This and the Grand Canyon. We’re so effing close.
You may have heard that vicious drug cartels roam the wilds of New Mexico and that immigration unrest is tearing the south of Arizona apart. While I don’t have the stories to confirm either of those things, I can tell you that the American Southwest has some of the most expansive views in the country. It’s not like wide-open spaces don’t exist in other parts of the country. They just somehow feel more epic out west, like the world has expanded tenfold at the same time the distance between you and your Maker has been drastically condensed. You could reach out and touch Him, which is a very real possibility if you don’t keep your eyes on the road!
Although by this point in the trip I’d more than worn out my Boss-heavy “Americana” playlist, it took on new relevance as I drove through New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. Ghost towns? Endless highways?That moment when the dark creeps in and you’re driving down some weirdo side road for 50 miles with depleted gas reserves and the possibility that you might not make it and those lights trailing you suddenly go out? That last part isn’t so much Bruce, but still — America, man. It’s out there!
You’re reminded, too, just how isolated many of the region’s cities and communities are. We complain in Los Angeles about the time it takes to get from Santa Monica to Downtown. SMALL POTATOES when about 100 miles separate one Southwestern pit stop from the next. They’re practically frontier outposts — places to hitch your stallion for the night and trade whatever animals you managed to trap/kill along the way. I’ll start apologizing for these cowboy references when I stop feeling them so deeply in my soul.
Santa Fe was my first post-Austin destination, a city I chose only after realizing how far off my intended path Roswell happened to be. The number of aliens I wouldn’t meet was sort of a bummer, but counter-balancing this was the prospect of green chile cheeseburgers at a place called Bert’s Burger Bowl. You often find the best food in unassuming places, and Bert’s is no exception — dumpy 60s-70s fast food exterior, a bland black-and-white sign. The fries are given no attention whatsoever. But it doesn’t matter, because the care put into their sweet, spicy main course is worth all the forgotten fries in Idaho. Have you ever had a great burger only to wonder if there wasn’t something, anything, that could be done to make it just a little better? That’s green chile. You’ll crap your guts out later (at an I-40 rest stop), sure, but you’ll be crapping joy.
The city itself cuts an interesting profile. Small for a capitol, it’s nevertheless overflowing with elderly tourists in addition to other folks who, I imagine, wound up there accidentally. If you’re a busker or fine artist or turquoise jewelry enthusiast? And you happen to be 85? This place is yours. The streets aren’t filled, exactly, but for a town whose biggest attraction is a museum with paintings that look like women’s reproductive organs, Santa Fe is doing alright.
(Later I learned that George RR Martin, Beirut’s Zach Condon, and Cormac McCarthy are all longtime residents. Not a one was at Bert’s Burger Bowl.)
I hit Flagstaff, AZ, that night to little fanfare. You’ve read already about my adventures with Dave Axemaker (still great!) and my time at the city hostel, but there’s not much else to report. It’s sort of a quiet place! And that seemed appropriate for this late in the trip, when I finally felt ready for it to come to an end. There were no more friends coming up, and — save the Grand Canyon — no more pre-planned pit stops. Just highway and miles separating me from the finish line.
I was ready for the final sprint.