Cheryl in the Golden Light

My friend and mentor Cheryl Muth passed away this week. She was hit by a vehicle while crossing the street and suffered irreversible brain damage. For a week or so there was some hope of recovery, but it was not to be. Her death is sudden, senseless and surreal.

But today I want to think about her life.

Cheryl was the kind of woman who touched lives everywhere she went. As an artist. As a nurse. As a missionary. As a church leader. As a friend. As a mother. As a wife.

Cheryl takes a photo of an incredible rock formation near Abiquiu.

Cheryl takes a photo of an incredible rock formation near Abiquiu.

We all have “Cheryl stories” to share. Here’s one of my favourites.

In the summer of 2015, I was lucky enough to spend a week with Cheryl, her daughter Kayla and our friend Randy in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We’d travelled for an art and faith retreat called the Glen Workshop. I was studying songwriting while Cheryl joined the painters.

At one point the songwriters were invited to play what we’d been working on while the painters painted. I think Cheryl was involved in this bridge-building, which would be entirely in character.

Thursday was our day off and Cheryl, myself, Kayla, Randy and an American photographer Cheryl and Kayla had ‘adopted’ filled a rental car and drove the “High Road to Taos”. Cheryl had taken this beautiful scenic backroad before. She wanted to share it with us. In the end, she wanted to visit Abiquiu, where Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted.

We stopped often and laughed a lot along the way. Cheryl was always full of laughter, warmth and wonder.

We stopped at a cemetery. You can’t not stop at a New Mexico cemetery. The graves are decorated with garish collections of trinkets and knick-knacks and the result is beautiful and bizarre. These memorials are bursting with colour. Cheryl loved colour.

We stopped at the Family Dollar. I needed to restock on underwear thanks to a packing mishap. This led to more laughter.

We stopped in the town of Taos, where Cheryl pointed out spots she’d visited with her husband years earlier. Kayla and I started our walk with a wine tasting. The pours were a little too generous, so we had a fine first introduction to the town.

We stopped at the gate of Taos Pueblo – an indigenous settlement and the oldest continually inhabited structure in the US. It was five minutes from closing, so we drove on.

We stopped at the Earth Ships. These alien-like homes are built into the earth and off-the-grid in a bold experiment in environmental stewardship and community. They look like the invention of Dr. Suess the architect. More laughter and wonder.

We stopped at the Rio Grande Gorge and dropped our jaws appropriately. We took dozens of photos and shopped the turquoise trinkets across the bridge.

We made our way towards Abiquiu, our final stop. The landscape and its connection to O’Keefe inspired Cheryl. But she wasn’t quite sure how to get there.

We never found the ‘right’ spot. We meandered and got a little lost and soon we were losing daylight. We decided we were close enough and pulled off the highway to continue on foot towards a towering rock formation.

The five of us spread out to take in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Each of us left with stunning photos that still can’t contain it. The earth is a shade of red we don’t see here in Alberta. The topography is not unlike our badlands, but not the same either. O’Keefe was onto something.

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Cheryl, the artist, took in the landscape from every angle. She basked in that beauty.

We all stood while ‘magic hour’ pulled the sun slowly down behind the towering rock. It shone pure gold across the crest just before it disappeared. Gold as a blessing.

Then the light was gone. It was time to leave and slowly we did. We wanted to stay – to be together this way just a little longer –  but the sun always sets.

Having missed dinner, we stopped at Maria’s, my favourite Santa Fe haunt, on our way home. Maria’s serves over 200 different Margaritas. All of them are strong. We shared food and drink and laughed – and laughed – and were grateful to have shared the day.

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That week, Cheryl painted an antelope in her workshop. It stood stark against the background with spiralled horns. It was strong and still and joy-filled with a rainbow of colour.

I’ve returned to Santa Fe many times. Each trip I’ve tried to share with others what Cheryl shared with me. I’ve taken friends on a hunt for that rock formation where the sun sets golden. I’ve tried and failed the way Cheryl tried to find a space that our group of five never reached. We found someplace better.

Things always seemed to work out when Cheryl was around. And when they didn’t she was ready to encourage.

I am the artist I am in part because of Cheryl’s kind words to me. Often she’d make sure to tell me the song I played was one of her favourites.

Cheryl was a joyous adventurer, open to colour and life and wonder and happy accidents. I hope that I am too.

I plan to return to Santa Fe many more summers, and I won’t stop searching for that light we shared.

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