``SOMEWHERE around Taos . . .'' Great Aunt Emma waves a vague circle. ``And it's yours now.'' She hands us plane tickets and a yellow document indicating she has paid the Taos tax collector $5.03 on a quarter-acre for much of the past 25 years.
``Why own land in New Mexico,'' we ask, ``since you've never been there?''
``Something your Great Uncle Whitney. . . '' But she's heading for her harpsichord, Bach in hand. While fugue unrolls on fugue, we tiptoe off to pack.
In flight we speculate: Is our land midtown -- perhaps with a skyscraper? Think of the current value! Or farther out, oil rigs pumping up and down like crows pecking grain -- who owns the mineral rights? Up a mountain? Then, like D. H. Lawrence, we will write among the ponderosa pines, undistracted by anything except view and mountain sheep -- we'll found a nature preserve for all the animals.
We design a house for our mountaintop: all glass, pine logs, and adobe. Solar heat, lunar cool. A funicular will double as ski tow. A tennis court beside our stream-fed pool. We sketch a music room cantilevered over a waterfall for performances of Handel's ``Water Music Suite'' and Schubert's ``Trout.''
Albuquerque. Mountains ring a platter of desert. Extraordinary clouds. Excited, we rent a car, drive north and upward through desert. We'll send to Tunisia for camels.
On toward Santa Fe, on farther toward Taos. We are high above sea level. And so far from the sea. Crabbing poor here. But there must be fish in our stream. We buy baskets of apples grown in a rare green valley, garlands of scarlet chilies to warm us all winter.
October is already winter here. Whirls of clouds promise snow. Or at least rain. It does. Beautifully.
What if our land has a hot dog -- or taco -- stand on it?
Hilly desert sparse with gray-green sagebrush, dark green pion pines, patches of aspen trees flaming gold. Vines burn vermilion. Grasses are ocher, beige, fluff-white, orange. Far mountains are navy, purple, malachite. This is Georgia O'Keeffe country. Her studio is at Ghost Ranch, Abiquil, over that hill.
Car chokes and slows with the altitude.
Taos. No skyscrapers. No oil rigs. Low adobe houses, new and old alike fit into the landscape, blend into the pink-brown soil from which they were made. The metal mobile homes on the outskirts do not.
Art galleries everywhere. Eighty for a town of 3,800. Must be one on our property. We have not always wanted to own a gallery. Yet here, with hundreds of artists . . . .
Beyond, low and alone in its patch of sahara, is the gleaming white Millicent Rodgers Museum. Stunning paintings, weavings, jewelry, and statues by Southwestern artists: Indian, Hispanic, Anglo.
Taos's narrow streets are jammed with cars. In summer 20,000 tourists come through daily. In winter they flock to ski. There is a hint of impermanence about this town: The tourists might just pack it up like a toy village, take it off with them. Or the low clouds will crush and swallow -- No, the landscape is more indifferent than aggressive. Everything will be reabsorbed into the earth on which, like the rare desert birds, we are only specks. The stunted brush will outlive us.
We escape northwest, find Taos Pueblo's clusters of humped brown adobe buildings. Ladders lead to roofs and higher apartments. A creek runs through the hard mud square. Silver and turquoise jewelry for sale, and the tacit request of the Indians to respect their privacy. This is theirs. Our land is not here. Besides, we couldn't kick anyone out of a pueblo, even if it would be cool to live in one.
Beyond: just desert.
``Shouldn't we go back, hunt up the town clerk, discover precisely where . . . .''
In the rain, we find the county office.
``Excuse me, we own land here.'' We unfold the yellow paper with lot and numbers on a blue computer printout.
``Oh.'' The clerk, and the clerk's clerks, observe us with boredom -- they've seen such documents before. They wave vaguely northwest. ``Somewhere out by Tres Piedras.''
Three stones. Or boulders.
But they are patient, flip through maps and blueprints, and photocopy a small map cross-hatched with rice-sized rectangles of quarter-acre lots. Our parcel is 2 1/2 miles east of Tres Piedras. Meanwhile we hear laconic remarks about an old land scam: Some operator sold or ``awarded'' 50,000 would-be landowners quarter-acre fragments of ``beautiful resort area'' for the cost of the title search. Fifty thousand absentee suckers. . . . Most have not sold or forfeited their titles, valued at $10.
``Nothing but sagebrush out there,'' grins a grizzled land-appraiser. ``And rattlesnakes. No water. Though on the way you'd have a view of the Rio Grande. But I wouldn't go out there. Dangerous. Up in the hills there's hippies, misfits, drifters, unsolved crimes.''
Of course we will go out there.
``Then check in with the auxiliary sheriff who hangs out in the gas station at Tres Piedras. And carry a shotgun.''
No shotgun. But with our penknife, map, compass, tent, water jug, jeans, and gear we might be prospectors for uranium or gold.
Though it is late afternoon we drive northwest again, beyond adobes, mobile homes, and shacks, past fields stretching back to the mountains. Horses graze under willows. A dozen cattle by a ranch, not grouped together like other cows I've known, but scattered, defending distances. Then only flat beige-gray desert. Sagebrush, thistles, cactus, tumbleweed.
The rain stops, but mulberry-black clouds sweep the sky.
The flatland splits: a canyon. We stop, walk the bridge 650 dizzying feet high. Below, glistening platinum, winds the skimpy Rio Grande.
More desert. Some miles along the empty road: one green shack. Farther on, a lean-to. Did someone dare build on our land?
No, our land is on the other side of the road. Somewhere.
Conic and sharp ahead, three mounts. Tres Piedras. Several trailers, a gas station with a truck and two goats, and the chrome and glass Adobe Diner. Eva Gomez serves us cocoa and stories. She grew up in Tres Piedras, married a man born here, and though their daughter moved east, they will stay. Yes, it snows here, and deep. She shrugs off tales of danger in the hills.
``Nothing but sagebrush out there,'' she laughs when we explain our mission. ``But if you see a jack rabbit carryin' a canteen . . . .''
We return to the car and figure the mileage back from Tres Piedras. The odometer finally reads 2.5.
``There it is!'' Or must be, our quarter-acre about a quarter-mile north . . . .
Scratch the pool and water music. Sagebrush, cactus, dust, tumbleweed. Resembles the 49,999 other quarter-acre lots, all barren, unmarked, undefined.
Yet the view is unimpeded and unparalleled. And our plot is unique. Flat enough for a tennis court. The low sun splits the clouds and dazzles us. We jog around our unbounded land, contented.