Sunday, February 27, 2022

Encounters of the First Kind : Gilbert Vigil

Gilbert Vigil in Cundiyo, NM.

When I met Gilbert Vigil while I was photographing the village of Cundiyo, NM. I was walking back to the church from the corner of Main and Main when a Pitbull came slathering at me. I was menaced by the beast and not a little afraid. Thankfully, at that moment a gray pickup coming down the hill stopped beside me and the driver, stout Hispanic gentleman, rolled down his window and greeted me in Spanish.

As described last week we exchanged pleasantries, he gave me a dozen eggs and we threatened to keep in contact.

I have tried to express how soul warming it is to make a friend and to feel that you really know that unique human being who was a stranger five minutes before. I haven’t, so far, found the words to describe that chest filling phenomenon but each time I’ve had the life affirming experience it’s become a blog post. Gilbert is the sixth or seventh. To add dozens more is my mission.

It’s my belief that you can know the arc of a person’s life inside of ten minutes. With Gilbert Vigil that was absolutely the case.

I learned that Gilbert is 75 years old and just got new knees. His discomfort which was evident when he got out of the truck to get the eggs from the back seat. He was visibly hobbled and in pain.

When he got back in the truck, he told me that he used to weigh 230 pounds and was 200 now. He said he wanted to lose another ten and he’d be able to get around better. I did not volunteer that at his height 175 would be a better goal.

“How much to you weigh, 140?” he asked.

I answered, “About 155.”

“You carry it well.”

“How tall are you, 5’10?” he probed

I replied, “5’-91/2” on a good day.”

Gilbert said, “I used to be 5’-10.”

I sympathized, “I was 5’-11” when I joined the Army in 1960.

“I refused to serve. I didn’t want to kill anybody. So, I did a year in a Federal pen and after that I volunteered to fight forest fires.” Gilbert told me.

“You’re lucky you went to a Federal prison, Gilbert. State prisons are hellholes by comparison.” I offered this without first hand knowledge.

“My prison in Safford, AZ. It wasn’t that bad.”

"There are lots of prisons around Safford, State and Federal," I offered.

He said he didn't know that.

“What do you know about Jehovah’s Witnesses?” he asked me.

I told him “Not much but they come to the door from time to time.”

“We don’t do that anymore because of Covid. But Jehovah’s Witnesses are good people. We live by the teachings of the Bible. It’s very strict. Do you have a piece of paper?” he asked me.

“I always have paper and a pen” I told him and handed them to him.

On a page he wrote “”

“Check it out” he suggested.

“I’m not a very good candidate, Gilbert. I’m agnostic at best.”

“Agnostic. Is that somebody who doesn’t believe?” he asked me.

“No. It’s somebody who isn’t sure’ I answered.

“Who is?” he answered with a disarming smile.

He continued that, “I’m a carpenter. In fact, I built the parking garage at the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters in Brooklyn. I was a volunteer.”

“My wife and I didn’t have kids, so we travelled a lot. We both had good jobs so we could do it. We went to Russia and China and all over Europe.” He told me.

“Isn’t foreign travel eye opening?” I marveled to him.

“It’s a miracle”, was he responded.

I told him that “The greatest joy of being somewhere new is meeting people, meeting someone for the first time and knowing their life story. Like today with you.”

I described meeting Luis Ocejo after Sunday services at the little church in Llano San Juan.  While I took his portrait Luis declared. “You don’t want to mess with a Viet Nam vet. We’re tough." His ballcap boasted that he was one.” We spoke for maybe three minutes, and I only needed thirty seconds to know the most important event in his life. Nam.

With Gilbert I'd guess that it was his prison stint during the Viet Nam or his devotion to his Jehovah’s Witness faith. Likely both. You’re allowed more than one life altering experience. You could even say that the more you have the more you’ve lived.

I told Gilbert, “Let’s keep in touch, get a coffee or a beer sometime.”

He replied, “I don’t drink anymore. I stopped four years ago. I got in trouble when a drank.”

“I get it, Gilbert. I drank like a fish till my mid-forties. I’m lucky I’m still here.”

Monday, February 21, 2022

Cundiyo y Mucho Más

Capilla de Santo Domingo, Cundiyo, NM

I have driven the high road to Taos dozens of times in the past 20 years. Sometimes I make a special trip to photograph the villages along the road. But most often I take that route to break up the monotony of driving through Española and the dangerous canyon. That’s usually when I am coming back from an appointment in Santa Fe as happened last week when I had a medical appointment and decided to return via the High Road.

The Road to Cundiyo

Beautiful Cundiyo

Cundiyo Center

I drove through Pojoaque and turned east through Nambé were I planned to turn north to Chimayo where I would continue northeast to Truchas, Las Trampas, Peñasco and Taos. I photographed two old adobe houses in Nambé and continued east. But his time instead of turning left to Chimayo I continued straight ahead where the sign said “Winding Mountain Road....” I decided to see what I would find. After about five miles of twisting road, I turned left down shallow hill into the postcard village of Cundiyo. It was a quintessential Spanish village. At the height of land stood lovely church, La Capilla de Santo Domingo. “How could I have missed thus jewel?” I thought to myself. Cundiyo is the perfect Spanish mountain pueblo, the most idyllic I’ve seen yet.

Santa Domingo in the snow 

Since there was still snow on the ground from the recent snowstorm. I parked across the street so I could photograph the little church from various angles. The capilla was charming and the village was absolutely enchanting.

A week later I got the itch to return so I could complete the task of depicting Cundiyo. As I processed my images Sunday morning, I knew I hadn't done the village justice. 

I did learn that Cundiyo is in Santa Fe County and is exactly 30 miles from the city different. There are 72 hardy residents sharing their private paradise. It might as well be in another country.

As I strolled the village to photograph a gentleman in a pickup truck stopped and spoke to me in Spanish. I feigned understanding and he declared, “You speak Spanish.”

I mumbled something incomprehensible. He smiled and said, “Poquito.“ Very little, indeed.

I boasted, “Probablamente soy un hispanohablante intermedio.” An intermediate Spanish speaker. On my best day, I thought to myself.

Gilbert Vigil from Española told me there were lots of Vigils in Cundiyo. Then he said, “I think you’re a nice guy.

I told him, “I hope so.”

“Do you want a dozen eggs?” he asked. ”I have chickens.”

I answered. “Sure, but I want to pay for them.”

“I don’t want you to pay for them,” Gilbert insisted.

 “Okay then. I’ll take the eggs. Gracias.”

 "Don’t wash them. If you don’t, they’ll last four months. God put a film on them to protect them. You don’t want to remove it.” He instructed me.

“The eggs are safe. We don’t wash eggs.”

Gilbert gave me his phone number and we agreed we’d get a cup of coffee or a bite to eat sometime soon.

My visits to Cundiyo underscored a couple of things. First, take that fork in the road or, as in this case, the winding mountain road you’ve avoided for 20 years. You need a surprise in your life.

And they reinforced the notion that you can make a warm human connection very quickly and you can get to know a person you’ve just met very well very fast. Just listen.

Gilbert Vigil will be the subject of next week's blog as part of the series Encounters of the First Kind. The last quick study was meeting Amy French at the Grand Canyon last September. 

I’ve got to pick up the pace if I'm going to extrude a book out of first meetings.


Monday, February 14, 2022

Running Old

The legs in 1982. I promise they're the same today.
Three times in as many weeks I ‘ve been stopped during my daily run by women who tell me how impressed they are that a man of my age is still ambulatory. Most recently a physical therapist at Holy Cross Hospital was riding her bicycle up Weimer Road as I was starting my run down the shallow hill. She stopped and asked, “How old are you?” She might as well have asked, “Why do you even bother?”

I replied, “80.”

She asked, “80 exactly?” She really meant, “Is that all? You look 97.”

I replied, “Yup.

She said, “Good on you” and rode on.

And earlier in the week I was running down Cañon Este near the Youth and Family Center and a car did a U-turn, so it faced me as I shuffled along. A young woman got out of her car and waited for me.

“I see you running all the time. You are such an inspiration.” She put her hand over her heart. I asked her name.

She answered, “I’m Rosalina Molina. I live on Monterey in Weimer. Weimer is a tony neighborhood nestled into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that rise above Taos. I told her we had lived in Weimer long ago and, in fact, had almost bought a house on Monterey. I added it was a great place to run and I missed that part of living there. That I was still running in and around Weimer despite living five miles away exemplified exactly that I suppose.

English was Rosalina’s second language I observed. She spoke flawless English but with a lilting Mexican accent.

She gushed with such praise that I was embarrassed. Rosalina told me that she was so impressed that she was going to go home, put on her sneakers, her words, and go for a run.

I wanted to encourage her, so I fell into full coach mode. I told her to try running four times a week for thirty minutes each time. That would produce the greatest cardio-vascular benefit for the least effort. That’s the nugget I employed when I stared running almost 46 years ago. I emphasized that developing a habit was the key to a successful exercise routine. Rosalina promised she’d try that very evening. The conversation was much longer but that was the essence of it.

Rosalina was so effusive that I was touched, embarrassed, and depressed in one messy package; touched because she was so kind, embarrassed by the hero worship, and blue because I knew what compelled her to reach out to me. In her eyes I was manifestly old, and miraculously still putting one foot in front of the other.

The third episode was on Weimer Road where it meets Cañon East. This time I was running uphill, so I looked like I was running backward. A mature woman driving downhill stopped her car and rolled down her window.

She told me. “I’ve watching you run for years. I am so impressed. It’s incredible that you’re still running at your age.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I replied, “Thanks, I guess. I just keep on plugging. If I stop, I’m afraid I won’t be able to start again.”

It reminded me of a nugget by Jeff Jerome, a San Francisco journalist in the 70s. He wrote in The Complete Book of Running that “We exercise to preserve function.” Or, said another way, “Use it or lose it.” It means that if we keep doing that priceless act we’ll be able to continue doing it. Stopping is The End. I’ll stop when my body stops.

I’m being praised because I am demonstrably old. I run like I’m 80 years old. My steps are short. My cadence gives slow a bad name. You have to time me with a calendar. I'm hunched over and my face is a death mask. Only my taut and sinewy legs bely the years. Those babies are unchanged since 1982. See the before picture at the 1982 NYC Marathon above.

For decades I’ve believed that I could I can fool Father Time and that the strictures of aging don’t apply to me. It’s between your ears, viejo. It’s mind over matter. Even now as I churn out 12-minute miles I fantasize that with an attitude adjustment I can still run 10-minute miles and cover six miles instead of four in an hour.

That my New Year’s resolution, to run like I’m 65 all over again. That’s when I last ran a 10K sub 50 minutes, just under 8 minutes a mile. It’s incomprehensible. Back then I could link two or three 7-minute miles. I’m 50% slower than 2007. That decline seems excessive doesn't it?

I’d like to not look like an old man when I'm running. In my perfect world the only way you’d be able to guess my age is to see me without a mask.

I’ll be giddy with six miles an hour. Maybe at that pace women will stop accosting me.

PS. Today I ran my usual route in Weimer. I was so pumped to get faster that I threw in 12-70 to 125 yard pickups or fartleks which means speed play in Finnish. I ran as hard as I could till I was winded, that's called being anaerobic. I jogged till I caught my breath and repeated the process. I ran farther on my the out leg of my out and back route than I have in a year. Jesus, it was hard. 

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Local Knowledge

The abandoned adobe next door.

The shambling casa, left to the elements has been sold or so we understand. The house deemed as worthless will be scraped from the grown over half acre and we'll await its fate as a tidy cottage. We hope.

Wednesday we drove north to to Arroyo Hondo in time for the blush of sunset.

The Hondo abode as seen in classic black and white

Ventana Azul. The Torreon Hacienda in El Prado, NM.

It’s widely known that I have to leave town to take a photograph. So, when I offer images from within, say, 15 miles, it’s uncommon if not rare. In that spirit these are quite local, from 100 yards to 20 minutes away. It’s been proffered that one can explore his north forty on a daily basis and never run our of inspiration. One will see the tried and true differently each time she or he looks closely at the familiar subject. Teaching yourself to “see” is a big part of the artistic process. It means slowing down just a smidgen. It’s amazing what we absorb when we see a subject again for the first time.

They are linked by absolutely nothing unless it’s texture of which there is a lot.