Rocket City

My infatuation with New Mexico began when I was 17 or 18, around about the time that I was similarly infatuated with the idea of the American Road Trip: I devoured On The Road and Dharma Bums by Kerouac, Travels with Charlie by Steinbeck, and I remember a book by a woman who traveled across Australia with her dog and maybe a horse for company (I didn’t like this one quite as much because, typically, the dog died). I would scour the bookstore for titles that seemed relevant, and read them all: anything, everything that let the spirit within me roam and fly free while my feet remained safely planted within the comforting walls of my parents’ house. When I think about my teens (especially mid-to late teens) what I remember most is that restlessness, and if I could go back and talk to the girl that I was, I would say for goodness sake quit mooning around, just get up and go do something; you’ll get to roam plenty one of these days.

Into the West 2019 1 Alamogordo (8 of 9).jpg

So, my infatuation with New Mexico began in that hotbed of hormones & dreams, when I found a wacky novel called Rocket City at my local Barnes & Noble. I don’t know how many people read that book, but I adored it, probably in part because the story was infused with so much that was strange (and yet not strange), and the fallout from that love affair was a powerful attraction to a state I had never given any thought to before. Last year I finally got to visit, and it certainly didn’t disappoint me; this year I have already been back once (and will hopefully get to go again before the year is out), and on that second visit I got to see the fabled city of my teenage dreams: Alamogordo.

It’s fine if you’re laughing at this. I honestly don’t know a dang thing about the city, other than its proximity to White Sands, besides what I read about it in that book so long ago, which is mostly that it was a kinda odd place with lots of signs in the shapes of rockets. Last year we were planning on heading that way after we left Roswell, but the weather forecast was bad so we went north instead. This year, our main destination was White Sands, so I knew we would be going through Alamogordo and I was full of a ridiculous amount of excitement that I mostly kept to myself because I didn’t want to make my family crazy.

We approached from Cloudcroft, where we were staying (sort of, in the forest), which meant a long lovely descent out of the mountains. Then suddenly, there in the distance, we saw the glitter of white sand, spread out like a mirage on the horizon. Before it lay the city of Alamogordo, in what is possibly the most obvious display of an area’s geologic past I have ever seen: there on a flat plain, buttressed by mountains, so clearly to my eyes the site of an ancient lake or sea. I shifted in the passenger seat, got my camera ready, and prepared myself for the fun onslaught of rockets.

Well, there weren’t any. Not that I saw. The city was flat as the Texas panhandle, and we drove right through what was probably the outskirts since it was the fastest route to our destination. The best I could do was this one, later, after we returned from an afternoon of frying in dehydration on the gypsum dunes, hot, dirty, thankful for the ice cream place I had found thanks to a search on my phone.

We didn’t stay long; just a quick drive through the historic downtown, and then a hasty retreat back to camp for the hot showers we had seen advertised. We had to be there by 5.

I seriously doubt that my brief visit to Alamogordo did it much justice. It’s difficult to do that when you pretty much only stop for ice cream. Maybe I’ll be back there one day, with a little more time; maybe I’ll find the rockets. . . . or maybe, like so many teenage dreams, they were something that existed only in the made up world of the author’s mind.

Many of these photographs were made from the passenger seat of the truck, and it’s possible some of them are not actually in Alamogordo; it’s hard to remember everything precisely when you’re living moment to moment, and I don’t write down records of where & when I hit the shutter button. All color images are Nikon FM2 and Kodak Ektar; the black & whites are Hasselblad 500cm and Kodak Tri-X.