Driving the sixty miles home from the Albuquerque Airport (or Sunport as it’s been somewhat annoyingly named) back to Santa Fe is always a shock to my system. On “paper” (now known as wikipedia), Albuquerque has about the same population as Atlanta. But unlike Atlanta, which seems to sprawl almost into Tennessee, once you leave the city limits of Albuquerque (which happens before you can find some decent UFO talk on the AM dial), you are out. I mean out. Pretty much just brown and rust remain at ground level, and then it’s blue up to the horizon. All horizons. Mesquite, piñon, sage. Mesas, arroyos and sky. That’s all you see in every direction until you approach the (more poetically named) Sangre de Cristo mountains. Then Santa Fe appears sleepily in the distance, and I come out of my desert-induced trance eager to get home to my boys and Sarah.
I felt the shock of return strongly this time. Maybe it’s because it’s autumn, the season of strong feelings, or maybe it’s that I started playing “Winter Winds” on this past run of shows, and that gets me in a heady mood. I was returning from a little tour in New York and New England, a part of the world that does autumn better than, well, than anywhere. I grew up in that leafy party of the world. And it’s the smell of wet, decaying earth and woodsmoke that brings me back home. So I was in a sort of intoxicated state during this run, forcing Bill (my guitarist) to don scarf and hat, visible breath be damned, while I lapped up the crisp air like a dog through open car or hotel windows.
Upon returning to New Mexico a few days ago, it was hard not to wonder at the hospitableness of my new country. Breathing in an air so dry it seems to pull moisture out from within you, surveying the cracked ground and unstoppable sky, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. It’s also hard not to feel something animal stirring inside, something primal and unkempt. It’s wild out here. Bold. Bright. Driving up through the landscape in this unparalleled light, you feel that. Pulsing. Alive. You stand out in the landscape. You’re also completely dwarfed by it. You don’t exactly fit in. Wallace Stegner put it better than maybe anyone when he writes in “Wolf Willow” that man is “as sudden as an exclamation point, as enigmatic as a question mark…At noon the total sun pours on your single head; at sunrise or sunset you throw a shadow a hundred yards long.” Granted, he was describing the endless prairies of Saskatchewan, but I think it applies to big country anywhere.
This is not a land of weathered wooden barns, of church steeples and streams. There aren’t many well-painted fences and front porches out here. There are no quaint, cozy villages here. And this is not a country of slow and gentle change, where the land visibly regenerates, tucks itself in to rest under mounds of leaf mulch, heals and then springs back to life. It’s not neat out here. And man doesn’t fit in. The land doesn’t take care of us, doesn’t care for us at all. It makes you feel both totally insignificant and, at rare moments, like a giant.
There’s a truth in that duality. What Wallace Stegner says about our shadows in this country seems to apply to many realms. It’s something we confront as we leave our childhood behind and our parents no longer hold and shelter us. I feel it as a parent myself. The dither between the chaos and the calm, from losing my temper to losing myself in love. Perfect fits aren’t long lasting, if they’re ever attained. And if I’m honest, it’s true in my life as a musician, too. During some performances, I feel powerfully centered and purposed, valuable, generous. I believe in what I see and sing about. I think it matters. There’s nothing I’d rather do. Other nights, I wonder whether I’m making any noise at all. I question every sacrifice I make and force my family to make. At those times, I cast no shadow.
Somehow the sixty miles between Albuquerque and Santa Fe beg these questions–what we’re here to do and why. They’re probably questions that need to be begged. I think about these questions a lot, but I think about them more in autumn. And I think about them out here in the desert, where I’m not surrounded by turning maple leaves or by sights and smells that make more sense.