If you’re a white person writing about New Mexico (hey) you run one of two risks: romantic rambling about the magic of it, or a declaration of how cute and wild it is and how maybe someday you would move there. So how do you talk about the wide stretches of reservation land that embrace the sky, with no buildings or telephone wires for miles? How do you talk about the air being wrested from your lungs as you trip through mesquite, or jackrabbits that look like they’re flying, or wood turned into stone older than you, pressed into your hand even though you insist you don’t want to take it, rattling under your car and away from its place by the arroyo?
The most present part of New Mexico is its refusal to be taken. You can’t take the light with you. You can’t take the mesas. You can’t take the movement of the air or the cold blue nights. We flit between pockets of tourism, awe, small town life, sanctuary, and panic. It feels as though we merely travel from one mountain to the next – each colorful and striped, or looming, or etched with signatures, or really mountains of white sand, or something to gaze on angstily from a Hot Spring, or just a mountain, red and craggy.
It’s like the land is trying to baffle us, no idea which time zone we’re in, dashing out ahead of rain, taking wrong turns down unlikely dirt roads, searching for a place to camp, the immovable and deeply skeptical ranger telling us all the forest roads were closed, the hail coming down on our windshield like the weather itself wished the tourists away.
“HOOR YOO” is what it says on the chalkboard at ZMS where we find some sort of profound interstitial serenity and reflection. HOOR YOO the reservations seem to call out as we drive through, both uncomfortable and insistent in our voyeurism. HOOR YOO we want to ask the man in the military camper van that sets up directly next to us when there are other campsites available. HOOR YOO we want to know of the other people at the alien museum in Roswell – are they genuine in their interest or likewise tongue in cheek? HOOR YOO the dogs ask us at our B&B where we meet a very sensitive man.
We camp in the snow at Ghost Ranch, huddled with our hands on our single pot on a single burner, like the last people alive on earth, drinking in the tent, telling inane stories and laughing until the wind, intolerant neighbor, drowns out our sounds. We’re small, we remember. We want to know what people actually think of Georgia O’Keeffe. The white lady who is now synonymous with a place she is not from. It seems to us she is given some ownership of the place, as the person who in some way captured it and made it famous with paint and canvas. We imagine that symbolic ownership would chafe at many of the people from here. Why does she get the Southwest? Why is it hers? Santa Fe is full of her children. Women in denim and long gray hair, living out a fantasy in retirement. And I get it. You want to have it, so you have to go to it. Because you can’t take it. Later on, in Tennessee, we ask a white lady who lived in New Mexico for a time what she thinks about that. She says she doesn’t think they think about Georgia O’Keeffe.
Most of the people we met in New Mexico were not from there. And that’s something you can never reimagine yourself to be.
And then for some people, magic looks more like aliens. A high budget middle school diorama project, complete with a rubbery humanoid on a dramatized gurney, wall text riddled with misspellings and circular logic, but filled with an earnestness that makes you want to believe. Everyone wants the high-budget New Mexico. No one wants the salt marsh just outside of Roswell, bleak as a landscape can be, trying to bill itself as family fun.
It’s not all canyons and spectacular views. It’s not all good neighbors. It’s sometimes 8pm on a Thursday night and everyone in the grocery store is buying alcohol. Sometimes the sun sets and you wish you were somewhere else, back with the woodstove and the dogs, back with the candles lighting a family meal for four strangers, instead of fluorescents buzzing over clandestine toast on a campstove in the Budget Inn.
We set down daily routines only to instantly break them. We provide held space for many of the people we meet. We forget to hold this space for ourselves often. We find the best coffee we have had and it is perfect. We love Santa Fe and hate that we love it because we are that white girl. We take the waters and move and stretch and remember that we both overheat very quickly.
“Have you ever met a sensitive man?” We are asked. We aren’t sure how to answer.
Monoliths are easy and New Mexico seems anything but a monolith.