Editor’s note: Breckenridge residents Matt and Cindi Krane regularly visit with author John Nichols. This is Matt’s account of their latest journey to northern New Mexico, where Nichols lives and where he drew his inspiration for a series of three books — the New Mexico Trilogy that vividly describe the people and culture, as well as the physical and metaphysical landscape, of the region.
By Matt Krane
If Nichols seems reclusive, he sometimes has to be in order to work. Actually, he’s a quite out-and-about guy around his home of Taos, New Mexico. In order to please his publishers, however, John does stick to a strict daily regimen. He sleeps from 6 a.m. to early afternoon. Then it’s errands, tending the garden, the post office, maybe a bite with friends at a local eatery … but by 8 p.m., he’s hunkered down, transcribing family journals (of late) and writing until daybreak.
My first “date” with Cindi, in the fall of 1998, lasted a week. We drove to Taos for a house-blessing party. Former Father Dyer Chuch Pastor Sandy Stephens had rented a sabbatical house, where she would write her play, Blue Spirits Rising. She had met John in the early/mid 1990s, and they became good friends.
Since, at my current age, memories tend to run together, I can’t say whether we met John in 1998, or whether we met him at a wonderful lecture he gave at Father Dyer Church soon after. Northern New Mexico is infectious, however, and after her 16-year residency in Santa Fe, Cindi and I don’t ever miss a chance to make the loop.
Let’s say it was the subsequent trip in ’99 … John wanted to take me fishing, so off we went for afternoon on the Rio Grande near Questa. He pulled up to The Laughing Horse Inn in a cloud of dust and promptly asked, “What room you staying in?”
We showed him the bedroom off the kitchen with a car stereo built into the headboard.
“I know this room!” he exclaimed. “I had great sex in this room!”
An hour later, he was leading me down a 900-vertical-foot trail into ‘Little Arsenic’, a spring that boils out of the basalt cliffs of this Wild and Scenic section of the Rio. Qe fished guerrilla-style, climbing up over huge basalt boulders to drop our flies into the far-side pools. The fishing was slow, but it hardly mattered. Watching the warming low sunlight hit the canyon rim was all I needed.
The hike up was a different story. Suffering atrial fibrillation and an acute inner ear imbalance, John would stop every 40 or 50 steps to bend and breath hard. Night birds and bats accompanied us through the dusk. We could still feel the sun’s warmth from the rocks. We stopped at John’s favorite Vanilla Tree, a monster Douglas fir whose bark gives off not a faint butterscotch smell.
For almost the entire last decade, John has devoted himself to the high country. See, not weeks after 9/11, he was supposed to fly to Toronto for a major book and author festival (people coming from around the world). He was too rattled to fly, instead, he began to hike the Wheeler Peak/Lake Fork Peak wilderness, communing with bighorn sheep, families of ravens (he studied one family), summer, fall … winter-even, and spring. He became adept at snowshoeing, learned about avalanche terrain, and is here to tell about it.
Now, John has been diagnosed with looming congestive heart failure (“I take all the pills the docs throw at me”), and a bad right knee keeps him from the epic high country journeys he recalled to us so vividly. He readily admits that it’s easier to pop pills than it is to change certain habits and lifestyle. He should get more sleep, he says, but one look at the vast array of file cabinets and shelving piled with family papers— his most recent endeavor — and a change in lifestyle appears hopeless.
Writing is what he knows, and if you’re not prepared to devote the bulk of your waking hours to your craft, well then. I reminded him what Groucho Marx said: “You have to get up early if you want to get out of bed.” He laughed.
Speaking of family, John is a descendant of the William Floyd family. Dismissing him as “not much of a writer, or a very good Senator for that matter,” Nichols relates how his great, great, great, great-grandfather did sign the Declaration of Independence as a Senator from New York.
“He was a farmer, not sure how he got to be a Senator … He was probably the last person to sign the thing,” Nichols said.
Eight years ago, while visiting friends in Eastern Long Island, I stopped in at the Floyd Family Estate near East Moriches on the southern shore. It’s now a state park with regular visiting hours.
John gave me the name and number of the caretaker, in case I was there on a closed day. I spent the afternoon with a great old guy in a golf cart who showed me the bulk of the 600 acres: From the shorebirds in the estuary to the slaves’ cemetery in the woods away from the house, the family plot, and the colonial style house itself. In the living room with a stone fireplace and low ceilings, he nonchalantly offered, ‘This is where Mr. Floyd, Mr. Hamilton, and Mr. Jefferson would take their brandy.’ Indeed!
Every visit to New Mexico since has involved a visit with John. Except once.
“You probably shouldn’t come by right now,” he said on the phone six years ago. “My cat’s brought in a horrible flea infestation. I’m covered from head to toe.”
He drove up from Taos to attend our wedding in 2001. He was kind enough to read an Edward Abbey poem, ‘Benedicto’ (‘May your path be windy and treacherous/may lightning be around every corner…’).
Unbeknownst to us, he also made us a fine photo album of images only he could have made from his position IN the wedding party. At the rehearsal dinner during toasts, he got up, put me in a headlock and said, “Matt and I have a lot in common. We both fish, we’ve both been married before. I’m sort of a catch-and-release guy. Matt, you got a good one here. Bop ‘er on the head and bring her home!”
May John Nichols have another thirty years (at least!) of writing in him. He’s a true champion of real people, grassroots change, and a great fashioner of stories. The world is most definitely richer for his writings. The ‘Trilogy’ is timeless. In non-fiction, If Mountains Die, On the Mesa, and A Fragile Beauty are must reads (with beautiful photography).
“Not half bad,” is how Nichols describes the movie (Milagro). If you haven’t seen it, it boasts a great cast and is a good deal better than it’s writer’s assessment. Best yet, take time out to visit, walk, eat, and smell John Nichols’ Northern New Mexico … the side country and alleys, the landforms and spacious air and light.