This essay was written in a spurt of creativity the night of January 13, 2023. That night, I was flying from Albuquerque, New Mexico back to Boston for the start of the Spring 2023 term. I am publishing this essay now as I prepare to return to the desert for Passover break; I decided now is the right time to publish this piece as I know many of us are returning to places which we may not think of as authentically home. I’m cognizant of the fact that the notion of “home” carries baggage for many. It’s a sticky term which, for many, may not accurately reflect the status of a place in their hearts and minds. I have done my fair share of thinking about “home” and where exactly that place is in my mind. The project of this essay is to recount how I came to love the place which mostly-closely resembles “home” for me.
Allow me to advance a simple proposition: it takes leaving a place to learn to love it properly.
I have been chewing on this idea for nearly two years. Essentially, since I left my “hometown” for collegiate life out east only to come back and realize that I love where I have done the bulk of my growing up.
In some ways, I think that this is quite tragic. Why did it take leaving my hometown for me to learn to love it? Should I not have seen its beauty when I lived there? Yet, I think that in other ways, there is something quite beautiful about this. But I am getting ahead of myself. So, allow me to step back and tell you a little bit about a place that I, as Jim Croce once said, “knew well and sometimes hated.”
Prior to my arrival at Brandeis, I had been living in Albuquerque, New Mexico for about 12 years. For those readers who have never been further west than Florida, Albuquerque is a city of about one million located in central New Mexico (which, contrary to popular opinion, is actually part of the continental United States). The city is most well-known for its annual Balloon Fiesta, Green Chile and for being the host of the award-winning TV shows “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”
A few months ago, I spoke with a beloved professor of mine about Albuquerque. To give you some idea of whom I spoke with, the man is a classic mid-century New Yorker-type who wears tweed suits and has lived in all kinds of big cities. In this much more temperate time, we sat atop the Mandel building at a table in the bamboo garden. Over a shared bag of Maltese chocolate candies (which he keeps on hand from his time in England), we began speaking about academic subjects, matters regarding his program, and various other topics of interest that come up in a conversation between a professor and his student.
After a while, we veered off topic (as we so often do) and he began to ask me about Albuquerque: why, he wondered, did I like it? I began to give him my familiar spiel. I like that it’s open, it’s quiet, it’s uncrowded, the people are unassuming and leave you to your own devices. Being the tweed-suit-wearing, city-rustling, living-cartoon character that he is, my professor did not get the appeal. I am quoting liberally here, but essentially, he asked me how I didn’t lose my mind in a place so isolating. I have to admit, I was stumped by this question. I almost asked him how didn’t lose his mind living in humongous cities all of his life, but then I remembered that he is an academic, and there are no all-the-way sane academics. So, I refrained.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder, how did I come to love this place? After all, I couldn’t stand it for the time that I did live there year-round. I remember growing up, I had always wanted more life from the city. As I mentioned, Albuquerque is quite spread out. You need a car to get around because everything is between 15-40 minutes away (driving time) from your starting location, and frankly, in half of all ’Burque neighborhoods, you are better off in a locked vehicle anyway.
Being young and energetic as a kid and then an adolescent, I wanted a city that I could easily travel in. I wanted somewhere with a cute café on every corner, funky small thrift shops, massive public libraries and legendary museums. Frankly, I wanted what I once had.
Prior to living in New Mexico, I spent a formative year in midtown Manhattan, and loved every second of it. It was New York after all, and who doesn’t love New York?
Needless to say, Albuquerque is nothing like New York. Where New York is fast-paced and energetic, Albuquerque is slow and relaxed, sporting a margarita in one hand and a breakfast burrito in the other, nonchalantly declaring “mañana is good enough for me!” As an energetic kid, who wanted everything yesterday—New York had left its mark on me well by that point—Albuquerque was much too sluggish for my taste. The leisurely pace of everything and everyone in Albuquerque drove me crazy, and I couldn’t wait to leave. And then one day, I did.
I left for Massachusetts in mid-August of 2021 with two suitcases and not a doubt in my mind that I would not miss this dirtbox in the middle of the country. I landed at Logan Airport with a big smile on my face. I had left New Mexico. Our state’s slogan is “the land of enchantment,” but there’s a well-known twist of phrase in which one says New Mexico is “the land of entrapment,” because people tend to find it easy to come to, but nearly impossible to leave. Think of that last line of the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” Let me tell you, that should be New Mexico’s state slogan. But I digress.
Contrary to many other first-year-of-college experiences, I did not miss living at home at all during my first term. Boston and I were in love at first sight. I loved the city. In my view, Boston is the perfect city. It’s big, but not humongous, public transportation is economical & useful, cafés practically outnumber housing units, the population is young, people are hasty, the city is dripping in early American history and the architecture is just right. What more could a girl ask for? On phone calls with my parents, they would ask me how I was adjusting to the new environment, and I responded with enthusiastic tellings of my weekend adventures in the city. Albuquerque was the furthest thing from my mind.
And then I came back. It was winter of 2021-2022, and I spent one-month in quiet, stillness and mid-50s degree weather in January. It was glorious. I had begun to look around me, absorb the color of the bright blue sky, feel the thinness of the air, hear only the sounds of far-off engines and flocks of birds. Now this was a most unusual sensation. Much to my horror, I realized that I loved it here.
To give you some idea of what this place looks like, I want you to imagine a desert in your mind. You’re probably thinking of sand dunes, maybe some elongated tubular cacti with two or so arms on either side, and no traces of water. I want you take all of those things and shove them off to the side. You’re thinking of Arizona. Lesson number one: not all deserts are created equal.
Albuquerque is situated between two mountains: the Sandia (to the east) and Mt. Taylor (to the west). The Sangre de Cristo is to the far north, past Santa Fe, while the La Dron Peak is to the south towards Las Cruces. The city is crawling with low-hanging cacti, desert weeds, tumbleweeds and big yuccas. It sports a massive skyline, wherein every night you can watch the sunset along the horizon from anywhere in the city, without a treeline obstructing your view. The Rio Grande River, which really ought to be renamed after years of long droughts, runs through the heart of the city, leaving in its wake a thick vegetation of local cottonwoods along each side of the river.
I remember watching the sunset, in awe, every night of that winter break. I took elongated breaths to try and remember how thin, dry air felt like in my lungs. I went skiing as often as I could to remember what real powder felt like beneath my skis. Yes, we do have skiing here. And yes, the snow is better, I don’t care what Killington skiers have to say about the matter. I made the most of my brief time there, leaving with a deep sense of confusion. How did I not love this place before? Why could I not see the beauty of this place then, the way I so easily could now? I spent that following spring semester still loving Boston but thinking of New Mexico. There were times, especially in March, when after not seeing the sun for the third week in a row, I felt like I was losing my marbles. There ain’t no amount of Vitamin D and so-called “happy lamps” that will fix the seasonal depression of an unadjusted desert rat, let me tell you.
But then spring came, and I felt better. I left campus in May feeling as if I wanted to stay longer. Spring in the East Coast was a whole other natural phenomenon that no one told me about, and which I earnestly treasured. But the time had come for me to return to the desert and so I did.
Now, summer in New Mexico, wowza, what a treat. The air? Thin and light. The heat? Hot, but manageable, better than Nevada or Arizona—that is for sure. The late afternoon monsoons which leave the easy desert breeze cool? Phenomenal. I walked my tail off that summer. Taking long walks around my neighborhood, spending hours on trails along the Rio Grande and climbing a mesa in Chaco Canyon (about two hours south of ABQ). All the while, I took in every detail of this land.
New Mexico is special in the sense that it defies our ordinary expectations of a desert. We think of desert lands as being barren biomes, but New Mexico is full of life. Even when you can’t spot a mountain lion or a black bear, you know that they are there. You can feel it. There is this kind of supernatural awakeness to New Mexico. The desert itself feels alive. The sky is so expansive here that it’s almost overwhelming, you feel all-consumed by nature here in ways that I haven’t experienced elsewhere.
Out west, there are no two mesas that look the same. Each mountain range is different, and not just because of its height. The sun here seeps into your skin in a truly unique way. The clouds form in the most peculiar of ways. You’re always reminded that the desert is bigger than any one organism. It’s humbling. New Mexico reminds me that despite the love we may hold for our big cities, no matter how much joy we derive from them, the sun does not rise from Central Park or Beacon Hill. Cities are wonderful and critical to the demands of modern life; I will never deny this. But there is so much beyond our concrete jungles.
As I sit here, at my desk, looking outside my window, I can see Mt. Taylor on the western horizon. The sun is getting ready to set. Tonight’s uniquely glorious gradient is settling in. I will not bother trying to verbalize it here. No number of words in a human language could capture what I am about to see. There is a qualia here beyond what cameras, no matter how advanced, and words, no matter how descriptive, could capture. And I love it. I understand what Georgia O’Keefe, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John Denver, Harvey Fergusson, Billy the Kid and countless others saw in this land. It only took 12 years and leaving the place for me to get it.