Nights when magical swaths of stars would span the entire ceiling above, making it seem as light as noon. Bright evening lightning shows burst through the dark evenings on the far horizon…
Living in New Mexico in the early 1990s was one of the darkest times of my entire life. I was perpetually depressed, never once feeling like I had a single chance to make it as a sculptor, but trying my utmost to do so anyway, despite maybe having one or two sales a year.
When I first got to the ex-coal-mining town of Madrid (pron. MADrid), I stayed in an old miner’s house with my old friend, Melissa, helping her renovate it so it could be sold.
At the end of that adventure, I was told about an old empty fire-truck garage with five bays. I was able to rent the two bays on the far end from the main road for cheap. It was dank, musty, and not fit for human habitation. It stunk of mice and old dust. But I had nowhere else to go, so I made the best I could of it.
Each bay was 15’ x 40′. Huge warped doors that never closed all the way. Everything got in through them — bugs and spiders and small birds looking for a nesting home, a million mice, and rushing currents of ice-cold air.
No flooring — just the packed coal dust. No windows, no running water, no heat, and no bathroom. The two bays were not connected.
I planned to use one of the bays to live in, and the other for a carving studio. I built a loft in there, for storage. It didn’t work so well because of all the dust from carving, so I eventually closed it off.
The interiors were tastefully decorated in fine, artfully-aged black tar paper, covered in splotches of thick dust and ancient spider-webs. Zesty hanging tears here and there revealed open gaps between the siding boards, through which you could easily gaze outside, adding an ambience of abandon and fun.
More like abandonment and dereliction. The wind loved those gaps — until I covered them up with new tar paper. You could hear it scream and rant and rave at me outside for being so uppity as to deny the wind its due. Who did I think I was, anyway?
I raided the back alleys of Santa Fe grocery stores for pallets. A friend and I ‘procured’ a load of them and placed them on the coal/dirt, nailing down quarter-inch masonite on top of that. Shoulda used half-inch plywood, but couldn’t afford it.
A battered port-a-loo hunkered down out in the tall grasses and clumps of star thistle at the end of the parking lot that used to serve the fire house. You did NOT go out there at night, or barefoot. Lemme tellya how cold sitting on a loo seat was in the winter.
After only a couple months of this, I finally ripped through the wall separating the bays at the back, and put a doorway from the living section to the studio bay.
I built a privacy closet next to that doorway. It had a sturdy bench with a hole in it, with a bucket underneath to catch the spoils — it was too damn cold to trudge outside five times a day just to pee. One bucket-emptying trip was enough.
My first night living there, I awoke to scritching and scratching and jumble-tumble noises. I jumped up to see what it was, but even with the lights on, I saw nothing. Morning came to reveal holes in bread and other packages, and lots of little black dots on every surface. Mice to the max.
Even with the use of every kind of trap imaginable, and the ravagings of my cat, I was never able to get the mice completely gone, but enough that the disgusting smell reduced significantly. If I never smell mice again, it will be way too soon. I’m told some people can’t smell them, but just one whiff and I know exactly what it is.
Thank goodness for my beautiful grey kitty, Otto, who loved good mousey dinners. He was an outside cat. Sadly, an owl must have had HIM for dinner, because one night he went out and never came back.
I bored holes in the side wall and put a couple of small windows in. I might as well have left the glass out — they leaked like holes in a capsized ship. A window-maker I was not.
The entrances were fire-truck size. I built a framework and used some of the pallets and masonite to close off most of the openings to keep the elements out. I left regular door-size holes, and built 2 unforgivably bad home-made doors. A door-maker I also was not.
But, both windows and doors sufficed — after all, I wasn’t planning to display professional photos of my place in Architectural Digest.
There wasn’t a stick of furniture, so I got a couple old chairs and funky futon couch from a thrift store. I built a kitchen make-things-counter/table with chopping block, sink, and place for a propane-cannister-run cook-stove out of left-over torn-apart pallets.
I made a gravity feed system for my 5-gallon water bottle by simply putting it on a shelf above the table; I tapped the bottom with a faucet you could turn on and off, and ran a small hose from that into my sink. Which also had a bucket under it, whose water went to the garden when the bucket was almost full.
I built a sleeping loft at the top of a hand-built, L-shaped staircase. L-shaped to save space. I have to pat myself on the back for that — I’d never built a two-part stair before. I built cabinets under it too. Now that whole thing I was proud of!
After a couple years of living in such a dark place, I felt as if my eyes were going to close off. I was becoming a mole. I absolutely craved more light, so I built an addition onto the outer side wall. I constructed all the walls with old used windows, placed side-by-side, so the little room was all light and warmth where I could sit and enjoy the sun, even in winter.
Right next to the addition, in the back of the parking lot, I dug about a foot down into the coal dust and started a garden. It was 25′ long and 15′ wide. I stacked hay bales two-high around the perimeter as barriers, keeping anyone who drove back there from driving into the garden.
Since I had no running water, I had to go 15 miles away — almost all the way into Santa Fe, on Highway 14 — with my five fifty-gallon water drums sloshing around in the back of my big Chevy van. Twice a week. Man, did I get strong or what, hauling that water around!
I watered the garden by hand, walking from barrel to garden, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, with an old-fashioned watering can. I grew some damn nice tomatoes, squash, cukes, herbs and flowers. No one believed I could grow a thing in the oily coal dust, but the plants did well there.
Many times during the winters, I found myself lying in bed, so weak I was boneless, bawling my eyes out just because I was so freaking cold. The kind of cold where your teeth chitter uncontrollably, and you feel like the Arctic has taken up permanent residency in your bone marrow.
The only heating unit I had was a large portable kerosene heater. It was a toss-up — get warm sitting right next to the thing and be fumed-out, or leave it off and breathe good air. Hard choice.
I had little to no money. I honestly don’t know how I got through living there for four years. I remember thinking every day, I gotta get outta here I gotta get outta here — and feeling like I’d never be able to.
My sweet little dog, Io (pron. EE-oh), who looked like a small version of a husky, English sheep dog size — was my angel. She’d come up to me all collapsed on my bed or in a pile on my futon and just lie down right in my face, and lick my cheeks until I stopped crying.
“I love you mom,” I knew she was saying. “Please be happy! Let’s go for a walk out in the arroyo!”
One of the last times she did that was when I had pneumonia. I was hacking and cakking and coughing my lungs out, crying and wishing I could just disappear off the face of the earth. She jumped up onto my bed, straddled me, grabbed my covers off, bit into my shirt and pulled me upright — as if she knew darn well that being upright meant I could breathe easier.
I have so many stories about her, but I’ll stop here. I’m not sure I could have made it through those times without my sweet angel Io and Otto my beautiful grey cat.
There was a baby kitty who lived with my neighbor; Olé, the orange tabby who lived nearby with Melissa; and a strange birdie whose name was Joe who came and went in my dreams. I felt so lucky to have all of them as allies.
And of course, despite my dreadful memories, it was never all bad. Just the sky alone was too stunning to believe at times. The essence of clear, were those New Mexico dusks, when the Divine paint box burst open and soaked the sky in magenta, tangerine and cerulean splendor.
Nights when magical swaths of stars would span the entire ceiling above, making it seem as light as noon. Bright evening lightning shows burst through the dark evenings here and there on the far horizon, seen over the sharp dark silhouettes of the long arms of the cholla* and spiny cactus reaching up from the frigid desert sands.
When I moved out, I had to unbuild the window room. That was worse than the work it took to build it, but at least I was allowed to leave all the rest. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
It was hard to keep on keeping on living there. But I think that was when I started using that phrase, and being bolstered by it.
Image: Go for a Walk? © Angela Treat Lyon 1999
Story: © Angela Treat Lyon 2023
My artwork: https://LyonArtandDesign.com
* Cholla is pronounced CHOY-ya