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[Essay] New Mexico to Major Tom

by Sean Stiny

The gin-clear runoff from abundant winter snow meanders down spontaneous falls. The rum-colored Rio Grande holds sway through the valley it has chiseled for eons, and the New Mexican stars splay the obsidian sky. Forty thousand reasons for living.

Far above the high desert patina, Major Tom is floating in his tin can. “Can you hear me?” pleads Taos ground control.

We sat down for an authentic New Mexican dinner, the finest cuisine the Southwest has to offer, prepared by its heartiest of chefs. Staring down at us as we ordered was a posterized Guy Fieri in all his frost-tipped frenzy. The self-elected autocrat of Flavortown seems to have dived on down here to the apogee of Southwestern fare and ate until his chili pepper heart was contented. And he threw in a signed poster for the dining room to boot.

Taos locals cater to tourist bellies, rising with them for breakfast and buzzing with them at dinner. The stillness of the day is theirs alone though, the siesta hours theirs to while away in song or slumber like the mountain chickadees in the piñon pine.

New Mexican mythos is brimming with ancestral civilizations and future civilizations, tribes living in walls of rock and ETs exploring the terrain in saucers. A landscape rooted in antiquities but flush with oddities and peculiarities and deformities we’ve inflicted.

Several thousand feet above the desert and an hour-and-a-half drive from Taos, the stars look very different today than when fission was consummated. Two types of fission, anyway, implosion and the gun-type method. Signs around the perimeter still warn, Caution: Unexploded Ordnance. If they plan to drop another Acme A-bomb, the only thing that can outrun a kilo or two in the desert is Roadrunner. Coyote is left charred and smoldering and radiated.

Though the lab is still there conducting newer tests—some more innocuous, like vaccine research—and selling Oppie bobbleheads, it no longer defines New Mexico. Nor does the landing of little green men down in Roswell. New Mexico’s definition is now tinged with red, green, and Christmas—a combo of red and green—chili. Or Frito pie from the five-and-dime in Santa Fe. Bourdain approved, of course.

Homes roost sustainably in the New Mexican flatlands constructed entirely from refuse. Very simply, utter junk. Dubbed Earthships, all day the glass bottles, aluminum cans, and bald tires used as framing take a beating from the implacable Zia sun. Better there than getting beat down by a behemoth yellow Caterpillar aimlessly moving rubbish at the local landfill.

Gray water is likewise central to powering these macabre yet heartening dwellings that look to have sprung from the soil like the creature in Tremors. The drab water is held in a cistern, pumped out to irrigate indoor vegetable gardens, then collected a final time for lavatory use. No doubt a commune of sorts, the Earthship community is full of resolute individuals, who just may or may not decide to wear a shirt that day.

As the Earthshippers demonstrate, garbage is a human idea. We used to repair appliances, stitch clothes, cobble shoes. Nowadays, if the On button breaks on the washing machine, a new one is procured, and the husk of the junked one sits in the landfill for untold epochs.

Earthshippers affirm the absurdity of relying on corporations for our earthly needs. Food is human fuel, not profit fuel. The physiological needs of each earthling aren’t relative to publicly traded monoliths.

Though it is the land of bombs and Martians and bungalows made of tires, New Mexico is also the land of horned sheep grazing on canyon rims, coyotes crouched in sage, and ruins that sheltered ancient tribes in walls of white rock. The Ancestral Puebloans carved their diminutive rooms into canyons comprised of tuff, volcanic ash turned into thick layers of brittle rock. Tuffaceous walls—soft enough to carve with chunks of sandstone, antler bone, and cottonwood staves—provided them shelter from the storm.

We paced down the Alcove House Trail in Bandelier National Monument and were met with a tremendous crack stemming somewhere just ahead of us. A jarring wincing sound, it was followed half a second later by another just as jolting. Surely, they weren’t testing gadgets at the nearby lab? Though from their intensity, it felt, for a nanosecond, feasible. A half mile farther revealed a Parks crew had felled a thundering ponderosa. The cracks were arboreal fission: first, the pine hitting the forest floor, then second, it splitting in two.

With the placid sun at our backs, we plodded along the sagebrush and ponderosa trails, elk droppings freckling the topsoil. We looked slack-jawed down at the prickly pear nestled in their cashmere bed of snow and the quartz peppering the igneous rock that shone up at us. We had indeed found the enchantment we sought, where the sage greets the gorge and the big river unmasks quartz from stone. Kneeling to palm the shimmering rocks was like touching geologic time itself, a preternatural sensation.

I don’t know if the Earthship houses make a bit of difference in our modern maelstrom. If the champagne bottles used as foundation and the Coors Light cans used as fencing make a dent in the landfill tonnage. But if there’s a chosen people who shall get to witness the white light first, the black hole pulling us asunder, the mortal coil in which we slip, the peculiar cosmos of Major Tom’s, it’d be them, the Earthshippers. If it helps nothing but their conscience, then they’ve bested those who drive Teslas and Priuses and rinse out salsa jars and take cloth bags into Trader Joe’s. The whole lot of us.

An esoteric Western, New Mexico. Where Bonanza meets The Jetsons, The Lone Ranger meets The Twilight Zone. El Nuevo México is a groundswell of furrowed peaks, frisky deserts, and people that are, well, enchanted. If green men landed here, they had chosen wisely. And if Major Tom is floating in his tin can far above, the rich pageant he sees from high above New Mexico is spellbinding and blue, and there’s nothing left to do.

Sean Stiny has had creative non-fiction published in various pubs including Catamaran, Los Angeles Review, Grit Magazine, Sac Mag, True Northwest, The Wave, Kelp Journal, and Wild Roof Journal.


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