New Mexico: Part 1 (4 of 52)
Updated: Oct 21, 2019
The first time I went to New Mexico was when I was 22 years old, just out of college, with one of my best friends. She was moving back to New York from Seattle, and her tiny green convertible was packed to the gills with stuff. We had both graduated that previous summer and moved out of the house we shared with two other friends and life felt large and open and incredibly scary- a bit like the landscape of New Mexico felt to drive into.
Joelle and I journeyed from Seattle to Ashland, Oregon; Northern California to Palm Desert California; and from the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, to Taos, New Mexico.
I had wanted to go to New Mexico because of the writings of one of my favorite authors, Natalie Goldberg. Later that same month, I would venture from Tacoma, Washington to a small island off of Vancouver Island, in Canada, to a writing workshop of Natalie’s. When Joelle invited me along on the road trip and we discussed places to stop along the way, I immediately said I wanted to go to Taos.
New Mexico makes an appearance in all of Natalie Goldberg’s books, most of which are nonfiction, memoir, and books on how to make a life as a writer. In her novel, Banana Rose, which remains one of my all time favorite books, despite its failure with critics and its rather meandering plot. Natalie writes in it about the ‘hippie years’ in Taos before her protagonist, Nell, (a thinly veiled version of herself) moved up North to get married. New Mexico emerges as an alternate protagonist in the book, quietly vying for Nell’s attention and affection from hundreds of miles away.
The landscape of New Mexico sounded alien to me, with its wide expanses of dry sagebrush and electric blue skies—like a photo negative of the misty green trees and water that I grew up with outside of Seattle.
When Joelle and I finally crossed into New Mexico on our road trip, it was much later than we had intended, as we had left the Grand Canyon late in the morning and taken our sweet time in getting on the road, making an impromptu stop at the Four Corners. We were planning on staying at a hostel called the Abominable Snow Mansion outside of town in a place called Arroyo Seco. When we called the hostel from the road to see if we could arrange for a later check in, they seemed concerned about us arriving so late at night, but told us how to get in and said that we could do formal check in in the morning.
At dusk, I decided to use the cell phone (an early Nokia shaped like a tiny brick) my parents had insisted I take with us and call them to check in. Before I had left, doctors had found a growth on my dad’s esophagus, and that day he was scheduled to hear back about the biopsy report on the growth. I remembered, and thought that I should call to check in, but honestly wasn’t concerned. As we drove through the hills of Northern New Mexico, I looked at the red dirt and muddy brown plants around us, and dialed home. My dad answered and sounded tired. I asked him about the results of the test, and he asked how our trip was going. I said it was going fine, and asked again about the results of the test. He said that we’d talk about it when I got home. Of course, I knew something was up. If the results had been benign, he would have told me immediately. I insisted he just tell me now. I don’t remember exactly what happened next—I think he may have handed the phone to my mom to tell me that the growth was cancerous, or he may have told me himself. Or I may have the whole thing backward, and it may have been my mom who handed the phone to him. Regardless, I was told that the growth was cancerous, but that they had caught it early, and that he would be having surgery as soon as possible to remove the cancerous part of his esophagus. They assured me that things would be fine and encouraged me to enjoy the rest of my trip. I hung up in a daze. I told Joelle what I had found out. I could tell she didn’t know what to say.
We continued driving deeper into what were now the mountains of northern New Mexico, with the road gently sloping up and down as it climbed higher and higher into unfamiliar land. The darkness surrounding us was complete, the stars were electric and brilliant, and we saw no cars for hours. As we watched the gas gauge tick down further and further, we understood why the woman on the phone had seemed concerned. Even after thousands of miles of driving, we weren’t used to land so remote. Even on the loneliest stretches of California and Arizona, we would see cars pass us here and there. We made it to Taos around 11pm, which, in another lifetime would have been the appropriate time to set out for a party. But in Arroyo Seco, the land was dead, the stars were quiet, and literally everyone at the hostel was asleep. We let ourselves in and quietly lugged our bags up the stairs into our room.
I slept well that night, but with the word ‘cancer’ ringing curiously in my head all night like a bell in the distance.