My birthday is on Inauguration Day*, which means I spent my 30th mourning the simultaneous demise of my youth and American democracy. I want to make it up to myself this year, so I’ve planned a self-indulgent weekend in southern New Mexico—some time to bop around the national parks and not think about politics.
Checking out is appealing. At a stalemate over DACA, Congress squabbles its way toward a government shutdown and workdays grow correspondingly depressing. Every strategic dilemma—is the border wall a conservation issue?—comes fringed in tactical inanities: I prepare social media posts that read, literally, “Will your travel plans be affected by a national park closure? Tell us about it!” And yet, in a mind-boggling error of compartmentalization, it doesn’t occur to me to consider my own itinerary until a coworker asks me offhand if I plan to cancel.
Too late. Nothing to do but get on the plane and hope they make a deal.
A friend collects me from the airport in El Paso and we drive north. The idea that I might still take a mental vacation dissolves as soon as we hit a Border Patrol checkpoint. A faceless voice belonging to a gun framed in the driver’s-side window asks, “Are you U.S. citizens?” Why should it even matter if I—“Yes, sir,” replies my friend at the wheel, eyes forward. “Both of you?” inquires the gun. Yeah, so I know what the fourth fucking amendment—”Yes, sir,” says my friend, again.
The agent waves us through and we drive on in silence. The sagebrush and utility poles blur by. “It’s good you’re here,” I say.
At Organ Mountains National Monument—on the president’s hit list—the granite crags stand beckoning against the dusk and there’s not and never enough time. We hike by moonlight, watch distant sprawl invisible in the daytime haze coalesce into twinkling circuit-boards as the night deepens.
Driving out of the campground the next morning I glance into the rearview and see the ranger shutting the access gate behind us. Without cell reception I can continue to tell myself it’s only maintenance work until we arrive at another locked gate at White Sands. The shutdown is on.
Carlsbad Caverns, which would have been our next stop, is out of the question. But here at least it’s possible to nibble at the edges: we follow a few other carfuls of thwarted tourists to a spot where the undaunted dunes have overwhelmed the fence. I hear three languages spoken but the delight at the smooth swell of the sand against the sky seems universal. Three children sprint by carrying boogie boards, shrieking and racing for a tideline that doesn’t exist.
In the end—after a detour to the excellent space museum and a night wheezing at altitude in Cloudcroft—I get my fix in Texas, where only five percent of the land is public and the state debates a reservation system to manage demand for what few facilities it has. My friend is a seasonal guide at Hueco Tanks, which helps, and after dutifully observing the informational video I am released into the park to follow him around.
In this I’m reminded again that public land is where shit gets real. A visitor ponders the difference between trash and treasure; a superintendent somewhere draws a line at 50 years, before which graffiti is not art and beyond which a soda-can pull-tab is historical artifact, not be disturbed. One man may dip his fingers in chalk and posit climbing is a religion; another might tell you in Tiwa that it is not—but there remains only one pile of rocks to share and this is how it’s done: by my tour guide radioing in his location as we pass from one administrative zone to the next.
I don’t know enough to judge the particulars of the arrangement but feel reverence for the fact of the effort—almost as much as I do for the place itself, for the shape of the cliffs and the genius of the cactus and the wild grins on the cryptic figures painted on the rock. It’s a lot to think about, certainly more than I wanted at the outset—but even for me there are moments of silence, here and there.
* There have been good years, of course.