Tuesday, November 22, 2016

NEW MEXICO DIARY - N (Landscape like melody -- the Metate Restaurant -- The Bavarian Lodge at the Taos Ski Village)




A landscape can be like a melody in your brain, an insistent tune that will not leave you alone. You might ask yourself what does this melody want? Why is it replicating itself like a virus in my imagination? So, similarly, a landscape that haunts your imagination seems to want something from you. Perhaps, it is a thing as simple as the landscape calling you back to explore it. I suppose it is the sense that the landscape embedded in your imagination is somehow incomplete, offering further dimensions into which you must enter before you can be done with the place.

For many years, I have thought a great deal about a vista in Mesa Verde National Park. From looking at maps, I can identify this place as the Metate Restaurant at Far View Lodge.

Mesa Verde is a questa, that is, a mesa with a steep escarpment on its north side, tapering down toward the valleys and deserts of the Ute Indian reservation to the south. As the name implies, the questa is green with pine trees and its northern rim rises like the prow of an cyclopean battleship high above the grassy chaparral at its base. A curving highway zigzags up the sheer rampart, climbing 1500 feet to the top of the mountain. The road is steep and, at the curves, there are long drops over chalky cliffs down into the valley.

Atop the mesa, the land is mostly flat, dotted with pinon and rippling with dusty arroyos. At the crest of the northern escarpment, the traveler has reached the highest point on the questa and you can look southward down across the gradually sloping land toward the bad lands and red pillars and stony dikes of the New Mexico desert. At the highest point on the road, at the crest of the questa, there are some buildings comprising Far View Lodge, a hotel overlooking the mesa. The dining room in the hotel is called the Metate Restaurant. It purports to fine dining and there are wine glasses on the tables and starched white table cloths and the chairs have burnished brass rivets. One wall of the restaurant is glass and visitors can look to the south across the mesa top, the land sloping inexorably, but only very gradually downward. When it is sunset and the light rakes across the top of the questa, the distant canyons appear as great purple rifts in the landscape, jagged fissures that exude a smoky darkness. You can drink expensive wine in that place, a shallow plate with water and oil and corn-meal before you, and watch the shadows emerging from the canyons to meet the twilight and it is wonderful to brood upon the fact that those gorges are full of ancient granaries lining the fissures under the canyon rim, elegant palaces of neatly hewn brick filling the overhangs, little settlements perched in the sky and accessible only by tiny toe-holds pecked in the limestone cliffs. The last light shimmers on the red rocks in the far away desert, lighting the tips of buttes like torches and, then, the canyons are briefly ominous, black with night, as the stars appear overhead and the vast country becomes impenetrable with shadow.

The other place that haunts my imagination is near Taos at the upper end of the deep valley that rises to the ski resort. Taos has always resisted me. The two times that I traveled to the village, intending on both occasions to tour the famous pueblo, I encountered barricades on the road into the reservation and signs indicating that the pueblo was off-limits. On the first occasion, I think, the Indians were renovating the ancient structures and, perhaps, engaged in some kind of religious observances that precluded the presence of tourists in their village. The second time, Taos Mountain was on fire and the air was clogged with smoke and the pueblo was closed because of its proximity to the conflagration and because most of its male members were in the hills fighting the blaze. North of town, there was a Mexican restaurant and I recall sitting on the deck in that place, drinking margaritas and watching huge pot-bellied planes swooping down to drop loads of water on the fire, a blackish mole slowly expanding across the green and tan side of a distant hill, the blemish’s edges brittle with red and orange flame. In the meadow beyond the restaurant, there was an old crooked fence and a jeep standing under a ramada and, near the stream, where the grass was the most green, two Indian horses were grazing and, sometimes, nuzzling one another.

But the landscape that oppresses me is something viewed atop Taos Mountain, from a high bluff that is dense with Douglas fir that I recall as actually perched above the ski runs. The road to this place begins in the basin at an intersection marked with a flashing yellow light, a east-running blacktop that climbs some nondescript foothills to an elongated commercial district – bars, a grocery store, gas stations in a dry arroyo under the peak. After passing these businesses that constitute Taos Ski Village, the highway climbs between some black basalt pinnacles into a narrow valley that pierces the side of the mountain and provides a sloping path upward along a stream bed to the ski basin. From the intersection to the ski-runs is probably about eight miles, but it is seems like a long road, complex with intricate twists and turns, wriggling uphill to vast, silent compounds of ski- chalets, shuttered in the summer, rank after rank of shingled roofs climbing stepwise to the basin and the lift-pylons angling through the trees to the tops of pine-clad ridges. At the head of the asphalt road, the turn-around under the ski-slopes, another gravel lane switchbacks up an improbably steep incline, passing even more elaborate ski-lodges clinging to the sheer hillside. This road ends atop the bluff directly under a panorama of bare and rocky peaks. Another wooden lodge, the Bavarian Inn, stands in the shadow of a grove of tall pines.

You can buy a sausage platter with sauerkraut at the Bavarian Inn, have beer in an icy mug, and there is a deck on the back of the lodge with tables where you can eat outside. I recall that there was a fire burning in a pit behind the building because it was chilly at this elevation, some patches of snow still decorating the shady places under the trees near the deck. The surreal aspect of this landscape was the cold breath of the mountain summits right at your elbow, the peaks like piles of grey gravel, indeed, the terrain resembling a gravel-pit with steep ridges and little hollows full of meltwater and rocky paths leading up to a pass that seemed to be less than four-hundred yards away, a crest of stone where shields of snow drooped downward – it was, I think, the summit of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico. Tiny gem-like humming birds, turquoise-colored, sucked nectar from a cedar feeder. We could hear the bear bells jingling as the hikers came down from the peaks, passing on the trail nearby with their bright stocking caps and big packs, merrily crying out to one another as they approached the lodge. It seemed to me that I could rise from the table, quaff the last of my beer, and, then, climb to the top of the world in a half-hour or so, reach the divide overhead where I could see people cautiously descending a defile between two sheer cliffs.

The top of the mountain couldn’t possibly be that close. My memory must have been false. But it was something, I thought, worth investigating.

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