Riding into Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, was like landing on another planet.
T or C is about two hours south of Albuquerque, beyond miles of hypnotizing desert highway. I drove the outer circuit of the city, which encompasses a solar-powered Wal-Mart, a defunct cactus farm, and a string of Mexican restaurants, and stopped at the first food joint I saw: Isabel's Southern Mexican Food.
In this little adobe restaurant, a shelter from the dry, cracked highway, I gazed out the window and wondered what alien world I had landed in. The teenage waiter brought me a plate of two green chile and cheese tamales, so tender they were falling apart, and a small, rich portion of rice and refried beans. In the rush of emotion and warm food, I forgot about the wearying journey.
Late in the day, I walked through flat neighborhoods in 90 degree weather to sit in 109 degree water at La Paloma Hot Springs. In the small, dark chamber, flooded with healing waters, a spear of white light pierced through a hole in the wall and cast a rainbow on the pebble-lined floor. The blazing mineral waters took my breath. I wondered if I was hallucinating the massive aboriginal turtle painted on the wall.
These were my days- wake up to a cool morning with Turtleback Mountain looming over the rooftops, walk through the neighborhoods listening to strange conversation within the houses, hallucinate in the hot springs, eat tamales at Isabel's. One evening I ended up alone at Denny's at sunset. I watched the desert scrub glowing green, then gold, then going dark under the yellow neon persistence of 24 hour breakfast.
The desert surrounding Truth or Consequences is scattered with ghost towns with names like Cuchillo, Chloride, Engle, Placitas. Hidden out there among the dark mountains is a gem: Monticello.
Horses graze on flat grasslands in the valley leading into town. Herding dogs covered in dust greet you happily from the ranch houses. In the old square is a vineyard where the world's only organic balsamic vinegar is made. Hills crested with grapevines crown the desert here. Pomegranates shine like rubies in the trees, and huge green and red Hatch chiles fill the garden of the proprietors, Jane and Steve Darland.
In this totally silent country, Old Monticello seems to exist outside of time. The vinegar loft smells of rich wood and aged wine. White butterflies float over the lavender fields. Water here is regulated by irrigation canals known as acequias with origins in North Africa. A strange mix of Italian, Moorish, and Native American tradition exists in this part-time ghost town. Just follow the bullet-ridden highway signs northeast of T or C to try and find your way here.
On my final day in New Mexico, I drove three hours through the Gila Wilderness, skirting thunderstorms and lost cows, to the City of Rocks. Out here in the middle of a great silence, watching a violent-looking storm on the horizon, I checked constantly for rattlesnakes. Long ago, a cluster of enormous volcanic rocks landed here in the middle of nowhere. You could see all the way past the Chihuahuan Desert into Mexico.
As the sun went down, thunder roared from over the Gila Wilderness, and I got out while I could. I skirted the storm all the way through Deming and Las Cruces, flashes of lightning showing the mountain range along the way. Turning north towards Hatch, I finally hit it. With the rain came a sudden smell of ozone- it was the odor of creosote in the rain.
I rolled the windows all the way down. I had never smelled anything like this. A greenish odor like something decaying way out in the desert. I thought of the acequias rolling with water in Monticello, the washed out roads, creosote and bizarre cacti out there in the dark.
Truth or Consequences appeared like a sea of small lights after the rain. The name of the town had seemed like a warning, but upon leaving, I saw it as a blessing.