The move to Las Cruces (part 2)

(4:38 Friday morning)  The first real adventure – not counting the move – has happened: I made a run to the Costco in El Paso, Texas on Wednesday . . .

Getting there and getting back was the adventure; BEING there wasn’t much different from any other Bay Area Costco, with one notable exception: every human being in the store – employee or customer –  was a really nice person. It’s something we’ve noticed about the locals here: eye contact, smiles, patience, manners. We notice it when going into stores, banks, and even, as of yesterday, the University of New Mexico’s library to get a library card. Example: a sunglassed college dude and I arrive at the library’s entry door at the same time. Without hesitation or a questioning look he strides to the door, grabs the handle and steps back to hold it open for me . . . with a nod, a smile, and no words. You could tell he’d been that kind of guy his whole life. Same goes for the pretty co-ed and the woman administrating from behind the library’s’ service desk: smiles, kindness, and helpful information. I’m told I’ll get my library card in the mail in a few days. In the meantime, would I like a tour of the library?

Anyway, the adventure: Costco run, El Paso . . .

El Paso means Texas, and Texas means BIG, as in large, grand, or huge. If Montana’s gonna claim big sky, Texas gets to claim big everything else. My god, the freeway on-ramps, off-ramps and overpasses at the northern approach to the city are not only massive and soaring, they’re aesthetically pleasing. Giant star shapes were somehow incorporated into the forms used to build the concrete columns that support the interweaving flyover ramps and you can’t NOT see those stars: they stand out in bas-relief and have been painted gold, as part of the three-color palette used to paint not only every support column, but the entire interchange, which went on for miles as I approached the town. Clearly, art and creativity were encouraged during the design process. Infrastructure informed by art: very impressive.

Eastbound Interstate 10 out of Las Cruces will get you to El Paso in less than 45 minutes if you drive the posted speed limits, which vary between 65 and 75. If you’re in the mood to triple that drive time on the way back home, do what I did: take State Highway 54 north after your Costco run, drive the entire backside length of the Franklin Mountains — won’t that be scenic? — then miss the turn that would have taken you back to Interstate 10 and Las Cruces. Be sure to not realize you’ve missed the turn until later. Much later. Also: no on-board GPS in your 2003 GMC truck; only what remains of your memorization of the Google map you studied before leaving the house earlier this morning.

Keep heading north on Highway 54. Make a mental note of a sign you’ll pass that says to the east is the Biggs Army Airfield; to the west is the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. This will be helpful information in about an hour.

Cross the Texas/New Mexico border going 74 mph and keep going. Remember: you’re still looking for a sign that tells you to turn left and head back towards Interstate 10 and Las Cruces. Until then, keep going . . . and going . . . because it’s beautiful, unspoiled, untamed, and driving through the open desert after sixty-two years in California feels oddly therapeutic.

Slow your roll to 35 when you come to the town of Orogrande. A quarter mile later you’ll have passed through the entire town and can go back to driving 74. About ten minutes later you’ll notice a bunch of military vehicles, dozens of them, with big tires, driving parallel to and a hundred-or-so yards from the highway, through the desert brush, following one another’s dust cloud, someone else’s orders. Oh, look: there’s a tank . . . following another tank . . . and another, and another. Hmm . . . where did they all come from? Oh, wait: the sign you saw an hour ago — the military installations. Ah, yes. Maneuvers, practice, rehearsal . . . possibly related to the Middle East in some way, judging from the landscape. . .

Continue driving blissfully through the open desert listening to your 70s and 80s mix tapes until you come upon a sign that says: WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT: 30 MILES.  Now is the time to realize something’s not quite right because White Sands National Monument is barely an hour northeast of Las Cruces, and without a map or a clearer memory you have to decide to continue onward and get home in an hour-and-a-half or two, or turn around, pay MUCH closer attention to the signage along the way, and expect – wrongly – to get home sooner. After you’ve made the U-turn and begin heading south, try and push from your mind thoughts of how you would have been home well over an hour ago had you gone home — had I gone home — from El Paso the same way I went in, using Interstate 10.

Oh, well . . . Good thing I had such a deep love for the open desert and no pressing engagements because I got to see what I’d already seen, in reverse order: the quasi-town of Orogrande with its tiny, dilapidated post office; the military vehicles kicking up dust; the mountains I thought I would be driving through . . . The adventure would soon be over, but not before making an instinctive right turn to the west that eventually brought me to another small town in the middle of nowhere, this one with a brand-new Auto Zone store and a friendly employee who settled my navigational hash once and for all: following his simple directions got me home in thirty-five minutes.

Finally, as an addendum to the super-nice people thing going on around here, there’s the guy I’d never seen or met before who happened to be driving past me yesterday at the exact moment I was setting out a recycle can on the street at our driveway. . .

I’d given a neighborly wave to the passing car and the stranger inside. The car slowed, then stopped – in the middle of the street – and out climbed a Hemingway-esque guy who casually introduced himself as Ted. Fifteen minutes of conversation later, his car still in the street, he led me to the front door of the house across the street from mine, intending to introduce me to his girlfriend, Susie, who he was dropping in on. Susie wasn’t home – he had a key to her house, had let himself in long enough to step inside and call out for her, but no answer – so we finished our conversation back in the middle of the street. Ted’s a desert guy, a retired speech pathologist, born and raised in Las Cruces, and has never lived anywhere that wasn’t a desert town. He described his house as the one just down the way, the one with the sailboat in the driveway, a sailboat he was fond of hauling an hour north to Elephant Butte Lake, New Mexico’s largest.

A desert guy with a sailboat stops his car in the middle of the street and welcomes me to his neighborhood . . . Something poetic about that.