Albuquerque: Old Town, Old Friends

Day 4 (June 22)

Whisps of white pollen from cottonwood trees float like giant snowflakes through the air of Albuquerque. The trees tower oak-like at Rio Bravo Park alongside the Rio Grande, but with bigger canopies and more fragility; thick branches break off in the winds. Their fragrance floats with their fluffy seeds: dry, timbery, with a hint of sage. We walked with Bud’s old friend Greg and his girlfriend Tammy through the park at dusk last night, fighting off the first real mosquitoes I’ve seen since moving out West.

With limited funds and a 7-year-old in tow, I can’t honestly say I saw a lot of Albuquerque. We spent some time in Old Town, a Spanish plaza centered around a 18th century church and filled with stores selling Indian, Southwest, and Mexican goods. I’ve seen this kind of plaza before — pretty, but touristy. I liked what I saw of Albuquerque: public sculptures, coffeehouses, taquerias. Yet ours was mostly a social visit. Although Bud and Greg grew up in the same neighborhood, they hadn’t seen each other in almost 30 years. Reunions like that are chancy, but Greg and Tammy were easygoing, generous hosts. Cole loved him. They sat and played checkers together for an hour while Bud and I washed the van. (I’ve never seen the van looking so good.) I’m realizing that for Cole, travel isn’t about seeing things; it’s about playing.

Our drive to Albuquerque was beautiful; it’s been hard to get anything written or read because I can’t take my eyes off the scenery. I have mixed feelings about the Western nostalgia and Native fetishism being peddled in these old Route 66 towns. I don’t feel particularly romantic about the days before suffrage, civil rights, and Stonewall. I think there’s a conservative regression in bikers’ adoption of cowboy ways.

But driving through the West, down the routes that for centuries have brought pioneers and immigrants from the Midwest, East, and Europe, I do share a sense of wonder at the unique beauty of this region. When the designers/architects Charles and Ray Eames took their honeymoon in these lands, they brought a piece of tumbleweed back home with them. It still hangs from the ceiling of the landmark Modernist house they built in the Pacific Palisades — an American symbol if there ever was one.

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