As my family anticipated a move to Albuquerque, my teenage son informed me that Phoenix, Arizona, had more people in it than the whole of New Mexico.
One fearfully imagines an entire state like West Texas: nothing but dust and sky, gas stations separated by many miles and — if you break down — rattlesnakes slither out of the brush to end your misery.
But Albuquerque, New Mexico, is nothing like that! Trees grow here; the Rio Grande flows through; and the beautiful Sandia Mountains dominate the eastern skyline.
Because of those magnificent mountains, newcomers must never ask for directions. If you are foolish enough to inquire, the local person will answer as if revealing the way to those seven cities of gold for which Coronado searched so vainly in these parts, “Well, you know, the mountains are basically to the east…”
Everywhere I went the first two months, trying to clarify where this or that was, each response began sagely with, “Lo! The mountains are in the east…”
How this fact was meant to point me to the precise location of a dentist, bookstore or Walmart, I’ll never know!
Nor did I have the heart to tell them my mother-in-law provided this nugget of truth on my second day here; they all seemed so proud of the knowledge! Indeed, it makes one wonder what the Spanish would have done without the Sandias in colonial days. Perhaps the town would never have been settled as they waded back and forth over the Rio Grande aimlessly, wringing their hands and wailing to each other, “If only there was a directional tool, some humongous things to the east by which we could navigate this strange new land!”
Those eastern mountains weren’t enough, apparently, for the city was also divided into quadrants at some point: NE, SE, SW, NW. There is only one logical explanation why this modest geographical area was carved up in such a manner: chile peppers.
You see, in New Mexico spicy chile peppers reign cuisine. World-famous Hatch green chile is grown here, and you must choose red or green sauce with every restaurant meal, or they order a bus boy to come out and slap you silly with a wet dishcloth.
Therefore, I believe lines were drawn in the dust of this Southwestern town long ago during an ongoing feud over which chiles are best, red or green.
Cattle barons aimed guns with squinty eyes while biting off the tips of their spicy green peppers, and only the tears streaming down their bright red, sweating faces kept them from aiming straight and shooting their red chile-loving neighbors. Weary lawmen drew lines in the dust to separate the warring factions. The third quadrant was for pretenders who ask for their chile sauce on the side. The final one must have been a neutral zone — like Switzerland — where a person could eat a boring bell pepper in peace.
Hot peppers are even in elementary school lunches; it would be a blatant disregard of a major food group if they weren’t! When my son came home and informed me that lunch — what we supposed would be a plain cheese quesadilla — had green chiles in it, I laughed and announced, “Welcome to New Mexico!”
Here I wouldn’t be surprised if chile was considered nature’s pacifier for babies. You can just imagine New Mexicans calling out irritably to mothers of crying infants in crowded waiting rooms or on long domestic flights, “Give that baby a Hatch green chile, for crying out loud!”
But this “Land of Enchantment” (the state nickname — perhaps due to the dehydrated but enchanting red and green chile decorations hanging by every doorway) I now call home isn’t just ruled by mountains and peppers. Oh, no!
There’s a fine, large military base and sprawling national laboratory in Albuquerque, because the government has fond memories of testing its atomic bomb in this state. I confess, though, it’s hard to know whether to feel comforted or alarmed by its proximity in case of a nuclear apocalypse or zombie virus.
My family will probably just run for the mountains.
After all, if I’ve learned nothing else, I know the Sandias are basically east, and we’ll be sure to stock a few chiles — red AND green — to sustain us on the journey.
— Hillary Ibarra
Hillary Ibarra has had several humor pieces published online, most at the incredible humorwriters.org. She is hoping to publish a book this year that she began when she was 17 and recently rediscovered with the help of her children. She is the mysterious blogger at No Pens, Pencils, Knives or Scissors. In her spare time she likes to threaten to sell her four children to the zoo, and their little dog, too.