Through formations older than conceivable I swerved, breath taken away without notice. I was pressed in a pass when drops of blue and white became visible along the road up ahead. I wondered out loud.
"What the… are those people…?"
"Maybe they’re a mirage." Ghost was sucking down a phantom cigarette, the smoke as transparent as he.
"Like you are?"
"I’m not a mirage, babe. I’m a figment of your worst imagination."
"Tell me about it." As I approached, the colors formed into a group of open-air painters. Five cars sat on the shoulder with an easel to match, and boxes of paints littered the side of the highway. I pulled over and began to gather my camera.
"Remember the last time you pulled over for a stranger?" Ghost asked.
"They’re painters. What, are the five of them going to tie me down and tickle me with their brushes?"
"They could do something to you with those brushes…"
I ignored him and started across the slope of road. The group was in front of a spiraling tower of red rock nestled between foothills. A paunchy man with a grey, grizzled chin walked between the easels and looked over shoulders of those who swiped toned strokes. I walked up slow, not wanting to disturb any creative processing, and a leather-tanned woman with a yellow daisy in her hair smiled at my approach.
"Hi-ya," she said.
"Hi. You guys picked a beautiful spot."
"Isn’t it?" Her voice sounded twenty while her face looked sixty. "The curve in the road is just perfect."
"Do you mind if I take some photos?"
"Oh, no! Go right ahead!" I started focusing my lens on a man wearing a fishing hat and concentrated look.
"So is this just a really popular spot or did you all come together?" I asked Daisy.
"Well my fiancée, he teaches this class and this is one of the spots he uses for our inspiration! It’s so wonderful." The wandering grizzled man suddenly made more sense, and I heard him tell a student, "You need to stop while you’re ahead. It’s not going to get any better than that." Each student was working in a different medium; there were charcoals and pastels, oil paints and watercolors. Their smocks were streaked bright and a woman with a turquoise rosary bit her lip while she worked. The professor walked up to me.
"Such a lovely day." His voice softly scraped the landscape.
"Yes it is. You teach this class?"
"Yes. I have a little studio space, above the hotel in Abiquiu."
"How long have you been doing this?"
"Oh, about… fifteen years now, I think. Are you from around here?" That question always seemed inevitable when you traveled with a Nikon around your neck.
"No," I half-laughed through the word. "I’m driving from Austin up to Denver."
He cocked his head at me. “This is a little out of your way, is it not?”
I shrugged. “Well I’ve never seen this part of the country, so I’m trying to take in as much as possible.”
"You’re taking a wonderful road. It only gets more beautiful." He suddenly jerked his head and turned to the student he had told to stop painting. "Steve! What did I say? Do not touch it!" Steve, a man in round spectacles, halted his hand as the echoing reprimand bounced in the air.
"…Sorry, Joaquin," he mumbled.
"Do not apologize to me! Apologize to the earth, for trying to make a mockery of what she has given you to gaze upon!" He stared at Steve while Steve stared at the ground. All of the others were paused and watching.
"Go ahead," professor Joaquin stated. "Apologize."
Steve sat quiet.
"…I’m sorry, Mother Earth," Steve whispered.
"For anyone else that would like to scar the beautiful face they are looking onto," Joaquin addressed the class, "do not bother to come back to the studio for your critique. Joaquin has no time for besmirchers! Now, pack it up, before Steve decides to go rogue again!"
I stood motionless, afraid Joaquin might turn his rage in my direction. Daisy sidled up next to me and muttered under her breath. “The genius within,” she said, “it can drive him mad.” I nodded my head and remembered a night Ghost had jumped out of our bed, frantically grabbed his hair and exclaimed, “I have to go write! I was fucking you and thinking about poetry. How fucked up is that? I have to go write!” I waved goodbye to the group and trotted back to the car where Ghost still sat.
"Good to see they didn’t need your blood for that perfect shade of rouge. I like that Joaquin fellow. The man has principles and to hell with everyone else. I respect that."
"Of course you do." I remembered another night, the night he left, and how he had told me women were just a distraction from his work. "To hell with everyone else, even the ones you love…"