Red, Green, or Christmas?
New Year, new beginnings. My wife and I recently decided to move back to the Northeast. We have spent nearly three years in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and, although it is time to move on, we will miss it.
Most days are relentlessly sunny, the light burning with an intensity unbelievable at sea level. Even in the dead of winter, shade is your salvation. During the monsoon season, you can see storms brewing 100 miles away. Sometimes nothing comes of it, other times the raindrops evaporate before reaching earth. Occasionally, these storms bring hail and torrents while the skies glow with lightning and the diversion channels roar with anger. Winter winds scour the plains and mask the city with dust. Summer stillness stifles while the sun bakes, our house reemitting heat well into the night.
Mountains break through the desert plains like cresting waves. Hardy desert sage and tumbleweed give way to juniper bushes and finally tall ponderosa pines as you climb upwards. Jackrabbits, roadrunners, and lizards scrounge at the base, while mountain lions give chase to mule deer and elk at higher elevations. The state itself is slanted, giving birth to the Rockies about halfway between the idyllic green farmland of Colorado and the bone-dry Chihuahuan Desert, the largest in North America.
The people of this state (and it is, to the surprise of many, part of the United States) are diverse and storied. Ruins from the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly called the Anasazi) are scattered about while their descendants inhabit a string of Pueblos including the ‘oldest continuously inhabited multistory structure in the world’. Navajo, Apache, and Comanche roamed the region. Spanish conquistadors swept through, followed by monks, and introduced horses to the Plains tribes. Next came the Mexicans, the Texans, and finally the Americans. All left their mark.
There is no other place I have been to in the United States that feels this old. To the East is a cliff face of ancient ocean deposits; to the West is a set of extinct volcanoes. The soil is sandy, used up. The Rio Grande struggles through the state like a varicose vein, shrunken and choked with mud. Dust from eons of erosion covers the land like a blanket drawn over the body of the ravaged native peoples. The myth of the West, endless opportunities for wealth and adventure, dies here. A thread of depression runs through the culture wrought from over-nostalgizing a misrepresented history, anger over centuries of gross maltreatment, and resignation to a failed life.
Yet so too reign resilience, hope, and celebration. Colorful hot air balloons greet the rising sun. Luminaries decorate buildings at Christmas, and Dias de Los Muertos coexists with Halloween as a treasured holiday. Old Spanish plazas harbor unique gems, showcase the many cultures of the region through dance and music, and provide a community feeling lost in most of the country. Indian Fry Bread is sold next to breakfast burritos and green chili cheeseburgers. The most important question is whether you want Red, Green, or Christmas (red and green chili mixed).
Many people wash up here at ‘the end of the world.’ The person that sums up this area to me is ‘The Don,’ a local legend. He has leathery skin, weathered by decades of Albuquerque sun, a kind, wrinkled face, gentle demeanor, and is best known for being a nudist. He moved here over 45 years ago as a conscientious objector during Vietnam for a community service based role and came out while it was dangerous to do so. Although he has a house, he is opposed to the excesses of our society, so he has no electricity and dumpster dives for food. He does what is hard, staying true to his beliefs, and like the desert sage he has thrived here. Odd, gnarled, and genuine.
"New Mexico, where everyone from artists, hippies, cowboys, poets, misfits, refugees and tourists of every political stripe have interpreted the promise of its gorgeous, wide-open spaces and the freedom that it offers in their own, very different ways."
New Mexico, the ‘Land of Mañana,’ is full of wonder, a harsh beauty, and contradictions. It is unassuming and simple until you scratch the surface, and truth is laid bare by the unforgiving rigors of existing here. There are 15 sites in the National Park System, but it is also the location of the first nuclear explosion and one of the most famous UFO crashes. Take a cruise on old Route 66; New Mexico is worth your time. And for the record, green chili all the way.