First Impressions of Albuquerque

Prior to meeting Linda, I had seen Albuquerque only once, while driving between Denver and Arizona.  Cities witnessed only from interstate highways have never left impressions upon me, and Albuquerque was no exception.  Now, however, I was looking forward to calling Albuquerque my new home.  While Linda rented an apartment in that city and pursued her career, I remained in Denver, working in data processing while seeking work in Albuquerque long-distance.  My job search took eight months.   

During this time, Linda and I periodically rendezvoused in Albuquerque and northern New Mexico.  I observed my first Christmas in New Mexico while staying in her third-floor apartment.  Of course, everything in my life now was sweetened by first love.  Yet there were aspects of Albuquerque during that visit that would have delighted me under nearly any circumstance.  I grew up in a typically verdant New Jersey town where many street names were not only figuratively but literally wooden: Linden, Maple, Chestnut, Spruce, Arbor, Sherwood, Beechwood, Edgewood.  Even the many Denver streets on which I lived over the years had similarly dull and predictable names: Clarkson, Lafayette, Pearl, Gaylord, Race, Vine, First, Seventeenth.  The names of countless Albuquerque streets, on the other hand, were not only lovely─Linda lived on Madiera Drive─they were literally saintly: San Mateo, San Pedro, San Rafael, San Luis Rey, San Lorenzo, San Patricio, and, of course, San Felipe. 

And then there was a night of thrilling Albuquerque weather over the holiday.  On Christmas Eve, Linda and I attended the eleven p.m. service at her church.  The city was buffeted by winds that night.  I imagined them launching off the sheer western face of the Sandia Mountains to the east, or accelerating off the vast and empty plateau that marks Albuquerque’s western edge.  Whatever their origin, the gales shook the great sanctuary of the church as the pastor―who would one day marry Linda and me―delivered the sermon of joy and hope.  At the end of the service, the congregation lit candles and sang “Silent Night.”  Certainly, “all” was not “calm” in Albuquerque that night.  Yet the dramatic weather seemed fitting for the night’s great religious significance.  Driving home, we saw strands of colorful lights, strung on the city’s trees and shrubs, dancing in the wind.  And there was snow in the air.  Yet in the dry, brute wind the flakes were remarkably light, reluctant to adhere to or even meet the ground, more spirit than substance.  Meanwhile, our car seemed borne upon the undulating veils of sand that proceeded up the asphalt streets before and beneath us.  Snow and desert, I thought, what a strange pairing.  Later that night, one of Santa’s helpers made the mistake of gifting Linda a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner.  She’s never forgotten that!

It was on that gritty, windswept night that I first began to sense Albuquerque’s unique isolation on a sea of desert.  Albuquerque author Harvey Fergusson noted this back in 1944: “Like all Western towns seen from a distance, [Albuquerque] looks small and insignificant, completely dominated by a landscape that lends itself but grudgingly to human use.”  Albuquerque author V.B. Price updated this theme in the early nineties, noting Albuquerque’s most unique trait: a city of a half-million effectively surrounded by wilderness. 

1 thought on “First Impressions of Albuquerque”

  1. Reading “First Impressions of Albuquerque” reminded me of my life. Three decades ago I too lived on a verdant street — Chestnut Street (at the corner of 37th) — just across the river from New Jersey in Philadelphia.

    I have made many mistakes in my life, but giving a girlfriend a vacuum cleaner as a gift has not yet (or ever) been one of them. Your wife Linda must be wonderfully forgiving.

    You also mention Harvey Fergusson. Might he be related to Erna Fergusson, after whom a public library here in Albuquerque is named? (Incidentally, I write these words from the Tony Hillerman public library.) Fergusson’s words that you quote — “Like all Western towns seen from a distance, [Albuquerque] looks small and insignificant, completely dominated by a landscape that lends itself but grudgingly to human use.” — remind me of the opening words of the classic 1970s song “Hotel California” by the Eagles.

    On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
    Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
    Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light …


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