America, New Mexico

Robert Leonard Reid


To persons standing alone on a clear midnight such as this, the
roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement.
—Thomas Hardy
, Far from the Madding Crowd

Begin with the morning and the light. Begin with the crack of dawn, that sudden, silvery occasion of the horizon when the first chill sliver of day slips beneath the shell of night and blinks on far away and silent, like a porch light in a fog. Begin with belief in a place that is still mostly earth and sky, a time-scented garden where nature is foremost and rocks are truth, and where dawn is a paean to fresh starts and reckless plans—new lives, first dates, opening pages of books. Begin in Truchas, Cordova, or any of a score of villages scattered over the northern mountains, where the rude walls of old adobe churches shimmer in the pearly flicker of dawn, while in hushed interiors men and women born to brightness and faith utter soft rosaries in Spanish, then light candles of propitiation and give thanks.

Or begin in Dulce, Zuni, or some centuries-old pueblo just waking on the still-black river, where Indians greet the sun with plainsong, then stoop to kindle fires of home-grown piñon for their morning bread. Or on the arid flatlands of the south among communities of mesquite and ocotillo, where yellow lamplight beckons in windows of houses lining the new underground railroad, welcoming weary travelers of the night seeking refuge after the harrowing crossing from Mexico. Or on some remote landscape where icy beams from headlamps or flashlights open pathways through the shadows for early-rising workers off to do business with the earth: on ranches moored in buffalo grass; in oil fields hissing with pumpjacks and gas flares; in coal pits or molybdenum mines; on chile, cotton, or alfalfa plantations.

Or begin to see New Mexico on the threadbare plain that the first Spanish explorers christened Jornada del Muerto—"dead man's march"—at a crossroads called Trinity Site by a whimsical cloud-seeder of nuclear times, where each day at 5:29 A.M. a low flame licks out of the dust, the inextinguishable memory of a thousand suns called Fat Man.

The crack widens, the shell lifts cloud by cloud. Boisterous light spills in to fill the void. Sleepy and irresolute, I angle against a fender of the old Dodge sipping coffee and observing the swift execution of New Mexico's peerless Sistine sky. Surrounding me are the sounds, the smells, and the feel of the start of the journey—the dogs and roosters howling like orphans, the apples rotting under the Jonathan trees, the budding light, the cry of geese echoing off the luster of the sky, the consecration of cedar wafting down from my neighbor's chimney, the small wind loping off the sandhills and tripping the leaves on the cottonwoods, the flooding light, the rosy cast on the lingering patches of late snow, the old man draped over the fence at the end of the road, his dreamy eyes frozen in the breath of his horses.

The violent light. As I gaze east the sun lunges into a notch on the ridge below Sandia Peak and detonates over the valley. Blinded, I spin away. Then, shading my eyes, I turn to witness the crowning strokes—the relentless stripping of the last of night from behind the trees and under the rocks, the nailing down of the great arch, the filling in of the last touches of day. Craning my neck, scanning the blue and the radiance and the fearfulness of it all, I wonder if I may be gazing into the eye of God.

Then I sever the ties, catch the soft curve of a slowly ascending breeze, and bound into the sky....

I'm off!

Off for the land of roadrunners and chile love! Off for the snow-mantled mountains and the cattle-studded plains! Off for the rainbow-thatched badlands and the high, not-at-all-unpleasant desert! Off for Aztec, Angel Fire, and Apache Creek, for inscrutable Chaco Canyon and all-too-obvious Truth or Consequences! Off for towns that barely rate zip codes and counties that barely rate towns! Off for the state that is quirkily, lustily tricultural, where Indians hold seniority and Latinos plurality, and where all others from Australians to Zulus parade under a many-colored umbrella called Anglo. Off to view rituals strange and wonderful—four hundred lavishly tasseled corn dancers bursting the tiny square at Santo Domingo; bearded men of the Penitente Brotherhood bearing crosses along country roads and scourging themselves with cactus spines; dashing pilots commanding six hundred hot-air balloons into the wee hours over Albuquerque; cowboys and cowgirls in a no-name cantina holding each other like distant hopes and two-stepping smooth as saddles.

Off for the land where you're never far from a view the size of Portugal and a town negotiating with a county in New Jersey for the right to dispose of its toxic waste! Off for America's oldest towns, newest weapons, dustiest dust storms, and flashiest flash floods! Off for the fifth largest, fourth youngest, first most misunderstood state, the state identified by Junior Scholastic magazine in 1990 as New Mexico Territory and by an endearing portion of the American public as a foreign country! Off for the state that annually ranks with the highest per capita in highway deaths, divorces, crime, and single mothers; tops in numbers of Ph.D.'s and alcoholics; first in infant mortality and annual number of sunny days; unsurpassed in lightning deaths and poverty; unparalleled in numbers of premium wine drinkers, FM classical music listeners, and child murderers; cream-of-the-crop in artists, writers, scientists, and high-school dropouts. Bottom-of-the-barrel in teachers' salaries, teen employment, and percentage of citizens carrying health insurance.

Best in sky.

Off for the state about which has been asked most profoundly, If it's not new and it isn't Mexico, then why do they call it New Mexico?

Off to discover this enormous green-chile-stew-of-a-state and perhaps something more, a vestige of morning and light in the grand aching country of which it is a part.

So vast, so diverse, so singular is New Mexico that long after I began searching diligently through its searchless nooks and crannies, I still felt like a dazed immigrant stepping off a stagecoach, hand-drawn map and a letter of introduction clenched tightly in my fist. Before moving to New Mexico I put in ten years in Manhattan and twelve more in the San Francisco Bay Area. What, then, was I to make of downtown Albuquerque streets festooned in empty parking spots, twenty-minute rush hours, Federal Express couriers who called me "podner," and newspapers that treated an appearance by Senator Pete Domenici on Face the Nation as front-page news? By which corollary to the principles of late capitalism was I to account for the liquor store owner so despairing of his inability to fulfill my request for empty boxes that he locked the door to his store, plunked down in an aisle, and opened and emptied a dozen cartons for me? To which authority on the art of civic buffoonery should I have turned to interpret the truly exquisite form practiced in New Mexico, a distinguished portion of whose elected officials are regularly arrested for embezzlement, fist-fighting, or drunken driving; whose largest city was governed until recently by a mayor who disappeared for such long periods of time that an Albuquerque radio station offered a prize to anyone who could find him; and whose highway department, apparently lacking anything better to do, announced one random Tuesday afternoon that it had decided to change the route number of every road in the state?

With only jaded, tough-minded, ultrasophisticated New Yorkers and Californians to compare them with, how could I explain New Mexicans, normal, everyday New Mexicans, who drive off the road to admire sunsets, who proudly reproduce Georgia O'Keeffe poppies and hollyhocks on their lowriders and Winnebagos, who collar passersby to rhapsodize over sublime weekend discoveries-salsa hot enough to brand with, bizarre acts of geology, ghost towns reverberating with noble aspirations and ragtime, dirt roads to infinity? Who blithely toss aside the day's itinerary when a more fanciful one happens along, and who take it for granted that there is something mysterious, something certifiably hyperphysical about their state?

During my stay in New Mexico I met not a single resident who doubted that space aliens landed northwest of the town of Roswell in 1947, or that New Mexico is the most logical place on the planet for such an occasion. Not long ago I watched an unworldly twilight steal over the vast expanses northwest of Roswell—no, felt it—and I can testify without reservation that, yes, the extraordinary visitation took place.

Each journey in New Mexico is a test of convention, and I have learned well the cardinal rule of travel: when setting out for a new land, whether over the ocean or just to the other side of town, pack a light bag, leave behind your foolish romances and preconceptions, and set your spirit to the local time. If your destination is New Mexico, that may mean carrying no bag at all and approaching with all the speed and urgency of a full moon sailing over the Rio Grande.

Drive west from Texas, take the train south from Colorado, travel east from sprawling Phoenix, and you will discover in each direction an exact location where the land transfigures, the wind shifts, the sky stretches higher and farther than you had ever thought possible; and an oddly familiar feeling will seize you, a sense of embarking once more, happily, into uncharted terrain. From the east the moment occurs when the legs are suddenly jerked out from under the relentless Texas tableland and the surface collapses to reveal the rudimentary framework beneath, a primordial landscape of time- burnished craters and buttes. From the north it happens at Raton Pass, where the Colorado roller coaster reaches its high point and the horizon before you unfurls into ten thousand square miles of storied American frontier. Cresting the pass you emerge onto a breathtaking hundred-mile slope, then begin the slow run downward and backward in time, past Cimarron, Wagon Mound, Fort Union, Pecos, and on to Santa Fe. From the west the critical spot appears as you climb into the cool pine and piñon forests of Catron County, a county the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, with a single traffic light to its name. The vastness and the emptiness strike a distantly remembered chord, and you may hear an echo of what it means to begin life anew.

"Something soft and wild and free" is how Willa Cather described the spell of this place, something that "released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning." Wrote D. H. Lawrence, "New Mexico liberated me from the present era of civilization."

I was twelve when I first experienced morning in New Mexico. My parents and I drove from our home in Pennsylvania to visit friends recently emigrated to Albuquerque.

Alas, our bags were too heavily packed. The month was June and the direction staunchly southwest, so we prepared for suntans, cactus, and jackrabbits. Instead, we encountered snow and elk. In place of saguaro cactus and petrified forests (we had made the common and, to New Mexicans, unforgivable mistake of confusing New Mexico with Arizona), we found majestic mountains and ponderosa pines. Surely something ordinary must have occurred during the days that followed, but what I remember most is what passes for rebirth for a twelve-year-old: the soothing realization that the dreaded decline into adulthood does not necessarily await one, that the dazzle and enchantment of childhood can continue forever. Here were blue corn and dust devils, rodeos and meep-meeping birds I knew from cartoons, summer snow and Indians, foreign tongues and dictionary-sized dinner rolls with the sweetness and density of cotton candy. Most astonishing of all was the vast sky that each day at sunset began trembling and twittering as though altitude-sick, then shimmering in the colors of butterfly wings. Back home in Pennsylvania I told my friends that I had been vacationing in South America.

I didn't return for more than thirty years. When I did so, it was to stay, I thought, at least till the wind freshened once more and the moment arrived to cut my tethers one more time. As it was, busted and burned-out in California, recently remarried after a calamitous divorce, I needed something bright and new and probably amazing to restart my engines. Carol and I discussed transcendental meditation and skydiving but settled on New Mexico.

We drove from California. It was August and the Mojave was afire. We traveled at night to avoid incineration. Even so, the temperature in Barstow hit a hundred degrees at midnight. The streets were jammed with Barstownians. They must have thought it was noon. Our cat, Magoo, sprawled limply in his travel cage, panting alarmingly and uttering a terrible rasping sound. His top lip was pulled back to expose his teeth; he seemed to be drying up. Barstow is an excellent argument for air-conditioning, but we had none, so we were reduced to issuing cool words of encouragement to the cat and patting his forehead with wet napkins. With his bare teeth and his sopping head he looked woeful-like an exhausted beaver.

We slept through the morning at a motel in Arizona. At an early-afternoon breakfast in a restaurant with table tops so shiny they called for sunglasses, the world seemed scrambled along with the eggs. Carol and I made small talk at a window opening on the east. What are we doing? Whose idea was this? Will they speak English?

The road was straight and endless, a slow gateway to the dizzying sky. Arizona was a grand threshold running its course beneath our wheels. The calm, the altitude, the majesty mounted with every mile. As the sun dipped below the rearview mirror and twilight flew in, low and brilliant, to illuminate the country ahead, I could make out the shape of the earth, its grace and sparkle, the way it is like a star.

We crossed into New Mexico in gathering darkness. Clouds rolled in, the wind quickened, the air grew brisk. In the sky ahead a quartet of lightning storms lifted into the evening over Albuquerque 150 miles away. It was a welcoming committee, up late to entertain us through the final hours.

I aimed the car at the fracas and punched my foot to the floor. Even at night New Mexico was a lighthouse signaling on the horizon. Signs flew by, pointers to new and splendid destinations. Zuni! Bluewater! Lava Beds! Sky City! I lowered the window to allow the scent of a new herb—part sage and part electricity—to float into the car. By the time we passed the sign for Laguna Pueblo, half the sky was bursting in fireworks every few seconds, thunder hectored and raved on all sides, and a hard wind socked us each time we emerged from the shadow of a protecting mesa. What was going on had the clear earmarks of an all-out gully-washer except that not a drop of rain had fallen. It was a thunderstorm without the storm. It was New Mexico's way of doing things.

Albuquerque lies long and narrow in the valley of the Rio Grande several thousand feet below a high tableland to the west. The traveler approaching from that direction, knowing that a city of half a million people lies just ahead but unable to see it, begins to wonder if he may have taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Then without warning the table ends and a gulf appears, and the city suddenly and spectacularly opens out before one's eyes. At midnight after a long journey under a wild sky, the effect is stunning and unforgettable. Navigating the blackness we hit table's edge and rocketed out over the valley of lights. It was as though we had happened onto a reverse eclipse, as though in the dead of night the sun had burst over us without warning, signaling our arrival in a distant country where day breaks at midnight and where rules and fashions are not highly valued, where the best bet is to hold onto one's hat and see what happens.

For the price of a toolshed in California we bought a rambling adobe house and an acre of weeds in Corrales, a small agricultural community along the Rio Grande. Among the thistles and thorns we could sometimes locate the residents that shared the land with us-rabbits, quail, roadrunners, many lizards and black widow spiders, a dozen fruit trees. Magoo, a licensed killer in California, was less ambitious than most of his potential victims in New Mexico. He relaxed in the role of underdog. He purred more, became peaceable.

Carol and I spent several summers battling the vegetation. At last we managed to slip in among the goatheads and pigweed a croquet-sized lawn of native grasses. One spring the wind was especially hale, the peach and apricot trees bloomed as though they were moonstruck, and a brace of ring-necked pheasants scratched out a nest among the tumbleweeds. In June Carol and I had our first child, Jake, a tiny, slippery, red-faced kid with the same look of wonder and expectation on his face that I had worn on my arrival in New Mexico. I was forty-seven and a father for the first time. I had struck out in search of something bright and new and probably amazing, and I had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

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Copyright © 1998. Robert Leonard Reid
All Rights Reserved.

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