Leaving the Lariat behind after being scolded by the tiny proprietor for being 15 minutes late, I found my way to the locals' favorite breakfast place. I walked in and for the first time in my life, I was the only white person in the room. I tried not to stare at all the beautiful faces around me or at the long, glossy, blue-black hair hanging down people's backs, loose or in thick braids. Some spoke a language I'd never heard. Many paused to pray before they ate.
Opening the menu, I felt a little intimidated by the options. Jerry's is supposed to be Mexican-American, but this was really, really Mexican. Like, the real deal. I found myself ordering my first chile relleno. It was 10 in the morning. The waitress smiled and asked, "Red or green chiles, honey?" Feeling adventurous, I replied, "Both!" And immediately wondered if I'd made a huge mistake. Dear Lord. I mean, I'm from New Jersey. But I'd married a Latino whose mother had made things like this for us, so I didn't feel completely adrift. "I'll be right back with your sopapilla, hun," the woman announced. I had no idea what that was. I'm so, so white.
The food was great, of course, and I left with half of it to eat later. Heading toward Albuquerque, I sang along with my 13-hour Spotify playlist again and watched as the miles effortlessly rolled by. I'd come to feel like the Mini Cooper was a ride I get on every day that carries me through landscapes and experiences. And I was really glad I'd developed the playlist over the past 6 months. It's a remarkable soundtrack for my travels, and adds so much dimension to the experience. The songs that come on at certain points--as the landscape changes, as I enter and leave these towns--are uncannily significant. The preternatural opera star Maria Callas was on for an hour yesterday as I drove through vast plains with ravens and vultures soaring overhead. Soft, round, light-colored rocks lay plopped on top of each other along the road and out in the distance, like sand dripped through a child's hands. Massive dust devils grazed across the land like strange cattle.
I stopped in a little town for gas. I took a step before something made me look down. There was a huge, strange bug lying on its back, legs waving hopefully in the air. I thought it must be a cicada, as I'd been hearing them since Arizona. It was the first time I'd heard their distinctive buzz since I was a little girl back East, droning on hot summer days in the woods. Back then, the sound meant the day was going to be "a scorcher," as my mom used to say.
I squatted down to see it closer and held out a finger toward its grasping legs. It quickly climbed onto my hand and we paused, looking at each other. What a beautiful creature! Its complex, double-layered wings were iridescent, and its large, black-and-white furry head and body were about 2 inches long. It seemed happy to be upright again and not upside-down on the heat-shimmered gas station parking lot.
I carried the cicada over to a nearby pinyon pine and let him walk off my finger. He sat still for a moment and then wandered off up a branch. I was happy to have helped, although I think he helped me more.
At the summit of a long hill, Albuquerque lay spread out in a steeply sloped green valley. Backed by a bowl of mountains, it was much bigger than I thought. I wasn't sure what I wanted to see here, so I put "downtown" into my phone and followed the instructions. In a few minutes, I was in narrow streets surrounded by low adobe buildings, people selling jewelry on blankets in the shade, and shops advertising the usual "authentic Indian rugs, jewelry, pottery, and more!" Oh, man, I thought. maybe I'd better just keep going. The whole tourist thing again didn't seem so appealing, and besides--I'd just gotten rid of all my stuff. I didn't want more! But in the spirit of adventure, and needing a walk, I parked and walked around a little.
All the shops were pretty much the same. I got a coffee and wandered over to the plaza where artists sat in the shade of an adobe building. A wedding was going on at the little church and bridesmaids drifted in bevies here and there, whispering and rushing like desert quail.
I stopped at the first artist I came to. He looked up and smiled, and we got to talking. I looked briefly at his jewelry, laid out at my feet. A green turquoise ring immediately caught my attention, but I continued listening to the man as he talked a little about his art. Turns out he was quite a famous Hopi artist who had studied at CalPoly in the town I'd left 9 days ago. His name is Bennard Dallasvuyaoma, and I bought that green turquoise ring. I felt like he was blessing me somehow as he checked the fit of the ring to make it slightly larger. He gave me his card and said, "Please call me if you need anything or any help along your journey." I said I would and we shook hands.
I left Albuquerque feeling like I'd done what I needed to do. Bennard's glowing green stone perched in sterling silver on my left index finger, I left town heading north. Passing through Santa Fe because why?, I aimed for Taos and arrived around sunset. Gorgeous, tiny adobe homes, whimsical shops, and green valleys wound down a little ways before opening out into a wide, dry valley. I got the last room at the Super8, the desk guy saying, "How weird, someone just canceled like a minute ago!" Pleased with the big, clean room (what a contrast from the ghastly Lariat!) I settled in and caught up with my writing until late.