Down to Earth


I fell in love with with the Whole Earth before I fell in love with New Mexico— a hopeless infatuation.

It was right there under my feet, going nowhere at 67,000 miles an hour, but it remained distant, aloof, unobtainable, visible in its wholeness only from a place I couldn’t go. So for the past forty years I’ve settled for loving this small, perceptible piece of it.

In 1970 I was living in East Palo Alto, California, while attending graduate school at Stanford, on the other side of the freeway. This was the dawn of the computer age, and East Palo Alto was still a long way from becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. It was a rough neighborhood, but that didn’t stop me from walking over to the All Nite Barbecue at any hour of the night for ribs or driving my black convertible VW into the ghetto to pick up a bottle of Night Train Express.

One afternoon in Menlo Park I discovered the Whole Earth Truck Store. I’d never heard of Stewart Brand or the Whole Earth Catalog and had yet to become fascinated by its ideal of a society in which people actually provided for themselves—rather than merely making money and depending on others for goods, shelter, and services. The store was mostly bare and didn’t seem to have anything to sell but the catalog, with its picture of the big, blue, cloudy Earth in space and its puzzling assortment of hardware and folksy wisdom, all of it falling into the universal category of “tools.”

On the wall was a blue and white poster showing some happy blue people, a massive blue structure with a domed roof, and a wide open, doubly blue sky advertising a place called Lama Foundation, in San Cristobal, New Mexico. Later on, when I was planning my escape from all that I had come to think of as the rat race—graduate school, career, the madness of cities—I kept remembering that blue poster in the Truck Store. “New Mexico,” a place I’d never been, became more an idea of sanctuary than a destination, an emblem at once of renunciation and revised hopes. What I was leaving behind was certainly more real to me than the unknown country that was about to swallow me whole, but I was determined to become one of the happy blue people on the mountain under that twice-blue sky.

Hard experience, rather than idealism, tipped the scales. One afternoon I was hanging out with one of my roomies when two men came into the house uninvited. One of them had a long-barrelled Colt .45 pistol, which he pointed at my head. His partner asked if we had any drugs or money. We didn’t. We were winos, not dopers, we protested; they could tell from our terrified faces that we were telling the truth. As punishment for not having anything worth stealing, one guy maced me, and the other fired two shots into the couch on his way out. It was a hippie couch; the bullet holes only enhanced its charm.

Then as now, New Mexico was not a place many people came from outside looking for a livelihood. The whole idea of the Whole Earth was to create a new economic paradigm, one in which we would not have to depend so heavily on earning and spending, to say nothing of borrowing. Who needed money? In New Mexico I would live the way people all over the world had lived ever since agriculture was invented—growing food, throwing together whatever kind of shelter the earth provided, making a fire when it got cold. If the VW broke down, there was always How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, a book that had been written and published two years earlier, as it happened, in New Mexico.

I’d started practicing Zen meditation in California, driving the VW each morning to a small zendo in Los Altos presided over by a Japanese priest, Chino Sensei, and an American, Les Kaye, who traded robes for pinstripes after zazen and drove to his job as an engineer with IBM. Meeting someone who shaved his head and wore a tie, both, seriously undermined my notion that making money was incompatible with the life of the spirit, but not seriously enough to make me want to get a job.

The car had been a gift from my father, who had the ulterior motive of keeping me away from motorcycles. In April 1971, leaving the old life behind, I drove it from northern California to Albuquerque, then north into the Rio Grande gorge. During my two years at Lama Foundation, that car hauled crates of avocados, sacks of feed, pinto beans, and cement, whatever was on the list when it came my turn to go to town. When other vehicles broke down or got stuck in the mud, it became the camp truck (the commune was named “Lama” after La Lama, a neighboring settlement whose name means “mud, slime, ooze”). Eventually it went the way of all Bugs and threw a rod. I could rebuild the engine, right? What I failed to take into account was that John Muir, the author of the famous VW repair guide, had been an aerospace engineer for Lockheed before he dropped out.

At Lama I became immersed in what the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called “spiritual materialism”—our same old greedy human nature, only with spiritual attainment standing in for the usual measures of success. When he visited us at Lama, Trungpa, who was crippled, rode a white Pueblo pony along the paths of the commune, looking for all the world like a villager on horseback in Tibet. He took us and our enterprise to task by saying that what the community really needed was to take responsibility for a delegation of junkies—like the guys who murdered my couch in East Palo Alto—to test the depth of our compassion.

More and more I found myself escaping my escape— all the inevitable psychic noise of institutional life, even an institution like Lama that was dedicated to quiet contemplation. Sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, I took long walks on the mountain, learned the names of plants and animals, and started taking notes in a journal. On an indefinite “leave of absence” from the university, I came through the back door to my vocation as a writer—as an observer and chronicler of whatever I encountered on those walks. Instead of the Whole Earth, I went looking for the one Henry David Thoreau called “the actual world” (“Rocks! Trees! The actual world! The common sense!”). Come Sundays, when Lama was open to visitors and the residents led ecstatic Sufi dancing in the Dome, I took to the hills and walked barefoot in alpine meadows as a way of teaching myself to pay careful attention to the actual ground of our earthly being. This was the New Mexico that, unintentionally, I had come to find, and the one that’s kept me here for forty years.

I met my first wife, Molly, at Lama. We walked in the mountains, milked Emma, the cow, went to meetings of the Native American Church, and learned adobe construction from Henry Gomez, a Taos Pueblo man who worked for wages on the commune’s various building projects. Breathing woodsmoke all the time in my tipi was not uplifting, and when it got cold and wet in November, I moved in with Molly. Her wooden A-frame, in an aspen grove uphill from the main buildings, was almost as drafty as the tipi, but at least it had a stove.

Gradually I was relieved of my ideas about the moral advantages of living without modern conveniences. The following spring I lived in a cave for a couple of weeks before fleas drove me out. Once when I was visiting Henry and his wife, Susie, in Taos, before the pueblo was wired for electricity, I commented on the luxury of living with only the light from kerosene lanterns. Susie, a native of Acoma Pueblo, said, “Yeah, it’s nice if you don’t really need it. When I was a girl I practically ruined my eyesight learning to read by lantern light.”

During our second winter at Lama, Molly and I planned our getaway. We’d find some horses or mules and ride west into the sunset, headed for the canyon country of southeast Utah. The subject of how we’d survive when we got wherever we were going was not examined. Like so many others of our generation, we wanted to buy a piece of land and put the principles of the Whole Earth movement into practice, but neither of us had enough money to get started. When the VW blew up and I realized that I couldn’t even begin to fix it, one of the residents at Lama offered to pay for a new engine; instead, I sold it to a repair shop for $65—a decision I regret to this day.

My luck improved after that. Dennis Hopper, the actor, gave us two neurotic palomino horses. (The horses, also movie actors, were as crazy as Dennis; we traded them in for four mules who’d been punching cows all their lives in Chihuahua before being requisitioned by a local horse trader and smuggled across the border.) Then the decision-making body at Lama threw in with enough money for us to buy a pack outfit—panniers, saddles, tarps, ropes, and other assorted horse tack. In exchange we would write a book about our adventures, and Lama would publish it. At some point I announced to Molly that we were going to get married in a peyote meeting before we mounted up for Utah. She agreed.

Henry’s father, Joe Gomez, known to everyone as Little Joe, ran the meeting, and John Gomez, Henry’s uncle, attended. When John, the more cautious of the two brothers, learned that we were planning a honeymoon journey by mule to southeast Utah, taking us through Navajo country, he shook his head. “Them Navajos will steal your mules,” he said.

We were inexperienced enough to believe that no matter the dangers and obstacles, anything was possible if you set your heart on it, and innocent belief alone had an uncanny way of making things happen. If we had been able to anticipate all the troubles that ambushed us on that trip—snow drifts, fences, lost traveler’s checks, a runaway mule, if not Indian raids—we never would have left. Eventually, having gotten only as far as Durango, Colorado, with no hope of ever reaching Utah, we decided to cut our losses and hitched a ride with the mules back to New Mexico with a couple of cowpokes who’d adopted us in the San Juans, Willard and Clara Mae Gore. They took no pay for their trouble except a geriatric mule named JoP, who should have been dead long before then. I’d often wished she was.

New Mexico took us back, even though we’d set our fickle hearts on Utah, and provided for us in her New Mexico way: mucho trabajo, poco dinero. After I wrote the book for Lama Foundation—my first, Mostly Mules—Molly let it be known that it might be a good idea for me to find paid employment. This took me rather by surprise, but I gamely met the challenge, passing myself off as a veterinarian’s assistant until the veterinarian found someone prettier and more qualified; then as a mule trainer in California (the mules had different ideas about who was the trainer and who the trainee); then, back in New Mexico after a summer looking for land in eastern Oregon, as an adobero and carpenter, which I actually had some experience in from my time at Lama.

Then we got another one of those breaks resulting from ignorant ambition and fervent prayer. A relative gave us just enough money to buy a small piece of irrigated land west of the Rio Grande, in La Madera, and build a house, largely out of salvaged materials. I lost twenty pounds that summer, and when the house was finished, we were pretty much broke again, living thirty-five miles from the nearest town of any size, and pregnant. I and a neighbor, David Yates, a third-generation native of Española who spoke fluent norteño Spanish, built houses. Meanwhile, Molly made one-of-a-kind wearables from scratch, with wool from sheep she bred and raised and sheared, spun into yarn, and wove on a hand loom.

Nobody had warned us that self-sufficiency took such a lot of work or paid so poorly. On the morning our daughter, Hannah, was born, I had to leave her and Molly at the hospital in Española and drive home those thirty-five miles to milk the goat before returning to be with my family. Eventually I wrote a book called Birds of Sorrow about the life of that river junction, where we so earnestly pursued our vision of economic independence until our idealism wore thin.

I was born and raised in New York, but after forty years here I feel fully justified in calling myself a New Mexican—not only because of having lived here so long and adopting some of New Mexico’s ways, but because Hannah was born here, giving me rights of citizenship by virtue of being the father of a true native. As one who grew up in New Mexico and saw what it had to offer, she has sensibly chosen to spend her adult life in New York and San Francisco.

I find it amusing and perversely gratifying that to this day, a hundred years into statehood, many people in the United States still do not know that an entity known as “New Mexico” has joined the union. This sort of ignorance is more to be encouraged than complained about. I like thinking that I live in a foreign country and hope that someday we New Mexicans will have the good sense to secede, in which case all those who still don’t know that New Mexico is part of the US will have been justified all along in their conviction that we don’t belong.

For all its stubbornly sparing and provincial nature, New Mexico took me in and fed me long enough for me to arrive at an understanding that the world didn’t owe me a living. I came here for no other reason than to be here, and that has been nearly enough reason to stay. From what little I’ve seen of the rest of the world, I don’t think there are many other places I would have chosen to move to, if any, without a job or at least the prospect of some way to make a living. But on that day in April 1970 when the VW labored up out of the gorge and I saw for the first time the stunning expanse of Taos Plain, a nothingness stretching north into yet more nothingness, and the great rift of the gorge running through it which I couldn’t have perceived in its essence while I was driving through it any more than I could have perceived the whole earth without standing on the moon, getting a steady job was the last thing on my mind.

I successfully avoided thinking in those terms until the late 1980s, when I got a call from the Office of Archaeological Studies, a state agency, asking if I might be interested in working for them as an editor for a few months while the current editor was on leave. I’d been odd-jobbing it around Santa Fe and getting infrequent work with the Artists in the Schools Program, an opportunity to impress on young people the foolishness of taking up writing as a profession. By that time I was tired of hustling for crumbs, and the idea of a real job, with benefits and time off for good behavior, looked considerably better than it once had.

Archaeology: yet another thing that I was unqualified for. In a pinch it could be construed as a natural extension of the back-to-the-land movement, and even more hopeless in its aims, delving deeper into the earth than any practical consideration can justify. I liked the idea of working with people who found meaning where most of us see only dirt. Few professions worthy of the name could be any more antithetical to the prevailing, almost universally revered ethic of “growth” at any cost than one that strives to go backward and down, rather than forward and up, finding historical significance in slivers of stone no bigger than fingernail clippings or soil darkened by a campfire a thousand years ago.

The archaeologists had a pile of reports sitting on the shelf, they said, that needed whipping into shape before they could be published. Twenty-three years later, there’s still a pile of reports sitting on the shelf, and I’m still there, whipping. Some years ago we moved the office from the top floor of the old St. Vincent’s Hospital, where we had an unobstructed view of the mountains, to the basement of the Bataan Memorial Building (the people in charge figured that, being archaeologists, we’d feel more at home underground), where there’s no view at all. People newly arrived from Upper Earth are routinely asked about the weather.

But miracles continue to happen. Thanks to the vision and hard work of administrators, legislators, public-spirited New Mexicans, and dirt-grubbing archaeologists, they’ve built a new building for us—that is, for everyone—called the Center for New Mexico Archaeology. What’s more, one of those reports on the shelf at OAS is a testing report on the archaeology of Spaceport America, New Mexico’s launching ground for private trips into space, where for a small fortune you will be able to see a substantial part of the whole earth.

Tom Ireland is an editor with the Office of Archaeological Studies, El Palacio, and Twin Palms Publishers. Two of his essays were published in Best American Travel Writing; three others were given “notables” in Best American Essays. A collection, The Man Who Gave His Wife Away, was published by Tres Chicas Books in 2010.