It’s snowing today, in a way I’ve only seen before in the midwest. The flakes are large and wet, persistently piling up on each branch and blade of grass until everything looks plumply skeletal. I woke up this morning praising a god I unevenly believe in: a crisis of faith solved by a snow day. The radio said no school and I said Hallelujah. I spent the morning curled up with the dogs, a steaming cup of coffee in my hand and the snow falling outside. I had to leave this afternoon, though, because we have no food in the house and I had a horror of being snowbound in the house and having to live on dogfood until rescued. Even driving to the grocery store one street over was harrowing. The streets are thick with slush and snow, the drivers overly- or underly-cautious, the snowplow fairly non-existent. The hills steep and slippery, treacherous mountain driving that’s extremely unusual for this far down the mountain.
Were it not for the hills, I could be driving around Iowa, or Wisconsin, or Minnesota this afternoon. The snow is that thick. I am tempted, in the parking lot of the grocery store, to make snowballs with the snow I’m sweeping off my windshield, but I have no gloves and no one I know to target. Lisa’s in California, and I call her to talk about the weather, to say, “Don’t come home yet! It’s cold and wet here!” On a sunny patio in San Diego, she cries, “Oh no!” Later, I think that if the snow keeps up, she might not be able to get home tomorrow.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a meditation which moved me through the day, and though I started here, in the Manzano Mountains, I ended in the midwest, moving from Madison to Rock Creek to a lake in Michigan where I lay on my back in a canoe and stared up at the endlessly starry night. When I told Lisa, she said it meant I would end up in Michigan, but I disagree. I think it merely indicative of the in-between place in which I’m living, where home is still the midwest but absolutely New Mexico, now, as well.
Often when I feel homesick, I find myself longing not for Madison, not for Oregon, and not for Grinnell, but for the long, graceful curves of Highway 151 stretching down through southwestern Wisconsin, crossing the Mississippi, meandering all the way through northeastern Iowa until it meets Highway 6 around Homestead. Most of all, I miss the road between, and I think it’s because whenever I drove it, I was on my way home. Even when I was feeling uncertain about what home was, even when the boundaries and borders between my lives lacked the definition I wanted them to keep, even when home became neither/both, traveling the road between the two places always felt like a promise of safety and belonging. In a way, I never felt so much like myself as I did when I drove that road.
Recently I crossed some milestone, and suddenly New Mexico became home in a way it had previously resisted. For the first time since I moved here, I’m planning to spend an entire vacation here rather than going home, and I’m looking forward to the chance not only to run errands and accomplish little tasks that never seem to fit into my everyday life, but also to explore some of the places around my home here I haven’t yet had a chance to see. For the first time since I moved here, I know without a doubt that this land has imprinted itself on me, and the New Mexico skies will never leave my cells. The dust, the pollen, the light and wind and rain of this desert exist in my DNA now, and will not leave, though one day I may try to leave them behind.
This March marks the ten-year anniversary of my first real trip to New Mexico (that I remember, at least): the Oregon Orchestra tour in the spring of 1995. It also marks my ten-year anniversary in journals, and perhaps the two are linked. Ten years ago, this land claimed me as its own, when I looked down from the window of the plane and saw a coyote running along the runway. Friday night, a coyote ran across the road in my headlights as I drove home, and it felt like the closing of a chapter in a way.
Rebecca Solnit says, “Every place exists in two versions, as an exotic and a local. The exotic is a casual acquaintance who must win hearts through charm and beauty and sites of historical interest, but the local is made up of the accretion of individual memory and sustenance, the maternal landscape of uneventful routine.” Ten years ago, I fell in love with the exotic, and only now am I beginning to know the local, as I see my way through a second winter into a second spring here.
This land is like my mother: unmistakably mine, unquestionably home; yet the longer I live here, the better I understand how I am a stranger. When I was 19, I realized how little my mother ever talked about herself, and saw, for the first time, just how little I knew about her. I began to wonder about all the things she had not said in the first two decades of my time with her. I began to wonder about all the things she'd said that I never heard, and wondered how much I would have understood if I did hear it. Had she always been so quiet? Had she always held such secrets?
New Mexico has secrets I cannot even imagine, mysteries I couldn't unravel in a hundred years. Ten years ago, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I had come home at last, and for the first time in my rocky adolescence felt that I truly belonged. I heard the snowy mountains, the twisted junipers, the soft brown desert calling to me, and from then on, like Georgia O'Keeffe, "I was always on my way back." Seven years later, I returned, fearing I would find it so much changed it no longer matched the mountains that lived in my memory, those I drew in the margins of my notebooks all through high school and college.
They were still here; it was still here. Sitting by a stream on the slope of Mount Taylor, I wrote: It was not until I began to plan our senior year spring break trip that I began to doubt my memories and question my faith in this land. I realized the weight of the symbols I sought, and I worried that the mountains I had been drawing in the margins of my life were merely fabrications of my own desire. The fact that the mountains are just as I remember them, that the plaza is as sunstained and glowing as I remember, that the desert is busy with low bushes, the fact that I feel like an amnesiac waking from a dream life, reassures me that she was here. The fourteen-year-old Molly, about to fall in love – first with writing, then with the world. If New Mexico is still here, then I am still here.
In 2002, with Cynthia and Kevin, seven years after the warm brushy desert and cool green mountains first claimed me, I traveled the paths of my own memory in the constant shock of recognition. "It's still here," I would say, again and again. "It's as I remember it."
It was as I remembered, and yet, inevitably, it was different. I was seeing it through different eyes, with different people. Could anything be exactly the same at 14 as at 21? Of course not, but the 14-year-old I had been still lived inside the 21-year-old I was, and both reside now, inside the 24-year-old I have become.
At 21, I wrote: I suddenly understand something Mr. Root told me when I was in high school. I was telling him about the peace I felt and the connection to land I found in New Mexico, and he said, “The trick is to find that wherever you go.” At the time, I thought he meant I should find some special places in Wisconsin – and I did, of course. Or I recognized the places that had always been mine. But now I see that loving mountains like this is easy, and therefore somehow it feels – to me at least – one-dimensional. Can you truly love something just because it is pretty? I don’t know if you could truly love a land until you had seen it in every light, in every condition – in snowstorms, in drought, at dawn, at dusk, in heat and cold, when it’s pleasant and when it’s extremely unpleasant and even dangerous. But then, I never did believe in love at first sight. It’s too simplistic. And yet – I also believe that sometimes there are inexplicable connections – between two people, and also between people and land. Something deeper than aesthetic, something more instinctive and rare.
Reading this now, I laugh at how little I knew, how lightly I was brushing the surface of the place I sought. The longer I live here, the more mysterious this land becomes, though I've come to know it with far more intimacy than a week's visit could ever foster. Though now, when I wander through the arroyos and twisting pathways of the foothills, I know the names of many more plants and animals around me, I realize that my love for this place was, in fact, one dimensional. It was love at first sight. As such, it was -- as my father always says -- a "form of mental illness." Now I wonder, if I had understood the complexities and difficulties of this place then as I do now, would I still have come? Would I still have locked on to this land as an ideal? Today, with snow falling on the peach trees and tumbleweed in my backyard, I think I would.