Two months after I moved to Santa Fe, my girlfriend Kristin flew from New York to visit me. I wanted to show her some of what the Southwest had to offer: sweeping desert vistas, staggering canyons and, of course, hot springs. On a Saturday afternoon, we drove up to Taos to track down Manby Hot Springs in the Rio Grande Gorge. I was hoping for some romantic privacy in an unbeatable setting but hadn’t imagined that it would be the perfect place for some local color.
Walking toward the canyon, Kristin and I passed a small exodus, a line of doughy men in Gore-Tex. I asked how the springs were, and they responded in a symphony of polite Southern accents. "It's nice," said one. "Treacherous, though. Watch out for the eye-ce."
Kristin had on bright sneakers, and before we realized the futility of it, I piggybacked her through the mud. We trudged along the muddy path to the edge of the gorge and stared down at the clear Rio Grande, snaking its way along a sheer canyon. The sun was high, rendering the contours of the red cliffside in detail. After following the canyon's edge for a hundred yards or so, I couldn't see a path down. Snow covered the trail and crunched beneath my feet. Liquid seeped into my "waterproof" boots.
Pressing on through snowy groves of conifers, walking aggressively with Kristin in tow, I entered someone's backyard. I told her that the directions are no good. "We should turn back."
She said, "Like hell we are; we've come this far."
At a pivotal moment of doubt, I saw an icy path cutting into the cliff. I began following it, gleefully hopping from boulder to boulder. Every so often, I'd turn back and make sure Kristin was still in sight. Slowly, we descended along the gorge, the Rio Grande growing bigger and bigger. Shadows grew on the cliffside.
People passed us with dogs. Kristin asked them if we were indeed going the right way. They assured us we were. Almost at the canyon's bottom, one man ascending past us said he'd left a towel down there, and it was all ours. I was thrilled; that was the only thing we'd forgotten. His buddy assured us that we were going to have a great time; there was nobody down there.
"Except Dog Man," he added. "He's cool, though."
Kristin and I looked at each other briefly, wondering tacitly who the fuck Dog Man was. No image came to mind. Down by the river, I saw the mirage-like, blue hot springs against the river, like a hot tub would be slightly elevated above a swimming pool. There were two areas, flat and clear, compared to the rushing water of the Rio Grande, and lined with rocks. Algae floated in them. Kristin and I, eager to strip off our clothes, shot each other excited looks. Then I noticed the dogs, four of them in a languid formation, like sleepy sphinxes. They looked like crosses between a golden retriever and a great Pyrenees. White, noble creatures with black eyes, if a little dirty. A man emerged from behind the rocks as if from the ground itself. His manifestation—the shedding of his earthen camouflage—happened so organically, it seemed he'd always been there.
He wore camo cargo pants and an earthy flannel shirt, open, over a black T-shirt that read "Peace Dogs" beneath a peace symbol and four dogs. His face was creased and weathered, his beard, reaching below his collarbone to the necklace of smooth stones drooping down his chest, untidy and a sooty gray. He looked the closest I'd seen a human come to an Ent. The bandana taut around his head matched the color of his get-up.
"That one there is 90 degrees," he said. "And that one is 100." He pointed to a pool a little farther upriver. The dogs milled around and sniffed at him. He petted their heads.
He extended a wrinkled hand and said, "I'm Ed. But you can call me Dog Man. That's my dragon name." His eyes were blue and searching.
"Wow, I wish I had one of those," I said. "I'm Ben. This is Kristin."
"Hi," she managed. Her eyes were wide and incredulous.
That feeling came over me when in the presence of an instantaneously discernible lunatic: There will be ups and downs. Try not to patronize him, be friendly but not too friendly, and soon it will be over. He's not going to… kill us. Part of me was also thrilled that, in the entire state of New Mexico, I'd managed to put myself right smack in front of this man, leaning on an elaborately carved walking stick, with an open Spider-Man backpack slung over his shoulder.
"This is Liberty," he said, pointing at the dog sniffing him. "And that's Isis, and Freedom." We didn't catch the last dog's name.
Kristin and I gave each other another tacit look: Well, this is happening. We walked slowly to the 100 degree pool and started stripping, stopping at our underwear. Slowly submerging myself in the hot water, I began asking Dog Man about the pools.
He liked to spend his time here, he said. Kristin was rapt. Dog Man spoke earnestly and deliberately. I thought about how many people he must have spoken to today, how their reactions to him must have varied.
"I drink this water every day," he said proudly. "It's got lithium in it. Good for bipolar."
Oh boy, I thought. Kristin couldn't help but smile. We tried to relax and sink into the pool, which was about six feet across. The rocks against our backs were slimy with algae. Our feet sank in the silt. Dog Man sat on the pool's rocky edge, all of us in a small circle.
"You like grass?" Dog Man asked, pulling a shopping bag full of weed from his backpack.
"Absolutely," I said without hesitating. I hadn't smoked in a month or so and had been thinking about it, encountering phantom smells. He packed a bowl and told me to dry my fingers. I did, and he lit the small glass pipe for me, holding it as I took a hit. He then he handed me the pipe to pass to Kristin. She took a small hit and slunk back into the pool. I didn't feel strange, being practically naked in front of this man. I assumed he made a career out of smoking up naked people.
"I found that pipe," he said.
He opened up about his family, how he's a great-grandfather, but hadn't seen his family in ages. His wife had taken them when she left with "some semi-rich asshole from Texas."
"Her loss, man," I said. He didn't dwell on the topic, and the story, rife with sixties lingo, continued to his life in Houston, where he sold pot and mingled with narcs.
"They were intense, man. One of 'em had a chunk of his skull missing and a…a…"
"A plate over it?" I offered.
"Yeah, man. But these guys wasn't after me. They was after the big fish, man."
Whenever he'd look down momentarily, I'd glance at Kristin and mouth, Oh my God, yes, and she'd smile. We were lucky to have this play unfolding before us. I zoned out from Dog Man's story and began staring at the river. It looked so clean and cold. I stood, walked over to it and jumped in. My skin went taut, and I shouted and clambered out.
"You didn't even stick your head under!" Dog Man teased.
"Come on!" I said—as my dad would, feigning indignation—and waded back into the river. I held my head under, and pressure closed in on me.
"Nice job," Dog Man said as I sprinted back to the hot spring. "That takes courage."
Kristin later told me that Dog Man had timed my dive, which lasted three seconds. It was one second shy of his record of four seconds. She was going to tell me, but Dog Man urged her not to. Luckily, I'm not competitive.
Back in the pool, I eyed the huge knife on his leather belt. It was sheathed in a brown and white piece of hide. He said he made it out of buffalo. I didn't ask how he got the hide.
"It's a medicine knife," he explained. "It's very sharp. From the Philippines. The hilt is made from water buffalo bone."
"Two kinds of buffalo," I said. This guy is going to kill us, I thought, feeling pressed up against the atmosphere of his insanity. I asked to see the knife. He said he'd hand it to me in a second. He didn't want to drop it, because he had hurt himself that way once. He paused a moment and unsheathed the weapon. It was sharp. And heavy.
"It's kind of like a Bowie knife," he said. "But it's a medicine knife."
I looked at Kristin and wondered where she stood on the is-this-guy-gonna-kill-us-or-not spectrum. Her expression had been wavering ceaselessly between amusement and fear. I tried to turn the conversation, if anything, away from the knife. I hadn't seen the dogs in a while, so I asked about them.
They come and go, Dog Man explained. He had bred them on his own. He told us he just got electricity this year and has tried to stay away from computers his entire life.
Kristin and I try to eke out a moment of privacy, even in Dog Man's presence. A moment of silence, the river drowning out everything.
"Want to see a picture of me with a giant orange dragonfly?"
"Yes." Even less hesitation than with the pot.
Dog Man reached into his backpack and pulled out a thick collection of aged photographs. He held them out for us to see. It was blurry, but you could make out an orange smear on the tip of his walking stick. He showed more photos, an orange dragonfly at rest in each. In one, he was deeply tanned and completely naked. At first, I thought it was an Indian man. The shot was from the side, so you couldn't see everything. Kristin did a double-take. The photos seemed to be from decades ago.
"I never see the blue ones," he said. "They give way to the orange ones, because they're bigger. But one time, I was in the pool, saw one and said to it, 'Come over here, blue dragonfly, and land on my toe.'" He pulled out a final picture of a blue dragonfly on his over-exposed white foot, which was in the exact position mine was. "Sure enough, it landed on my toe." He smiled widely, clasping the photo, and the memory, like a talisman. He mentioned another time a dragonfly landed on his middle finger, gesturing to us how he stroked it with his two index fingers. He stared deeply at the imaginary dragonfly, probably as intently as he had the day it happened.
Moments passed, and we talked some more, no longer about dragonflies.
"I have some really cool UFO photos," he said. "But you didn't hear that from me." I began to hope Dog Man would leave, as Kristin and I had barely exchanged a word.
Dog Man started to hum and mentioned that he writes poetry. "I wrote a trilogy of poems," he declared. "In pencil." Upon hearing that last part, Kristin and I erupted simultaneously into laughter. I glanced at Dog Man, but he was serious. "It's on hemp paper, too," he aded. "Which is hard if you have bad handwriting. It's hard if you have good handwriting. But worse if it's bad. Because it's hemp. It's…"
Dog Man explained that many of his poems—he called them "These Beautiful Fields"—came from the pocket of a dead soldier at Gettysburg.
I began to wonder why we hadn't left yet, but I didn't want to miss what he might say next. I was genuinely enjoying him. Mostly, I was desperately trying to keep everything he had said in my brain and felt anxious that it was slipping away. Then he started singing some of his songs. "I'm a natural born killer," he said. "An American terrorist." That was either his identity in the sixties or the name of his album; I didn't understand. Kristin looked terrified. I was also wondering when he'd unsheath the medicine knife and do us in. He started reciting verses from his songs. This one, he said, was called "River of Blood." I looked at the beautiful, peaceful Rio Grande and started scanning for rocks I might use to defend myself with, should the time come. But it didn't.
The sun was still glinting above the gorge, but the river was getting dark. I asked Dog Man how he was getting out of here, just to hurry him along. He said he had a car, an old Volvo, and he better get going. He said he was just drunk enough that he could make it out, but then he sat back down and talked for another ten minutes. Standing up again, this time for good, he collected the dogs. I asked to take his picture on my iPhone and snapped a bunch of photos of him, with the dogs lined up behind him like it was an album cover. I complimented his Peace Dogs T-shirt, and he said he made them himself.
"They're famous," he said. "Martin Sheen has one."
Considering this was Taos, I didn't doubt him for a second. Martin Sheen could have easily sat in this same steaming pool, chuckling at Dog Man. Or maybe they had bonded on an intimate level. I took a few more photos as Dog Man and his trail of canines hiked back up the gorge, and he disappeared into the rocks.
"You look like Brad Pitt," he shouted.
"Thank you, Dog Man."
"Without my beard, I look like Marlon Brando."
"I don't doubt it." I wondered which Marlon Brando he meant.
"God bless you, young man."
That was the last we saw of him. We debriefed, laughing about how we thought he was actually going to kill us. Mostly, we couldn't believe who we had just met. After some well-earned alone time in the deepening twilight, we changed out of our wet underwear and into our clothes and started up. The cliff walls glowed red with the same dying sun reflecting off the river, which grew smaller as we ascended. We passed a group of young men on their way down, presumably for a quick sunset dip. We exchanged pleasantries. When they were behind us, I shouted back at them that the farther pool is 10 degrees warmer. They thanked me, and I heard one say under his breath, "That must be the guy with the Mazda."
Kristin and I walked slowly on our way out, admiring the gleaming mountains and pale, citrus sky. The yellows and reds reflected off of the puddles in our path. We hopped back in the Miata and kept the top down, even though it was getting cold. As we drove, we tried to write down all we could remember about Dog Man, taking turns. The car shook on the uneven road, and a large screw fell onto my lap from somewhere in the car's frame. Lights began turning on in the houses, and the road stretched on forever. Before turning right onto the highway and taking off into the night, toward Santa Fe and civilization, we passed an old Volvo parked on the grassy shoulder, nobody in it.
On Monday, I made small talk with an editor about our weekends. I told him about the hot springs, and he asked which one. When I told him, he said he often goes there with his kids. I said I'd met someone interesting and recited some of Dog Man's better quotes.
The editor laughed. "Oh, they're always at the hot springs," he said. "I was there with my kids, and there were these dragonflies all around, and the guy started talking about how the government has drones. That look like dragonflies."