Dry in the High Desert

Emily Roiphe CarterAt the age of 55 one should be running out of “re-boots,” the do-overs, the “new starts,” the major moves should be done with, and instead one should be beginning to observe what one has made of one’s life, using amassed experience in a new way, approaching what’s called “wisdom.”

Then there’s the economy. It’s the economy, that implacable arbiter of who gets what and when, that decides when enough is not yet enough, and it’s that same economy that’s decided that I should move to Gallup, New Mexico for my husband’s new job. It’s a place that’s new to me, a place that lets in strangers slowly, a place surrounded by 200 million-year-old rock formations of jaw-dropping beauty. This is the kind of huge geographical and cultural change I used to make in my twenties, on the demented reasoning that I would only be an alcoholic where I was, not somewhere else. At 55, that idea seems laughable. Time does bring knowledge, it seems, and knowledge, just like alcoholism or appendicitis, is portable. If you have it in one place, you’ll have it another.

DryInTheHighDesertThe 12 steps, too, are infinitely portable. If I didn’t have them with me, I would have found this whole relocation full of exactly the kind of stresses and temptations that would have, in former time, lead to a big ol’ life-maiming relapse. No one knows me here. I can be anyone I want. I could be someone who could take a social drink now and again, for all anyone here knows. I could say to myself, “there are large dry areas here on the Navajo owned lands and the nearby Zuni pueblo especially, but that’s for “real” drunks — those poor Native folks must have different metabolisms or something and the white man’s poison works faster on them. Me, I’m from European stock, my Scotch Irish ancestors practically invented the stuff. In fact, it’s part of my cultural duty to take a quick nip now and again’(never mind that my dominant half is Jewish). “Cunning baffling powerful” says the big book of Alcoholism, but it forgot to mention “patient.”.The hamster in the dark room of my brain hasn’t stopped running on its sharp-spoked little wheel, not for a second.

And yet there are also a thousand reasons not to drink today. First off is the idea of time. There is so much of it in evidence. The mesas are so ancient and calm that the idea of drinking because you had a bad day becomes a bit ludicrous. Then there is the idea of my real culture–not the one I make up when I want to justify a yen for Scotch Whiskey. It’s a culture made up of the common sense and trust of the 12 steps, as well as the eagle eye for self delusion instilled in me by my rationalist father.

Housing is not easy to find here, and I can’t drive, so I spend a lot of time stuck in our hand “motel-suite” off of route 66 waiting for my husband to come home and walking our dog past what seems to be the only liquor store for miles. This isn’t great. On the other hand one of my husband’s co-workers invited us to her pueblo for the night dances, and told us “welcome to New Mexico!” and were generally more hospitable to us in one evening than anyone had been in the past eight years we’d spent in New England. The dances show how to be yourself no matter how much the world around you changes, and the songs show what stories are part of you no matter what other stories the world wants to tell.

This is land where the geology is evident: the high desert, where you live at an elevation that makes the stars seem closer. It’s got something to say, I tell myself, but I won’t hear it if I lose hold of the 12 steps I have walked on until now. They’ve kept me from getting lost in far more confusing and cluttered landscapes. I’ll trust them now. Those stars have never steered me wrong.


by Emily Roiphe Carter

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