The high desert was not a place I was prepared to love.

Early morning just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico
Early morning just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico

My relationship with places typically establishes itself quickly – sometimes immediately. When I travel to a place, one of the squirrels living inside my head makes a quick notation, notepad in hand:  Home or not home? Spain was lovely, but not home. England was home. China was not. North Florida is. Northern California – though wonderful – was not.

The squirrel got confused with New Mexico. I first visited twelve or so years ago, for a quick weekend. It was beautiful then – aspens in bloom, petroglyphs and high peaks. But not home. Then I visited a second time just after Christmas last year. The place pulled me in even more on that trip, but not completely.

After this most recent visit, though, I find that my relationship with New Mexico is like a slow, seductive burn.  I never expected to be drawn to the southwest, a place that harbors creatures that at once repel and draw me. I never expected to become inured to the presence of black widow spiders loitering casually in the yard. But apparently I have.

_DSC0291-2When I look for the origins of this gathering affinity, for the reasons the burn of place-love is building, I find a few things. I am a photographer, and the light is unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere. There are at least three different characters of light in this photograph that I took my first day, immediately after a storm.

I’m also struck by the richness of life in what appears to be a starkly inhospitable desert landscape. We hiked up to a mesa in Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge on our second day, where one of my hosts and I encountered one of the most beautiful insects I’ve ever seen – cysteodemus wislizeni, alternately called either the desert blister beetle or the desert spider beetle. The creature has an iridescent, sparkly blue body, a surprising contrast to the earthen tones of the desert.

Blue desert blister beetle.
Blue desert blister beetle.

And there’s also the fact that prairie dogs live in a city park in Santa Fe, and that Buddhist monks come to bless them. And then there is the history, and the richness of (sometimes conflicting) cultures.

But mostly the reasons are elusive, residing mostly in vague feelings of freedom, rightness of self, and the sense that I’m being beckoned. These feelings slipped in when we would go out at dawn and find photographs, as my lungs constricted on the way up to the mesa, on the trail running alongside the railroad outside of town, and when an Arizona Sister butterfly landed in front of me next to a rushing stream.

Arizona Sister butterfly
Arizona Sister butterfly

When I realized with a smile that I’d used half a stick of lip balm in three days. When a hummingbird strafed my nephew’s wedding reception. When I felt that the place had awakened my every cell, whispering to each them of something larger than the confusion of this moment in my life.

When I found myself wondering when I could go back.

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