Elise has a beautiful house in Albuquerque, a place full of natural light. A string of lights shaped like chile peppers hangs outside the back door, which is a private entrance for her guests. I am staying for two nights at her house, my first time ever trying AirBNB. Within minutes of meeting her, I know we are kindred souls, and we have a lot to talk about. Originally from Pennsylvania, she has led a sort of double life: she left her home state years ago, to move west. Working in conservation, she tried to go back to Pennsylvania once, but found the place so changed by fracking that she couldn’t live there anymore. New Mexico is her home now, but she seems unsettled still, and a vague sense of exile drifts around her.
Becky is a friend of Elise, and is a speech pathologist, working with babies and very young children. I go to stay with her my third night in Albuquerque, when Elise has other guests in the AirBNB room. Becky has a room available, and has been advertising for a housemate, now that her two kids have moved out. Becky and I get along just fine, too. She tells me her family life is “complicated” at the moment. Her kids, both adopted, are in their late teens/early twenties. Becky is a single mom, and after being an over-involved parent now has to learn to let go. Her eldest daughter is trying to be independent, but keeps screwing up, forgetting to pay her bills. Becky’s youngest is transgender, and moved out to live with another family, someone who’d be willing to give him the hormone shots. Becky is supportive of her child, but obviously is struggling with the change. She mostly gets the new pronoun correct (“he” instead of “she”), but sometimes forgets.
My last night in Albuquerque, Elise, Becky and I have dinner together. Elise cooks us a delicious vegetarian meal, we each have a tiny glass of red wine, and talk about places we’ve traveled and adventures we’ve had. They wonder if they could make it to both the Albuquerque and Santa Fe Women’s Marches on January 21 – and whether a big group of women could occupy the RailRunner train that goes between the two cities. We have a hopeful conversation about disparate groups working together for change, thinking of the future. President Obama’s last speech is on NPR in the background, too soft for us to hear his words, but loud enough for us to recognize his voice. These women seem like old friends, and even though I’ve just met them, I know they’re kind, and thoughtful, and I would trust them with my life.
Becky drives me to the bus station in the morning, and I ride three hours south to Las Cruces. Will and his young helper Austin pick me up at the bus stop. Will’s a heavy equipment operator and does construction, and together he and Austin are renovating a ranch southwest of the city. I met Will recently, back home, and he’s invited me to stay for a night or two here on his home turf. We run a few errands, and go to NAPA Auto Parts to look for a replacement fuel cap for one that’s gone missing from Will’s loader. I’ve been reading The Monkey Wrench Gang and can’t help thinking, “I wonder if Hayduke took it?” but I don’t mention this idea out loud. We leave Austin at the lumber yard, where they have another truck loaded with lumber for the renovation job. He’ll meet us back at the ranch. Will and I chat, on the way to the grocery store. He tells me his Mexican girlfriend got deported a couple of years ago. They still text each other now and then, but it doesn’t seem possible to maintain a relationship anymore. He could get a passport and go visit her in Juarez… but how sustainable would that be, really?
We pick up a couple of steaks and a 30-pack of Coors Lite, then hit the bumpy drive out to the ranch. He reaches into the back seat and breaks into the case, handing me two ice cold cans. “Would you mind popping one of these for me? Open one for yourself, too. It’s all private roads here.” “Won’t we spill ‘em, with all this washboard?” I ask. “Nah, just drink faster. Or – I could drive faster,” says Will. Burnt-looking mesquite shrubs and weedy mustard grow in the sandy dunes. A few steers look up as we drive by. The landscape is big, open, barren. Nothing to see for miles, except powerlines, until the Organ Mountains crack the eastern horizon with their crazy shapes.
We play pool for five or six hours, a game called Cutthroat that’s good for three players. Austin blasts country music from his phone, through powerful speakers that shake the house. (The volume is meant to distract Will from his game, which sometimes works.) I am amused by how much fun I’m having, hanging out with the boys, and what a completely opposite night it is from last night, when I was listening to NPR and chatting with the girls. We take a break to grill the steaks and make a salad. During dinner, I notice a few rifles of various types leaning in the corners of the rooms. “For coyotes, rattlesnakes, and other varmints.” Coyotes have been killing the neighbor’s calves the last few nights. We hear them yipping and yapping out there. Austin takes a high-beam spotlight and looks out the back door.
We get tired of playing pool at about 11:00, right around the same time we run out of beer. Will and I switch to Jim Beam. We start talking politics. Austin goes to bed, but Will and I keep at it, trying to find common ground, somewhere. It’s frustrating, but kind of fun in a weird way, to hash through all those issues again. For the first time, I’m having this conversation without any yelling, without any assumptions. We’re both independent thinkers, and neither of us are quick to draw hard lines, but somehow we’re pretty much exact opposites politically. Even though we share so many values: Taking care of our loved ones. Being responsible stewards of the land. Helping our neighbors. Working hard and doing a good job. I hardly know this man, but I know he’s kind, and thoughtful, and I would trust him with my life.
At 3:00 AM we finally quit, all talked out but having come to no conclusions. We shake hands, standing on opposite sides of a barbed wire fence, still friends.