Jersey Girl at 10,000 Feet

It's not the altitude—it's an attitude.

Every once in a while, a trip miles out of one's comfort zone is necessary to appreciate what one has left behind. Like trees. Or humidity. Okay—nobody ever misses humidity when they leave Jersey, the external moisture capital of the East Coast. But staying in one's comfort zone for too long leads to complacency and possible personal hygiene issues, neither of which were responsible for my recent trek to New Mexico.  

Family is what moved me West, facilitated by a first-class ticket, courtesy of Mr. Mason, who flies at least three times a week. My uncle, Jim, is a frail 89-year-old who has been struggling with health issues since moving to Albuquerque two years ago. Stubbornly independent, he paid not one whit of attention to the pleading and begging from his daughters, who were both on the East Coast. (What is it about old age that makes people so darned stubborn? Can I get a volunteer right now who will poison me when I get like that?). He said New Mexico was where he wanted to be, so off he went.  

I wanted to see Uncle Jim and spend time with my cousin and her family, since they too had moved to New Mexico to help take care of their father/grandpa. What a long-winded explanation! I went because I wanted to go and they wanted to have me. My cousin also tried to talk me into moving there, but that came much later in my dusty little holiday.

The first tip-off I wasn't in Jersey any more was the view from my window seat. I was pretty engrossed in a book and hadn't been paying much attention, so when I finally pushed up the flimsy plastic sheet masquerading as a window shade, I saw a landscape that could have been Mars. It was a brown and desolate land, broken up by the occasional ribbon of black tar road: here a mesa, there a mesa, and not much else. Sometimes, the brown would bleed to red, but the emptiness was what was so alien to me. I live in Jersey, one of the most densely populated states in the country! Where is everybody?

The foreign landscape continued to intrigue me throughout my stay, but I never had that "aha!" moment when I put on my cowboy hat and discovered the arid, under-populated state was really my happy place. Nope, didn't happen—much to my cousin's chagrin. At one point, when we were roaming around on 10 acres of piñon pine, choya and lots of dust, Carol turned to me and said, "Think of this, the next time you're stuck in traffic in Cherry Hill." She then swept her arm over an arid wasteland filled, no doubt, with snakes and tarantulas just waiting to jump me. I shuddered.

What could I say? That I prefer the madness of Route 38 at rush hour, or that I am deliriously happy fighting my way through Wegman's on a Sunday? Neither of those statements are true, but neither would it ever be true to say I prefer New Mexico to New Jersey.

On my first full day in Santa Fe, we went to a mineral springs spa called Ojo Caliente. It was delightful. Just like being plunked down in a Star Wars bar with all the odd creatures parading around in plush robes and Speedos, wine glasses in hand. As I moved from the lithium pool to the iron pool, from the arsenic pool to the sodium pool, I can honestly say I have never been so relaxed and so prune-like at the same time. My skin was chalk dry but my mind was in a cloud of Zen-like fluff that was quite blissful.

On Saturday morning, I was taken to the farmer's market, which could have been a casting call for the new Village People. There were many cowboys in chaps, leather vests and boots, there were bikers with handlebar mustaches, there were Indian chiefs. (I made the mistake of referring to them as Native Americans and my cousin informed me that out there, they are Indians). Not to be outdone by the men, the women could have been typecast as well, with the earth mother look the most prevalent. I felt right at home with my gray hair, but I didn't have the long braid down my back or the earth-tone prairie skirt sweeping the ground. One earth mama was leading her goat through the market, another had a large snake twined around her torso. Both were apple-cheeked and shiny, without makeup.

When we lived in California, I got the feeling people moved West to reinvent themselves. I think the same can be said of New Mexico. At one of the stores we stopped in, by the plaza in Santa Fe, the woman behind the counter was a big blonde dressed in black. She was covered in silver and turquoise jewelry on both wrists and her neck. Her sleek pants were embroidered and her black cowboy hat was festooned with more silver and turquoise, brooches and stars. Yet when my cousin asked her about a specific bracelet in the display case, it turned out she was from France. She had fallen for a Texan and transformed herself into a very beautiful cowgirl.

Without a doubt, New Mexico has a sparse beauty that enthralls many people. I have always been appreciative of beauty and was awed by our hike up into the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains to view the aspen trees in their golden glory. But being fit at sea level is not the same as being fit at 8,000 miles altitude. Two hours up the mountain and I was wheezing like someone with half a lung. I waved my cousins on and made myself comfortable on a rock so I could watch a peppy little bird perched high atop a Ponderosa pine, singing its intricate Western song.

As I sat, waiting for people who were comfortable chugging uphill to an altitude of 10,000 feet, I realized despite the company of cousins, the glory of Georgia O'Keefe country and authentic Mexican cuisine, I missed the canopy of trees on Colonial Avenue and the cacophony of life in noisy New Jersey. Yes, it's crowded here, but it is also quite beautiful, especially when the leaves change color in the fall or in the spring, when trees begin to bud and bloom, their tiny dabs of color a welcome signal that winter is almost gone.

And really, if you're a Jersey girl like me, there is only ever one happy place for you. And that would be the SHEW-ur.


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