Staring out the passenger window I watched as the landscape turned from cityscape to a kaleidoscope of dusty colors. Sometimes red. Sometimes yellow. Sometimes purple. A year now gone in this desert town and already the land was fading towards that blind spot in my eye. That spot where the familiar sights go and memory takes over. But not the mountains. Never the mountains. They are sentinel and timeless.
My boyfriend Sergio and I had been getting restless with the city over the last few days. It seemed to me that my apartment walls had moved in a foot overnight. Walls seem to have a way of doing that from time to time. We had been talking about taking a day trip somewhere. Today was that day. And our somewhere was Vegas… Las Vegas, New Mexico that is.
I pressed my finger to the glass and let the speed of the car help me trace the dancing line of the horizon. For the rest of the drive I chose to see New Mexico again—the way I had first met it.
Do you ever just look at your home with a stranger’s eyes? It can be unsettling. Like when you walk up the stairs at night and you misjudge the amount of steps it takes to reach the landing. There is a brief moment of panic when you realize you were wrong in your assumption and your foot falls down through empty space past the point where you were certain, a moment ago, it should have landed. The objects there which you were so intimately familiar with now lie in estranged silence. Foreign. Abstract. Then slowly it all turns. First you notice a curve in the furniture that you could have sworn was never there. Then there are more colors in the drapes. The plants are breathing in the light. The sheets look inviting. The streets hold potential. Your previous perceptions fold on themselves and you begin to witness a renewal. This is your home.
I remember the first time I passed through Las Vegas as being one too many stops on an already exhausting trip. I was on my way by train to Albuquerque from Fort Madison, Iowa to meet with a potential employer. The train ride was a means to eliminate another item off of my bucket list and to save on some cash.
My seat was near the rear of the train, in the back of a car, two cars from the end. It was almost winter and we were rattling across the country like a tin can kicked through dirt. When I wasn’t drawing anything in particular I was peering out the window letting my thoughts trail between the juniper bushes. My daydreaming was syncopated by the train attendant’s curiosity. Greg was seated in the chair behind me — a middle-aged man, unmarried, and with a carnival of a laugh. He had a home in California and had went to college in Hawaii for hospitality management. It was evident in the way he moved his hands. Greg had ridden the rails for many years now and with it, he told me, came an impressive mileage of stories. We talked our way past herds of cattle and one red light towns until we neared Las Vegas, NM—last stop before the city.
As we drew nearer to the station he recalled young foreign couples on honeymoons who left the train in confusion when they didn’t recognize any glitzy iconic landmarks. Men chasing after train attendants while ladies ironically clutched their purses with streaks of black tears like tire marks on their cheeks.
He spoke of twenty-something year olds on spring break highs who would depart from the rail cars in excited anticipation encouraging one another that the “real” Vegas was just a walk further into the “city”.
When we pulled into the station is when I got the full effect of the humor.
Nestled at the foot of the Sangre De Cristo mountains in Northeast New Mexico, Las Vegas is a far cry from the tangy neon lights and voracious attitude of its namesake. Life here is typographical shadows left to cling on bricks, tiny store bells clanging in a way that reminds you of achy joints and you know that once long ago they must have sounded brighter. Its new spaces squeezed in old spots as storefronts bulge at the seams of their little antique windows and the sound of rail cars screeching in protest of their mid marathon stop. Its coca cola red greetings, and the buzzing florescence of street lamps.
Life here is quiet but it holds its own. Its antiquated charm and Old West face lends itself to a more interesting and lesser known reputation — playing host to films and shows such as No Country for Old Men, Longmire, Astronaut Farmer, and Easy Rider. For that reason my boyfriend and I set out for the day to explore Las Vegas.
It was a quarter past four when we arrived having left a few hours later than we had intended. Our first stop was an antique store near the edge of town. We entered the store and split up to maximize our consumption — my boyfriend on his quest to find mint condition cameras at a seller-doesn’t-know-what-they-have price and I, losing myself in fur coats and postcards.
I walked the aisles with an air of solemnity. Antique stores are mausoleums in their own right, you know—holding the remains of family homes and past-down memories. There is a certain amount of respect due. All those salt shakers stacked in rows two-by-two like Noah’s ark occupants once belonged to grandmothers with thick hands and tough smiles who always kept a space between their arms open for little boys and their skinned knees. And thought-filled deep breaths once passed through those carved pipes that now lie unceremoniously in a bucket behind a stack of Buddy Holly sheet music. I tried to pay my respects to every item.
We left the antique store with empty hands — for the better, perhaps — and made our way north to check out the Dwan Light Sanctuary, a minimalist building with rooms dedicated to projecting light spectrums from lunar and solar alignments. It would be an enchanting and cerebral experience I imagine. We never got there. Google maps seemed determined to make fools of us. We were a white SUV pacing back and forth like a starved stray cat between a one room post office and a private driveway. Our disappointment was somewhat soothed by the surrounding hot springs and the sight of the United World College just up the hill like some castle built by lost masons centuries ago. We learned later that the Dwan Light Sanctuary was up near the college. Go figure.
Returning to Las Vegas we found most of the open signs were already turning their backs on us. We took our chance and slipped into another antique store in the heart of the town’s historic center.
I often believe there are moments we are meant to be precisely where we are. Call it predestination if you will. Things we are meant to see. Words we were meant to hear. For instance there are those stories about some guy missing his flight to Detroit only to run into his soulmate at the terminal. Or miraculous, hero-never-goes-to-that-specific-store-but-just-this-once rescue stories. This instance was nothing of that sort, just good timing for the two of us.
We entered the shop a minute to closing and were greeted by an amalgamation of last-minute shoppers and an appeal of artifacts. Sergio, as if he had been there before, made his way straight to a case full of cameras with me following in suit. Beneath the glass sat old Brownies and box cameras, Polaroids, Nikons, Minoltas, and cameras whose brands I had never heard of all in black and clustered like a crowd in mourning garb. Andy the shopkeeper, an obliging man with a full head of gray hair, had noticed our film cameras slung about by our hips like loaded pistols as soon as we came in. He championed the comeback of film. A similar soul. He and his wife didn’t seem the least bit perturbed at our late entrance and were more than happy to introduce us to their collection.
Andy and Sergio talked shop for the better part of fifteen minutes unaware of the growing quiet in the store. Being fairly new to the world of film photography I stood by absorbing what I could.
I fell into a love affair with film photography just after purchasing a Holga camera two years ago. It was an impulse buy, pure and simple. Like all love affairs I was consumed, reckless, ignorant. My first roll of film came back with oily swirls of pinks and blues as light leaks had their way with the film. But that creation of capturing a moment in time gave me an unadulterated thrill. It felt like a natural extension of my work as a designer and I was hooked. Through knowing Sergio my knowledge and appreciation for film only increased. Sometimes it just takes one person.
As the proverbial host he seemed to be, Andy beckoned us further in as he brought out items from his private collection — photos made into postcards, pocket-sized Rolleis, a larger twin lens Rolleiflex, and his favorites — glass slides of hand colored film featuring early life in Las Vegas. When he talked, his movements had the inflection of an excited child. Yet, something behind his voice betrayed that he was more than just an enthusiast. Andy was a collector. A collector who lived in a small New Mexican town and had all sorts of unusual treasures. A collector with a small but beautiful secret.
He led us back to his office, a one room alcove a few steps above the store with a covered wall of stuffed sock monkeys smiling at us in salutations. Across the wall of cotton primates hung several framed magazine cutouts of advertisements and journal covers. All types of publications including a Time magazine cover hung patiently in their frames. Andy had worked at a design agency in Minneapolis for many years as a photographer. This was the time when editing was all done in a dark room. Sets were built in the studio. Technology was in the way you used your hands. It was a harder work but in a simpler time.
The rest of the building was built with unusual proportions like it couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a reputable store or a bloated caravan. Sergio, Andy and I snaked our way through stacks of books and old scanners until we came upon a sight Sergio and I knew few were privy to.
When you are let into someone’s studio it is a gift. It is saying, “come look, these are the dreams I have when my eyes are open”. And you start to wish you were part of those dreams and you wonder if you could dream those dreams, too. But dreams are never the same the second time around and they can shift and change and be as beautiful and as daring as you want them to be. A studio like this is meant to do that. It is meant to be so cramped with big ideas that they have to latch onto someone else in order to free up some space and breath a little.
Andy’s studio was a tall ceiling, one-room space with a comfortable sized darkroom attached. All around it was towers of boxes, hollow black film canisters, tripods wobbling on tip toes, and spaces perfect for losing pennies in. In the center of the room stood a solemn product display table dressed in white like the little girls in their communion dresses who wait to receive the host and don’t mind all the fuss because they look nice and have pretty white shoes to wear.
Sergio and I rifled through cardboard boxes toppling with lenses and old cameras, Andy annotating each item with its history. Cabinet drawers packed with film slides from years ago sat to the side peering at us on squat legs. They seemed tired of standing for so long. Their load was heavy. These were all things Andy had abandoned long ago but had never forgotten. Forgetting can be a difficult task if you must be put to it. The longer we spoke the longer he lingered to show us more. Our presence there seemed gratifying in a way.
In the space of a half hour we had become like familiar friends. Sharing a likened passion. We made our way back to the front where the lights buzzed their quiet tune and gave our best wishes to Andy, his wife, and the two shop cats with golden eyes. Sergio and I left the store in appreciation knowing that our visit had stirred up a little more than just dust.
Our day in Las Vegas was spent. If the quiet streets weren’t enough the cool sweet air induced the desire to retreat home. We drove South with our eyes a little bit wider. I told myself it was because of the evening light. But I knew better.
We still had a dinner and concert planned for the evening but I held on tightly to that small and inconsequential meeting with a stranger and for the rest of the way home all I could do was marvel at the way the headlights seared the umber skies.