"Nobody Passes," Make/shift, Spring/Summer 2012
Imagine a place where the clouds spread through the sky like cotton candy, translucent taffy—imagine bright blue sky at the horizon even when it rains—or, when it doesn’t rain, but it looks like it’s going to rain and then the clouds swoop on by. Imagine a place where the houses mimic the earth, rolling in soft brown hues along the hills as bright purple, yellow, orange, red flowers grow from the tiniest cracks in the sidewalks. Imagine a place where dirt alleys shelter wild ecosystems on the other side of brown, tan, gray walls covered in vines so thick they look like bushes and the sun is so bright that sometimes you have to wear sunglasses when it’s raining. Or, I do, anyway.
This is the desert, and this desert is lush. Seven thousand feet above sea level and that’s how the sky becomes part of the earth. Imagine this town is called Amnesia, and the biggest celebration of the year marks 400 years of Spanish colonialism. Even though we’re in the United States. Tricultural harmony, that’s what they call it here—Native, Hispanic, Anglo: Native is on the walls in museums, and selling jewelry in the town square; Hispanic the architecture, the food, and the people who have been forced from the center of town by the price of housing; Anglo the ones who run the galleries and hotels that market the sky, the sun, the light, this harmony.
Elsewhere, Hispanic may be an outdated term, but here people hold on to it gladly, madly—someone will tell you, proudly, that their family has been here thirteen generations—their ancestors are from Spain, not Mexico! Yes, many hold on to whiteness through generations of race mixing, neglecting to mention that their ancestors arrived just in time to take the land from the people you now see rarely in this town known as The City Different—different, perhaps, because all the major streets are named after conquistadors instead of U.S. war heroes. Or else Catholic priests, missionaries, and saints. If you look carefully at the side streets away from the Hallmarked adobe architecture in the center of town, perhaps you will find Apache, Hopi, Pueblo.
In The City Different, the air is so fresh that there are no emissions standards, so everywhere you go there are ancient trucks spewing out toxic fumes. This is a town forty miles from the biggest nuclear laboratory in the country, the one where they created the bomb, where thousands of tons of nuclear waste are buried in the ground right near the source of drinking water, but remember, this is a town called Amnesia: let’s talk about the light, the air, the energy. Drive a few miles from the center of this town of 70,000 people and you will find not one but two Walmarts.
People have fled here for generations—artists and socialites and escapees, many of whom became realtors and developers and connoisseurs of the unusual, selling authenticity to the highest bidder. Somehow Amnesia was named the gayest town in the United States, but living here it often seems like most of the gay people are closeted. The desert always sounded ridiculous to me—I hate the heat, right? But then I found myself crushed by over a decade of debilitating health problems, despondent over the failures of relationships I once believed expanded my queer visions of intimacy, trust, negotiation, accountability, and flamboyance outside of status quo normalcy. I was stuck in a city that only felt like loss—I needed a dramatic change, and I realized, wait: I’ve lived in so many different places, but they’ve all been more or less big-city-moist-coastal. And then I found out that Amnesia is a four-season town—oh, I do love snow!
When I arrived I did feel clearer—one year later and my health is dramatically worse. The dry desert air is too harsh; I feel so isolated. I’ve lived in a lot of depoliticized towns in this depoliticized country, but this town called Amnesia takes the cake. Here counterculture moved in the 1960s, and hasn’t moved since: a self-congratulatory emphasis on the rhetoric of diversity without critical engagement reigns supreme. Wacky subcultures do little more than infuse the tourist economy with hints of desert flavor—sure, you can disappear in your all-terrain vehicle down a dirt road to hide out in your fauxdobe casita, but all this means to me is that everyone drives everywhere and connections are rare. Sometimes this makes me desperate, other times lonely, almost always separate. I’ve learned the frontier mythologies of the wide-open West that allow for so much degradation and pollution, colonialism in the everyday. Here the birds chirp even in the middle of the winter, and I am no better for it.