovery Channel thought it such a special place that they were producing a series called Mystery at Blind Frog ranch, already in its second season with Duane as its star.
"You really should come visit us there," encouraged Mary Lee. "The aura of will heal you, your poor spine. It healed me, right Duane?" She winked out of her once-blind eye.
He nodded somberly, blue eyes twinkling beneath the bill of his Blind Frog cap. "Nothing happens by accident."
When I finally crawled into bed at midnight, my body-mind-spirit, the whole of me, was flying high and yet sinking down into a deep, warm, shimmery, safe sleep.