Warning: a lot of driving in this one.
The distance between Albuquerque and Hatch, NM is typical of the Southwest. Long, straight ribbons of interstate that are best spent with conversation and music. The high plains desert in February is a beautiful place, however, with the mesquite and other desert shrubs green from rains and snows. This isn’t the land that is filled with mesas like Wile E. Coyote country. The mountains here are often stark, emerging from the haze of the horizon, tall and jagged. The tans of the plains giving way to darker blues, which fade into the distance with mountain ranges that are just a shade different than the sky.
These are the hills that inspired watercolor masters like Georgia O’Keefe. There is really no better medium for it.
Strange towns with strange names like Truth or Consequences. The land where Jim Morrison talked about Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding, and ghosts crowding a young child’s fragile eggshell mind. The landscape is surreal. Stark and beautiful. Neverending.
We passed through Hatch, NM, which sits in a verdant valley of farmland, straddling the Rio Grande. Since we were on a tight schedule, we passed through without stopping, but I could see that this town easily had more restaurants and chile vendors per capita than anywhere else on earth. A town of around 1500, and you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a chile stand or a restaurant boasting the best or hottest green chile in New Mexico.
If you have never had green chile, like honest-to-god green chile, the way it is done in New Mexico, you must try it. And the only way you have is by using chiles that are grown here in the Hatch valley.
The afternoon became evening, and the cutoff from Hatch to I-10 revealed massive solar panels, impressive mountains, and more desert. But the desert was changing. We hit I-10 at Deming and in the distance, to the south, were the mountains that stood between us and Old Mexico.
As dark descended, we saw the sun set up ahead, the last rays of light illuminating the Welcome to Arizona sign. We clipped along I-10 at about 95 mph, though it felt more like 55. We knew we were going to miss dinner, even with this kind of speed, putting us in Mammoth at around 9:30.
Tuscon came into view, a glittering city that smelled like desert rain and I checked into my hotel. Then we headed back out on the road for groceries for Jason’s new home and the last hour of the drive.
Tuscon is a lot like Colorado Springs. Very suburban. Spread out. Lots of chain restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, water stations, like some city planner used the copy and paste tool repeatedly.
After unloading the Jeep and a brief tour of the spread, I bid my cousin farewell. He looked eager to start work. Unfettered, however, as though the strings of an old life had been cut and he was on his way to a new beginning. Ready to hit the ground running. I thought a lot about this as I drove back to my hotel. 10:30 pm and still many miles from sleep. I stopped off at In N Out Burger (Those are good burgers, Walter.) and had my second meal of the day. A double-double animal style. No fries (because their fries are garbage) and a strawberry shake.
Speaking of shakes. I had hit my 16th hour on the road and I had the shakes. I was at the point where had I closed my eyes, I would have been face down in delicious all-beef patty, grilled onions, and delicious melted cheese. I called my folks to let them know Jason was dropped off and I was back in Tuscon, just about to black out in my hotel room. A clump of saguaro cacti stood tall next to the sign for my motel. They were the first I had seen on the trip, since we entered Arizona at dusk.
I thought a lot about my life on this trip, and how things needed to change. It was good to see my cousin pick up stakes and head west, literally hauling a saddle, a bedroll, a couple odds and ends, and starting a new chapter in his life. Like some cowpoke from a Larry McMurtry novel. It was more than encouraging. It was downright inspiring.
Though this part has been a lot of driving, sometimes that’s what traveling is. It’s the journey, not the destination. Sometimes the landscape you get to enjoy isn’t breathtaking vistas or tourist traps; it’s your own mind and the places the hum of rubber tires on asphalt takes you.
There was something in my life that was missing. I had known this for a while. Like my cousin, I was in a rut, but the only difference was he was actually doing something about it. I needed to step up my game.
I don’t remember my head hitting the pillow that night. I woke up, got ready for the day, enjoyed a tasty continental breakfast of midwestern fare such as sausage, scrambled eggs, and bran muffins. The bland gastronomically neutral food for the American travelers’ pallet.
At least the coffee and orange juice flowed freely.
Hungover bridesmaids were dressed up for a wedding that day, wearing their giant sunglasses to the table and still wafting that sweet, sickly perfume of too much bourbon and tequila from the night before. Kids played in the pool at 9 am with the reckless abandon only childhood affords, as their parents stared at the water with that dazed look that many miles behind, and so many yet to come give you.
I decided to head out. I started getting texts and saw it was my cousin. He was sending the daylight shots of his new home. Miles of wild saguaros, the sun-dappled hills and brush of the Sonoran desert. He had truly found a beautiful place to call home. I was happy for him.
I stopped for gas, put air in my tires, and filled my water bottles with water from a reverse osmosis machine. A dollar gets you two gallons of purified water at an outdoor kiosk. The water comes out of the machine like a fire hose. I wish the instructions had mentioned that. The first gallon blasted all over me, and the thirsty Arizona pavement. By the time I had two of my bottles filled, I was drenched. At least it was entertaining for whomever watched from inside the Circle-K. I know there was no way to play it cool.
I set my Waze for Tombstone, AZ and got back on I-10. The full view of the desert stretching on up ahead. My next stop was Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp country.