19 October

The High Road Back From Taos To Chimayo: New Mexico

by Jon Katz


The High Road To Chimayo

If you look closely at the cluster of yellow Cottonwoods in the center of the photograph, you will see Chimayo, the small town where Maria and I are staying. I am not yet used to the kind of beauty you see in New Mexico wherever you go, it is awe-inspiring, and the people who live her say they never tire of seeing it.

We took a highway called the High Road which runs from Taos to Chimayo, it took about two hours, and was extraordinarily beautiful every mile of the drive. I don’t have a wide angle lens with me, and don’t generally focus on landscapes beyond Bedlam Farm.

The truth is I don’t really know how to capture a landscape this majestic and beautiful. We were happy to return to Chimayo, Taos felt overwhelming today, watching the mile-long line of cars waiting to come in.

All I can do is take this photo with my 85 mm portrait lens and capture some of what we are seeing. I fully understand why people who need beauty and connection in their lives are drawn here. I feel they are my brothers and sisters struggling to focus on what is truly important in the world, and on what unites us rather than divides us.

Every day, I see the kind of beauty that is almost painful, it is so magnificent.

19 October

Bobby Becker’s Wrong Turn Leads To Taos. Living Free.

by Jon Katz

When I travel, I pay more attention to people than to landscapes.

However beautiful a place like  New Mexico is, it’s the people that ultimately define a place. We drove to the famous town of Taos this morning, and were overwhelmed by the crowds and traffic and intense commercial ethos of this beautiful town.

Taos is in Northern Mexico, snuggled into a vast valley beneath the towering mountains behind it.

We didn’t, of course, get to see too many real people in real life. I don’t mean to make a judgement about it, I didn’t see too much of it, it just wasn’t for us. We are tourists visiting New Mexico, but we seem allergic to overly  tourist places – like Ghost Ranch or downtown Taos.

I just don’t make a good tourist, I bristle at overt commercialism of the kind that takes over a community rather than supports it, his is tmy problem. Ghost Ranch was a favorite source of George O’Keefe’s landscapes, but the former dude ranch has little connection to her now or so it seemed to me. Abiquiu felt to me as if that was where her spirit rests.

You can’t have it both ways – come as a tourist and run from tourist things – so I look for people to photograph and talk to, I love hearing their stories. The stories of people, and their faces, are the truth for me.

We went to the Millicent Rodgers museum, had some wonderful Chinese food on the way out of town, and then I lucked out.

I came across Bobby Becker, a retired ironworker from Brooklyn standing alongside the main road of town behind a long table loaded with beautiful rocks and crystals. All I could think of was how much time it must take to lay out all those stones and rocks, and put them back in his small trailer attached to his car.

Bobby Becker had no need of a fancy shop with glass cases, he is a warrior for his rocks right out there by a busy road. The table was all he needed, and a cash box. When the sun got too hot, he simply leaned back in his trailer to get out of the sun.

Bobby was a character, funny and open. Pure Brooklyn. His  Brooklyn accent was thick as tar. He said he took a “wrong turn” in Brooklyn, retired from ironwork,  left the city and ended up in Florida. He came to Taos for a vacation, closed down the shops he had opened there, and set up shop along the main drag, where thousands of cars stream by all day.

He said he is doing well, making a profit,  he doesn’t need to work hard in Florida in the winter. I bought a staurolite rock for Maria, it is found in very few places and it was practically talking to her. Almost everyone who stopped by bought something.

I have always admired the people who take wrong turns and end up taking a big gamble on their lives in order to live them fully. Americans used to move all the time to find work and meaning, to find their callings. Sociologists say this is becoming increasingly difficult as corporations take over work and life becomes too expensive and complex to simply pick up and move.

Joseph Campbell said people who only work for money are just another kind of slave, and I don’t know many people who work out of love. I am meeting quite  few in New Mexico.

The places people like Bobby Becker – and me – the oddballs, creatives or individualists – have always fled to are changing. New York City was such a magnet, it is simply too expensive for people like Bobby or me and Maria, or most free spirits to live there. The same is true of the places I knew, from Provincetown to Maine to lower Manhattan, even Miami Beach or Los Angeles.

I was lucky, I landed in Cambridge, N.Y., a small town with an ethic of tolerance and a core of creative and tolerant farmers and artists. I call it freedom, but it might also be called the creative life, which requires a very special kind of geographic incubus to grow and survive. Free spirits need a community to join and a place they can afford to live.

People like Bobby will never be rich, and will never submit themselves to corporate domination, or for that matter, to the kind of slavery that comes from working only for money.  He is a brave man to me, a patriot. He loves rocks, and he is happy  and fulfilled. He works 12 to 15 hours a day and wouldn’t trade his work for any other.

It was wonderful hearing his joy and enthusiasm when talking about rocks. He does it all day, and it is a kind of music to me. People like Bobby used to roam the country, making things to sell, singing their songs, telling their stories. They are rare now.

“I love rocks,” he said, “they are so beautiful and they mean so much to people, and they have so magic in them, I love to talk about them and find them and sell them.” I only talked to Bobby for a short while, but I love his enthusiasm for his life and his story.

Taos, I think, must still be such a place, but you have only to look at the rows of high-priced specialty shops to know that its days are numbered for people choosing a way of life rather than a fat IRA. I have seen it happen again and again in my life, I think I am now living in a place that Maria and I can live in all of our lives and do what we wish.

We are home. My travels remind me of that. I love New Mexico, but I have already made my wrong turns, and am where I want to need to be with the person I want and need to be with.

I was happy to run into Bobby, he made my day.

Bobby grew up in Brooklyn – “if you are born in Brooklyn you are part of a tribe, we never forget each other,” he said. As the winter approaches, Bobby will head back to his home in Florida. “It’s warmer there,” he said, “and I couldn’t afford to buy a house there.”

Taos is getting pretty ritzy but everywhere I go in New Mexico, I find people who “took a wrong turn and ended up in the right place.” I feel very much at home here, even if it is not home.

Tomorrow a day to relax. As I feared, we often talk about relaxing but usually forget to do it. Have to shop, do laundry, get some gifts to bring home, read and sleep. And hopefully, blog.

19 October

The Gorgeous, Imperfect Mosaic – Soul Of America, New Mexico

by Jon Katz
The Gorgeous Mosaic

New Mexico is not a perfect place, nor does it pretend to be. Much of its beauty comes from its imperfection.

To me, it is a stirringly beautiful place, a Gorgeous Mosaic, what I love most about America, what some of our most powerful leaders seem to have forgotten in their rush to power.

There are all kinds of different landscapes here, many stunningly beautiful, and all kinds of people, a magnificent mix of cultures – rich, poor, Hispanic, Native-American, Caucasian, all the people of the rainbow. They exist together, and have for centuries, not without conflict or trouble, but  mostly with acceptance and tolerance.

The cattlemen live alongside the artists, and the artists live alongside the working people, and the Native-American culture and influence is everywhere, in the open, along with casinos and their bowling alleys and the mysterious pueblos and the adobe houses that never seem to fall apart.

The beauty of the mountains and hills and clay mounds are a backdrop to this mosaic, but they don’t define the place for me. It is the friendliness and individuality and diversity of the people that evoke the American ideal to me, I see why Georgia O’Keefe was so comfortable and creative here I feel the same way just being here a few days.

I have a sense of freedom and openness here – a hothouse for creativity, a huge incubus.

Yesterday, we met Richard, tending his wife’s art gallery while she was out shopping.

He makes the wooden saints that line the walls.

He was (is) a rabid Beatles fan so he also made a life out of making and selling Beatle art, mostly wooden wall hangings with writing on them. He went to see Ringo Starr in a concert carrying some Ringo Starr art he made and a woman came up and said she was Starr’s daughter and she would tell her father about Richard and his art, and show him the artwork, but Richard just laughed and said “if you are Ringo’s daughter, I am the Pope.”

He wouldn’t turn over the art.

He was stunned later to hear Starr talking about his daughter flying in to meet him. He laughs when he tells the story, and soon we were off, talking about my work, my life. He was beginning to invite us to dinner when we left. I was touched by his openness and warmth and individuality.

He was free.

America is about freedom to me, and about acceptance and tolerance and the mixing of different worlds. Somehow, the people who are supposed to be celebrating this are threatening it. Richard is the true hero to me, a man who gives up safety and security to follow his passion and devote his life to it, he isn’t living on a corporate slaveship or ranting about the left or the right or posting nasty messages on Facebook.

Freedom to speak openly and live his life, the most precious kind of freedom.

Richard is living his life, and wide open to strangers from the outside world. Can I take your portrait?

Sure, he said, and thanks. I hope I don’t break he camera. Odd, but I’ve already met a dozen Richard’s in just two days here.

He gave us a fistful of postcards to take home and only charged me half of a $30 pottery cup I dropped and broke. Maria took it and wrapped it up, she will fix it when we get home. We are here until next Wednesday and I am eager to see what happens next, we have a lot of places to go – Taos today.


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