At that point in my life, I wasn’t really going anywhere in particular. I was letting chance be my compass and only companion. I had been hitching rides, accepting anything along the way as my destination, as one location bled into the next. A restless nomad with a hole inside, an existential sense of displacement, filled yet unfulfilled by wanderlust.
I had been in Santa Fe a little too long, a dry spell on finding another ride, and saw a shuttle service. They only went to one place – Albuquerque. I figured what the hell, it couldn’t be any worse. A dusty city, lost out in the desert, an oasis for wayward travelers. I don’t think anyone actually ever plans to end up in Albuquerque, it just sort of happens. The locals live their lives as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist. They treat new faces the same as old faces, as if you’ve always been there, as if you’d always be.
I got dropped off outside a motel and wandered into town, soon finding my way into a bar. It was an unruly looking bunch of people there, drinking the day away, seeking shelter from the searing sun, and a cool beverage to wash the dirt from their mouths. Their skin tan and cracked from a life lived in the desert, large hats upon their heads that they wore to cover their creased brows. It appeared a desolate existence, here in Albuquerque, yet it still seemed like there was so much more just below the surface.
I sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. I told the barkeep to surprise me with something local, and she placed in front of me an unmarked dark bottle of mystery beer. The ale was strong and had an earthy aftertaste of bark, but I didn’t hate it. I ordered another, which raised my server’s eyebrow like she’d expected me to spit it out on the first swig. I just kept ordering more, and my ignorant bravado was enough for one of the locals to start chatting me up.
His name was Joe, and he was a Navajo. A large man, with deep eyes, and enormous hands that showed the wear of someone who has worked the earth. He wanted to know how I came to be in Albuquerque, and I told him purely by chance. He smiled and told me I was on a spiritual journey, and that I would find peace in Albuquerque, as he had. I wanted to know his story, but before I could inquire he asked if I liked movies. Of course, and he asked if I’d ever seen Dances with Wolves, or Last of the Mohicans. He leaned in close to me, his eyes burning, a faint smile. ”Do you recognize me?”
Sorry, I told him, I didn’t. Joe shrugged, that was okay. He was just an extra in those movies. His cousin, he told me, I would recognize, as he was a really good actor and the movie people always ended up giving him lines to say. He told me his cousin had gone to California to try to be a real actor, but couldn’t get any work. No one wanted him except for Indian movies, and no one was making Indian movies anymore. Joe lamented that his cousin could have just found peace in Albuquerque, as he had. I began to ask Joe about this magical peace he had found here, but he waved me off as he paid for my drinks and told me to come with him. As he had picked up my tab I couldn’t possibly refuse.
We got into his van, it was one of those old ones with just one large sliding door on the passenger side, and he told me we were going to go get some food. We drove to a Pizza Hut. This, he remarked excitedly, was fine dining. We shared tales of travel over a large pepperoni pizza. Joe enjoyed talking to me and invited me to hang out with him that night. He would take me around, meet some of his friends. I happily agreed, and I felt my luck was on the upswing. Here I was, in town only half a day, and already I’d made a new friend.
Night arrived and we went to a crowded bar. In Albuquerque, there isn’t much to do but drink, and the people, they love to drink. I met some more locals, some Natives like Joe, others not. So many names and faces that I couldn’t hope to remember them all. Joe seemed to know everyone, and everyone knew Joe, and therefore everyone soon knew me. My own personal Albuquerque concierge. I was on my fourth or fifth mystery beer and that’s when I turned around and ran right into Vee. She had blonde hair with blue streaks, a nose ring, and a leather studded belt with a rattlesnake head buckle. Our eyes locked and we shared an instant connection, the bond of not really belonging to anywhere, and certainly not to this place. I apologized for running into her and offered to buy her a drink. Brazenly she took the one from my hand and told me I could go get myself another.
I hurried quickly to the bar and when I returned Vee was still there, drinking my beer and smiling. She’d waited for me a moment, and I had been waiting for her forever. We had come to be in Albuquerque much the same way, wandering, seeking. Immediate kindred spirits, the conversation came easy, like old friends falling back in step despite years apart. In a blink the patrons started to disperse, the bar would soon close. Vee, sensing my worry our time was slipping away, said she knew a place that was open all night, a cowboy bar just down the street. It was a rowdier crowd, but I didn’t mind it. People stayed out of Vee’s way, I don’t think they knew how to handle her. A lone vibrant bloom in a field of weeds.
We drank more mystery beer as late became later, and the conversation became electric as we huddled into a corner of this seedy, dusty bar, baring our most sacred secrets to one another. A melding of ourselves, our burdens, and desires and it became clear that this sharing of spirit would soon become a sharing of our bodies. We practically kicked down the door to her motel room and were at each other, equally tender and primal, two protons accelerating at the speed of light through the tunnel that is our shared existence to collide in the search of god.
Later that night we smoked a joint in quiet contemplation, both body and soul satisfied. The desert moon shone through the window, and I looked upon it believing this might be the end of my travel. Vee offered me something I hadn’t found in all these different places. Not just companionship, but an understanding of the journey, of the desire for meaning. I smiled as I thought about my new friend Joe, that he had seen something, a vision into my future that I had been unable or unwilling to see yet. As he predicted, I had found peace in Albuquerque.
I awoke in the morning and was hit immediately with the heat of the desert sun. I reached next to me and felt nothing, heard nothing, and I found myself once again to be empty.