Archive for August, 2007

Roadtrip: Return to the Desert

August 19, 2007

I went to school for a year in New Mexico. It wasn’t a place I’d ever thought about, let alone been to. In fact, I’d never been to the desert except during flights to California. I’d seen a few moments from the sky but nothing from the ground. And I didn’t plan on going to school there until my cousin, who was living there at the time, suggested that I consider going to a college I’d never heard of. The suggestion came only weeks before school would start, and with luck and help from many people, I was admitted at the last minute.

I’d barely driven on the highway before that two day trip to Socorro. Just when Missouri started drying up at the height of August, I blindly plowed into a brown land of mountains. Curiously, it happened to be the week of that region’s “rainy season”, and everyone exclaimed that they’d never seen it so lush. “Isn’t it GREEN here?!” they’d gasp, and my mom and I would look around and say, “Looks dry to us.”

The first few days of my desert life, it rained every day. Several times a day, in fact. But the clouds were pushed to the sky by the mountains, so in my relative valley, I’d look straight up to watch the lightning, which was so far away that thunder never followed the flash. I was confused and maybe a little spooked by that. Between the storms, the town would return to its normal, blidingly bright self.

Like I mentioned, my mom helped me move to the desert. But her pre-scheduled vacation time did not coincide with the beginning of the school year, so I lived at my cousin’s house for two weeks. Her house was a block from campus, so I’d walk to the administrative offices and try to secure a dorm room, get a class schedule, and look into possible job opportunities a research-oriented student like myself might land.

The transition from ambitious teenager to a takin’ care of business adult wasn’t too shocking. But the whiplash induced by abruptly ending my all-consuming social life with my witty, cultured friends, to crashing into an empty ramshackle of a town on the dark side of the moon…that was overwhelming, to put it mildly. All of those friends were about to attend the KC Art Institute together–and I was so jealous. I am not from KC but desparately wanted to live there. Suddenly I found myself in completely foreign territory. Oh, and did I mention isolated?

Wal-Mart (where I now refuse to shop) was an hour away. And that’s going 85mph on the interstate. There were two grocery stores in town: one that everyone shops at, and one that I was encouraged not to visit. There was a tiny dollar store, where everything looked like it’d been rejected from Mexican dollar stores, and all the merchandise was covered in brown, earthy dust. A small outpost of ACE Hardware housed the only toy aisle in town. One of the gas stations had magazines, but I could never find Allure. There was a 24-hr, neon-lit diner that served chile cheese fries. (I later learned these are not the disgusting chilli cheese fries associated with Chiefs-watching, colon-diseasing free-for-alls.) Everything but the campus was on the one main road in town. Starting with a gas station, followed by a saturation of fast food chains, and then to the hardware and grocery stores, the diner and the Roadrunner Steakhouse, the road faded into old Route 66 tourist shacks, and then to a sign announcing that the next city was Truth or Consequences.

Unfortunately, I never visited what the locals called “T or C”. And I was told that, even though I was a vegetarian, I should have the Owl Diner’s famous hamburger there. I had some fear of T or C. Was there a reason it had been given such a terrifying name? Should I test it? Figuring that the only thing in that town was a hamburger, I decided not to test fate in a car by myself in an unfamiliar land that had no cell phone signals.

But back to the campus. I’d only been in town a few days, sleeping on a cot in my cousin’s house, when she and her husband and 2 young daughters left for vacation. Having no job, no classes, and not even a dorm to visit, I hid in the house. I watched Destiny’s Child videos in a dark, air-conditioned room while indulging in a personal pan cheese pizza, set up my first email account, and wrote long letters to my unresponsive friends back home.

The dorms opened and I moved in by myself, watching everyone else greet their best friends and tell their families where to put their boxed-up computers. It takes me awhile to warm up to people, so I’d still soak up alone time at my secret hideaway before my cousin returned. My most precious moments of secrecy were in the echoes of music riquocheting off the dining room’s hardwood floors. Again and again, I’d test my relative’s claim of having unlimited dial-up (a new invention) by playing and re-playing a sample of the Tori Amos song “The Waitress”. The deliberate tempo, interrupted by a loud burst of emotion and piano-pounding couldn’t have sounded sweeter boucing around in that minimal room.

I had to find several moments and places for escape while I lived there. On Easter, when the town was completely, and I mean completely empty, I drove up to the VLA. I’d been once before, but never by myself. I started off actually wearing shorts in the 90 degree village. After taking a few pictures of rusty old signs and the aluminum shacks shanty town (for real), I hit the road.

Depending on the source, the VLA is listed as being in Socorro (50 miles) or the closer Magdalena (25 miles). It’s on a plateau 7000 feet above sea level. Socorro is at an altitude of 4200 feet, so it’s a significant climb, winding through beautiful mountains. I stopped halfway up for lunch at an ancient cafe in mystical Magdalena. If David Lynch had served me my milkshake, I might not have been surprised.

Then I got back on the road. I stepped out of my warm car unprepared for the bracing, cold wind. I put on the extra shirt I’d brought along in case it was less than 70 degrees, but still I froze in those stupid shorts. I ran to the visitor’s center and yanked on a locked door before reading a sign on it saying it would be locked on windy days. Running to the next door, I took refuge in the calm, tiny museum. I readjusted myself and wandered outside for awhile, taking pictures of the cows roaming under the mighty telescopes, until the unending arctic wind forced me back into my car. I stopped somewhere on my way back to take pictures of piñon bushes (called pine nuts out here). Then I sneezed all the way back to Socorro. The next time I got in my car, my returning sneezing fit made me realize that the piñon air was bottled up in there…and I guess I’m allergic to that plant (but not its seeds).

Ever since I left New Mexico, I’ve wanted to return. Sometimes I’ve desparately wanted to escape there. And finally, after my layoff this fall, I might be able to. Sonic Youth is playing Marfa, TX in October. That’s a mere 5 hours from Socorro, and 6 from the VLA. So perhaps I’ll return just in time for my pending “quarter life crisis” (isn’t that precious?). I don’t plan on having a crisis at all, but I do plan on having a vacation. I’ll probably get a car charger for my cell phone and a membership to AAA, just in case.