An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

January 2, 2008, Coyote Lodge, New Mexico

Yesterday was the beginning of the new year. Today is the beginning of my personal new year: my birthday. The first day of my sixty-ninth year, the last year of my seventh decade. A good day to begin a journal, especially because yesterday, I finished the book I've been working on for the past three months: Wormwood, the seventeenth book in a series of mysteries featuring a character named China Bayles. It began in 1992 and will continue, I hope, for a good long time.

Finished for now, that is, since I still have a final chapter to write and some tidying-up to do. But I'm ready to tackle something new. So I'm opening a new journal on the first day of my new year, a very ordinary day, as the poet Maxine Kumin says in Always Beginning, when I am grateful just to be going on with my life.

I've been spending the winter holidays here in New Mexico. Bill arrived the day after Thanksgiving (bringing the cat) and left (with the cat) the day after Christmas; I arrived in early December (bringing our three dogs) and will leave (dogs, too) in a couple of weeks. I would love to stay here longer, but there are things to be done back in Texas.

Here is Coyote Lodge, a small log house perched on a mountain slope seventy-five hundred feet above sea level, thirty miles northeast of Santa Fe, twenty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas, and forty miles south of Taos, on the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, at the southern end of the Rockies. Through the wide front windows, I look north and west across the valley to a snow-covered ridge that rises to nearly ten thousand feet. Or down-valley, east and south, to Cerro Pelón, a bald, burly, white-caped sentinel standing guard at the valley's mouth. Distances are deceptive. This extinct volcano—once an inferno of fiery, liquid rock, now cold, solid stone, immovable—may look close, but it's thirty miles away and millions of years old. I feel some astonishment at this: at what seems to be an unchangeable landscape, but is constantly changing and being changed. In the life of the earth, it's fire one day, rock the next.

Nearer by, though I can't see it from here, is a famous mountain. Earlier people called it El Cerro del Tecolote, Owl Mountain; now it's called Hermit's Peak, in honor of an Italian recluse named Giovanni Maria Agostiani, who came there in 1863 to live in a shallow cave below the bristlecone pines that rim the eastern, dawn-facing cliff, incandescent in the morning sun. I often try to imagine the solitude of that cave in the cool blessedness of the summers, the frigid fury of the winters. I can't.

My view of Agostiani's mountain is blocked by the more familiar ridge behind our cabin, where snow-laden pines rise against a blue, oh so blue sky. But seen or unseen, Hermit's Peak is there, far beyond what is safe and imaginable. Who was the hermit, really, beyond the tales that are told about him? Where did he come from? Why? Whatever his story, Agostiani took it with him when he left the mountain in 1867. Two years later, his body was found beyond another mountain to the south of here, near Las Cruces. There was a dagger in his back.

But it's all lovely, all of this, no matter how you look at it: from the dizzying, dazzling solitude of Hermit's Peak, from the safety of my sheltering ridge, from my window.