The move from Charleston, S.C., where I was born, happened over a matter of months. I scored a job at a private high adventure summer camp near Durango, Colo., right out of college, so the day after graduation, I hit the road, spent a few days with my parents in Texas and headed northwest to southwest Colorado. Eight weeks, more than 100 miles of backpacking and half a summer later, I found myself in Albuquerque, where I lived off a credit card until I found a job at a local bookstore.
Since heeding the call of the West, I've lived in two states and eight cities, visited every county in both of those states and explored countless wilderness areas, national parks, miles of backcountry trails and endless expanses of back highways spider-webbing across the empty expanses of the region. Compared to coastal South Carolina, the spectacular and luminous landscapes of New Mexico and Colorado have made every day feel more like a vacation in a national park than all the time I spent growing up in the South.
The camp I worked for was one of these "non-competitve" rich-kid camps that exalted egalitarianism above all other virtues. It was fun: No listening to music on headphones if the whole group couldn't listen. Individualism meant little, it turned out. As safety precautions in the backcountry, they insisted we sleep with our food to keep it away from bears (!) and carry giant 80s-style brick cell phones encased in makeshift weatherproof PVC-pipe containers to call for help if necessary in the middle of the wilderness — wilderness where no cell service existed then and still doesn't today. Of course, when we received a camper pre-injured for our convenience (a bad ankle), the brick phone didn't work when we had to evacuate him from 10 miles inside Colorado's Weminuche Wilderness. It was beautiful country, but ditching that job led to spending four fantastic years in New Mexico, where I worked in Socorro and Taos.
I began to realize how lucky I was to have replanted myself West of the 100th Meridian when I visited the top of Sandia Crest overlooking Albuquerque exactly 10 years ago today, and wrote this in my journal:
ALBUQUERQUE, JULY 22, 2001 — Sandia Crest, 10,600 feet. Black cloud overhead, Albuquerque far below, myriad radio towers to my right, smog directly in front. Only 45 minutes from my humble urban apartment lies such a spectacular view — a tourist attraction, of course. May as well be a freeway up that mountain.
But having real, tangible grandeur virtually on my backdoor step — accessible nature 365 days a year, save for those days of higher alpine blizzards — is the most wonderful thing. Spruce, fir, mesa, mountain, flying ant, roaming bear, clandestine cougar — all just an eyeshot and a short drive from my place. The virtues of living in New Mexico.
From atop Sandia Crest, Albuquerque is a surprisingly insignificant sprawl in the grand scheme. The city only takes up the valley immediately below, several hundred square miles for sure, but you can see much farther. The giant towers of downtown are reduced to mere sprouts of high society in the flatness of high desert. The mountains (Mt. Taylor, the Sierra Ladrones, the Magdalena Mountains, the Manzano Mountains, the Jemez Mountains on the Pajarito Plateau and the Sangre de Cristos) loom far away. They're far more impressive than the city below.
A decade later, with Rocky Mountain National Park and Longs Peak visible from our backyard in Fort Collins, the vacation (a working vacation, perhaps?) continues.