Why return to New Mexico? Why now? Why ever?
It began when I quit my job and took a drive in 1974. It was a very long drive, a giant loop through the west, and lasted the better part of a year. I was 29 years old when I left Atlanta in a blue Ford Pinto heading for Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, but I was only passing through. I'd decided the west would begin for me in New Mexico. Everybody's west has to begin somewhere. Mine began with a decision made years before - I was in junior high school - as I studied gas-station roadmaps and plotted my escape route. I was always plotting my escape and someday I would escape to New Mexico. It was more than a drive.
When I was a young boy my favorite TV show was Route 66 (a dark and dangerous-looking guy and a boyish light-haired non-threatening guy in a Corvette on the road and doing stuff) and a few years later my favorite book was On the Road (a dark and dangerous guy and darker, more dangerous guys doing more interestingly strange and dangerous stuff). Neither dark nor dangerous (I still wore shirts with button-down collars like the guys on Route 66), I had been wanting to hit the road for as long as I could remember (though I never imagined it would be in a blue Pinto), but it's difficult to go anywhere when a man remains a boy as long as I did.
I was a reluctant Peter Pan. I wanted to grow up, I really did. I even pretended to be an adult for several years in my late teens and early 20s and did some grownup things (the way a child does such things): boyishly, enthusiastically, stupidly, chaotically, destructively, painfully. A boy acting like a man starts many things he will never finish and his world becomes littered with the victims of his false starts. It's what happens to boys who aren't given the tools to be men.
I didn't even have a tool belt when I walked out into the world and, sadly, I am not the only guy in my family to grow older without growing up (there are cousins, brothers, nephews, even some of our fathers). We are the confused legacy of seven self-involved sisters and two brothers and the various enablers they married (or didn't) who were themselves better at being children than being adults. I sometimes hear parents say things like, "We did the best we could," and I think often that is true, but I suspect the people who raised me were not doing the best they could. And knew it. And did nothing about it (unless you count alcohol, drugs, anger, fear, sex, secrets, spite, bullying, self-pity and a whole catalog of narcissistic indulgences). All the while we seemed to be happy families, but it was a pretend life (pretend lives lead a hunger for something real). I don't know how the rest of the guys in the family feel about it, but I felt lucky to live long enough to slip off to Atlanta and beyond family grasp.
In the nearly six years I lived in Atlanta I began to acquire the tools it would take to bolt the various pieces of my manhood together, but when I was 29 my adult life still lay before me like the pieces of an Erector set without an instruction booklet. I certainly was not the man of anybody's dreams. And I wasn't man enough to go it alone. I'd discovered long before that being "alone" for me usually involved more than one person (and disappointment and misery for someone, usually not me). I finally found someone fool enough to indulge my boyish fantasy to hit the road, driving west with no particular place to go. And no promises when we got there.
West to Memphis and a night spent on the bank of the Mississippi River; further west to Texas and a night in Palo Duro Canyon. And on the third day "west" quit being the direction of my dreams and became a place. I was in New Mexico. I had arrived at the real place. I wouldn't become a full-grown man for years, but New Mexico was a step in the right direction. I could feel it.
So in the early summer of 1974 I camped in the mountains above Santa Fe for 10 days. Then I drove north and camped in the mountains near Taos another four days. That's all I knew of New Mexico. Two weeks. But I came close to abandoning my trip. I drove north to Colorado (years of pent up driving dreams demanded it and I had no way to understand that I felt "at home" in New Mexico because the words "feel at home" had meant very little to me for a long time). But I was barely into southern Colorado and had been on the road only a few hours when I wrote this in my notebook:
"After 14 days in New Mexico, Colorado. From the Sangre de Cristos to the Rockies in one short afternoon. It was sad to see New Mexico fall behind.... New Mexico already is calling me."
And a few days later:
"Santa Fe, will you take me back?"
A year and thousands of miles later I was living in New Mexico. Then I left (ego and ambition led me astray) and didn't return to live for 17 years (and missed New Mexico the whole time to the point I was never happy anywhere else). I stayed nearly 10 years that time before I left again - for Texas (love led me astray). Now I have been in Texas for 10 years (not only missing New Mexico but really disliking Texas the whole time). Everytime I left I had my reasons - and regrets.
But now Dauna and I will return to New Mexico (again) in a few weeks. I know now what it means to feel at home, that New Mexico feels that way and I need to feel it. And Dauna is the only person I've ever known with whom I never feel alone and always feel at home (of course we were real grownups when we met). Soon we will be at home together in the mountains above Santa Fe for the last time. We do not plan to leave again.
A sketch I made in 1974 at my campsite in the mountains near Taos, New Mexico