An appointment at the Motor Vehicle Division to renew a driver's license led to Tempo finding ourselves in Red River - the summer seat of Texans escaping the Dallas heat for the crisp alpine air.
Those Texans frequently visit other towns on the Enchanted Circle and beyond, including Taos, and are routinely blamed by some in Taos for being COVID carriers. Ironically, Red River has had only one new case since early July while the Taos Valley has reported more than 140 new cases.
Last summer, after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham imposed additional restrictions on restaurants, the New Mexico Restaurant Association, along with Red River Brewing Company and several other businesses, filed a motion in court challenging the governor's order to reclose indoor dining at restaurants due to a recent surge in coronavirus cases. The court ultimately ruled in favor of the governor.
Janie Romer, Tempo Fashion and Style columnist, accompanied us on our gonzo journey into the heart of the American West on Election Night 2020. The ghost of Hunter Thompson was ever-present as we drove straight into the fear and loathing of the zeitgeist.
We stayed the night at the Alpine Lodge, an '80s relic of the days of Michael Martin Murphy's West Fests, now completely dead due to the pandemic. Red River, long a party town for bikers, musicians, ranchers and mountain men, on this day was a ghost town.
Main Street was empty of traffic and few pedestrians were around. We figured they were glued to the screens in their homes. The battle for America's democracy was being waged in the living rooms of its frightened citizens.
We settled into our unpretentious, clean and remotely situated cabin at the Alpine Lodge. The women who greeted us at the front desk were charming and helpful, and our stay was restful; lulled to sleep as we were, by the babbling brook outside our door, once we'd turned off the madness.
But I digress. We had called ahead to let owners Michael and Sharon Calhoun know we were coming to the Red River Brewing Company for dinner and wanted to talk to them about their award-winning patio and distillery, from New Mexico Restaurant Association in 2020. So, we bundled up, grabbed our hats and were out the door. After walking the two blocks to our destination, we were soon shown to a clean table in the back room. We each ordered a cocktail made from the RRB's prize-winning distillery's spirits.
Romer's Whiskey Smash was a hit, but she knows better than to get smashed. The agave margarita was tart, sweet and strong. One was enough. We also ordered steaks (we were in Red River, after all), and asked our server to let the Calhouns know we were there. As we waited, we eavesdropped on the neighboring table. A young couple with two children and their grandmother discussed in barely audible whispers their thoughts of moving to another country postelection.
Sharon Calhoun joined us at our table presently, and we discovered our server Katy was to be my MVD officer the following morning. In a town like Red River, everyone does everything and then some. The '80s music playing in the background made Romer and me feel as if we were in a time warp. In fact, we met during that decade in New York City, as it teetered on the brink of gentrification, led by a cabal of real estate moguls, including Donald Trump.
Dead as the town had appeared on the streets, inside the Red River Brewing Company a bustling business was being done, with sports on the big screens - but no politics.
"That's my rule," said Calhoun. "No politics here on the TV, I want this to be welcoming to everyone, no matter their personal beliefs."
Calhoun confessed that although she grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, in a Republican family, most people she knew now were voting for Biden.
"They're fed up with Trump and his shenanigans," she said.
Romer (who is the owner/designer of The Stakeout in Taos) noted the industrial design of the interior, with its soaring vaulted ceilings. "It's beautiful," she told Calhoun, "and perfect for these times." Best Patio award notwithstanding, Red River Brewing Company can seat several indoors in a safe environment.
"Yes, we've been lucky to be busy," Calhoun said, "especially now during the slow season, when most other places are closed midweek."
She looked around and added, "You know if it wasn't a pandemic situation, we would have hosted a party for Linda [Calhoun, her husband's stepmother, the mayor of Red River and candidate for House District 42], but not this year, we have to put people and safety first."
Calhoun and her husband, Michael (who grew up in Red River), returned after years living in Los Alamos. Essentially they retired to the small mountain hamlet.
"It feels good to have a place where people can still come and enjoy themselves, safely of course," Calhoun noted. "And to remember how it was, and will be again."
We walked the few blocks back to our cabin. Darkness had fallen over the deserted streets.
As we stood on the porch looking at the bright night sky, a shooting star fell from the glittering dome.
We turned on the TV. Neither of us owns one, so this was quite a novel experience. Two ex-pats from the fallen colonial empire, viewing the democratic process taking place under the guise of a play by play - albeit a mathematical one - of some mysterious sport.
As a map of North America turned blue and red and blue again, we listened to Joe Biden's call for patience as we drank endless cups of tea, while trying to fathom the perplexing results, until we finally gave in to exhaustion. Let America fend for itself, we thought as we drifted off into dreamland, serenaded by the stream that meandered past our home away from home.
Morning arrived with even more confusing math, along with the inevitable news that Trump was calling foul. What's new? More ballots had appeared in the middle of the night after states stopped counting for some unknown reason. Meanwhile, as America's future hung in the balance, we headed to Shotgun Willie's next door for coffee and breakfast, serve-yourself style.
We chose an outside picnic table, and after ordering inside, I came out into the bright sunshine to find Romer in conversation with a couple who had moved to the area six months earlier, right after COVID hit. They were living off-grid in a cabin built by his father, on land owned by his grandfather - all Texans.
"We came from Amarillo," Randy Huey told us, "we were done with the rat race."
Asked how they felt about the election, both responded adamantly that they cared for neither candidate and were sitting this one out. "I believe about 80 percent of what David Icke (British conspiracy theorist) says," Randy told us, as his wife, Crystal, nodded in agreement. "It's all very Orwellian."
The new American Right tosses George Orwell's name about with reckless abandon these days, pinning all their conspiracy theories on his prescient vision, forgetting (or not knowing), that Orwell, a staunch anti-Communist, had strong political convictions: "I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country," he once stated.
Orwell was a socialist until the end of his life, but clearly will forever be remembered as the 20th century's foremost foe of totalitarianism.
"I'm a live-and-let-live person," Randy Huey said. "I don't impose my views on others and I don't appreciate them telling me how to live my life. I just wish we could all get along."
I asked them how they liked it up here, and if they were ready for winter.
"We love it," said Crystal. "A simple life lived close to the earth, makes one grateful for so much."
"We've got 500 gallons of propane and 3 cords of wood and I have to carry water in the winter," Randy Huey told us, "but I'm happy to step away from the world."
Right now they were off their mountain, expanding their carbon footprint just a little. Their puppy skipped around the table, in search of small morsels and crumbs. Unlike the couple at the next table the night before, these two were going nowhere.
Even in Red River, it was apparent that two completely different Americas are currently struggling to coexist. You look at any region that has a disproportionately rural electorate - and you can count it going Republican in any election, and the opposite is mostly true in suburban/urban areas,
All the people we talked to had headed for these hills after raising children in urban areas elsewhere. Despite their differing political views, the escape from the stress of modern life was the common ground that brought them here.
We have had two countries in America for a while, but under Trump, it's as if the wall has gotten higher.
It was time to hit the road, the MVD was calling and we were already jones-ing for a TV.
Caveat: Both Romer and I had made appointments for the MVD online a day apart last September. We had stopped for hers in Questa on our way up to Red River. Despite our best efforts, neither of us had all of the required paperwork necessary for our respective needs, and now we have to go back.
Red River does look like it has quite a bit of snow, and Romer is thinking of bringing her skis next time.