Southern New Mexico + El Paso, 1/19–1/22

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.

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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.

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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.

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* There have been good years, of course.

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NW New Mexico, 10/18–10/22—part 2

(Part 1 here.)

Bandelier National Monument

I haven’t budgeted enough time for this place. This is obvious the second the road starts down into the canyon, where the long shadows of one wall already reach across the aspens for the other. The old-man ranger by long practice seems to recognize the error in my expression: he offers a minute-by-minute sequence of things to see, optimized—without my asking—to avoid crossing paths with the other late visitors and their loud, sticky children. That’s a professional.

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I follow his advice and have a few minutes in the cliff dwellings with no one else in sight. I can run my hands along the polished wooden ladders, lie flat in the whitewashed cave, and imagine ritual fires spitting sparks into the night.

Ghost Ranch

This is Georgia O’Keefe’s old place, now a retreat center for the Presbyterian Church. A low-slung ranch building houses a dusty museum with reconstructed pottery and unlocked drawers full of fossils; table signs in a clattering mess hall welcome attendees of a men’s wellness clinic and an art camp. I feel, unusual for me, both conspicuous and safe.

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The trails trace white-sand river washes edged with cottonwoods that light up in the morning. They traverse the base of flawless red rock walls, smooth as if they’ve been cut from butter, ascend boulder-strewn gullies and top out on the mesa. The horizon is empty and the desert enormous.

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I thought the ranch was named by its new owners for the ghost—father and son—but when night falls in the campground the wind comes moaning through the canyon to change my mind.

La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs

This is my favorite kind of BLM site: a clear sign on the road followed by a dirt lot and no explanation. And the other classic feature of a BLM site—that is, hard-eyed, meth-y men staring at me in the parking lot—doesn’t appear until I’m getting in the car to leave. I’m so pleased with this timing that I smile and wave.

The petroglyphs themselves are excellent: there are more, better preserved, than I’ve ever see anywhere else. You’ll spot one—maybe a thunderbird or Kokopelli—and be impressed enough with that, then find that dozens more materialize out of the boulder field before your eyes. Turns out they’ve been there all along.

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The World Gay Rodeo Finals

I like a nice set of three and a rodeo anyhow; this year I’ve been to a black rodeo and a Mormon rodeo and am obviously not about to miss this. Except that when I arrive—to the massive fairgrounds complex on Albuquerque’s sprawling southern edge—there is no sign of any such thing. I wander past empty parking lots, a Chinese lantern festival, the FFA barn (prominently sponsored by McDonalds), a furniture expo in teardown … no trailers, no signs, nothing.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve fallen for a mean Trump-country joke when I hear, on the shifting wind, the faintest notes of Diana Ross. A-ha, I think, and when I follow the sound to its source I find, with his eyes closed, clutching the microphone, under the steady gaze of the brick-house drag queen judge in a rhinestone vest, the final contestant in the lip-sync contest.

Honey, you’re my one shining moment
And if I never have another
I’m glad that I’ve known you
If I never have another
I’m glad that I’ve known you

NW New Mexico, 10/18–10/22—part 1

Through some glitch in the matrix it’s cheapest to fly in to Albuquerque one day and rent a car the next, even with the addition of a motel stay in between. I check in with a Dolly Parton look-alike, but the proprietor named on the wall plaque behind her is a Patel. In the nightstand drawer there’s the Holy Bible but also the Bhagavad Gita. Neither converts me but I’m pleased to have a choice.

At the buffet breakfast the next morning a tiny woman cooks eggs on a hotplate concealed behind a speaker’s lectern. People line up as if to receive communion; when she’s served them all and stands alone surveying the card tables she looks to be presiding over a summit. The eggs are pretty good, too.

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I rent a bike and ride three trail Santa Fe trail systems over the course of the trip. At La Tierra the locals have packed a lot of trail into small acreage, complex spiderwebs threading through the arroyos and dozens of numbered intersections. Dale Ball meanwhile has the advantage of some rock and terrain, which in combination with the altitude means I am repeatedly passed by shirtless, geriatric trail runners. Retirement looks nice.

The Santa Fe showpiece is the Winsor trail, which a friend has told me is possible to self-shuttle with $5 public transit. I’m so astounded to find this is actually a thing that the bus has pulled away before I fully register where it’s left me: at 10,000 feet, with a bite in the air and granite under my tires. This trail is significantly more technical and more remote than I would generally choose to ride for the first time alone. I pick my way down very slowly, forcing myself to come to a complete stop before ogling aspens.

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That night I find myself back on the mountain for my absolute least favorite solo-road-trip activity: hunting for a campsite after dark. There are no open spots until a cluster of walk-ins just below the pass, where after a restless night of gasping flatlander nightmares I wake to the sound of an older woman lecturing a dog.

Max is a muddy-pawed Norwich terrier who for some reason, when I unzip the door, is permitted to run directly into my tent. “Oh, sorry,” says the woman. I can see only her legs but these are making no move at all to retrieve her charge. “Did you stay here by yourself? How marvelous! Weren’t you cold? I’ve always wondered about camping.”

“It’s not so bad,” I say, extracting Max from my sleeping bag. I’m not sure I’m awake. I’ve been in Santa Fe less than 24 hours and this is the third slightly strange interaction I’ve had with an older woman walking a dog. The first stopped me on the sidewalk for help restarting her iPhone. The second asked me where I was from and when I told her exclaimed, “Oh goodness! It’s terrible there!” At the time I thought she might be referring to the Sonoma fires, but in retrospect that’s probably not what she meant.

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Santa Fe is zealously committed to its adobe architecture. San Miguel Chapel, the oldest in the country, does not look all that different from the five-star hotel across the street.

I don’t vacation internationally mostly because I don’t have time. But also because, when I think of the places I can afford to go, I’m put off by the reasons I can afford to go there. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to rent a Thai beach hut—in fact at this point it may be the most useful thing anyone can do—but it’s uncomfortable if you think about it too hard, which of course being me I can’t help doing. It may be cowardice to turn away from that discomfort, but it’s a choice I have and so I fly domestic.

But as I sit on the steps of the old chapel, watching a high-heeled tourist remove the price tag from a dream-catcher, I am reminded there in fact is no avoiding it. There are academic terms to try on when we discuss the endless echoes of our violence to each other—racism or capitalism or colonialism or, or—but in truth none is adequate for the enormity of it, inherent and inescapable and inexpressible, every one of us subject and object, forever and ever, Amen. There is no idea like that but sin. I don’t believe in God but I believe in language, and I suspect that word may be as close to the truth as anyone will ever write.