The question was asked again, recently. “Why Las Cruces, Dave? You could have moved anywhere, why did you choose Las Cruces?”
It’s a long story.
To begin with, I’ve had a love affair with the state of my birth since I was old enough to understand the implications of being born where I was. New Mexico is a state like no other; and not just physically. I was conceived in fertile and primitively arcane soil. As a child I was surrounded by tradition, culture and legend. Even more, I grew up surrounded by monuments and historical plaques bearing names like Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Geronimo and Pancho Villa.
When I was growing up, the golden age of Westerns was coming to a close. Cowboys were on television, in movies and in our toy boxes, but interest was waning. We were the last generation marinated in Cowboy lore and the first to embrace the Space Age. We were the imaginarians who straddled both worlds, hog tied the pioneer spirit and dragged it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Now, imagine being one of those kids and realizing at a very young age that the heroes and anti-heroes playing out their scripted roles on the screen, were representations of actual people who had lived and died right there in his neck of the woods.
It was probably my first real epiphany. The one that shook me to the core with the realization that, despite having been born in a tiny, backwater New Mexican town, I could rise up to be somebody special, just like those ghosts of legend forever alive right outside my door.
I watched a lot of movies, late night television and voraciously read everything I could about the area I lived in; the great Southwest. I begged my parents to take me to see historical monuments and ghost towns, all within day trip driving distance.
I read about ranchers and outlaws and the different tribes of Native American, the descendents of whom I attended school with on a daily basis. I read about missionaries who had built the very church I’d been baptized in. I read about skirmishes and battles, pioneers and soldiers all with connections to the land I inhabited.
And then, I read about the Atomic bomb and realized that that, too, was part of my cultural heritage. Having been born in southern New Mexico, within half a day’s drive of the Trinity site and less than two decades after its momentous entry into the annals of world history, I was a true child of the atom.
From that point on, my horizons became limitless.
I set out to explore the vast, wide world and experience for myself all those wonders I had marveled at as they paraded across the television or movie screen. Or unscrolled like mystic symbols from books I barely understood, providing pictures like little windows into worlds I never even realized could exist before that moment. I had to see that shit for myself.
I left New Mexico behind, but I always knew I’d be back. The immediacy of the land was ingrained into my psyche. For 25 years I explored and dabbled, I traveled and connected, I conversed and interviewed, I conspired and was inspired. I met fascinating people in fabled lands like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Phoenix, Sydney, and so many more. I collaborated with colossal talents and helped build wondrous things, places and events from the ground up.
And when I was done, I came home.
So, consider the question. Why Las Cruces? It was the only logical choice. Anybody actually born and raised in New Mexico will tell you that there is a HUGE difference between the northern part of the state and the southern part of the state. It’s like night and day to us. Not that they’re bad people, living up in the hinterlands, they’re just… you know… different.
I knew I would end up in southern New Mexico, if and when I ever returned. I also knew it wouldn’t be back in my home town of Tularosa, or the town I’d been born in, Ruidoso, or the town in which I’d first found employment, Alamogordo. No, after living so many years in the heart of large metropolitan areas, it would have to be someplace with at least a few amenities.
So I pondered. El Paso? That’s not New Mexico, is it? Though sometimes they tend to think so… Roswell? Too many aliens. Carlsbad? Beyond caves what else do they have? Deming? Two words: Duck Race. Silver City? Way-hey-hey too many memories there.
Then there was Las Cruces: the second largest city in New Mexico. It was also, not coincidentally, the town in which I attended college and lived for six years back at the turn of the ME decade. Las Cruces, I knew, was steeped in the kind of history I had always loved as a young boy. It was also nicely situated; bracketed by the dramatically jagged Organ Mountains to the Northeast and the dwindling, but once mighty, Rio Grande on the Southwest.
It also had New Mexico State University, my alma mater, which had grown considerably in the two-and-a-half decades I’d been away. A university meant a steady influx of new blood and fresh perspectives to keep the history of the land from becoming too overbearing.
Best of all, it was undergoing a Renaissance of sorts, reclaiming its Main Street and blossoming as an Arts destination. It was undergoing growing pains and I breathed deeply of that potent mix of determination and creativity. The time, as they say, was right.
Now, I am the first to admit that Las Cruces is far from perfect. With growing pains often come mistakes. Every good decision, is often countered by a not-so-great one. It takes a while for real change to happen, because human nature tends to get in the way. People are people and more often than not, are very slow to change. Other people grow frustrated and leave, thinking the change they crave will never, EVER actually happen.
Let me tell you, after having been around this block a few times, it happens. It will happen, one way or another. Change is inevitable and I learned a long time ago that through a little effort on my part, I could become an integral instigator of that change. And, one day when those who have been stung by the same scorpion I was as a child, return, they can marvel at what they find. Just as I do when I return to San Francisco, Los Angeles or Phoenix, years after I expatriated. It WILL happen.
Las Cruces may not be as glamorous as Los Angeles, as queer as San Francisco, as ballsy as New York City or as kinky as Phoenix, but it does have its merits. Beyond the clean air and wide open spaces, there is an event, a concert, a play or a cultural happening every single day or night, in some performance hall, theatre, club, winery or church. It may not always be your cup o’ tea, but it is that very diversity that makes it so exciting. It means there is something for everyone.
There is the number one Farmer’s Market in the state, right downtown on Saturday mornings. There is the Border Book Festival in the spring, the GLBTQA Pride celebration in the summer and the Renaissance ArtsFaire in the fall. We have Spaceport America just a couple hours north and the Very Large Array just a little further beyond that.
We also have White Sands National Monument, which should be listed as one of the great wonders of the world, just a short drive east. Go west and you’ll find the City of Rocks and the magnificent Gila National Forest. We have things to see and do all around us, if you’re just willing to open your eyes and see them.
Then there are the many incredibly talented men and women living here, making art and music, giving performances and exhibitions and exploring the inner reaches of their imaginations so they can smear the rich colors across the canvas that is our living desert. There are world-class shapers of imagination who pride themselves on thinking outside the box, working alongside dedicated craftsmen practicing arts passed down to them through the generations. There are brilliant minds retiring from the university only to rediscover, through community involvement, the sense of wonder that brought them to scholarship to begin with. They are all, in a sense, creating riches for a bankrupt world.
The heart and soul of the southwest I remember from my childhood is right here in Las Cruces. It’s in the open smiles and easy natures, the live-and-let-live attitudes and the willingness to accept just about anything, so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, or even make them too uncomfortable. It’s in old world politeness married to space age ingenuity. It’s breathtaking sunsets and a brilliant, nighttime canopy of stars that can reduce me to a shivering eight-year-old with Arthur C. Clark aspirations and a Rod Serling curiosity within a single, skipped heartbeat.
But no, it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. Every city, town, village and commune has its issues. You think I didn’t encounter those living in San Francisco or Phoenix? Think again. For all its wonders, Las Cruces is also the home of bad drivers and maddening spring wind storms. It attracts snowbirds who buy up property at outrageous amounts, just so they can “live” here three months out of the year and complain about all of the things that make living here so unique: like the smell of roasting chile, the very prevalent Hispanic culture and all that icky sand and cactus.
It has a prevalent military presence and prides itself on the god-fearing right of every uneducated man, woman or child to bear arms in the grocery store, the movie theater or church. It’s retired middle managers and executive secretaries, transplanting themselves in order to recreate themselves as artists, despite never having shown a single ounce of artistic integrity in the 50 plus years before they came to this transformative, and therefore somehow genuine, point. It’s good old boy networks and political rivalries.
It’s life on a frontier version of the lunatic fringe and I love it! Every freaking and freaky part of it. Who needs sunshine and lollips, anyway? That’s never been what life, or art for that matter, is all about. Not anywhere I’ve ever lived and worked and certainly not here. Life in Las Cruces is imperfect and at times frustrating, but never boring. At least, not for this jaded old cloud miner.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you believe that there’s nothing happening in Las Cruces; you, my friend, just aren’t paying attention. Which just about sums up my answer for today. Aren’t you glad you asked?