“I do not wish to try to live among many
people—they tire me more than anything.”
I spent a year and a half getting to El Paso.
For the first twelve months I made inroads by building a picture in my mind. It was to be a place of great solitude matched by a flat, desolate terrain. It would not be a majestic landscape, I knew. No deep canyons, no towering red rocks, no mountains of ancient strata. It would be a mangled, craggy expanse, pale in color, pockmarked with broken refrigerators and dead tires. Mine would be a Georgia O’Keeffe lifestyle minus the art, a blank canvas in which sweet fuck all would happen.
I would rent a one-room adobe house with a wooden porch. I would sweep the front steps, admiring the lizards as they darted between the cracks. I would tend the blooming cacti that grew in patches where grass could not, where even the dirt had given up. The dream was so real it was studded with plausible annoyances. In the evenings I’d go outside to watch the sunset, but because it was behind the house, I’d have to put on slippers and step carefully around to the side yard where there would be an ugly chain link fence between me, the desert, and the nosy neighbor next door.
El Paso was for me a place in the mind, a vision that represented an escape from the ties that bind. It wasn’t so much that I even envisioned what it would look like, more that the way I’ve described it gives form to the feeling I imagined, the sense of a pleasant emptiness. It then became a place I planned on, deciding as I did to become a high school teacher and, being too impetuous to go back to college for a certificate, willing myself to relocate to a state that gave “career changers” a classroom. All I asked was that it be a desert state. My first choice, New Mexico, had too many restrictions, but there was Texas, who doesn’t give a fuck, and its little city of El Paso that jutted halfway into New Mexico like a bad neighbor. The barriers to a classroom of my own were very manageable annoyances: to take a subject examination and then a week’s worth of crash courses. I elected to take the test in El Paso expecting I might just stay on.
My preparation was nil, though in California I bought a car with a title that said it had been totaled once. That, and since I only had a flip phone, an out of date Rand McNally I found in a truck stop bathroom. I left the phone off for a few months and used the car to shuttle my bones across the desert floor, inadvertently polishing them like the sandblasted cattle bones O’Keeffe sent back to New York by the barrelful.
I drove this way and that, heeding the map almost never, letting weird signs guide my path. I chose destinations by the strangeness of their names, chose directions based on passing clouds. If I didn’t know where to head the next night, a dumb bright star in the sky would tell me, or else I’d just drive, ending up wherever I ended up. The car doubled as a bed when I felt too cheap and depraved to spring for a neon motel or when there were none in sight.
In the final months leading to El Paso, I ambled around stuffy Sedona, fatuously looking for a dive bar (there are none). I poked around Prescott. I tracked down where the Saguaro forests start, I sought out Navajo monuments. In the mines above Jerome I looked out over the pale valley below that spilled out like colorful sand from a broken hourglass.
After a week on Route 66, I blew a tire between Williams, AZ and the Grand Canyon; I got towed to Flagstaff where I had to borrow the mechanic’s car to sleep in. In Colorado I made a pilgrimage to the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi, and in New Mexico to the Pueblo and Earthships and hum of Taos. I tromped around the Bisti Badlands, capturing the striped ancient rock on film that later melted in the heat. I camped in the backseat in the ABQ, petulantly tossing empty Coors cans and Gatorade bottles of piss out the window. From Needles to Roswell, everywhere was a nowhere of a slightly different variety. Like lovers, I treasured all of them. I wanted earnestly just to stay and live in every shit little place I went to.
In the last stretch, I stayed in an airstream in Truth or Consequences. I didn’t intend to, but I spent a week lazing the days away along the Rio Grande with some drunk couple that had just met and married at seventy. It seemed the kind of place where you might do that. The entirety of the desert was a bizarre dreamland where anything might happen, where fucked up elderly people might fall in love and start anew, where you might get abducted, addicted, evicted, and then just move to some ghost town and change your name. On a long drive around the perimeter of the Very Large Array, the radio faded in briefly and I heard an advertisement for land: $150 an acre. No roads, no water, no electricity, no infrastructure, just land, as cheap and plentiful as you like. The West is the last place that still is what it is, which is nothing. It is nowhere, the last nothing, which makes it everything.
On my last night before arriving I stopped in Las Cruces. I meandered through its old town, so beautiful that I thought about ditching all my plans and just moving to some colonial city in Mexico. Did I really have it in me to dream this big about a place in America? As far as places in the mind go, surely a foreign land held more promise. But I’ve always felt that dreaming of foreign places is cheating. Of course the grass is always greener on the other side of the border. The true art is to make something out of nothing, here, nowhere, anywhere. I wanted no green, no grass, no otherness. I woke up bright and early in the backseat and drove the last fifty miles into El Paso.
All this time I’d casually assumed that El Paso, no matter what it was really like, would have at least a single block that resembled what I’d imagined, and that that would be enough to base a life off of. As I entered Texas, a huge billboard for Lone Star beer told me If you can’t find it, you must be in a foreign country. Speeding from New Mexico toward actual Mexico, I felt it was Texas, ironically, that was the foreign country. I rolled past the big box stores and suburban tract homes along the freeway and aimed for the skyscrapers further south. Downtown, right off the interstate—the same I-10 I grew up on Lord knows how many miles away in California—I spied a rough looking tavern with a hostel next door. I told myself, foreign or not, I'd found it. I was home.
I spent that hot spring afternoon in the air conditioned bar where I happened to meet three radical dykes who were elementary school teachers. It was all coming together, and so much easier than I could have hoped.
The next morning I left the hostel and walked around looking for somewhere to get coffee. On the block behind me I found a tiny cafe, some local place that had named itself after Seattle, posters of Pike Place Market up on the walls amidst a ladder, a drop cloth and a wooden sawhorse. The place was not quite open for business but the owner was happy to pour me a cup of coffee from his thermos.
He asked how I’d found his place and I told him the brief outline of my story. He shook his head.
“This is a military town, and the military’s all but dried up. You won’t find much here, especially down that way,” he said, and pointed toward the skyscrapers across the street. “Go for a walk, but be careful. You’ll see.”
I left and wandered down the block. I have never seen such a sight in my life, and hope never to again: block after block of glass skyscrapers, their windows busted, pigeons flying in and out. A few blocks deeper I came across a beautiful old Woolworth’s, its rounded art deco front boarded up, a quarter inch of dust lining its chrome banisters. I walked for half an hour and didn’t see a single person. Nothing. Just birds darting from one building to the next. Far down one block I thought I saw a truck; when it finally rolled into view it turned out to be giant tumbleweed. Other than a few ripped plastic bags clinging to it and the empty buildings all around, there was no sign of human habitation. Closer to the border with Juarez I finally came across people—a lot of people, huddled, some waiting, some sleeping, some clambering into the bed of a camioneta. I turned back.
I spent the next few days on the other side of town, shamed into strip mall Starbuckses, studying for the test. But there was nowhere I found where I could shake off the eerie feeling that boarded-up downtown gave me, nowhere I could rid myself of the visage of apocalypse.
High above town is a lookout point where I was told that on a clear night you could see as far as Mexico. Every evening at sunset I considered taking a drive up there. But for all my peregrinations as a solitary woman on the road, I was too afraid to, worried that what I’d see was a skyline, not glittering as even the most humble city skylines do, but hollowed-out: a dark, impoverished gap-toothed maw of failed dreams and doom. The notion of living alone in an adobe house in this town was too creepy to fathom.
When the test let out, I walked across the parking lot, got in my car and drove. I had had big plans to stay, and if to travel then to take in Marfa, maybe, or Big Bend. But I was too haunted by the past few days to even consider more emptiness. I drove straight to Austin.
It was a long drive with one thing to think about: now what? I still had my plan, but no destination. It felt like having a word on the tip of your tongue: the harder you think about it the more it slips away. I wanted my dusty adobe porch, my life of peace and solitude. I wanted El Paso! Not the real one but the one in my mind.
The rest of Texas and the slow burn from spring to summer was a blur. I shifted around between Houston, Dallas, San Antonio; my weather-worn bones up and moved to New Orleans for six weeks and ended up in Fort Worth at the end of it. All the promise of the desert had devolved into an empty landscape of failed dreams: a dull maze of truck stops, bad roadside bars and oversize billboards. The desert was oceanic and unforgiving, the heat drowned my soul. The cities became mere husks, carcasses, building-filled versions of the nowhere they grew out of. Not since El Paso did I conjure the artful appreciation I’d held before, where a discarded microwave along the roadside could blossom into an O’Keeffian orchid or a pale valley could resolve itself into the spilled sands of time. Somewhere along the way the hourglass was broken, the promise it held emptied out. Time had strewn itself thin, or got muddied in the waters crossing the Rio Grande.
In Houston while driving to my teacher training course, I passed a billboard for Southwest Airlines. In thousand-point font, it said Because El Paso is closer to San Diego than it is to here. I checked the atlas, it was true. Texas is that big. Big enough to absorb any of your dreams about it, big enough to blot out the lone star that hangs above it. Big enough to be as close to my original home as it was far away. I actually love Texas, love its big dumb assurance, much like California’s, much like New York’s, that it’s the only place in America—the only place in the world.
Only, the places in the world that count are the ones you really inhabit, the ones you live in not just on the ground but in your head. Over the years I have found my El Paso in a random smattering of other places: Seattle, Budapest, Mexican Hat, Utah. I suspect there is at least one more.
There is a mountain in Northern New Mexico, the Cerro Pedernal, which was a beloved place for O’Keeffe. As she once joked, “It's my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” I do not paint; my art is to write and to drive. I have returned to the Southwest five, ten times, each time looking for my own private El Paso. It’s somewhere—maybe in the canyon lands of southern Utah, maybe in a rocky outcropping near Four Corners. I haven’t found it yet, but I keep looking. It’s my private promise to myself that a lone star, like a north star, will tell me when I’ve hit home.
MELISSA MESKU is a writer and editor in New York City.