The yellow signs begin as soon as I cross into New Mexico on I-10. DUST STORMS MAY EXIST, they warn. Further signs explain, in installments, like a Burma-Shave ad of disaster, what to do in the event of a surprise haboob. The instructions repeat countless times, over many miles, and I try to memorize them just in case. New Mexico calls itself the Land of Enchantment, as if one should expect the casting of a happy spell, but maybe the other side of that is a curse, or the fear of one.
I should say that I am already afraid of everything: spiders, carbon monoxide poisoning, getting stuck in traffic on bridges, strange noises outside, phone calls, parties, the chance that I might one day select “self-clean” instead of “off” on my oven. But when you are afraid of everything, you are effectively afraid of nothing, and when you are afraid of nothing you forget that sometimes fear is called for, sometimes it is real.
New Mexico throws fearful things at you and wraps them in a stunning but comfortless form of beauty. It has no reference points; this strange desert, high in the mountains, is not quite like any other beautiful place.
I try to cover as much ground as I can in a sparse wilderness dotted with gas stations and trading posts advertising gems and blankets. This appears to be where nature stockpiled everything fantastically strange, and then humans followed suit. I traverse black rock mountains, like giant piles of onyx, on which small, solitary trees sometimes grow, their leaves flaming gold. I cross a bridge spanning the empty space high above the Rio Grande, its delicate steel forced into the rock walls of the gorge. I spot the hulking Earthships, a 1970s vision that looks like a cross between a past that’s gone stale and a future that never came. I drive through White Sands Missile Range and wonder if it ever ends; I later look it up and re-frame it in New England terms: this remote military instillation covers 3,200 square miles, or 2.6 times more land than Rhode Island.
The whole time, I am worrying about altitude. I’ve been this high once before, crossing the Continental Divide on a northern highway. But that was many years ago, and I was just passing over the mountaintops, on my way back down into a valley. Here, now, I am spending several nights in what feels like the sky: 5,300 feet, 6,900 feet, 7,200 feet. I research altitude sickness and what one might do to prevent it; also how one cannot predict if one will suffer from it: it is one of those ailments that can only strike when it’s too late. It affects the heart and lungs, which happen to be the two organs of my body that don’t quite work properly, and the things you least want to fail when you are completely alone in the high desert. I’d always thought that elevations were posted on roadside signs at town borders as a sort of affectation, but suddenly I see that they, like the dust storm signs, are alerts.
But it isn’t just the elevation, it’s the emptiness. At one point, I find myself in the Carson National Forest. It covers 2,100 square miles (or the size of a non-contiguous Rhode Island) and I may be the only human in it. Remnants of snow, or precursors to it, lie gleaming beneath the trees. On another day, I drive for an hour and count 60 other cars, not one per minute but five or six close together and then long, long stretches of time where I feel like the most isolated person in the world. I have been to parts of America less populous than this, but they never felt this empty; perhaps because in those places, the mountains were picture-book blue and snow-capped, rising above the plains, and not soft tan slopes that blend into rugged grey-green hills that transform into red and alien ridges. The terrain can’t pick a planet, and the weather can’t pick a season; from scorching summer one moment, the temperature dips to an autumnal chill the next. In the mornings my rental car beeps a mysterious warning as its dashboard thermometer flickers between numbers, flashing an ominous snowflake, adding to the general sense of strangeness and unease.
But within the fear is sheer wonder. There is White Sands National Monument, where I drive through fresh plowed snow that isn’t snow but gypsum, white and fine, that blows across the road and doesn’t turn slick beneath my tires. I get out of the car and follow a boardwalk over an undulating gypsum beach, but there is no water, only more pure white dunes not made of sand.
There are the golden trees, which become a motif, reappearing here and there. They stand along the highway from Socorro to Albuquerque, where they, or others that share their molten ocher color, are planted along multi-lane roads in the outlying neighborhoods. They peek over the adobe buildings in the Old Town, so that the whole quietly captivating city is bathed in fiery light. They continue into Santa Fe, where I wander around the historic town square and explore the adobe-lined alleys and hidden courtyards. The air smells like something wonderful but almost too intense, like incense made from a secret prescription of herbs.
Taos smells like something too, some other concoction of complex ingredients, but this potion is disorienting and strange. Maybe I am only sensing that same vague fear that’s been following me. Maybe it’s just that it’s my birthday, and I don’t want it to be, or that it’s been almost exactly twelve months since the election that made everything feel wrong. Or maybe it’s Taos itself, which strikes me as a cramped cliché the minute I arrive.
And then I drive to Taos Pueblo, a few minutes and a thousand years away. I am afraid of this too, unsure about paying a fee to, essentially, wander through the neighborhood of some other Americans and stare at them as if they are museum exhibits instead of people. But I go anyway, and find a place I want to photograph forever but can scarcely describe in words. First, there is open, dusty ground, with a clean ribbon of river rippling through it. The world’s sleepiest dogs lie, as if placed at random, in the dirt. Beyond, there are mountains, distant and pale, and in their shadow, mud-walled buildings cluster together, stacked atop one another and joined into rambling apartment blocks with turquoise doors. Wooden ladders lean against the exterior walls, connecting the first floor to the second, the highest floors to the sky. The Red Willow people who live here have been living here since long before America was even the faintest glimmer of an idea in anyone’s mind. Perhaps they will still be living here long after the idea of America has been forgotten. I feel no fear or strangeness here, just time standing still for a moment, and space opening wide, allowing this astounding place to remain, making room for anything you could imagine.
Dust storms may exist, but they may not; one can never really predict. Something terrible may exist, or something astonishing. Fear, yes, but also ancient adobe towns with ladders instead of stairs, cities with concealed corners and incense-scented skies, flame trees surviving on black mountains, white dunes that are neither beach nor winter snow.