The Long Way Round

Here: Albuquerque, New Mexico

I was listening to Radiohead, when the mountains of Albuquerque, New Mexico first came into view. They were a grand, grey-purple, rising from the flats, covered in a backlit haze. As I neared, I could make out dilapidated trailers spread out haphazardly across the plains before the mountains, as if some unfeeling giant had rolled the dwellings like marbles and let them stay where they lay in the condition in which their tumblings had left them. I climbed up the steep grade, over the ridge, and down I-40 as it cut west. The city was nestled in the palm of the mountain between towering arid hills dotted plentifully by green scrub brush and cactus.

A road wended up to an overlook, and I followed it to the top of the city, pulling off at Copperhead Trail to look around. A hot, strong wind greeted me, and within minutes of exiting my car, I had a cactus prickle stuck in my hand and nearly stepped on a heavily armored lizard that jerked and slithered away suddenly, startling me into another cactus with broad paddles, of the prickly pear variety. 

The land felt wild and untamed in a way I hadn't experienced since Africa. But there was something else there too; no matter how alone it appeared I was, even without a house or person in sight, there was always a presence as strong as if someone was standing just behind me. I kept wheeling around, trying to catch the eyes that watched me, but always I was alone. At any moment, I felt that a weathered, dark hand might rest lightly on my shoulder and the being who watched me might tell me to leave or stay. I heard its voice whispering in the breeze that rose and abated, into the vast, unsettling quiet; it seemed sad, filled with urgency and wonder—I couldn't tell you what it said.

I was staying the night with my cousin, in her cozy Adobe house with charming rounded corners and pale yellow rose bushes growing in the gravel garden. We stayed up late, eating dragon noodles and drinking Outlaw amber lagers, talking for hours and hours about social justice and theology, books, and the dreams we were both chasing. It was a wonderful conversation, punctuated by our laughter and the plaintive cries of the passing night trains.

I slept soundly and woke early when the blue-green light began to filter through the cracks in the blinds. I brought my coffee to the gravel backyard and leaned against the low brick wall that overlooked a broad, waterless canal that separated the neighborhoods from each other. Steam unwound luxuriously from my mug bending towards me as I breathed in. The full moon hung heavy in the corner of the sky over the still sleeping city. There were no sounds of humans or traffic, just the insistent calls of owls and coyotes echoing off the mountains. It gave me shivers and made me feel small in the best of ways.

I left early, before she was up—before I was ready to go.

The dark mountains of Albuquerque filled my rearview mirror for a long time. The decent before me was lit in pastels, plateaus-like cliffs beginning here and there to the left and right of the highway, layered in light orange clay, sun-bleached grasses, and turquoise bushes that swayed against the reflections of the sunrise.

There was a train I wanted to catch; a rusty orange engine, with BNSF painted on the side in large slanted capitols—the one that had called to me during the night. As I drove West, it was ever beside me, pulling a hundred bright cars steadily behind, gliding steadily along the fire-orange cliffs.

I pulled off onto Route 66 and stood near the crossing, fighting the vagabond urge to hop on and watch the tracks whip past below, clacking cheerily over the ties as the engine chugged and steam erupted from the smokestack...

I had no ticket, no great plan, beyond tumbling off at Santa Fe—

—my wandering soul just wanted to ride.