This article ran in the Trends section of the Albuquerque Journal on February 24, 2002. Reprinted with permission.

continued from the Features & Op-Eds page

Viva Mexico

A former resident decides to stake out her own patch of New Mexico

By Janelle Conaway
For the Journal









Placitas—When I left New Mexico more than four years ago, a good friend said with smug certainty, "You'll be back. They always come back."

I was sure he was wrong; after all, I was moving on to greater adventures in more important places. Yet a few weeks ago I bought a small lot with big views that sweep from the Sandias to faraway Mount Taylor and across the mesas to the Jemez. New Mexico has stayed in my bones.

To some, it may seem like a radical step to build a house a couple of thousand miles away from where I actually live. But where I live—inside the Beltway, in Washington, D.C.—is not at all home. This becomes clearer to me every time I need refuge, whether from a heartbreak or a job fiasco or the threat of terrorism.

And so, in a quest for real homeland security—not just the White House version—I have staked out this spot on the map, my own patch of desert down a dead-end dirt road. This will be by home someday.

I have not always felt the need to put down roots. As an "m.k." (missionary kid) in boarding school from the second grade on, I grew up without a clear geographical center. I had lived in Venezuela since I was 4 months old, yet when my parents talked about "going home next year" they meant California. On a deeper level, they were even less rooted: "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passin' through," as the old hymn says.

Though I myself feel quite attached to the world (one of my faults, if you ask my parents), I have been open to exploring different latitudes and longitudes. After going to college in Illinois and graduate school in New York City, I worked for a couple of years in Caracas, partly to see what Venezuela looked like outside the m.k. prism. I loved the city's youthful rhythm, the way everybody danced through troubles and the tropical greenery that spilled down from the balconies. But I was also enough of a gringa to get exasperated when the phones didn't work.

I moved to Boston for love and had never been in a colder place. The winter wasn't as severe as Chicago, but after Caracas all that New England stiffness came as a cruel culture shock. When we got married, we vowed that by our first anniversary we would be living somewhere—anywhere—in Latin America.

Mexico City was an untamed sprawl, redolent of car exhaust and cigarettes and exotic foods cooked by street vendors. It lacked the lightness of Caracas—literally, because of the choking smog, but also in a deeper sense, because of its grayer, more complex past. Living there was fascinating and serious, like reading the great works of literature instead of best sellers.

When the earthquake struck Mexico City on Sept. 19, 1985, our building pitched and yawed as if on the high seas, knocking against the structure next door. Our apartment was still intact when the ground settled, but our sense of security was not. After a few months of unnerving aftershocks, we decided to check out the Southwest.

A friend picked us up at the Albuquerque airport in an old van and we headed north on I-25, into that vast expanse of desert and sky. I remember seeing it as new and strange and starkly beautiful, yet somehow familiar, too. When I was a kid, we lived in a dry dusty town on the coast of Venezuela and several times a year made the long drive to our mission boarding school in the Andes. New Mexico had the whole package—desert and horizon and mountains and space for the soul.

It also had an essential funkiness. It wasn't the Third World—the phones worked and jobs paid in dollars—but neither did it feel like the land of the pilgrims' pride. There was enough otherness for a restless expatriate. All this and hot chile, too. We stayed for 11 years, carving out a life in a little Victorian fixer-upper in Downtown Albuquerque.

Home is much more complicated, of course, than a particular city or region; it's all wrapped up with family, laughter, hardship, love, comfort, tears, memories.

When you walk into the house of a contented couple or a tight family or a centered individual, you get a sense that they belong there. It has to do with making a nest, settling into a place. Sometimes it's easy to confuse that with settling for something, and you worry that it might be second-best.

I was restless by the time we left Albuquerque in mid-I997, though I drove away in tears. On a practical, professional level, moving away made sense. Washington offered fresh possibilities, new adventures, more travel, better money. It was just the place for an internationally minded news junkie like me, a city full of fellow nomads—diplomats and interns and policy wonks and other short-timers.

I have a good job in an international organization, but like everyone else in Washington, I don't know how long I'll stay.

Three years ago I left my marriage of 15 years, and the black Lab who nudged me awake in the morning, and the stylish house in a leafy Maryland suburb. When I moved into my rental unit in the city, the manager told me about a tenant who had lived in the building for 14 years without hanging a picture on the wall because he always thought he was there temporarily.

I took her message to heart and made sure my apartment has my personal imprint. But I still have a hard time thinking of it as home. Neither can I imagine adopting as my own this closed-in landscape where the humidity washes out the blue of the sky.

This is a wide-open stage in my life; I'm in my mid-40s, mobile and mortgage-free. It has come as a surprise to me to realize that I want to be grounded. I believe it is dangerous to be too tied down—mired in debt, stuck in a bad relationship, married to a dead-end job—but it can also be unwise to be unanchored. Like one of those mobile homes without a foundation, you can blow away in a hurricane.

I've done a lot of traveling in the last three years and have found a handful of special places I could envision calling my own. But here in New Mexico I already have the good beginnings of a root system in lasting friendships, stories told and retold, layers of life experience.

And this vast, remarkable landscape still resonates with me. I'm sometimes taken aback, when I first arrive, by the unsightly billboards, the casinos, the fast-food places. But then I readjust my sights to the long view—the distant blue mesas, the rosy granite of the Sandias, the sea of stars in the crisp night sky.

So this year I will take a leap of faith and build myself a little house out here in the desert, far from the Beltway. Someday, depending on my bank balance and life's twists and turns, I hope to move back to stay. For now this will be my refuge, my retreat, the spot on the map I seek out when the world is too much with me. It will be home.
Janelle Conaway is a former Albuquerque Journal writer.