Ten years ago we rolled southward down I-25 on our way to retirement in an entirely new culture, and the finest sight of all was Albuquerque in our rear view mirror. That's the way this narrative is supposed to read, is it not? That's the well-trodden script, the one we all know so well, and I violate it at my peril.
But in our case, after my 50 years of living in this city, and Carolyn's 27 years, it simply was not to be. It's painfully true that our exit took us past the junk and broken concrete graveyards at the south edge of town – probably the Duke City's worst point of entry – but then the highway swings westerly just north of Isleta Pueblo and crosses the Rio Grande, the long green cottonwood forest in the desert that brings life to the Southwest. And the roadway passes through a cut in the mesa where John Cordova and Rito Canales were gunned down back in the 1960s in a late-night ambush by the State Police. Oh the memories, the deep and painful memories of place. It's hard to erase all that just because you've decided to try something different for a change.
Change. That's really what our departure was all about. And Albuquerque, that seductress by the River, was to blame. It's the kind of place that can become too comfortable, because of its beautiful natural setting in a vast land where the imagination can soar, and also because of its deep ugliness as the 'heights' keep spreading outward across lands we once explored as children. There's a feeling of work unfinished, of someone needing to stand before the bulldozers and defend these lands. After fifty years the roots go deep. On leaving, I'm reminded of Wallace Shawn's taxi ride after My Dinner With Andre and his remembrances of the old neighborhood, and the store where his father bought him his first suit. But it was time for someone else to step forward and take the helm. It was time for us to go.
There are deep memories that go back to 1955 when my family came west in a dark blue 1949 Ford on the well-worn two-lane ribbon called Route 66, and we first came through the gap called Tijeras Canyon. Below, in the shimmering heat of a September day, lay the entryway to the Great American Desert stretching across the Rio Grande Valley, past actual volcanoes on the far rim, and onward to distant mountains saw-toothing the far horizon. I was ten years old and had no point of reference from my early Kentucky-Ohio childhood. The babbling brooks and forest glens of Thornton W. Burgess books had not prepared me for this. But my father, from green Kentucky, later said he felt at home when he first scanned across the vast brownness of New Mexico in that moment when our car rounded the last bend in the Canyon and the desert in its fullness appeared below us. We were part of that early post-war techno-engineer wave that would engulf and change the old Spanish city. The city with the odd name would be our new home, and we would come to embrace this new culture as our own.
Courtships, friendships, marriages, divorces, political involvements, family gatherings, and family tragedies, it's not possible to leave all that behind. Nor is it possible to forget the depth of history that appears whenever there's a nick in Albuquerque's surface sheen of modernism. We had no intention of leaving all that behind us as we pulled ourselves away to a new life in Mexico. Albuquerque had simply become too comfortable for us. Saturday farmer's markets in leafy Robinson Park, neighborhood issues at City Council meetings, long dinners with old friends and good wine, the cranes flying overhead announcing the flow of seasons, it was a comfortable life, like an old warm overcoat. But the city had grown from about 100,000 in 1955, to whatever vast number now sprawled over the land. When I was young, we could not go anywhere without seeing friends along the way. Back then we went Downtown (a novel concept) for movies, and my eyes were drawn from whatever action was on the screen to those red-eyed cow skulls that lined the ceiling's edge in the magnificent Kimo Theater. For a ten-year old boy, this was the Real West. I'd camped in the cool mountains and tramped across the burning mesas without seeing another soul. It was possible to imagine the frontier still remained just beyond the next hill. But 50 years later, there were people everywhere, though I rarely saw anyone I'd ever seen before. We'd become strangers in our own land.
But for all that, for Carolyn and myself, our intention was not to leave Albuquerque behind, but to do something different with our remaining years, to broaden our scope, to inhabit a different culture and to learn from the challenge. I'd long had a fascination with the legendary country of Mexico lying just across our southern border. I had traveled there frequently by bus in my twenties and thirties with only a few pesos in hand, and a Spanish-English dictionary in my pack. I'd found myself in odd situations and suffered the terrible sickness of gastric adjustment, but none of it would I call "bad times." Interesting times perhaps, a learning experience certainly, but not bad times.
And now, many years later, we drove south in a van filled with our worldly goods, mostly books, on our way to a new life in northern Mexico, to the small town of Bahia de Kino at the end of the road on the beautiful Sea of Cortez in the state of Sonora. It was a place we'd visited several times in the past and we were attracted to its lack of tourism, the small number of Gringos, and the vibrant Mexican community. Another important factor was its proximity (just a 14-hour drive) to family members and good friends in New Mexico. We had every intention of returning for infrequent visits.
Although Carolyn speaks fine Spanish from her days in the Peace Corps in Perú, this move would have the advantage of requiring me to finally learn to speak the language well enough to function in our new home. Settling in a foreign country, and dealing with all the attendant vagaries is far different than blowing through as a tourist. Our new life in Mexico would be an adventure of its own. But really, that's a story for another day.
(Photo of Albuquerque skyline by Todd Shoemake)