A REINCARNATED GYPSY
If we were to meet somewhere, say at some cowboy bar in Montana on a crisp September afternoon when the tall prairie grasses were turning brown I would tell you I was probably the last person in the world who would call themselves a gypsy. Gypsies go from place to place like those little white fluffy things that floated through the air we used to call “money stealers” when we were kids. Gypsies clatter down the road in one of those ornately painted wagons drawn by patient horses decked out like it was Mardi Gras. Not me. Uh, uh. Not me at all. I’m small town. Settled.
My past, however, puts the lie to that. I’ve lived in seven states, almost eight if I had decided to take up that offer in New Orleans. Fifty thousand or more ocean racing miles with cities from Key West to Bayona, Spain, Newport, Rhode Island to Honolulu and points in between. Pushing cattle in Dillon, Montana. Playing polo in the California desert, in San Diego, Santa Barbara. Sometimes moving for the flimsiest of reasons. But after being in SoCal for the last few decades I figured the ol’ roots had finally gotten to me. They would scatter my ashes here.
I really would have wanted them to scatter my ashes in the California I came out to when I got out of the Army, the California redolent of orange blossoms and night-blooming jasmine, the California of Haight-Ashbury and Sunset Boulevard and the Whiskey and the Troubadour. Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys and outdoor concerts with Longbranch Pennywhistle and Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Eagles. California nights heavy with the warm smell of colitas.
But that California is long gone. “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.” Even Joshua Tree and the rock where Gram Parsons ascended has changed.
And I’m still here. How the heck did that happen? I don’t want my ashes scattered in this California.
But for one off-handed remark by a friend years ago I probably would have stayed here. Waiting for Hotel California to reopen. “Come on out to Santa Fe and play polo for a long weekend,” a friend asked back then. I gave my usual off-handed, go-to answer: “Sure…why not?” It seemed like a good idea at the time. (By the way, it seemed like a good idea at the time has gotten me into more trouble than I care to remember but it’s also gotten me into some unforgettable adventures. I wouldn’t trade the trouble for the adventures…)
So there I was on a plane from John Wayne Airport to Albuquerque, polo helmet and polo boots at hand, to find out what lay on the other side of the mountain.
My epiphany began when I walked out of the terminal and into my rental car in ABQ. Not just going from sea level to five thousand feet of elevation but the sense I had been transported back to a different country in an earlier time, a place where the intense blue of the sky covered everything. The same blue color I had painted the door to my house in Newport Beach without ever having seen it.
The road out of ABQ to Santa Fe runs in more or less a straight line to the Northeast. I-25. Once you drop the city in your rearview mirror the road starts climbing through dun-colored hills dotted with sagebrush and piñon. The further I drove the deeper I seemed to sink into it. It was late on a Thursday afternoon in July. The traffic was light. The blue of the sky darkened as the elevation increased.
I got off the highway at Old Pecos Trail which seemed auspicious since it was a name I had read once in a Red Ryder comic book. Or heard once in a John Wayne movie. But it had a sufficiently cowboy vibe for me, the kid from a small town in Jersey who always wanted to be a cowboy.
This was in the days before GPS, when you had to actually plot your own route from a Triple A map that lay crinkled now on the passenger seat, tossed aside. I had arranged to meet my friends in the bar at La Fonda and I slid the rental car into a parking spot in front of the hotel, opened the car door and climbed out.
I had been here before. It hit me just like that. I had been here before.
Not in the deja vu sense, I had the actual surreal feeling I had been here before. I had seen these one and two story adobe-looking buildings surrounding a grassy plaza shaded by old trees. I had felt the air, hushed, anticipating. The sky an impossible blue-black. The shadows could have been airbrushed on. I Inhaled the scent of high desert dust and sage. Four hundred years of history crowded down around me, a weight of cultures. Native American, Catholic, Spanish, Mexican, Marano. There is no awareness of the passage of time in the other world and it was as if they had been waiting for me to come back. Drawn me back.
As soon as I sat down the waitress set a glass down in front of me. “Wild Turkey. Two ice cubes, Doc. They said to have it ready for you.”
I had a sense of vertigo. I was sliding down the rabbit hole.
(About the gypsy thing…my maternal grandma came from a very small town in Romania. Fvorov. It was said by my old great aunts that she was at least part gypsy and was renowned as a fortune teller and healer. I never knew her but she predicted my birth and I found out later she was pretty accurate about describing my life and my personality. I carry an Anglicized version of her name.)
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