Monday, June 15, 2009

Musings from a train somewhere in New Mexico, heading North.

I am writing this from the train to Portland, so I’ll have to post it when I get there.

Albuquerque is poised city, that doesn’t seem quite as beaten down as some of the other bigger towns across the country. On Thursday nights the men filled the streets with motorcycles fitted with ripping chrome pipes, shiny paint jobs, and ape-hanger handlebars; their equally spectacular, refurbished women fought for balance on the back seats as the bikes cut back and forth between lanes, and they did it with the sex and sass that belongs to the Hispanic woman alone.

This ritual carried on through the nights, and the weekends. Thursday night, from my hostel window, the bikes whined crescendoing, peaking, and decrescendoing off towards the Sandia mountains. During the weekend proper, the custom hot rods competed with the bikes for attention: Deafening noise vs. shameless gaudiness. Open pipes vs. hydraulics. For those of us on the streets, scared to end up underneath the tires of a jumping Ford Focus (yep, even your mother’s car bounced), it was all spectacle, and incredibly satisfying. During these times, people were friendlier, acknowledging one another as they go by, maybe even speaking. The girls wore their hair fashionably high with pricey dresses and dangerous heels; the men wore black jeans and gray tank tops. But inside the bars, they all danced, and cheered for their basketball team on the television, and drank Tecate with Jello shots.

It occurred to me that the spirit of this area is closely linked with its geography. The desert is uninhabitable to all but the strongest, most resourceful, and resilient species of flora and fauna. These species are products of millions of years of evolution and survival. In the economical decline that our country is in, it makes sense that the most resilient towns would survive only according to their adaptability. Albuquerque is, as several citizens were eager to inform me, the fifth best economy in the nation. As I volunteered at a farm, visited breweries, spoke with local businesses, and communed with fellow hostelers, I gathered the reason for the prosperity (which a hostel manager described as breaking even): a result of a combination of relatively and technologically new industry—Intel, Motorolla, and the Sandia Labs—and the highly active University community. The University of New Mexico has a reputation for excellent research in geology and meteorology, and, according to a hostel employee and local tutor, accepts and offers a large number of research grants each year.

I also found it interesting how much the local farm was positively affected by the local government. According to one of the two fulltime farmers at the farm I visited, a large participant of their crops is bought and used in the Albuquerque Public Schools, and all of the summer employees were paid through grants. In addition, the local government set aside 150 acres of land smack dab in the middle of the city (seriously) called Albuquerque’s Open Space, which is meant to be used strictly for local farming.

The community of travelers was also pretty great at the hostel. At one time, four grad students in various studies, such as journalism, history, biology, and creative writing, all researching in the area with the help of grants, were all present. Within minutes, we were, of course, fiercely arguing. This carried on until well after 2 am, upon which we all returned to our rooms in order to meet our self-imposed daily word limits for our various writing projects.

So, though my trip goals seem overwhelmingly ambiguous, I still somehow feel that Albuquerque was a success. Though, I am not sure how to gauge this. I pondered it after discussing the project with a fellow train-traveler (a retired second grade teacher), when he asked me how I would know, as I exit each town, if I was successful. I don't really have an answer, and don't expect to for quite some time. All I can really do, I guess, is wander the streets, observe, talk with strangers, take notes, read, and write. If, sometime down the road, one of these towns, strangers, etc, show up in a story, than it was successful. In addition, I feel as though I've learned some things about how to talk with people, and where to meet those that are willing to talk about their town. And, of course, some of my best time was spent sitting in the University Library, reading, writing, and processing the various encounters.

And now, to Portland. By the time I am able to post this, I will already be there. But for now, I am sitting aboard a train with my headphones on, about to enter Gallup, New Mexico en route to LA, where I will layover for two hours before boarding another train that will eventually end up in Portland. I have a hostel reserved there, but may end up splitting my time between two different hostels, in order to split my time between the yuppie/hipster Portland, and the brainy/University Portland.

As far as the train goes, I finally got a window seat, but on the wrong side of the train. Out my window, the New Mexican fields resemble Kansas in a drought. Out the opposite window, the rock outcroppings, buttes, mesas and cliffs that I can barely see, look like not-so-distant relatives of the badlands.

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