His life is art

I first met Adam six years ago, at his art show behind the local comic shop Astro Zombies. I had seen some of his work at just about everyone of my friend’s house but I had yet to meet the artist behind the paintings. It was one of those nice spring Albuquerque nights, where the weather is a cool 70 degrees and the streets of Nob Hill were mildly crowded. I had met a few friends at brewery to grab a beer as and we decided to walk down the street to see his art opening after. As we walked into the gallery, I noticed it was a small space, no larger than 8 feet by 10 feet with white walls and a dozen or so of his painted canvases and skate decks. There was a mix of kids and adults in and outside, as the space was buzzing with interest; however, the artist was nowhere to be seen. We looked at his art pieces and I was stoked to see his hand-painted Misfits skate decks. Each one was a portrait of Jerry, Doyle, and Glenn with a somewhat water color background that brought life to each character. After a half an hour of browsing the small art space, we decided to walk back to the brewery, when a curtain from the back of the room turned. Adam quietly made his way out. It was then that I got a sense of his personality, and more importantly his craft, as I thought to myself he is truly an artist. Not an artist that was trying to make a few bucks by chatting up the crowd but something completely different. Instead he walked up and humbly introduced himself, almost as if he was the shy kid at show and tell. We talked for a few minutes about the Misfits and his art, but I could tell immediately there was a discomfort about him and uneasiness from being in a crowd. I told him I would buy two of his prints that were surprisingly only $15 each and as I pulled out my wallet I only had a $20. He mentioned that it was all right and that a $20 would work, which caught me off guard being that his art at a gallery in California or New York could’ve easily sold for $100 on up. Here he was practically giving it away. I realized that for Adam, it was not about the money but that he needs to create art like our lungs need air. For Adam his art is his lifeline.

 

Since that day I’ve become a fan of his work. I’ve purchased a few more pieces and have seen his success as an artist rise to a cult-like following. His fan base is in the tens of thousands, and spans from every nook and cranny of the globe. When he agreed to do this story I was eager while surprised at the same time. I knew he was a very private person, so I wasn’t sure why, perhaps it was our similar interest in 70s choppers, 50s hot rods, or simply he just wanted some like-minded company. As I always do, I grabbed my notebook and drove to his apartment without a second to waste. When I walked up to his place it was exactly as I expected; he had a fully enclosed iron gate that was padlocked in the front, making it inaccessible to the public. It reminded me of  an old Frankenstein movie, only this time it was Frankenstein that realized that everyone else were the monsters and the locked gate was for him. His place was somewhat small and meager, most likely built in the seventies to house the growing college population of the area. There was a ton of various artwork covering just about every inch of his apartment, some of it being his but most it from famous lowbrow artist in the chopper and hotrod scene with a few vintage horror movie posters from the sixties. As we talked, I could tell he rarely has company as everything within his apartment had a particular place, which made his story all the more interesting.

Adam was born in the Duke City to two hard-working, blue collar parents, Willie and Lina. Subsequently, Adam gained both of their best traits, his father’s work ethic and his mother’s creativity.  His mother who he mentioned “was always stitching and painting or making ceramics.” His father was also an artist, but in another fashion. He was a hot rod enthusiast constantly working on a project car. For fun, he would take Adam and his two brothers to local car shows or sit the boys down to watch movies like American Graffiti, the California Kid and Bullet with Steve Macqueen. When Adam was a child in grade school, his focus was never on academics so much as it was purely on art. When the other students were practicing cursive he was thinking of pinstripe lettering. When they were drawing family portraits he was sketching hot rods burning tires. There wasn’t a period in time when he did not have a pencil in hand. Adam was also fascinated by the old school horror movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man. He can recall as a young kid sitting on the living room floor with a sketchbook practicing the villains in the Scooby Doo cartons. As he grew older, his shift started to move in the tattoo direction and he purchased his first machine while still in high school. His older brother of nine years, nicknamed Tubby, had just opened a small auto body shop and naturally Adam worked part-time while finishing school. He would take to auto repair like a fish to water and fine tune his skills with body work, pinstriping, upholstery, and exotic paint schemes like heavy flake and elaborate scallop designs.

 

Within a few years, Adam’s skills as a tattoo artist had also started improve as he saw a career opportunity. He had also started to realize that holding ordinary mundane jobs would be out of the question for him as he started to see the flow of artwork in everyday life. Instead of wanting to do construction, he wanted to draw the blueprints. Instead of working with his father as a handyman on AC units, he envisioned the design of the units; his creative mind had already taken over completely. Adam realized he would need to start making some real money if he ever wanted to leave Albuquerque and figured tattooing could pay the bills while at the same time providing the financial outlet he needed. As fate would have it, one day at his brother’s shop a customer asked Adam to paint his car and as Adam proceeded to show the customer his portfolio for idea, the customer was in awe with Adams talent. He asked Adam to drop by his tattoo shop in Nob Hill to see what he thought; Adam was immediately sold on the idea of becoming a tattoo artist. The industry had just started to bloom and within a year Adam had started to make a name in the profession. Within three years, like most gifted artists, he found himself being boxed in and restricted creatively and moved around from a few different local shops but ultimately decided to try his luck in sunny California instead. He submitted his portfolio to a couple of reputable shops around Venice and was offered a job instantly at House of Ink.

Once in Venice Adam quickly learned the trade and business aspect of the tattoo industry. He also discovered that California offered something New Mexico could not, a variety of mixed mediums. There in Venice on the strip he could blend in with the locals and other artists to discover street art, murals, canvas water coloring, and enhanced tattooing. He spent five years in Venice and decided to move to Torrance and tattoo at the Pike for another year, and then moved onto a shop in Echo Park and Sunset, called El Classico’. The area had started to gentrify and change as did his clientele and tattoos, but there was still a rich Hispanic culture that made Adam feel more at home. He no longer would be tattooing script and traditional tattoos, but was starting to venture into hyper realism and mixed color mediums instead. He also moved out of Long Beach to Silver Lake, which is close to Echo Park and within walking distance to Amoeba Records and local art galleries. Like all good things that come with a new atmosphere some of the charm and strong cultural roots that was once Echo Park and Silver Lake hard shifted. In addition, what was once an affordable housing market had overnight changed. With the more expensive housing and the cost of living rising, it was slowly starting to push many of the artists and locals out, and Adam was no exception. The tattoo bubble had burst, which left Adam scrambling for some extra income.

Luckily, throughout his years in Southern California he had made a reputable name for himself and was introduced to a few Hollywood producers, and got his first taste of the profession. He was asked to sit down with a few producers in Hollywood and draw a storyboard for their script of a story based on hotrods and tales of teenage angst, comparable to the Robert Rodriguez B-rated movie Road Racers. Adam drew over 100 pages of the storyboard, mostly pencil sketches finalized in ink with complete artistic control. He could tattoo during the day and sketch his visualization of a cool hot rod flick at night. Just as his boards were getting approved and ready for submission, at the last minute the project was scrapped. In one way or another, Adam had started to lose his taste for the tattoo industry and his last ditch effort of becoming an illustrator had fallen through.

Luckily, the tech app Facebook had started to develop and Adam had an idea of selling his artwork on the site, which would prove to be a valuable outlet. He started to paint after work at home and would sell a piece or two a day to make up for the decline of the tattoo industry. After ten years of the California hustle and bustle, he decided to take a breather and come back to New Mexico. Once back, he was offered a position at Ten Penny and worked by appointment only. He also focused more so on his painting and started to hang his work on the shop walls, which sold immediately.

As glamorous as tattooing may seem, there is another side to the profession that most people may never see. There comes a point in every artist’s career when they start to question the longevity of the profession. Most artists’ hands start to fail after a few years of holding a machine for hours on end, their backs start to tighten from the constant hunching, and the money is no longer what it once was. After some consideration, Adam decided to hang up his tattoo machine. Unfortunately for Adam, the local art scene in Albuquerque was stagnant. To get his name out to the public, he decided to take an aggressive gorilla-style approach and hit the streets. At night he hung his art along bike racks, outside of store windows, and from poles; each piece was given away. Through social media he also created a clever way of distributing his art for free by announcing giveaways at various locations and times around the city. Within less than a year, his following grew and he was asked to host three art shows, one of which was at the comic shop Astro Zombies.

Adam had started to breath with fresh lungs again as his art and the movement became exciting again. As his local fan base grew, another social media platform had just launched called Instagram. He jumped on the site, creating a business platform and became an overnight sensation. With the use of Instagram he could update fans with new art pieces, along with showing quick snippets of his process in real-time. Over the course of the last six years, his artwork is continually shifting from oil, water color, and sharpie to painting toy models. Each night paints four to six new pieces. Each painting that is shared with Instagram is usually purchased within seconds. Some of his followers have purchased over one hundred to even three hundred of his pieces, and to this day he is still humble and unfazed. Perhaps it’s his father’s work ethic, but there is something in the New Mexico air that keeps our people humble and grounded. For Adam, he has to constantly create, work, and find new mediums. For him, conformity is uncomfortable and punching a clock is beyond crazy in his eyes.

I personally admire any artist that can create their own freedom from their vision, but unfortunately I have only met one or two that sees the world through a true artist’s eyes. Adam has found his nitch, or his place in the world. He lives and works on his own time, he answers to none, and creates what he feels, thus making him truly a free man.

After I wrapped up my interview with him, we spent another four hours talking about the usual things that most people reflect on, aliens, religion, music, politics, hotrods and so forth; well, perhaps not everyone, just those that are on the same wave length. I also appreciated the fact that he is one of the only people that can pack up his valuables and move within hours at any given moment. There is nothing holding him down as his years of hard work has given him a well deserved independence that most may never see in today’s society. I doubt Adam will ever see himself as a genius but, then again, most artists never really do; but there is something refreshing about the way he sees the world. A world through the eyes of a man, that most will never know.

Bonds and Builds

 

The ideal family structure is a picture seldom seen these days. In fact, it is more likely that most people today only visit their family once or twice a year, around the holidays, weddings or so forth, which brings up the question of what constitutes family. Being brought up in a strong traditional Hispanic family, the idea of familia has always been a staple in our lives. I have fond memories as a child spending my summers with my nieces, nephews, tias and tios at the Garcia ranch in Fresno, California.

My great-grandmother Savedra and great-grandfather Cheuy had a small two-bedroom, one-bath ranch house. It had a tiny kitchen that creaked when you walked upon its old wooden floors and faded blue paint. There was no air conditioning, cable TV or Internet, and the summers were dry with blistering heat. Yet each summer 8 to 10 grandchildren and great grandchildren would occupy that house for a month. The mornings were spent harvesting the family grapes before the late summer heat would roll in. By afternoon we would swim in the arroyos to cool off or ride bikes around the California fruit orchards. Every evening my great-grandmother prepared dinner for the whole family, usually beans and rice with homemade tortillas. The summers were simple and meager in comparison to today, but we always had food on the table and a huge family to keep us entertained. Sadly, I am one of those individuals who only travel home to see my family in California once or twice a year. Even so, there are still families that hold the common thread, that see each other regularly and have not moved on to chase a dream or better life.

 

As I ride out towards Rio Rancho, New Mexico, on this hot summer day, the sun is beating on my back and I am eager to hear the story of one of those long lost families – the Montoyas. After walking up to Susan’s father’s house, I am sweaty, a little tired and really hot. Their home is located on the far northern edge of Rio Rancho, not far from where the dusty dirt roads and wide-open vistas begin. It’s the kind of suburban sprawl where each home looks very similar, as houses were built and painted in the typical southwestern design, beige and brown stucco and Spanish tile. There garage is far from ordinary and is the kind of spotless garage that you can eat off. There is a half-dozen vintage Honda CBs mixed with a few modern Harleys and a Triumph Speed Triple. Tucked in the corner is a spotless ‘62 Impala, candy red restored to its original form. Close to the entrance are Susan and her father, Gene, tearing into an old CB500. Their hands are greasy and it is warm on this summer day, but they are working in perfect accord like a father and daughter ought to. Susan is a kind young woman who has a gentle nature to her and a smile on her face. After meeting Gene, it is evident where her traits and personality are derived from. Her father is one of those guys that wears a permanent grin as if he can smell the fresh air, even in New York City.

 

Susan and her father in the late 70’s.

 

Gene was a natural gear-head from a young age. His first job was at a gas station in Albuquerque as a parts boy during the American muscle era. His youth was spent changing oil and helping with minor tune ups. It was the coolest place on earth, hanging out with older car guys and working on muscle cars, like a scene from American Graffiti. The apple did not fall far from the tree with Susan. As a child, she was often tied to her father’s hip, watching him wrench on his vehicles in the front yard, always willing to lend a hand. When Susan was old enough to drive, she inherited her first car, a 1967 VW Beetle, which would be easy for them to work on. She figured her father would help her along the way and it would give them a chance to spend time together despite their hectic schedules. It was Susan’s and her father’s first vehicle restoration together but not their last. As a young hip college student at the University of New Mexico, Susan opted for something a little more rugged, a 1982 Jeep CJ-5, before deciding to buy her first two-wheeled vehicle a 1965 Vespa scooter. Like most two-wheeled enthusiasts, she quickly realized the Vespa was not fast enough. She set her eyes on something stronger and ventured into the vintage motorcycle world. Susan’s father and mother had been driving by a local motorcycle shop called Crossroads and happened to spot a vintage Honda CB500 sitting out front. That was almost a decade ago, when the café racer craze was in its infancy here in the U.S. and there were still vintage Hondas around for a decent price. The CB was completely original with one owner. It previously belonged to an older man that had ridden it for decades and added plenty of open-road miles to it. Being that the bike was stock with quite a few miles, Susan paid $2,000 for it. After the shop ensured it was road-worthy, it wasn’t long before she rode it home. This would be their first of many bike builds together.

Susan’s mother and father on their Honda’s.

Susan to this day has the bike builder eye and can look at any bike and envision the concept before a single wrench has turned. Her father, on the other hand, can take a bike apart and put it back together to a better functioning form. The two form a well functioning team. Her bike was built within nine months of their purchase. The concept was a clean, custom CB with modern functions, a solo seat with a café-style hump and a paint scheme of candy olive green on black with cafe bars.

The first step was to go through the bike, from front to back, starting with the controls, the fuel, electrical and so on. With this being their simplest build, Susan was already thinking of something more complex. Before the build was complete, she was starting to explore Craigslist, looking for something similar that needed to be rescued. She figured they had one build under their belts and had firsthand knowledge of just how expensive a build could be, why not go at it again. After a few months of looking, she found their next project bike in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a 1978 CB750 with many miles but in stock condition. Again, they wanted to keep the original character of the bike, but with modern functions. This build would only take seven months to complete and consisted of a sleek black and silver look with black head covers, a cafe seat and hump, stock air box, Norman Hyde bars and original grips, along with new Dunlop tires making this bike look magazine worthy.

Their second bike was much quicker to complete and again halfway through the build Susan was already thinking of her next project. To raise money for their next bike, she listed the black CB750 on Craigslist. Just as quickly as she put the bike up, Gene asked her to take it down. He wanted the bike for his own as it would serve as a catalyst for the two of them to attend bike events and shows together. With Susan and her Dad inseparable, the rest of the family, Susan’s husband Zach and her mother Debbie started to take an interest in vintage motorcycles and wanted to get in on the action. Around that time, the motorcycle shop down the street, Crossroads, had a small fire and lost a few motorcycles. One of the bikes that had been in the fire, but not badly damaged, was a ‘76 CB750. Rich, the owner, had moved a few of the damaged bikes to the bone yard outside, not thinking anyone would be crazy enough to buy them. However, like most builders who often drool over old rusty gold, Susan was just that crazy and saw that diamond in the rough. After a year of pestering the guys at the shop, in mid December during their slowest part of the season, they cracked and gave Susan a phone call to come pick up the CB 750 Super Sport and another 750 as a parts bike in the deal.

Susan’s father and her husband Zach working on his build.

Once Susan and her father got the two bikes home, she was ecstatic to discover that the bikes were not hopeless and only had some soot and fire extinguisher spray on them. They immediately started working on the Super Sport. Luckily it had stock duel disc brakes and a decent motor, but the bike would need to a full restoration from the frame up. Susan and Gene had started to become connected in the vintage scene and had met a metal worker out of Austin named Junior Burrell at the Barber classic bike show in Alabama. With just a concept in mind, she sent Junior the dimensions and ideas for a custom tail section that would give her Super Sport that low custom look while keeping the stock shocks. They also went with internal turn signals in the handlebars and a sleek raw metal finish.

But they still needed bikes for her mom and husband. Susan found a ’73 CB500 in Roswell, New Mexico. She and her dad turned it into a day trip, traveling to eastern New Mexico to pick up a basket-case that would eventually be restored and give her mom the chance to be part of the wolf pack.

Then came her husband’s bike, another running CB750 that they purchased for a decent price. They all spent the weekends on Zach’s build. The only problem was that the Barber bike show was just six months away, not giving them much time for completion; and for the first time, Susan envisioned the whole family bringing their bikes out to Barber to experience the show firsthand and show off their work.

A few of the family builds.

Instead of getting together on just the weekends to wrench, they had to wrench after work too. But this was not a problem for anyone because it was family. After months of late nights and hard work, they made their deadline and Zach had his vintage CB750. The circle was now complete and they as a family could ride, wrench and turn heads together.

With twenty years of experience and several customs builds to their names, their bikes have received a ton of local recognition, and had they been in the scene in a more hip city like Venice or Portland, they would have a cult-like following. That has never fazed the Montoyas though, and I find that refreshing. Instead, they continue to carry that grin with them from show to show, build to build, and through it all remain humble, which is exactly what keeps them going. They have built a few more bikes since the completion of their own family builds, from another CB750 to a ’79 Harley Sportster and a couple of newer BMW R9Ts. Each one of their bikes remains spotless and flawless, and is just as complex, with details not seen to the common eye. In fact there is not a machine around that Susan and her father could not build together as he has the quiet confidence gained from his youth during another time. He enjoys explaining to Susan that with a little bit of time, the right tools and patience, they can build anything. Between the years and the builds, Susan approached her father with the idea of building her own custom home; from the ground up and with her father’s help, they plotted the layout, figured out the engineering and built Susan a custom home.

It is not always a walk in the park for them, as every builder knows, that with each build it can be as simple or complex as your vision allows. There is always the unforeseen hiccups that arise once you crack the heads or start to chase those electrical demons. Again, it is that strong work ethic and confidence that gets Susan and Gene through each build and their bond strengthens like their bikes. That idea of taking something old and restoring it to its glory while spending time with a loved one is gift that the two have created and the rest of us are still searching for, which is organic and beautiful on so many levels. Perhaps they stumbled upon this initially, or perhaps they have quietly known it the whole time, but what they have is worth keeping and they are not letting go. Gene is a few years from retiring from his construction business and envisions himself becoming a handyman for his neighbors and the elderly, not for pay, but because that is what a good man is supposed to do. Susan continues to work with The Associated Press as a correspondent, and as a family they all continue to ride and wrench almost daily. As I wrap up the interview and ride home, I can’t help but be a little green with envy; the idea of family, dependability, someone to call on not only when help is needed but just to check up on before bed must be a soothing and rewarding feeling, a sense that isn’t made with money but real time, sweat and tears.

Through the lens of fatherhood

Through the lens of fatherhood

I jokingly tell people, being a man is a matter of age, and being a gentleman is a matter of choice. I think the same role can be applied to fatherhood. There comes a point in every mans life that he has to decide if he is fit to be a true father, someone who is willing to give up every selfish need and want for the ones they love. A father takes that leap of faith to become their child’s strength when they are weak, their hero when they need hope, their rock – their everything.

Perhaps I think too much about what an ideal father should look like but I’ve often contemplated whether or not I would make a decent father myself. I was not raised by my father nor was he by his, so my family track record isn’t exactly ideal for fatherhood. That hasn’t stopped my mind from wondering how my own life would’ve been, maybe completely different, had I decided to become a father myself.

There is something very special and unique that takes place when a father is doing his job perfectly – he becomes a coach and a teacher all in one. I recall observing this a few years back when my friend Steven Maes was mentoring his daughter, as she photographed a few of the Duke City Rockers for Steve’s documentary – Caffeine and Gasoline. I had known him from building and riding cafe racers and his work in the film industry. I also knew Steve was a father to two girls, Kayleigh and Ashleigh, but I had never seen him in that role until that day of the photo-shoot for his film.

Caffeine & Gasoline: Evolution of the American Rocker

Steve’s forthcoming documentary – Caffeine & Gasoline: Evolution of the American Rocker

It was a hot summer day in downtown Albuquerque and we staged our bikes behind the Launchpad Bar. The sun was sweltering, and we were melting in our Levi’s and black leather jackets. Steve’s eldest daughter Kayleigh conducted most of the shoot as he watched and directed her through the process. The whole thing took a little over two hours, and the two worked in perfect harmony – like a master and apprentice. Over my eleven years as a teacher I have estimated that I have taught around 1500 kids from every age and background, and I know how quickly a kid can go from happy-go-lucky to completely irritated. Now, add twenty “Rockers”, 90° heat to the mix and you could guess how any teenager would act. I personally wasn’t expecting Kayleigh and Steve to keep their composure, but they did just that on this day. Steve sat back from a distance and Kayleigh managed the entire shoot like a seasoned pro.

Not surprisingly, to this day Steve’s own father Ben is still his hero and it’s obvious to see why he takes his role as a father seriously. Steve’s earliest memory of his father, was their time spent in northern Nevada on snowmobiles flying through the snow as he held onto his father for dear life. He remembers thinking that his father was the coolest guy around, a regular Steve McQueen. His dad was an outdoorsman that loved everything from hunting and fishing to hiking in the mountains. Ben was also into wrenching on muscle cars, as he was a huge fan of Detroit muscle from the 60’s and 70’s. On occasion he would pick Steve up from school in his ’68 Pontiac GTO.

Steve recalls that he loved it when they went out in that thing, burning tires and hearing that big motor rumble. His dad was also a great teacher and mentor, as he loved showing Steve all aspects of everything he did. His dad worked with his hands, as a welder and ironworker and he was always making things. Steve remembers something that has always stuck with him, “My dad was always welding some kind of contraption or fabricating some kind of thing for the house and loved showing me how he made these things.” Steve’s grandfather was also a do-it-yourself kind of man, that worked as a carpenter in Los Alamos during World War II splitting time between his home in northern New Mexico – a small ranch where they raised animals and made everything they needed.

Ben’s 1968 Pontiac GTO

When Steve’s father was old enough he left the ranch for Ely, Nevada and was soon drafted into the army during the Vietnam conflict. He eventually returned and married Steve’s mother Lucille, settling and raising a family in northern Nevada. The family then moved when Steve was 11, as the company that his dad worked for shut down and the family moved to another location with the same company in Silver City, New Mexico. It would be an interesting move for Steve, as he had grown up in a very small town in northern Nevada with gambling and interesting people. He recalls that one end of Ely had a “red light” district and every gas station had a slot machine. He also remembers as a kid pulling into Silver City, in the middle of July, and seeing a couple guys walking down the street wearing beanies and flannels and thinking the only time they wore beanies and flannels in Nevada was for hunting in the mountains.

This was his first exposure to latino Cholo culture, and like most transplants to New Mexico it would take him awhile to relate to the cultural difference between northern Nevada and New Mexico. Even though he was raised in a mostly Hispanic environment, Ely was very multi-cultural and he could not relate to Silver City’s large Hispanic population immediately – it took him a minute to adjust and Steve’s dad had started to recognize it. As a result he felt that it would be important for his son to be able to defend himself, so he put him in boxing that summer before school started, as he was now eleven and would need to become a little tougher.

Luckily, the first group of tough kids he met was in the boxing gym which was located in an old courthouse. The gym was comprised of a group of the local “chicano”  kids that he quickly became friends with. This would later be a benefit as he soon found out when school started. He remembers getting picked on by a couple of older kids after school one day when one of the kids from the boxing gym stepped in – he told the bullies that they did not want to mess with Steve as he was a friend of theirs.

Ben and Steve – Hunting the Nevada mountains

Steve recalls that, ”Silver City during the eighties was still segregated in someways, in the sense that there was a large ranching community, and you had ranchers kids that were predominantly white, you had the Hispanic kids and you had what we all call jocks, then there was the rockers who were kind of the “metal kids”.  “They all hung out in their own little cliques, and I think because I grew up in northern Nevada, a more culturally integrated environment, I didn’t really identify with anybody. I had friends in each of those groups because I was an athlete that ran track and played baseball, football, and soccer and I related to the Chicano kids because I grew up Hispanic but I had friends who were ranchers or “Cowboys” because I hunted and fished and liked the outdoors.”

Steve’s main passion though was his guitar, and like many other adolescents of that time he dreamed of playing in a rock band. He graduated from high school in 1987 and attended his first year of college at Western New Mexico University. The small town would not quench his thirst though as he decided to move to Albuquerque and attend the University of New Mexico. He tried to put several bands together and write music but unfortunately it had started to eat into his academics. He had a difficult choice to make, stick it out in New Mexico or chase his dreams of becoming a musician. He did what most ambitious kids would do and decided to drop out and give his dreams of writing and performing music a chance. Surprisingly his father and mother would be very supportive of his choice and encourage him every step of the way.

Without a friend or any connections in California, Steve packed his bags and what little money he had and headed for Los Angeles. Like so many others before and after him, he would come to find out that LA and the business had a way of breaking your spirit. However, after several years of hard work, he stuck it out and had found a pretty decent group of musicians that he could play with. They eventually recorded a demo album and Steve was starting to learn the ins and outs of the business – from recording to producing. He also made many humbling trips to record labels trying to get a deal, including labels such as Warner Bros and Capitol Records hoping to sign a contract.

However, the year was 1993 and he didn’t get much interest in that his style of New Wave or pop music had already passed and the grunge scene had just kicked in the door of the music industry – he was starting to learn to be flexible. His band eventually broke up and still determined he decided to pursue something as a solo artist and producer. He spent the next few years recording musicians and building a small studio in Albuquerque. He also tried to make a few connections and got some interest from Warner Bros but most of the labels just tossed around his music as they decided it wasn’t relate-able on a grand scale. Not ready to throw in the towel, he spent his time trying to learn as much as he could about the entertainment industry, recording other artists, making connections and never giving up on his dreams.

Steve on stage

After several painful years of trying to break into the business he had realized that he liked to play and record music but found it to be much too difficult as a solo artist. As a solo act he constantly had to piece a makeshift band together for shows and recording. The years were quickly fading together as he had started to realize that maybe the “rockstar” life was not in the cards. The strain of staying in, and traveling to Hollywood was also taking its toll, good friends were getting into hard drugs and LA had overnight become too expensive to live. He felt drained like he had been in a bad relationship and thought that it was time to come back home for good. As the window on his music career had closed, a great big beautiful door would open to one of the best points of his life.

Soon after returning to New Mexico feeling somewhat defeated he quickly met the love of his life Kristee. She was tall and pretty and provided the calming nature that he needed. After a year of dating, Steve proposed and within two years of marriage they were surprised to find they were going to have a child. They named their first born daughter Kayleigh after one of Steve’s favorite songs. He had also decided that it was probably time to go back to school, finish his degree and to figure out a career for himself to provide for his family. He graduated three years later from the University of New Mexico with a Bachelor’s degree in Media Arts and Communications.

Everything had started to finally fall into place for Steve, with a young child and wife, he decided to put his multi media and music skills to use as he lined up a few graphic design and video production jobs for a few local companies in town. He also decided to try his hand at publishing by starting a music magazine which ran for several years in Albuquerque, showcasing local musicians and artists.

At that time New Mexico was experiencing an emerging movie industry. New Mexico’s beautiful skies and desert landscapes had been home to the westerns of the 60’s and 70’s but it had never really been the mecca of the industry until the late 90’s and early 2000’s. At the time, New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, had introduced incentives that had drawn a lot of Hollywood productions with bigger names to shoot in New Mexico and utilize the locations. Steve’s “big break” would come when he was lucky enough to get on a film called The Flock with Richard Gere and Claire Danes. Steve’s younger sister, JoAnna, who had been in the film industry already was not able to work on that film as she was working on a TV series called Wildfire. He interviewed for the graphic designer job, and as they say in this industry, the rest is history. He worked continually from that point on with several major television series and feature films. Today his name can been seen on everything from the Emmy winning Breaking Bad, the hugely popular In Plain Sight,  to the Academy Award nominated In the Valley of Elah with Tommy Lee Jones and currently the long running Netflix series Longmire. Within the industry his name speaks volumes, but at home for his two daughters Kayleigh and Ashleigh, it’s just plain old dad – and that’s just fine with him.

Steven Maes ADG Awards

Kristee, Ashleigh and Steve at the 2017 Art Director Guild Awards in Hollywood

As the years had flown by, and his success continued to grow, he found himself reflecting on his own father’s lessons. He noticed early on that Kayleigh had a creative side, and was fascinated by visual things like photography and film, which allowed them to bond very closely. He would not push her to pursue a career in the industry, but would gently encourage her as she had a natural knack for cinematography. Now Kayleigh is pursuing her Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University of New Mexico like her father, and he continues to give her as much support as possible, as he knows she has the potential to be extremely creative and successful. From the few photo shoots I’ve been on with Steve and Kayleigh it is apparent that she trusts his instincts. She whole heartily believes that he would never steer her wrong and it’s also obvious that she accepts criticism well from him.

It’s not all rose gardens or new Mikuni Flat-slides for Steve, as he readily admits that having two daughters can be tough for a guy. Living in a house with three women can be tricky, “there’s a lot of drama that goes on and there’s a lot of emotions going on with hormones and such, but I think the thing you want as a father, is to educate your children in a way that they understand the world around them. To understand that it is a difficult place sometimes. You want to try and set them up with the tools to be happy, as long as they are true to themselves then the sky’s the limit.” As Steve looks back at his life, he probably thinks about how he never became that famous rockstar – embraced by millions of adoring fans. However, he did become a rockstar to three of the most beautiful gals in his life.

As I am finishing up this story on Steve during a long flight home from New York, I had some time to reflect on the friends that I have that are fathers. And to be honest they are some great and honorable men. I might be wrong but I believe deep down, there is a father in every man, a hero in their child’s eyes. Not every man decides to be that hero in their child’s life but that shouldn’t diminish from the fact that there are some great men out there playing both mother and father. I  see on a daily basis, hundreds of kids wanting, needing and wishing for a good father and it is heartbreaking. So when I write that I am proud of my friends that take on the challenge, I mean it with the deepest sincerity and when they look in the mirror, I hope they see a hero.

Purpose in stones

Purpose in Stones
Finding your calling or purpose is by far the most difficult task in a person’s life or at least it has been for me. For Brenda she has found her place like a perfectly set stone. It also seems that to the rest of us at times she like many others have reached a certain level of sublime. When these people are working at their craft it also seems that all time is forgotten and there is an infectious manifestation or a sense of flow that comes from within. To reach this stage is no easy task and it is achieved through endless hours of study, practice, sacrifice and a bit of timing.

You may have seen some of Brenda Baca’s amazing turquoise jewelry throughout the southwest. If you’ve seen one of her pieces it’s obvious that she has an appreciation for the art form and its antiquity. Like myself, Brenda is a passionate person with an appreciation for our past, culture and customs and it is that constant appreciation that has illuminated her path. For her, making turquoise jewelry is more than just making a dollar; it is her therapy and her passion. She has studied the history of  turquoise jewelry and the history of our land here in the southwest. Jewelry making and turquoise is her heart beat that is connected to this earth and her art gracefully flows from her like it did from our ancestors of the past.

I am riding my bike down the treacherous streets of Central Albuquerque on this Wednesday morning trying to make it to a coffee shop in one piece. Central is a wreck, but the sky, as always is clear blue, which reminds me of the beauty of our land. This morning for some reason, I am in reminisce of a poem by Simon Ortiz titled Serenity in Stones. I read this poem my sophomore year of college and thought I understood it clearly, but now as I am getting ready to have coffee with Brenda and talk about her jewelry, his poem will become that more rich.

Brenda is one of those women that has a smile larger than the sun; she also has an endearing personality. The sort that reminds anyone of their mum. Her personality is also matched by her generosity as she is one of those people that would buy a homeless person a meal just to sit with them and enjoy their company. There is also another side to Brenda though. She is beyond driven to be one of the best role models she can be for her two boys.


Brenda  comes from humble beginnings; she was born in the small town of Clovis, New Mexico, as she jokingly mentions “people are into sports, religion or drugs.” At the age of five, her mother decided to pack everything they owned into their car and move to Albuquerque for new opportunities. This would be a very humbling experience for Brenda as they often moved from apartment complex to complex, living on a meager budget.  Every summer she often returned to Clovis every summer to spend her days as a tomboy playing baseball, riding bikes and enjoying the small town life with her cousins until dark.

Like most teenagers she tested her boundaries but never managed to get in any real trouble. After graduating high school in Albuquerque, as fate would have it, her mother nudged her into auditioning for a modeling gig with one of the most prominent jewelry companies in the nation, Sunwest Jewelry. The owner, Ernie Montoya, also known as “The Turquoise King”, noticed that Brenda had the right look and personality for something larger. She was hired to work the sales floor at the young age of 20. With little background knowledge, she applied herself diligently to study and picked the minds of those that had been in the business much longer; she had to quickly learn every aspect of the profession. She applied herself and within a year she quickly learned every aspect of the sales position. One of the most important lessons passed down from her mentor Ernie, was that handmade jewelry is much more personal for both fabricator and the customer . It was simply not good enough to understand the method and the materials in the process but, more importantly, the artist’s vision.

Brenda had a firm grasp on the profession after four years of handwork and two young boys she was completely devoted to, her hunger to learn more was still burning strong. One day while playing with her youngest son, she realized that in order to be a strong female role model for her boys she would need to take a leap of faith and be an example of courage. She accepted an apprenticeship and worked with a fellow employee Molly McGrain from Sunwest Jewelry. Every day for an hour before work, at lunch and at times after work Brenda immersed herself in the art of a silversmithing, bezeling, stone cutting and as always learning its history. Brenda mentioned, Molly had a strong personality and would only explain things once. Fortunately being a quick learner, within four months she had grasped the craft and in addition to invested in her own tools and workbench. She now could practice and design from home. Brenda had also taken on the task of designing for Sunwest Jewlery which in turn  further sparked her creative side.


In 2015 Brenda was given the opportunity to work for a home shopping network which required her to travel to Minnesota every other month to talk on live TV about southwestern jewelry, which she admits is still shocking.  Around that time she would also take another leap of faith and decide to make and market her own jewelry. She thoughtfully named her business Ooeycucuy as a play on Hispanic roots. Each of her pieces is based on her sense of feeling and emotion almost like she wears her jewelry on her sleeve. You can look at one of her pieces and see exactly what she was feeling at that time. Her pieces can range from dark and punk rock to girly and southwestern. She is currently working on her own website and hopes to open her own boutique. Given that there is no end to her tenacity, there’s no doubt her dreams will not come to fruition. Her  one of a kind handmade jewelry has reached customers from California to New York and will soon expand beyond U.S borders.

Brenda’s drive and pure determination obviously comes from deep within. She is a positive role model for her two boys. As both of them see her hard work and creativity she is their beacon of hope, they too will learn the same values that have made her successful and happy here in New Mexico. For example she prefers the sell her pieces at some of the smaller events around the city that have more of a local feel. For her Albuquerque has a strong artist community which has always supported her and has felt like a family somewhat competitive but also supportive. She also continues to run several homeless drives during the year and prefers to stay humble rather than egotistical, making her one of the most generous souls, I have ever met.

As we wrap up our coffee and interview and say our goodbyes, she she wears a giant sunbeam of a smile and I am happy knowing that we still have amazing mothers and entrepreneurs like her. I decide to take the long, quiet ride home and Carlos’s poem is still on my mind.

The serenity in stones
I am holding this turquoise
In my hands.
My hands hold the sky
Wrought in this little stone.
There is a cloud
at the furthest boundary.
The world is somewhere underneath.
I turn the stone, and there is more sky.
This is the serenity possible in stones,
The place of a feeling to which one belongs.
I am happy as I hold this sky
In my hands, in my eyes, and in myself.

Brenda is a part of the southwest and has devoted much of her life to this turquoise stone that has encompassed everything she holds dear, her boys, her community, and the blue skies that is Mother Earth. Her place is set in stone.

 

 

The gypsy soul

Mi Abuelita Anita: The Gypsy Soul



There is a current romanticism of the wandering spirit, the call of the wild – you can see it plastered today on social media . The embellishment of being a gypsy is not just a trend invoked from authors such as John Krakauer or even further, Jack Kerouac and his tales from the road. There is in each of us a spirit to venture out and discover the unknown, a drive to find that greener pasture. That search for a better life, a life traveled off the beaten path into the unknown is what made those early pioneers take a leap of faith and roll that dice. Today, however, this adventurist spirit is a completely different story and there is no longer the “do or die” consequences of survival no matter the cost. Nonetheless, as many of us sit behind a steering wheel in traffic or log in countless hours on a computer screen, that spirit of adventure is still yearning within each and every one of us.

When I think of a wild adventurist and perhaps that gypsy, no other person comes to mind more than my own “abuelita” or granny,  Anita. Her story is one that could make a great novel, or perhaps a movie, and although I would love to tell that story there are not enough pages for her all her epic tales as her story is one of adventure, courage and heartbreak. After my own precarious father disappeared around the age of nine, my grandmother Anita would be there to pick up those broken pieces as we would often take road trips together throughout California and the southwest.
It’s almost 30 years later, just the two of us on I-40, traveling the desert roads to California.


This time I am no longer a little boy and my abuela is now an old woman.  As I gaze over at this woman that helped raise me I can still see her spirit, and I feel only pure admiration for her and contemplate the long road of her life.

My abuelita was born in 1933 in the small farming town of Reedley, California just outside of Fresno. She was the middle child of five brothers and sisters that all lived in a small one-bedroom ranch house with no hot water or plumbing. Her mother and father were hard-working grape farmers from Mexico that had come to the United States for a better life. It was obvious that Anita would never settle for the meager ranch life for there was a free spirit within her that could not be captured or caged. In fact to this day, while the majority of my family has often made comments on how I should now be settled down with a family of my own, it is my grandma that has always come to my defense. It is obvious that the same adventurous spirit burns inside me; thus my desire to travel, see the unknown and motorcycle the desolate roads.


Growing up as a poor Hispanic, Anita and her family did not have much but always seemed to make the best of what they did have. She recalls some of her fondest memories are of her  childhood swimming in the arroyos in the summer and playing in the streets with her brothers until the sun went down. In her freshman year of high school she decided to drop out and take care of the ranch, and at the age of 16 she met her first husband – a half Mexican and Japanese truck driver and they soon had their first child a year later. To get by she packed fruit crates, which was a common profession at the time for poor Hispanics in Northern California, and this is how she raised her first child. She would soon have another son and daughter, thus making her situation even more difficult.  Regardless of any circumstance thrown her way she would still make sure her three children would have nice ironed clothes and polished shoes.
After three short years Anita and her husband divorced and a few years later, she met another gentleman who was an aspiring young actor and together they had a daughter.  This would not last long and the actor soon left, selfishly leaving Anita alone with four kids to raise on her own. She recalls that even though they were dirt poor, she always managed to show her children all the beauty that nature had to offer. She would pack her four kids into her Austin-Healy during the weekends and head toward the beaches of Morrow Bay or the mountains of the Sierra Nevadas.  That gypsy spirit always burned and she made sure to never let anyone or anything distinguish it.


It was at this time that Anita decided to take what little she had and hit the road with her four children to the small beach town of Santa Cruz. She had met a man named Earl whom she reluctantly married, and recalls almost running out of the ceremony a few hours before it started but had second thoughts due to her four children. After a year of marriage, they found a small house in the mountains for seventy-five dollars a month. It was at this point that her life would take an extreme turn, and she made a decision she felt was best for her family and their survival at the time.
For the next three years as the late 60’s were in full swing, a surplus of money came swiftly crashing in like an ocean’s tide, as my abuelita Anita was introduced to making mescaline, a hallucinogen obtained from the small, spineless cactus Peyote. She and Earl also began selling Marijuana in her basement as Earl had some connections and had set the course in motion before she had any idea of what was about to come. One day, Anita, Earl and the kids took a trip to Mazatlán, Mexico, as Earl and a few of his associates already had already decided Anita would become an interpreter between the Mexican farmers growing pot and Earl’s associates.

In less than a year Earl had become irrelevant and envious as his position would no longer be needed. So one day without saying a word he packed up and left for California with all of their savings. But Anita continued to interpret and play her part within the company as it had always been. As the winter season approached the industry was at a standstill and Anita, unaware of her next step, decided to take her four kids back to California. Penniless and desperate, the company let her stay at a small stash house in Placerville without running water, electricity, or heat and there she made small turquoise necklaces to get by. When the chance finally arose to send one of her sons, Gary, to Santa Cruz and her daughter, Jennifer, to Lake Tahoe, she sent them on their way for a better opportunity. Her eldest boy, Sam, had already joined the Marines, finding his own escape to a better life.
As the growing season soon approached, the company would again need her services and move her with her two remaining kids back to Aptos, just outside of Santa Cruz. The company paid her a visit, offering the same position as an interpreter, only this time her role and position had grown. She now was entrusted with delivering money from the states to the cartel in Mexico along with supervising shipments. The company provided her with a house and drivers in Tijuana. At this point in her life, her son Gary was married and old enough to take care of his younger brother and sister, while Anita was away in Mexico.
After four years of solid service and the gaining of a strong reputation, she was given her own crew. Earl, discovering her success, would weasel his way back into their lives and envious as always he had already made plans behind her back. This time he had involved Anita’s son Gary  to move product, which would set Gary’s criminal course in motion and at just twenty-one years of age he would  start picking up and delivering shipments from Mexico.
The money at this point was flowing enough to afford her a nice house in the hills of Santa Cruz next to the musician Santana, a 912 Porsche, and a DC3 plane to pursue her own interest when times were slow. Her family and crew had become extremely tight-knit, often working together and enjoying the good times. However, just as things were starting to look up, there were complications from within the company as some of the partners’ greed and drug addiction had started to take its toll. Along with the stress of being involved with a criminal business came the toll of an abusive marriage to Earl and she simply got tired of the lifestyle.  Anita would file for divorce and take her youngest children John and Dina to Hawaii to escape. After a year, she would get island fever and move back to the mainland, all the while Earl continued to harass and abuse her. Reluctant to go to the authorities and get the company involved, and her daughter Dina old enough to care for herself,  Anita loaded her youngest son, a few things, and set out upon the open road. She had once driven through the southwest and had fallen in love with a quaint town called Taos in the state of New Mexico.  It was just what she needed, a small place that she could become irrelevant in.


I am alone on this quiet open road headed back to New Mexico.
My abuelita, fittingly, wanted to stay in California for a while and do what she’s always done -travel some more. There is a certain sadness that comes with this drive and a realization is starting to dawn on me – our adventures together have come to an end.  My beloved grandmother is now approaching the age of eighty-four and once her flame burns out there will never be another soul like hers. All the stories, and adventures she’s experienced can never be duplicated. But for those of us that were fortunate enough to experience her free spirit and tenacity – we truly understand what it means to possess such an adventurous soul, and we know that no tales like hers will ever again be told.

Addicted to ink

Addicted to Ink
For many individuals that are heavily tattooed, there is a certain kind of addiction that cuts deeper than the needle itself. It is more than the solitary memorial piece or the tribal arm band; hearing that tattoo machine fire up and feeling that initial bit of pain can be very therapeutic and addictive. Tattoos have been described countless times to the degree that it seems cliché to try to put it into words. For me, it was a love affair that started at a very young age.

My grandfather passed when I was five years old so my only recollection of him was that of a tall man who would wear the same black suit, white shirt and tie to work daily. When he came home from work, as a ritual he always hung his coat, hat, and rolled up his sleeves and have a seat in the same armchair that only he was allowed to sit in. He would drink a single glass of bourbon, smoke tobacco from his pipe, and read his paper. I still recall he had two faded tattoos, one on each forearm. One was a black panther and the other was a tiger. My grandfather in his youth had served in the Navy during World War II and for his generation those tattoos were a rite of passage. Today there is no such defining mark that symbolizes a boy crossing into manhood.  Nonetheless, as a young kid at five, I was fascinated and knew I had to have one.

At 14 years old, I had acquired a fake ID from my older uncle and was beyond determined to get a tattoo. At that time the only people I had seen with tattoos were military like my grandfather, bikers like a few of my uncles, and a couple of hardcore cons from the neighborhood, with that fake ID in hand, a couple friends and I drove to a local tattoo shop in Northern California that at the time was in a shady area of Sacramento. My buddies stayed in the car and smoked as I walked in alone. I had a poorly drawn tribal and 55 dollars, and as I walked into the tattoo shop I was somewhat nervous. I was not sure if I was going to get the crap kicked out of me or laughed at. Nonetheless, I walked in the door and there sat three bikers smoking cigarettes. They all immediately stopped talking and looked directly at me. The artist at the shop spoke first and said “we don’t want any” as if I were trying to sell magazines; to which I responded, “I’m here for a tattoo.” He asked if I had an ID and as I gave him my fake, he slowly looked at it, and then at me and laughed. He told me to take a seat. That would be the start of my own addiction; twenty years since that date has passed and now it seems like a lifetime ago. Over the years, I have witnessed the art of tattooing and the acceptances of it completely evolve. With these changes many artists have seen the high and low points of the profession. As in all art forms and or movements, if one is truly passionate with what he or she is doing, then they will be able to weather the storms. My friend Lou Gomes has fifteen years in the profession and is one of those individuals.

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Looking at Lou, you can tell he is an artist but not like some of the tattoo artists of today. Instead, Lou looks more like an individual you would expect to see in a small, dark, smoky bar in Massachusetts telling epic fishing tales, fresh off the boat. He wears a mustache and has a scrappy way about him for being five nine and a 160 pounds. He has a ton of old school tattoos, some of which are faded, but none are of fishing boats as far as I know. He dresses rather meagerly in the same chucks and mechanic jacket, and never brags about being a tattoo artist. You can also tell by looking at him there’s a certain wisdom that can only be gained through experience and careful observation, so if that makes him old-school then indeed he is.

When I first approached Lou about his story, we actually argued back-and-forth a little as he was under the impression that I was looking to do a story on traditional tattoos, to which he would respond that he is not a traditional tattoo artist, but I explained that I was looking to write a piece on his experience as an artist and the art form as a whole.
His story starts as a young artist, not a fisherman, in the fall of of 93. New to Southern California, Lou wanted to catch his first break and work for a tattoo shop; however, he quickly came to discover that every shop he looked to apprentice at was not concerned with his artwork, they were concerned if he could shell out 3 to 4 thousand dollars to pay for the apprenticeship. In his mind, that had never sat right with him. Instead, he thought the questions should have been along the lines of could he draw, or what made him want to become an artist and so forth. He quickly abandoned that hope and continued to live out his passion for art as an illustrator, while paying the bills as a construction worker.

Shortly after he moved back to Massachusetts in 2003, as fate would have it, his cousin asked him to draw a piece for his back. As Lou drew it, he was reluctant to believe it was good enough for an actual tattoo and accompanied his cousin to the shop out of curiosity. His cousin’s tattoo artist was immediately in awe and asked Lou if he had ever considered tattooing, to which he replied “I’ll stick with a real job.”  As he hung out at the shop, he started to realize the profession had completely changed and had become more respectable. He accepted the apprenticeship; however, this time around his experience was different in that the shop actually wanted him to learn the art of tattooing from every angle.

In his mid 20’s, an apprenticeship would not pay the bills, so he worked construction during the day and spent his nights at the shop. His time spent as an apprentice would not qualify as the norm.  He did not have to run the gambit of tasks, ranging from sweeping floors and emptying trash cans to countless hours watching other artist tattoo. Instead, his time was spent drawing for walk-in customers that needed quick pieces. Being an illustrator would give him a leg up as he fit the mold perfectly. He still worked the front desk and emptied trash cans but he mostly dove headfirst into his artwork. He would perch himself like a hawk for hours on a small stool and watch the owner and his mentor, Steve, tattoo clients. He also religiously carried a notebook and frequently wrote down as many notes as possible from session to session. He had truly become a student to the ways.

Even today with 14 years of experience he still likes to view himself as a student. Over seven months as an apprentice he felt as if he were taking advantage of his mentor. His experience was not what he had expected; he did not have to pay fees and was treated as an equal. Feeling as if he had to return the favor for his teacher, Lou one weekend secretly remodeled the shop while Steve was on vacation. Lou can still recall his mentor telling him that that was the only time another man made him cry.
After four months of apprenticeship and walking the line, setting up stations, breaking down stations, learning equipment and tattooing pigskin, he was ready to take on his first tattoos. His first few were basic line tattoos given to friends who were willing to allow an amateur with little experience to permanently ink their body. Lou quickly found out that his friends would come out of the woodwork; to Lou, though, it was a chance for more practice to further his craft. After his initial few attempts he quickly progressed

Over the last fourteen years in the business, he has learned how to weather the storm, and how to ride the tattoo wave of success. Anyone that has spent five minutes in the city of Albuquerque will notice there is just about one tattoo shop or barbershop on every corner, making the competition beyond fierce. Lou realized early in the profession that in order to make it in this city he would have to not only get his customers in the door but keep them coming back. He also made it a habit to stay away from the seasonal specials and focus on the long-term clients. In his own words, “cheap tattoos aren’t good and good tattoos aren’t cheap.” He feels like the industry is heading out of that slump.

One of the many things that stuck with Lou from his days as an apprentice is the love for the art of tattooing and its culture. He learned early on not to just drink from the well that others have dug, but to learn its history, and past while continually refilling that well. Like any good teacher does for his apprentice Lou’s mentor always made sure to reference other artists from the Lieu family to Julie Moon. He would be eager to explain their artwork, and style. He wanted Lou to have an appreciation for the history along with the possibilities. Speaking with Lou, he has obviously studied the craft and recognizes that “the culture has shifted. 90 percent of the tattoo shops today do not look like shops but more like art galleries. There’s comfortable couches, it smells nice, there’s palatable music playing. It was something that was consciously done because there’s only so many, bikers and sailors to get tattoos. So the acceptance of tattoos has been very lucrative for many artists.”
Lou is also quick to point out that many of his clients today run the gamut of professions and are from all different backgrounds, from Intel workers to soccer moms.  Because of his vast clientele, his artistic mediums have also grown and have allowed him to study and create other art forms outside of tattooing. Like an obsessive mad scientist, if he is not at the shop, he is at home in a dark art room with one light focused on his desk, often with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, while hovering over his latest canvas in a trance-like state. To Lou, tattooing is not a job but a calling. He is not in it to make a quick buck, for those days are gone. Instead, he continues tattooing because he is still hungry. He is also somewhat unsatisfied with every piece of art he starts often finding an avenue to make it better or different.

Over the last fifteen years as an artist, Lou has worked in a few different local shops under a handful of like minded artists like Chris Partain and Jason Ward. Lou was a co-owner of a shop for a few years and he still travels back to Massachusetts to guest tattoo at his old shop Mass Ink. Over the years, he has also learned to be very observant and to never force anything. He is happy with the profession and the role he has played in it. When asked what advice he would give to any new artist he points out, “Never get comfortable in this profession. Stay hungry and continue to improve your skills, never rest on your laurels.” which is sound advice for anyone that wants to excel in what they do.

 

As I wrap up the interview with Lou, I can’t help but to look at my own arms, covered with tattoos. Most have faded over the years and I realize that perhaps we were part of a generation, a time, when having tattoos made you feel punk rock. Today, however, it makes us more common than ever and that envelope of being rebellious was pushed long ago. 14 years ago, when I started my first sleeve, I would often get frustrated when people would ask me what my tattoos meant and if I would like them when I was older. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I would, but that was part of the fun, and the more tattoos I acquired, the less serious I would take getting them. Now as I gaze at them, I can appreciate the tiger on my forearm like my grandfather, or a Misfit’s skull like so many other punk rockers. Perhaps, initially, I was too young to appreciate the culture and its history. As I look back over the years, I realize my tattoos do mean something now; they’re a great story, a timeline in my life, well worth the addiction and the pain.

Knot within the grain

Knot within the grain.
I often contemplate what causes someone to change their path, what is that magic element that triggers the cognitive light in one’s mind to illuminate? It is what I often refer to as the Ah ha moment. For some, an epiphany is often caused by traumatic experience; for others, like me, it is a gradual life learning experience. My own path has led my conviction as an adult to give others multiple chances, not willing to believe that we are ever truly damaged. Just like the items I find and restore, I trust that people can be mended. Growing up as a reckless youth with a wild soul, I had to reach a point that I ceased to worry about disappointing people. I can recall exactly at which stage I felt as if there was no one left in my life to let down. I was a senior in high school, and I had already bounced around from California to New Mexico several times over, often staying with multiple family members and even a few friends. I had barely graduated high school and a good chunk of my family and friends had by this time been incarcerated. I myself had grown tired of that lifestyle and joined the Marine Corps which oddly enough would be my saving grace. Now as an educator, I regularly witness this same condition take place with many of my students throughout the years and I know what it is like to feel like a lost cause with little self-worth. Now I still contemplate what tools are needed to support my students through their turbulent times. In the end, we each have our own path, our own knots in that seemingly perfect piece of wood and it is those deep knots that help to make us stronger.

My friend Caleb’s story is a lesson in disappointment and defying the odds. Caleb is one of those guys that has not forgotten where he has come from and the second chance he was given. Today he is extremely driven and continuously has a project to work on. It is easy to relate and understand Caleb’s train of thought, in that we both have an appreciation for what others disregard. We both enjoy taking what someone else sees as old or worn and turning it into something beautiful. He frequently works with furniture, motorcycles, and just about anything else that has been tossed aside. I can see within his work that there’s a sense of pride. Therefore, when I asked him to share his story he was happy to oblige. At first glance one would not guess that Caleb has done time. He is in his early 30’s and looks more like a guy you would see in an ad for North Face camping gear. He has an infectious laugh and a driven personality again making his story all the more interesting.

His appreciation for vintage materials combined with a strong work ethic started at a young age with his father. As a child his family owned a mobile home on a piece of property in the East Mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Caleb never thought of his mobile home as a “Kid Rock” dwelling but more of a palace. As a child he saw his home as a house with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a full kitchen, living room, and even a play area. It wasn’t until his father had decided to tear down a wall, that he would come to find that his childhood home was actually a mobile home that had been modified. Caleb remained home schooled as a youth to which most of his work ethics and education would derive from. He started working with his hands at a young age and was often mentored by his father. As soon as he was old enough to hold a hammer, he was learning math and fractions with a tape measure, geometry with a chalk line, and history from his father’s lectures. When Caleb was twelve, his dad purchased a small plot of land, close to four acres in the Manzano Mountains, and his early education would be put to the test as he and his father built a cabin from the ground up. They worked on their cabin tirelessly every weekend until every square foot had their trademark of approval. He recalls those days as some of his finest, as he was a sponge soaking up as much knowledge as possible.


The “knot” in Caleb’s grain would soon approach as he yearned to have a rather typical childhood and attend public school. He transferred to Manzano High, from which he would receive a different education, primarily in skateboarding and partying. At the age of nineteen, fresh out of high school he moved from his parents to share a small house with friends next to the university. Just as quickly though, he caught his first DWI and moved back home with his parents. For the next two years he had not touched a drop alcohol and his world was looking bright as he continued skating and working. A few years later, as he turned twenty one, he decided to take a stab at college while working at a furniture store. Unfortunately, he slipped again and revisited his old drinking habits; the difference this time was that he now he had an official license to drink. Eight months after his twenty first birthday, he picked up another DWI while sleeping in the back of his car after a late night of drinking. Once more, he moved back home with his parents in order to save money to pay for a lawyer. Luckily for Caleb, though, his attorney was able to get him into a rehab program called drug court. The program functioned as an alternative for jail. Caleb continued to work on his addiction for a full year and stayed away from any drinking or smoking, and if he were to violate his probation the state could combine both DWI’s into a full sentence. Like a scratched record, though, his tune continued skipping as he violated his probation and was given the full sentence for two DWIs; as a result he spent the next six months in jail.

His time spent in corrections was a great eye-opener, in that it was real life and he had finally hit his rock bottom. He was placed in the detox pod – D4, which at the time was referred to as  “Gods pod” and it was ran by a pastor from the Calvary Church. Caleb would become fully invested and would embrace Christianity. By the time he was ready to be released, he was finally prepared to live life to the fullest and sober. Over the last four years he had accomplished nothing aside from for disappointing his loved ones and had nowhere to go but up. With a clean slate he adopted the motto of “live and love life,” which is exactly what he would do.  He picked up a summer job at Calvary Church organizing events for their skate park while managing a furniture warehouse, also making a decent paycheck.  Eventually, he resigned from the furniture business to work at the skate park full time for less money.  Throughout those eight years, he continued skating, traveling, and growing the youth center. One day, by chance, the pastor’s wife asked him to build a kiosk for a nonprofit that she ran. With little money and material, he turned to pallet wood. His design was an instant hit, which in turn sparked the idea for Oso Manufacturing, a design company where he could be a resource for people that wanted custom design products for their home with a rustic style. Every item is handmade, so that it could not only last for his customer’s lifetime but their children’s too.  He likes to envision all of the stories and memories that could be made from one of his builds. He does not want to make just another table that looks cool but has character, or a soul, to it. Caleb would also take a leap of faith and quit his job with the church in order to go back to school full- time and work on his new business. What had started as a kiosk project had now advanced into building full sets of furniture. If one were to walk into his house today, it is clear that the majority of the furniture was built by his own two hands. His designs had started with a kitchen table, coffee bar, bed frame, nightstands, desk, and anything else his wife or friends would ask for. He mainly uses reclaimed materials as much as possible, and there is definitely character and an aesthetic look to what he has made. More importantly, there is a story behind it. Currently with a shoestring budget, Caleb still searches Craigslist or friends yards for inexpensive lumber or metal. He often recalls that his father always tried to reuse material making sure to never waste anything. Caleb’s father continues to be his driving force of inspiration, always willing to lend a hand or a tool if needed. The tools given to Caleb from his father were not just a piece of advice or a pat on the back, but a true example of strong work ethic and character.

It is evident what we as people both young and old need, and more importantly, what our youth must obtain from us. We must be present for one another, and our words must hold true like our actions, each and every day. At the start of the school year, each one of my student’s walks into my classroom like a seemingly perfect piece of lumber, but deep down there is a knot, a view of imperfection. We cannot focus on that knot and discard that piece of lumber to the side, for it is that knot from which that piece is unique. Like Caleb learned how to work with and restore each piece of lumber, we as people must do the same with ourselves and our loved ones. Caleb discovered through the actions and guidance of his father that he was not broken. We all at some point must embrace our own knots that can make each one of us distinct, for we too are never truly broken.  In the end we all take our own individual journey. The mistakes we make along the way become our lessons in strength; a deep knot and they should never be forgotten… but merely refurbished.

 

 

Last of a dying breed

The last of a dying breed.

If one were to blow the dust off that big blue book  referred to as a dictionary and look for the definition of grit, one would find; a non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective. This perseverance of effort promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie within a gritty individual’s path to accomplishment, and serves as a driving force in achievement realization.”When I envision grit, I think of one of the last American cowboys to work this land, Doug from the Buckhorn Ranch.

I have known Doug’s wife Leslie for a few years now, but I have never had the pleasure of meeting her husband, the cowboy. Now as I make my way to the Buckhorn ranch it is becoming clear why. Their ranch is located between the White Sands Missile Range and the small town of Truth or Consequences. To get there is nothing short of a full day adventure therefore to make this trip by horseback or a 27 Model T as Doug’s grandparents once did must have been something else entirely. For a cowboy like Doug, a outing to the city would require more planning than just going to the corner store for some milk and a pack of smokes. As I am traveling on this rough dirt road about an hour and half from the closest paved road, with nothing but prairie land and high mesas for miles, it is obvious why Doug would choose to stay at his ranch. This rugged ranch land is breathtaking, indeed, but not for the faint of heart. If someone were to run out of gas, water, or simply get lost out here, it could be a true death sentence.  As I slowly travel down this dusty road, it is starting to make sense on the real definition of grit and why a cowboy like Doug has to have it coursing through his veins. Out here, among nothing but vast land and cattle fences, time becomes irrelevant, just as the luxuries and comforts of modern life. I lost cell service after the first 15 minutes from San Antonio, the nearest gas is about two hours from the ranch, and there are no signs of human life. Needless to say, I am still perplexed on the reason from which someone would want to take on this lifestyle and live a true cowboy’s existence. We all have this romanticized ideal of a home on the range with clear blue skies and rolling hills, but I am starting to realize one could not survive on romantic ideals alone out here; by the end of this adventure, hopefully it will all become more clear. Out here the landscape is flat with small mesas as far as the eye can see. The sky is a clear blue and as the wind blows the brush slowly sways with it. There is no sound to be heard other than the occasional mooo from a herd of cattle or the spinning of a windmill that I have passed.  I have taken plenty of adventures/trips and I’ve gotten lost a time or two, but this is not the kind of land one wants to get lost in.

After two hours of driving down what seemed to be an endless dirt road, I arrived at their small ranch house, which seemed to be tucked into the land as part of the natural scenery. The house is roughly painted in light brown stucco, with old rustic wooden windows and doors from the 20s or 30s. The house has had many additions throughout the years and it’s obvious that all of it was done by Doug’s family and not a contractor, which is exactly what an old cowboy house should look like. As, I drive up to the house a sense of relief has started to come over me as I know I’m not going be sleeping with the coyotes. On the path to the house there’s a large horse stable to the east, a larger tool shed to the west, and in the center there’s various rusty ranch tools, horse shoes, branding irons, and even an old Model T. Everything about their house and the artifacts almost seems perfectly placed. There is not a single object that is new or modern in the area and patina is an understatement to the items lying around the ranch.

As I get out of my truck to stretch my legs and let Cash from the backseat Leslie, Doug and their grandchild Will come out to greet me with great big grins on their faces. Maybe they are excited to have a guest but more than likely they are probably more excited to see Cash Dogg. It happens all the time. Doug is a shorter gentleman, standing around 5’7 and weighing about 180 or so, and as I go to introduce myself I can’t help but to notice the grip and size of his hands. He has hands of stone only made from true hard work. He is sun beaten and his old denim and cowboy hat is rather dusty but I can tell dust and sweat are part of his genetic makeup. He is in his early 70s and has a broad build. He is in the kind of shape that most men in their 70s would pay top dollar to try and achieve. He gives me another handshake and a pat on the back as we enter the ranch house. There’s a different sense of community out here, a certain genuine character to him that is immediately obvious; he is the kind of man you would expect a real cowboy to be.  Within the house there are more antiques about, antelope and deer skulls, and a few worn in cowboy hats. Again, most of the items on the ranch have been here throughout the years and is exactly what I refer to as rusty gold. If there is a single tool at this ranch, chances are it has stood the test of time and was built to last. We all proceed to have a seat at their dinner table as they offer me a bowl of green chili chicken soup and a glass of sweet tea. Doug takes off his cowboy hat, and even though I can tell he is a man of few words, his story of the family and ranch flows for him rather easily. Doug’s great grandfather was originally from Mason Texas, and in the 1800s, he and his brothers made their way out to Hobbs, New Mexico, to work as cowboys. In 1920, Doug’s grandfather, wife, and brother purchased the Buckhorn Ranch, roughly 140 sections. Currently, the ranch sits at 70 sections, which is around 40,000 acres. They lived and worked the land, and in school terms would move to T or C, New Mexico, so their children could attend high school. In 1941 at the start of the war, the US government wanted to use a section of the land for the White Sands Missile Range, and being patriots, the Buckhorn Ranch gave up nearly half of their plot. Doug also informed me that they were rather lucky. Many ranchers at the time lost their entire plot of land to the government. Doug’s grandfather would go on have four children, seven grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren, before his passing.

As Doug grew up, his dream would always be to continue the family tradition, even after Doug’s father pushed him into formal schooling for pharmaceutical studies, he would still opt to stay and work for his grandfather as a ranch manager. He saw many changes during his time on the ranch, such as the 40,000 plus acres that would eventually become fenced in by the WSMR. He would be there to give up the coal burning lamps for modern electricity and the pumping of water from the well to indoor plumbing. Even as the ranch was far from civilization, they could not escape modernization. Doug’s grandfather passed away in 1972 leaving, the ranch to Doug’s mother and her brothers, who with the help of their grandchildren could keep this cowboy tradition alive in the rapidly changing world. When Doug’s uncle passed away, as tradition he too would leave the land to Doug and his sister. Doug could never shake this life, and even though his dad sent him to take on another profession, being a cowboy would always be in his blood. He did, however, use his wit to change with the times when needed. In the early 1990s, he attended a school on intense grazing, which basically meant the cattle would be rotated from each plot every 5 to 7 days in order to keep their grass and cattle more healthy and stronger, allowing the cattle to graze more intensive and efficiently.

Nonetheless, some aspects to his life would never change. For instance, even now at the young age of seventy, Doug, Leslie, and Will start most days at 6 in the morning and end the day as the sun has set. On any given day he is chopping wood, starting a fire, feeding horses and calves at the corral, checking wells and fences, and fixing both as needed, riding the pastures looking for sick cows or lost calves, and then, just maybe, he can make it home for a quick lunch. On a more difficult day, the ranch might have a broken pipeline or two, which requires digging a ditch, sometimes up to thirty feet, or repairing a broken fence, which makes the day much longer in which there’s no need to come home for lunch. Out there at the ranch, it doesn’t matter how cold or hot it is, the cattle need their water, which means that there are no days off. There’s no need to have any schedule or keep track of time because the work in constant and continuous. He can’t go off and leave the ranch for a football game or to have a beer at the bar. What keeps him going, though, is that to Doug it’s not really work, it’s life. He not only lives this life, he enjoys it. To Doug, an impossible day would be one spent in a car waiting out traffic or sitting in an office staring at a computer screen. Out here in the vast openness, it’s just him, his family, and his horses. He never has to answer to anyone but the land itself and he could go most days without saying a word to another person. Any day on the Buckhorn is a good day in his eyes.

As he wraps up explaining the history of his ranch, I finish my stew and politely thank him. His wife Leslie proceeds to show me the house and various historical family heirlooms, as Doug quietly takes a seat in a chair next to the fireplace. I can’t help but to reflect on our conversation has taken a bit out of him and social accolades is not within his comfort zone, which is completely understandable. Leslie allows me to pick through a few old license plates and various cow skulls, all of which could never be found in the city, making these items all that more precious. As the sun is starting to set, my time at the ranch is coming to an end far too quickly, but I know trying to find my way back in the dark would be a death sentence. As I load up Cash Dogg and a few items, I look around for a minute and take a deep breath for I am still in awestruck by the beauty of the land. One would have to make this trip to understand as it is almost too much to take in. Before I leave, their grandson proceeds to show me his newest drone as Doug waves me a farewell.

As I am driving back into town on this open stretch of dirt road, the sun is starting to set and the sky has gone from a clear blue to touch of crimson with the silhouette of the dark mountains behind us. The few town lights are twinkling ahead of us in the distance and it has become obvious as the dust settles behind that Doug couldn’t change what is in his heart any more than the rest of us. He has a true cowboy spirit coursing through and through. This is the only life he knows and desires. While most of us are still in search of our true self, his was found long ago, as one of the last Cowboys.

 

Caballos Salvajes

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A few years ago in my master’s program at UNM, I was given an assignment regarding the dilemma of modern education. It took me awhile to pinpoint a specific direction since in reality there’s more of a reason for concern than celebration, but that’s for another story. So after a day of reflection on my own poor attempt as a young student, it hit me. Students need mentors, not just teachers, but real mentorship. After that insight, the paper came to me rather easily. To this day, it is still a strong methodology for my own teaching and students; in fact, I have a sign in front of my classroom door that reads “be who you needed when you were younger.” I am far from perfect and some days I’m not sure I am what my students need. To be honest, I often have my doubts I am anything but the stereotypical teacher, with full sleeve tattoos, a guitar in the classroom at all times and the occasional hot rod or motorcycle in my parking space. I wasn’t born into a family of educators and my past is anything but pristine. However, when those days of self-doubt hit, I at times can find solitude with my mentors that have helped and guided me on this crazy journey. One in particular is the wild cowboy and former educator that I am going exploring with today, Nick LaRue.

I met LaRue as a first year teacher with big green gills new to the profession. I needed someone to lean on and that someone was Nick and without him I’m not sure I would have made it very long as an educator. He has always been there to assure me that it’s ok if we do not look, act, or even come from the same background as these other teachers, and throughout the years he has been right. I’ve learned that those of us that have struggled and have had the most strenuous stories often make the best teachers and mentors. We understand what it’s like to be broken, to be poor and to have been written off. It’s what makes those few of us more real and passionate about our teaching. We live and teach like we are still at the bottom because our past will always be close behind us.
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It is Monday morning, the first day of my winter break, and it is bone chilling outside. The sky,however, is a beautiful New Mexico blue and there’s still frost on the road. Nick and I are traveling east and in his normal driving fashion, he is careening through the lanes in his pickup like a wild stallion made into a racehorse. Nick is one of those characters that is seldom seen in the modern-day world, not quite made for this time and he is well aware of it. He looks somewhat like a cowboy version of Kramer from Seinfeld. He is tall and lanky and you will never see him without a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, or his knife.

He was born April 1, 1955, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to a loving mother and the wild at heart father. His father was a consummate rebel that despised authority but was extremely intelligent. It is obvious now that Nick picked up many of his traits from his father, both good and bad. Despite his father’s intelligence, his father carried some issues from World War II, suffered from malaria and was blind in one eye, which would further his anger and distrust. Subsequently, Nick’s parents did not get along and when Nick was four his mother decided to leave his father unexpectedly. She took Nick and his two siblings on a Greyhound bus across the United States from Albuquerque to Cape Cod, finally staying with his great uncle in a creaky old Victorian house overlooking the North Atlantic. Nick would explain that it was like going back 100 years because there was no indoor plumbing other than a pump in the kitchen sink, and they would burn wood to stay warm.

His father throughout the years would always be on the hunt for his son, and one night as Nick was being watched by the babysitter as his mom was working, there was a knock at the door. Nick still remembers his dad pushing the babysitter to the side as he gathered up a few of Nick’s things and like the wind they split, not to see his mom again until he was 17. His dad and he moved back to Albuquerque for a short time and make their way down to Casas Grandes Mexico, which is about 150 miles south of the New Mexico border. They lived in a small Mormon colony and in the meantime his mom hired a private detective to look for them. Nick’s dad after a short time did not want to become Mormon and thought it to be rigid with too many rules so again they traveled back north to Tucson, Arizona, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and eventually the valley of El Paso.

Nick remembers his father as being real slick and was able to manipulate the system to avoid any sort of registration, cops or detectives. They always lived on the outside of society never getting too close to anyone or anything. As the years would go by, Nick would always long for his mother and at the age of 17 he grabbed his backpack and traveled to Albuquerque to reunite with his mom.

Spending about two weeks in Albuquerque with his grandparents and mother as he would soon find out that their strict ways conflicted with his wild roots. So again he packed up and hitchhiked to Telluride, Colorado,which at the time was a little mountain town. He stayed at a hippy commune and when there was no work, he often poached deer off the side of the road. After a year of that lifestyle again he gathered his pack and made his way to Austin, Texas,where he would squat in an area he referred to as Peace Park. He would make jewelry necklaces, bracelets, and little roach clips in order to earn enough money for a meal.

He met a beautiful little street musician from El Paso and again he would pack up and head on the road with her. She made a few dollars playing the mandolin and acoustic guitar in juke joints in and out of downtown El Paso. Nick would get by running a greasy spoon restaurant and after a few years of that minimal existence, they would take a chance for a easier life in Albuquerque, only this time he would have a daughter and a wife. Like most couples that move and struggle financially,they divorced and he received joint custody of his daughter.

Nick went back to being a bachelor for a couple years but now he couldn’t run, as he had a little girl to take care of. He would, however, meet the first love of his life, Carol LaRue, and she would be the motherly nurturer that he had longed for since he was taken from his own mother. Carol straightened him out and helped him raise his daughter while he worked as a handyman. In order to get by, he tookon any kind of job from roofing, tree cutting, to stucco; as he would jokingly say, “with a little plaster and paint, turn it into what it ain’t.” He and Carol married and had a boy they named Jake. He would still work odd jobs from restaurants to fighting wild fires but nothing would ever really stick as he still yearned for adventure.

As fate would have it, one day he would quench that thirst as Carol casually asked Nick why he didn’t use his head for once and get a degree. The only problem was that at this point Nick was older and he did not have much experience with formal education. Nonetheless, he took a chance and excelled at UNM. graduating with honors. He quickly landed a job teaching 6th grade biology at Garfield Middle School in the North Valley. He also taught summer school for a few extra dollars. When he overheard that there would be a teaching position opening up for New Mexico history at Madison Middle School, he jumped at the chance. Being a diehard New Mexican, this would finally afford him the opportunity to share his passion and love for New Mexico. Like all good, passionate educators, the system eventually wore him down to retirement.

Having known Nick for a few years, I was certain after his retirement that his need for adventure would get the best of him, and shortly after he came up with an idea to be a tour guide and start his own little business. He called it Back Road Wrangler, and with a library of knowledge and his 4 x 4 Tacoma, he would take tourists and nuclear families into the back country of New Mexico. His adventures would range from Indian ruins to ghost towns and would allow him to share his passion of New Mexico on his own terms free from rules and bureaucracy.

Nick would often tell me and many others “if you really want to see New Mexico, get the hell out of Albuquerque, get out of the Rio Grande corridor because the real New Mexico is out there.It’s out there on the llanos to the east or the mountains to the west, along the back roads where people still live like they have for hundreds of years. New Mexico really is a history of just layers and layers of time, natural time geologic time, and then human time, and I don’t think people really understand the tremendous diversity that New Mexico offers.”
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To this day, I often contemplate his words. “Go now because it’s slipping away.” And he is right; just like the land, our lives are fleeting and far too short. I’ve learned that, like Nick, I too have found a way to fill that empty whole in my heart caused by the longing for family and a reckless past. I believe we both have at times come to terms with who we are and the good and bad times that has shaped us. We will never fit into the walls of society, but that is what makes us honest teachers. We teach with a fiery passion because we are well aware of our past and what we have had to fight through to get here. So on days like this, when I have some spare time, I can call on my amigo Nick to show me a hidden ruin or a ghost town; and thanks to him, I have been fortunate enough to see parts of New Mexico that most eyes will never get a chance to see and share a good conversation with a wild horse.

This old soul

It’s 9 AM on a chilly October morning and I am heading south on I-40, again my mind is wandering. It’s another pick, another adventure. I am getting ready to meet with a lady I’ve known only a short time. Her name is Lu Ann and she is well-known in the antique community. This morning, she is willing to allow me to pick through her antique collection, which I would later come to find out not many people have had the pleasure of doing. The roads are still wet and dark, while overhead, the sun like a wallflower has made several attempts to make its presence known but decided to call it a day. Nonetheless, it’s quiet on the empty road.
I have a full tank of gas, Hank on the radio, half a cup coffee and my trusty sidekick Cash, snoring in the backseat. The morning rain has left a sense of calm in the air reminding me how the seasons will indeed change your life, much like the trees are forced to change their colors. It’s times like these, on the open road that I can feel my heartbeat start to slow and my anxiousness fade away with the city of Albuquerque in my rear view mirror. I’m about 40 minutes away from the small town of San Antonio, New Mexico, famous for the original Owl Café and it’s green chili cheeseburger. This small town of one stop sign and two restaurants has seen better days, or perhaps it has always been like this and always will be. The stucco on most of the buildings show some signs of age and like an apocalyptic movie, the weeds are overgrown and the town is eerily quiet. These are the small towns I enjoy picking though, they seem to have been preserved in time and they often remind me of a slower time.

The lady I’m going to meet has been a collector and an antiques dealer since before I was born and has more knowledge of this rusty gold than I may ever have. I first met Lu Ann by chance, last summer as I was taking an adventure down south. I had stopped at the Owl Café to stretch my legs. As I was getting back in the car, I noticed down the street a bright and shiny, mint condition Texaco sign mounted to a small house. Instinctively, I drove down the street to take a look only to notice it was a closed antique shop; however, it had a phone number on the sign. I took a minute and a chance to call, and waited outside hoping that somebody would answer. A lady picked up the line and mentioned that the shop was closed. Unfazed, I replied that it was unfortunate but she had some beautiful signs hanging on the building; she cordially thanked me for noticing and told me that she could open up the shop for a few minutes. I proceeded to thank her and waited outside. Within a few minutes, the door had creaked opened and an older woman in her late 60s came outside to greet me. She had a slight limp and looked a little frail as she took her time walking down the steps to greet me. She would gradually show me around her shop and after talking with her for a few minutes, I noticed she was as sharp as a razor, well-versed with a wealth of knowledge on antiques and New Mexico history. I’ve always thought that best pickers are often history nerds like myself. Maybe it was the fact that I too, was a teacher like her in her early days or that I took interest her collection, but after 20 minutes or so of talking she mentioned that she had an airplane hangar in the back with a few other items that I might be interested In. I gladly accepted her invitation not knowing what to expect next. We slowly walked out the storefront to the back yard passing a ton of old signs and Americana lawn art along the way. As she opened the hanger, I was in shock, almost speechless, to see one of the finest collections of antiques my eyes had seen. There was everything from turn of the century furniture , medical equipment, Civil War memorabilia, gas signs and just about everything in between. All of her collection was somewhat dusty, just as it should have been. As I walked through this enormous building, I could tell that there were more antiques there than I would ever discover and it was clear that she had been collecting most of her life. As always, I gravitated to what I know best, the gas and oil section. She let me pick through the license plates, old oil cans, road maps and a few signs. She took the time to explain the history behind each item and where it came from. As always, I try to stay realistic on what I can afford and what I can actually sell.

I learned early in this business that, like teaching, if I was planning on making it rich, I was in the wrong profession, but for me it has never been about money and never will be. I also found out that she was very firm on her prices and wasn’t persuaded by the common American picker routine of negotiating prices with a handshake as seen on TV. Sometimes with people, you just have to pay and trust that they are genuine; besides, I could tell that she knew her business better than I did and there was no use in trying to catch a great deal, she was gonna be fair with me and I in return would be grateful. I thanked her for her time and loaded my finds. As I left that day, I somehow knew I would one day be back.

Another interesting aspect to picking is that if you’ve been collecting long enough there’s a good chance you’ll get to know many of the local pickers. A week after my first trip to San Antonio, as I was walking around one of the antique shops in town just looking around and killing time, I ran into another dealer that had been in the business for many years. I shared my story with him on how I met this woman from San Antonio that let me buy some of her items; in shock, he told me that I had met one of New Mexico’s longest antique dealers who was also a bit of a shut-in and normally did not like conversing with people. He was also quick to point out that not many people would ever be allowed to pick through her private stock. After she mentioned this, I was taken aback. I almost had an Indiana Jones moment of pride, holding a golden treasure just to see it slip away. It made me wonder, why me? A young man without many years under his belt in the business. Why didn’t she try to pull one over on me and why was I allowed to pick through her collection?

Even now as I’m driving down south this morning, it’s bothering me and I’m still contemplating, why me? I’m not good looking, far from charming,and my knowledge of antiques is elementary in comparison. Perhaps it was dumb luck or maybe she wanted someone to talk to but I’d like to think she understands and appreciates the same things I do. Nevertheless, I’ll just have to take advice from the Beatles and let it be. I’ll keep searching for places and people that also appreciate a good conversation and rusty gold. These may just be antiques or junk that we collect, but more importantly, they are memories. They are a snapshot of a story, a time in history. Perhaps these people I run into have a common gravitation towards each other through these treasures and beliefs, not by chance or business, but because we search for the same ideals. Regardless if mainstream America appreciates these items and people as I do. This sentiment is not something we can walk away from. Indeed it is isolating at times, when there’s only a handful of people that believe in opening the car door for others, saying yes ma’am or prefer vinyl to digital, wood burning stoves to central heat or sleeping under the stars to the comforts of the bed, but it is all some of us old souls know.

So like Lu Ann, I too am finding it harder to relate to this modern world, which forces us to change like the seasons. I too will one day sell off or giveaway my collection that has been bestowed unto me. If I am lucky,hopefully the next person will enjoy these treasures as much as I have. Perhaps the people I meet were born for another time or are old souls; and yes, the world may move too fast and spin too hard for people like us,but it’s all right. We can pick up the pieces in the next life and the next go-round.