After locking up the storage unit, Nichols wends his way out of town for one of his favorite hikes — a short uphill climb that shouldn’t overly aggravate the hernia he popped in January, or the meniscus torn in his knee in March. Though he’s hiked this trail more times than he can remember, he discovers something new each time, an early-blooming flower, perhaps, or an iridescent velvet ant. At the top, he peers through binoculars — sousing the eyepieces in sweat — and points out his beloved snow-packed peaks. Then he snarls down at the valley pocked with houses. “The utter disaster of the human species is evident everywhere,” he says. “Just because you live in a cute town in the West doesn’t mean the same things that are happening in Bombay or Calcutta aren’t happening here. This town is fucked.”
Regardless of Nichols’ forebodings about the future, he’s not leaving Taos anytime soon. His roots are firmly planted here, in a small adobe on a rambling road on the fringe of town. Out back, red socks, knitted by a girlfriend back in the ’50s, dangle listlessly from the clothesline. Apple trees grow between two wooden sheds. One holds his vast collection of books, and has mounted on it a nest box his father built, specifically designed for starlings — a superabundant species that aggressively evicts bluebirds, wrens and woodpeckers from their nests. But that doesn’t bother Nichols, who says, “Once you start picking and choosing which species you like and dislike, you start to create holes in the web of life.” This love for nature, even nature gone awry, comes from his paternal side: His grandfather, an avid birder, was a curator of fishes at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and his father liked to record the cacophony of crows as they mobbed a stuffed owl.
Across the yard, Nichols opens the door of another shed, where a series of metal file cabinets sit silently, cloaked in cobwebs. They hold tax returns, photos and correspondence — with his ex-wives, with Edward Abbey and with the fans he’s befriended. He pulls out a piece of paper, scrawled with a child’s handwriting and crayon sketches; he wrote it at age 11 to his grandmother, thanking her for a rooster and signing it “Happy Johnny.” “Libraries love this shit,” he says.
Nichols’ dirt-roofed adobe house holds even more files. An autographed poster of Wayne Gretzky dangles from one wall. Plastic chairs surround tables towering with books. A bare lightbulb hangs from the ceiling of his living room. “I suppose I could have lived a materialistic life,” he says, but he prefers otherwise. His bed is blanketed with sleeping bags, and Cookie, a skittish old cat, lurks somewhere underneath.
Cookie is currently the only companion sharing his bed regularly. “I was never very good at being married very long,” he says. But Nichols keeps in touch with his various exes. Ruth, his first wife, with whom he raised two children, is coming up this weekend for dinner. Juanita, his second, just sent him the Texas Observer’s special issue on Molly Ivins.
His most recent wife was Miel, a precocious 23-year-old flamenco dancer. “It was one of those things where everyone is against you from the start because they think it is ridiculous,” says Nichols. “And they’re right, it is. But that’s also what makes it an adventure.” When he suffered from endocarditis, a rare heart infection, in 1994, Miel became acutely aware of the gap in their ages. And although the couple enjoyed the surprising side effects of the heart medications on Nichols’ nether regions, they decided to part before Nichols died a lascivious death.
Death has been much on Nichols’ mind lately. He’s been reading 52 McGs, a collection of obituaries, and increasingly, he says, when the phone rings, it’s because a dear friend has died. He usually skips the funerals. “The attitude to fly 2,000 miles to go see your nephew, or go to a funeral for one day — that attitude is a major attack on the ecosystem,” he says. “The mobility of humans is the greatest criminal in greenhouse gas pollution.”
Before he can continue the tirade, the phone rings. “Yo-Yo,” Nichols answers. His son Luke wants to know if Nichols can pick up Lucinda after school. No problem, he says. An hour later, Lucinda, his 3-year-old granddaughter, plays with a stuffed polar bear as he straps her into the car seat. His hands are gentle, his voice softer, as he showers her with questions: Are you thirsty? Want some milk, sweetie? Want a Fig Newton? Want to go to the park? Nichols turns, grins, and says, “Now, I’m going to morph into a grandpa. I’m no longer a writer, or an opinionated asshole.”
The author recently finished an internship at HCN, and now writes from a lookout tower in southern Oregon.
This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.