They call it the Big I, the huge, drawling loop of loops of freeways that lies on the outskirts of Albuquerque. It has eight main bridges and 47 smaller bridges, shaded a soft orangey-pink and aquamarine, rising up out of the sparse, desolate ground. It flows, a strange marriage between American highway culture and the desert; the colouring of it sits against the blue sky so perfectly that it just seems… right. Like remembering something you’ve seen in a dream but forgot until you saw it again.
Maybe that impression is just a result of driving through the New Mexico desert for most of the day, from the heat of the Dallas morning through the long stretches of West Texas.
Our gas had been running low as we passed through Texas. We pulled into a gas station and filled up; a guy parked next to us laughed as Zara asked if she could take his picture.
‘First time a lady’s ever asked me that,’ he said. He was weather-beaten and overweight, with the kind of pudgy face that goes pink and cheery after years in the sun, rather than truly tan. I had to record his voice in my head and play the tape back to understand what he said, his accent flattened down like a square squeezed into a triangle.
The gas light had been on when we pulled into the fuel station. We went in and paid, and seconds afterwards, the power went out. Two minutes later and we would have been stuck in the shady box of the station, waiting for the power to come back on. As it was, I had to navigate my way to the restrooms by the light of my phone.
‘It’s over there, dude!’ a baseball-capped guy who stumbled the other way past me called. He’d been using the facilities when the lights went out.
We made it through Texas without further incident.
We drove over the Big I just as the sun was starting to set. We found that the hotels in the city proper were booked up; some convention or other was in town. So we drove through the back streets, with names like Gold, Silver, and Iron, dressed in one-storey, boxy houses, to make our way back to the freeways and the combination Hotel and Water Park on the outskirts of town.
Of all the combination Hotel and Water Parks I have ever stayed in, this was undoubtedly the nicest.
The sky out there was huge overhead, and as the sun went down, the desert called out. The sunset itself was magnificent; a deep pink and orange fading to deeper and deeper blue, and then endless black. It wasn’t quite cold, not quite warm, and I sat on the chairs at the back of the hotel and stared out to the sands.
You could leave anything in the desert, I thought. Anything. You could leave anything you wanted behind here. And the wind and the heat and the sun would strip it down to nothing and leave it to be swallowed by the sand. You could leave fear out here, regret; the desert would devour them and break them down and be left untouched. You could cast demons out and they’d wander lost in this emptiness, baking in the heat, until they faded away.
The desert can take all of them. It has room. Nothing could survive it.
The desert felt quietly certain of this, as if it could hear my thoughts and nodded Yes, that’s right. But it wasn’t hungry. The desert had swallowed hunger, too.
It was a different spirit to the wilds of Moab; it didn’t loom or lie in wait. It was just… there.
Zara came out.
‘LA tomorrow, brew!’ she said.
‘God, I know,’ I said. ‘No more unpacking!’
The next night would see us back in California and West Hollywood. I’d be in San Francisco the night after, and before the week was out, we’d be flying back across the Pacific.
And so we sat a little while longer in the desert air, talking, knowing that this was almost the end.