This is a classic MCS problem, how chemicals in the world stand in your way. And a plea for some car rental company out there somewhere to stop spraying old cars with "new car smell", and stop hanging those fake pine air freshener trees from the mirror. Those things are filled with neurotoxins.
So here I was. I'd arrived at the Albuquerque airport and rented a car from a commercial company. Although I'd actually dragged the willing parking lot attendant around with me, sniffing the cars, looking for the most bearable one, the one I'd chosen was making me ill. I'd been living clean for a few days and the prospect of driving in that machine was not appealing. In New York, I would have ridden it out and gone to bed early, but here, where I felt good, there was no point in stubbornness. I was learning something from my new MCS pals – that it always takes extra planning, resourcefulness and effort to make ordinary things work. That’s easier if your days are fully your own, and you are no longer accustomed to an ordinary work schedule.
Since out here, I didn’t have a normal schedule, except in my head, I decided to take the trade-in journey. I drove the car back to the local Santa Fe car rental branch, my head spinning so much I could barely concentrate on pumping gas. The nice lady at the office drove me to a nearby hotel, where I took a shuttle bus to the Albuquerque airport. The shuttle bus, miraculously, was not filled with plastic smells, and my head cleared immediately on the drive – as we dropped 2000 feet. Another rental car company picked me up at the airport. They had been airing a car for me for a few days, as requested, and the traces of its dangling pine tree air “freshener” were almost undetectable. I drove it happily back to Santa Fe – now, I could come & go freely again on my own.
This trip had evolved, in a way, from a visit about screening footage, to the possibility of staying here, making Santa Fe part of my winter months of exploration. I had known when I left that the visit was an excuse to jumpstart my journey, a headlong risk wrapped in a professional obligation. And it dropped me right inside an MCS community – a group of people who knew exactly what I was talking about in my near-impossible search for housing.
Despite New Mexico's cold winters, my immersion in the MCS community made finding a place to stay seem possible. People kept using flaky language, like I was meant to be there, it was opening up to me…I don’t think that way, but I’m open to the power of suggestion. Indeed, a few places were unrented and available. I just had to test them.
For a few years, on and off, my partner and I had ‘tested’ countless apartments in New York and then in Westchester, briefly in New Jersey and then again in Western Mass. Gradually, our understanding grew – this was not just a fluke problem in my apartment. In fact, there were very few places where we did feel good. Our awareness grew of the quantities of chemicals commonly used in homes –bug killers, paints, varnishes, miscellaneous toxins that traveled in from nearby dumpsites, nuclear reactors and power plants. Sprays for tree beetles, chemical fertilizers, tar for driveways, gasoline-powered leaf blowers. It was endless. The suburbs, in many ways, were worse than the city, where at least there were no lawns to care for.
We settled for awhile in a place in a wonderful town along the Hudson River. We didn’t really feel well inside except when the heat was off, but there was a large private backyard where I set up a tent. After eight months of commuting to the city every day like nothing was wrong, I fled suddenly, back to my city apartment, which after months of sleeping in the fresh air, my body was able to tolerate again. Little did I know that that my snow-covered tent would be the last home I’d have for quite a while. Within a few months, I was sick again in the city and could not gather up the energy to renew a search. That’s when I began to sleep on the fire escape, on my sister’s balcony and on a friend’s porch in Western Mass. My after-work behavior became a closely guarded secret.
But back to Santa Fe. The first recommendation for a safe place to stay was a guest house near Espanola, about twenty minutes north of Santa Fe. Its website billed it as a place for “canaries,” and there was even a singing bird sound at the site. MCS’ers are often called canaries, as in coal-mine. If we die, the miners stay safely above ground.
When I called L., its proprietor, a chemically sensitive photographer and teacher, she explained to me that it had been sprayed with pesticide ten years ago. Determined not to lose her home as she knew so many MCS sufferers did, she put all of her resources into cleaning it. She enlisted some EPA scientists and some chemists from nearby Los Alamos labs. Wearing hazmat suits, they exploded canisters of sodium hydrochloride (??) inside her house, then rushed out. They heated the house up and left it for 48 hours. After six months of airing out, she moved back in and says she’s been fine there ever since. It sounded thorough to me, although Dr. A. was suspicious. I set off to find it. I thought if this place worked, M. could come join me and we could explore together the possibilities -- health, sanity, community, work, love--of living in Santa Fe. It would be remarkable to have a home again we could share, no matter how temporary.
Espanola is a different kind of place than Santa Fe. Big families, in compounds, a landscape of desolation suddenly broken up by clusters of flowering trees or a charming old church. Soft hills, dried grass the color of wheat. No tourists here. In A.’s description: drugs, pickup trucks, crime, pesticides. L., the guest house owner, was proud to live in “the real New Mexico,” not in Santa Fe’s fantasy-land. She loved her neighbors, she said. Her home was clean and arty, very inviting. She collected gourds to photograph, and they lay drying around the house, long and thin and twisted, an oddly appealing decorative touch.
The room for rent was bright and sunny, simply furnished with a concrete floor and a mini-kitchen, a one-burner hotplate and a toaster oven. Most MCS folks don’t cook with gas, and if they don’t have an electric range or oven, they use mini-appliances instead. Those toaster ovens seem cramped and stingy to me, and I'd been grateful this week for S.’ electric stove-top; it felt more human and gracious to have a few pots going simultaneously, and not be forced to tightly plan life around one burner and a tiny little rack.
But as soon as I walked in and focused on my reactions, I felt something. At first just a bit of particulate, passing her musty porch. But then I felt the familiar nerve-twitch of pesticides. The edges of my mouth drooped and and I started to lose my way in conversation. I felt myself nod and smile, and pretty soon, overdrive kicked in. I can fake it, but I'm sick, symptomatic, not really present.
Then L. began to tell me pesticide stories. The lady next door, who lived in an antique adobe now on the market, sprayed her trees, the organic farmer at the end of the block had a wholesale conversion ten years ago and gave up all pesticide use, but before that...; the IPM guy persuaded her to use ant baits in the yard, and then something else against the tick infestation in the house. Well, no wonder. It’s a miracle she’s ok, but she’s made her own adjustments. I don’t know if she lives with a certain degree of nervous system malfunction, or if pesticide doesn’t affect her the way it affects me.
Determined to save her home, she is not homeless, she lives in the place she loves. She teaches school in town; she is not homebound or disabled. She does digital photography in the back room. She knows it’s not perfect, but nothing is. It was very helpful to see, again, the range of decisions people make.
For what it's worth, this place is listed on the Safer Travel Directory, and other travelers should definitely be warned. To be fair, she promises nothing on her website, but I'd cross this off any safe list right away.
My next stop was not far away, in a place called El Rancho on the road to Los Alamos. Although it was not billed as MCS friendly, it was all-natural materials and I was interested in what that meant. And it was for rent by a lovely New York film editor who I’d met before I left home. His father had recently died, and he & his wife had decided to move back to New Mexico, where he’d grown up, to be closer to his mother. They’d bought the house but could not leave New York for another six months.
The house was gorgeous – earth tone finishes, sculpted wooden beams, and an incredible solid, comforting feeling of being inside an earth-made shelter. It was perched up on a small bluff, at the top of a steep driveway impossible in snow or ice. Halfway between Los Alamos and Santa Fe, it was in the middle of nowhere, although closer to Santa Fe than Espanola. Inside, it was empty and clean. But it had an unidentifiable smell – a cross between cologne and polyurethane, sticky sweet. I wasn’t noticeably reacting to it, but it was powerfully there, as if the floors, heated by radiant heat, were giving off something. We tried to ferret it out with our noses – he climbed on chairs to sniff the ceiling; I sniffed the fireplace (nothing) and the floor. I was not ready to commit to six months, winter was coming, and I’d been warned by S. not to live too close to a power line. This was yards from a small power plant. And so I thanked him and moved on – he’s a sweet man, soft-spoken, grey-haired, just approaching middle age but with the thoughtful affect of an older man, full of love for the incredible red-gold vistas that spill out around his new home. New Mexico is one of those places where, if you grow up there, it must be very hard to live anywhere else.
A little disillusioned, but not truly surprised that healthy homes were no easier to find in the Southwest, I sought sanctuary at my favorite Santa Fe café, a vegan place called Annapurna, with a tarot room next door and curtained booths you can hide away in. It has wireless, a magnificent assortment of teas and good warm food. Why, I figured, would it be any easier here? This was too risky – a place had to be perfect come winter, or we’d end up sleeping outside in the snow. That was not the point of this jounry: we needed somewhere warm. S.’ place was an exception, renovated inch by inch with all the intensity and need of someone who needed a healthy home. After a few hours of calming email, I headed back to find S. curled up on her couch watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ What a relief.