December 4 – 18, 2012
Just before Thanksgiving while in Las Vegas, I learned that Vallecitos Mountain Ranch, a retreat center in northern New Mexico, was looking for a care taker to stay until December 20th. Another care taker would arrive then and reside until spring. (www.vallecitos.org) The ranch closes for the winter and needs people on the property to keep an eye on things.
This sounded great. I had never been there but I knew it was a special place. This could be the perfect opportunity for the self-retreat I was seeking. I contacted them immediately but they had already filled the position. A few days later I discovered Denchen Ling and made plans to go there soon after Thanksgiving.
As I was finishing emails in Tonopah, just moments before entering the silence of Denchen Ling, an message arrived from Vallecitos, explaining that their care taker had to leave suddenly and asking us if we were still interested in care taking there. Yes! But I was just starting my week retreat in Arizona! They said they could wait and we made plans to go to Vallecitos as soon as I had finished my self-retreat.
At nearly 9000 feet, we would be moving from the summer-like weather of Phoenix to real winter. We were informed that while there currently was little snow at the ranch, they often have two feet by early December and must travel by snowmobile. More snow could come at any time. The ranch is down a dirt road off a winding highway through the Tusas Mountains and is surrounded by Carson National Forest. Although nervous about getting snow bound, we were open to adventure and looked forward to the remoteness and to settling down in one spot for over two weeks.
We drove the 600 miles in two days, sadly passing by unseen National Parks and Monuments. The last seven miles on dirt road were slow with patches of snow and ice. There was a note welcoming us and wood in the stove ready to light when we arrived.
Our accommodations, the Homestead Cabin, was one of the original buildings when this land was a cattle ranch in the early 20th century. It had been partially modernized with hot and cold running water, a hot shower (!), gas fridge, cook stove and lighting, and a wood stove for heat. The toilet was a 50’ walk up a slope to an outhouse. The cabin consisted of one large room, each corner serving a different function: kitchen, dining room, bedroom and living room. In the center of the back wall, stood the heart of the space, a red enamel Vermont Casting wood stove. There was a second small room that housed a shower, sink and dressers for storage. The walls were original hand-hewn logs.
It was furnished with old and second hand furniture, painted lively “Taos” colors: purple, dark teal, red. The floor was covered in ancient and cracking linoleum, reminiscent of the kitchen floors of my childhood, which is probably when it was laid. Windows had been added that brought in welcomed light and significant solar gain during the day.
An old black and white photograph taken when it was a cattle ranch showed a woman in a long printed cotton dress and apron standing outside the Homestead Cabin next to a large bell. It looked like a meditation bell but, of course, it was for calling ranch hands to meals. I suggested to Chris that we pretend to be homesteaders while we were there . . . except without all the work of homesteading!
The following morning, Chris and I walked the land, exploring the many buildings and facilities. There was a lovely log lodge that had a meditation hall, a professional kitchen, dining room and a loft with library and comfortable couches. Numerous casitas dotted the aspen groves as well as small yurts and canvas tents. In another building near us, called Middle House, was solar-powered wifi for internet and a satellite phone for emergency use. These were the only form of outside communication.
By noon the foreman of the ranch, Carl, had arrived to answer our questions and show us, literally and figuratively, the lay of the land. Along to help him was Jack who had been winter caretaker twice before, living there alone six months, three of them snowbound. He added comments about his experience and useful suggestions.
Carl would keep an eye on the forecasts for snow and would take measures to get us out safely if need be.
We settled in and relaxed. Days were short. It was that time of year – we were closing in on the Winter Solstice. But daylight was even briefer in this valley. A hill to the southeast delayed the sun’s appearance each morning and a hill to the southwest hastened its departure. Nights early on were about 20 degrees and daytimes were mostly sunny and reached into the 50’s. I noticed the elevation, becoming breathless easily.
We had brought lots of food, but Carl would resupply us if necessary. He was our closest and only neighbor, five miles down the dirt road on his ranch. Since the only real grocery store was 60 miles away in Taos, it was unlikely we would ask for additional food.
It was quiet. Beautiful, pervading, soothing silence. However, we were warned that every so often our quiet would be dispelled by fly-overs of air force planes. Low flying radar-evading aircraft travel from Albuquerque to Colorado Springs, practicing maneuvers here because of its similarity to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan. On our second morning as I explored the land, a loud roar erupted and I sighted fighter jets skirting the tops of the mountains behind the cabin.
There are foot trails heading in every direction and I hoped to explore them all before we left, but weather could limit where we go. Across from our cabin the Icarus Trail began. I thought that was an odd name for a wilderness trail until I learned that it led to an actual statue of Icarus. A previous owner of the ranch had it commissioned and placed there. The trail wound between two ponds, through a ravine to the top of a large rock outcropping that was visible from our deck. When I reached the summit, I saw that the sculpture was actually a relief built into one wall of a stone structure, a small hut-like building. It showed Icarus, his limp winged body held in his mother’s arms. Near his head was an opening representing the sun. On the summer solstice the relief is aligned with the setting sun which radiates through this portal, bringing the mystery of the sun and of Icarus’s story alive.
From this outcropping there was an expansive view of Vallecitos Mountain Ranch and the surrounding landscape. The ranch, a conglomeration of scattered buildings, sits in a valley with grassy meadows and several ponds, mostly frozen over. It is encompassed by hills and mountains, by rocky cliffs and ponderosa forests. The Lodge and casitas were hidden from view behind a large aspen grove. Beyond them ran the Vallecitos River. The tops of farther ridges receded into the distance.
For much of the first five days we were not alone. Carl and Jack, with Chris’s help, prepared and tidied-up for a short retreat coming that weekend and continued to close-down the ranch for winter. For the last event of the year, a teacher was bringing a small group of students from a college in Santa Fe for meditation and respite in the midst of exams.
The retreat cook invited Chris and I to join them for meals. Saturday night, we sat in the lodge’s big kitchen for some excellent home-cooked vegetarian cuisine. We were offered leftover food from the retreat and happily consumed it for the rest of our stay. I discover that the cook and the teacher leading the retreat were students of Khandro Rinpoche, one of the few women rinpoches ( a high-ranking reincarnate lama), and they told me about her center, Lotus Garden, in Virginia.
Everyone was gone by Sunday afternoon; we had thousands of acres to ourselves. The only other non-wild residents were two horses, Wrangler and Prince, who we had yet to see. The aloneness brought both a sense of relief and vulnerability. We were far from anywhere and in a true emergency, help would take time to arrive. But this feeling of being so far from the maelstrom of human activity, created a sense of timelessness and opened a perspective beyond petty concerns. We sought to find a rhythm to our days and allow the silence, the solitude and the wild beauty to enrich our hearts. There would be little to do and certainly nowhere to go.