We crossed the border to New Mexico the next day. I didn’t know what to expect of it, but we had a couple of cool places lined up on the map: White Sands National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park were on the list.
Disappointments started rolling in when we found out that White Sands was closed to visitors. Interestingly enough, the entire park is located within this grey zone (a territory marked grey on Google maps) that is actively being used by the U.S. military forces for launching and testing missiles. Apparently, while they’re doing the testing, they shut down the entire park for visitors. Great!
After this discouraging news we had nothing else to do but keep on driving… 15 minutes later an incredible thing happened – we drove directly into an immigration post! How did this happen? Did I fall asleep? Did we take a wrong turn toward Mexico?
Nope, these posts legally exist in the interior within a certain radius of the border, in an effort to catch *strikethrough* criminals, rapists and serial killers aka illegal immigrants. Having traveled around the world I have never seen anything like this.
The officers were stopping every car going through and asking routine questions: “Where are you headed?”, “Are you US citizens?”. Jackson, bless his unassuming soul, quickly blurts out “I am”, which immediately puts me into the weirdest position. I am forced to reply “I am not”, which sets off an avalanche of questions directed personally at me: “Where are you from?”, “What are you doing here?”, “Where do you live?”, “What work do you do?”, “What type of visa do you have?”, “Do you have it with you?”, “Do you have your passport? No? Any other ID?”. “Please pull over there and give us your driver’s license for inspection…”. He takes my documents and walks off to the booth. Freaking hell! Just a casual drive on a highway.
In the meantime, another border patrol officer walks towards the car and Jackson strikes up a friendly conversation with him, which stresses me out. In these situations I am used to keeping my mouth shut until asked a direct question. In my answers I try to be short and concise. I know that drawing more attention to yourself than necessary can cause problems, but Jackson doesn’t know that. They keep on chattering, incidentally involving me in the conversation in seemingly casual manner: “Oh yeah, you’re a photographer, what is it exactly that you photograph?” I respond to the officer about my trade, unsure if he’s showing a sincere interest or interviewing me. I feel like I’m balancing on thin ice, giving plausible answers, remaining uninteresting to the authority. Chills creep up my spine, even though my record is 100% clean and I have done absolutely nothing wrong in my entire history living in / traveling to the United States.
Finally, the other officer brings my ID back and they let us go. The whole experience was unsettling. I felt like a second-rate human to be questioned like that, far away from the border, not even intending to cross it. I was absolutely unprepared for an interrogation, however mild and friendly.
What followed next was the pinnacle of absurdity in the array of disappointments for that day – we found out that Carlsbad Caverns National Park required reservations and was completely full for the next couple of days. We pulled over at a gas station to make an alternative plan. I got on my phone, trying to map out ways to get to Albuquerque avoiding immigration checkpoints. In the meantime, Jackson was struggling.
[Cheesewater story, as told by Jackson]
Yes, a moment that truly went down in history: the Cheesewater incident. Told now over a year later, this episode in our relationship is unquestionably funny, but in the moment, not so much. Allow me to paint a picture:
Daria sits in the front seat of the car, still processing the stressful experience with the Border Patrol, justifiably oblivious to the world around her. Meanwhile, I circle to the back of the vehicle. I’m worried about the food cooler. Early in the trip, we had optimistically vowed to “top up” the container with the ice every few days to keep the food cold. Over a month into the voyage, this pact had been abandoned. Making matters worse, the desert sun is scorchingly hot— particularly in the trunk where the cooler was kept. I open the styrofoam cooler lid with some trepidation. Just as expected, the ice has melted completely and the provisions float in a swamp of tepid water. The block of cheddar, our prized protein, has melted and formed an unholy union with the icemelt, leaving greasy yellow rings on the inside of the cooler, much like an unclean bathtub. And so, the infamous Cheesewater was born.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. I, supremely annoyed, dump the offending liquid out on the vast empty parking lot, and begin the unsavory job of cleaning the cheese-covered items in the cooler, including a few cans of 35mm film which had also drowned. All while, I steal annoyed glances at Daria: why is she not helping? Suddenly, a gust of strong wind comes out of nowhere and picks up the flimsy styrofoam lid, blowing it further into the empty parking lot. I sprint in hot pursuit, the lid just past my fingertips. Just as I nearly reach it, the wind turns into a Dust Devil, whirling the lid into an angry vortex. I find myself running around and around in circles, cursing the wind, the desert, and the Cheesewater.
Fast-forward 10 minutes later. I have regained the lid, the cooler is (acceptably) clean and back in the trunk, and the unhappy couple sit next to each other in the front seat. I’m annoyed with Daria since I had to deal with the Cheesewater and tornado alone. Daria is annoyed with me because I haven’t said a word of reassurance about the Border Patrol situation. Such are misunderstandings in relationships. Thankfully, we laugh about it now. The memory lives on forever in the 35mm photos, which carry the Cheesewater stains (proudly, I think).
Not all food was able to make it to where it was meant to go. Poor carrots failed us three times in the scorching heat of Arizona and New Mexico. But enough about that. :)
After that nightmare we needed something good. New Mexico managed to recover itself somewhat in the image of Albuquerque. It was hot, but the city was very beautiful and unique. I particularly enjoyed the architecture in the central part of it. It reminded me of the computer game I used to play as a kid – The Neverhood – where everything was made out of clay.
In one of the tourist shops, cluelessly and fully conforming to the societal norms of gender, I bought a pair of earrings, and Jackson got himself a knife.
P.S: ABQ and New Mexico have the coolest license plate designs, in my opinion. They are all about their peppers, and the peppers are sooooooo goooooood!