Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within, which broke open the world of creativity and started a revolution in the way we practice writing in this country. Since then she has written fourteen other books, including the novel Banana Rose. Goldberg is also a prolific painter. Her book Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World, describes painting as her second art form. Her watercolors are exhibited at Ernesto Mayans Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico and at her website. Top of My Lungs contains forty poems, twenty of her paintings in color and an essay, “How Poetry Saved My Life.” Natalie has been teaching seminars in writing as a practice for the last thirty years.
This February in New Mexico was surprisingly mild—in the fifties day after day, while the rest of the country—even Atlanta, Georgia—was slammed with abnormally cold weather. But in Santa Fe it might as well have been the Arctic. My hands and feet continually felt like ice and nothing warmed them. My heart was halted. I had received hard news about my health. At night no sleep came. I lay in bed blank-minded till dawn. My shoulders were hunched and rounded.
The third Saturday in the month I’d committed to a full-day hiking with my dear friend Ann. Nothing in me wanted to go. She zipped over at nine a.m. “Let’s go to the winter place,” I suggested. A long-time Taos resident had showed it to me above the Rio Grande.
We drove up through the gorge, made a right over a rickety bridge and parked. Passing under aged crooked apple trees, we stepped over a thin trickle of water, almost a miracle in this dry country. One foot in front of another was all I could manage.
We wound our way to the top ridge after two hours and looked down on the river’s dark curving back. Black volcanic rock surrounded us. Over to the northwest was Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest mountain, covered in white. Normally, I would have been delighted, but no go. The hard crust of pain eroded my delight.
Ann grabbed my shoulders. “I’m so sorry, Nat.” I could barely turn up the slightest curve on the corners of my lips.
We headed back.
Now here’s where it gets tricky. The path down wasn’t obvious. We quickly found ourselves lost, peering over jagged boulders—No, not this way. Not this—or this. We had little time. The sun would go behind the west mountain in an hour. I was numb and all I wanted was to get back in the car and drive home. Usually I love the challenge and alertness of getting lost.
Ann suggested we might have to bushwhack down over rocks.
“Wait,” I said, looking around. A small crevice. We followed it, finding ourselves in a field thick with last year’s bent yellow dry grass. An elevated plateau, a pasture? In my forty years here I had never seen anything like this. We stumbled, going in different directions in an expanse the size of two football fields. Our boots cracked through thin layers of ice.
At last, I came to an edge, a narrow stream a foot wide rushing down. I looked closer, fresh dark green watercress. The whole field had small springs saturating it—and animal droppings everywhere. In the humps and bent grass, I saw the shapes of large animals. “Ann,” I called across. “This is where they come at night to sleep.”
Our eyes met—“Elk Meadow,” her mouth formed the words. We had seen their hoof-prints all along the trail.
However crushed I am, nothing now but looking for the way home. I go toward two enormous cottonwoods with last summer’s leaves, tinkling brown, hanging on. Between them lay a path and the road back is at the bottom. Why is it that we never saw this before?