Try to recall just one day of your life in which you came to a juncture or a point in your journey where you rounded a bend with only yourself and the external landscape for company — where something shifted and moved your line of travel just enough to change everything — a day you had to go it alone in the universe, much like the day you were born and the day you will die. It shouldn’t be difficult — it’s the sort of day that will illuminate your mind like the brightest of all the stars —impossible to forget. We all have at least one of these days, and if you can’t recall, it is yet to come. You can’t search for it or chase after it — one day it is just there before you — it can only arrive and come into existence at just the right moment, when all of the conditions in your cosmos are met, like an exoplanet.
The earth in New Mexico is a sandy color dotted with cholla and prickly pear cactus and clumps of dark green juniper shrubs between its mountains and plains. On a sunny day — which is quite often — the sky above features a deep, dark-blue at the top and when little puffs of cloud mimic the dots of foliage on the landscape below, the effect is that of negative versus positive on the scene overall. During the monsoon season the mountains facing Albuquerque often feature a canopy of double rainbow, and throughout the year the evening light colors them red — the Spanish named them Sandia, or watermelon.
New Mexico is like another planet, except that you can breath its atmosphere. In some areas you can truly imagine that you are standing on Mars if you come from east of the Mississippi. It is widely believed that aliens visited Roswell once but crashed into the desert, their bodies being spirited away by the government. Perhaps they were seeking a landscape that reminded them of home.
I moved to New Mexico in 1993 to experience a different kind of landscape, a place as far removed from my realm of green foliage and black earth as I could find. I also wanted to experience a different kind of light. The sunlight lands intensely on the surface of New Mexico. The deep-black cast by a tree or building under its sun can be problematic for a photographer who wants to convey a range of tones in a photograph; the contrast between shadow and light is like Yin and Yang. The photographer, Ansel Adams, resolved this issue through his exposure and darkroom techniques, making an already surreal world, even more otherworldly in black and white.
At a time when I was ready for a major change in my life, I gathered all of my earthly belongings and fled my life on the east coast, crossing through four states and passing travelers from the West escaping in the opposite direction. I switched my Virginia license plate to one that said “Land of Enchantment” after settling into work and shelter in Albuquerque, but it didn’t matter much to me whether it was enchantment or disappointment that lay ahead; I changed the setting on my stage without expectations of paradise or of finding beings other than human. I have always been realistic about paradise, keeping it in a place above me somewhere. As for humans, I have learned that they never change with the landscape.
Near to Christmas during my second year in Albuquerque I began to experience a sense that there might be something beyond the luminarias and Christmas lights and the various religious and cultural approaches to the holiday that I enjoyed the year before. Perhaps it was the beauty of the snow on the mountains to the east that turned my thoughts to another direction, but as Christmas approached, I felt I should explore the landscape beyond the Yuletide light of the city.
My family and friends lived in Illinois and I had made only a handful of acquaintances in New Mexico, so I had to create my own holiday. I decided that on Christmas Day I would drive east to north to west to south in a circle, and photograph what I encountered, in the surrounding landscape, along the roadside and among the empty streets on the other side of the Sandia. So I started east on Rt. 66 before daybreak on Christmas morning with a carafe of coffee, turkey sandwiches on cranberry bread and a camera.
I reached Rt. 14 by daybreak and headed North toward Santa Fe, pulling alongside the road when I spotted an interesting shape or form in the landscape. The sun was well up when I came upon a very large, rounded, black tank along the road laden with graffiti. It was made of metal with seams of rivets from top to bottom at intervals and along the base. It surely served some earthly purpose but it reminded me of some sort of alien artifact left behind as space junk by a traveler from a distant galaxy; this was New Mexico after all. The only clue that it was of earthly origin besides graffiti depicting a dragon was a mention of Jesus scrawled in a sort of reddish-orange across its surface along with various other human-like messages. I decided to pull off the road for a coffee break and take a closer look. After admiring the surrounding landscape of scruffy shrubs, wild grass and low hills, I took some photographs, (I lost the sky due to the light conditions and the white cast of clouds overhead), and then continued on in the direction of the tiny, former mining town of Madrid.
I got out of the car occasionally to look at a scene in my viewfinder but didn’t press the shutter for every potential photograph — this was a time when you laid down your image on a given dimension of film that was as long as could fit on a roll in your camera, restricting the amount of images you could record. The morning was heavily overcast but dry, which ruled out any statements on the average light of a day in New Mexico. I was using a very slow color film, so keeping my Mamiya steady made more sense than adjusting the speed of the film and compensating later in the darkroom.
The sky seemed soft but heavy as I headed north — I thought of snow — if only the clouds would open up and release it for Christmas, but they reserved any moisture they carried for another landscape.
I can’t say much for Madrid except that in my time there, it was a bit fluffed up for the tourist. It was one of those places that artists colonize when a vacuum is created in its usefulness to humans. Its demise as a mining town in the 1950’s was caused by a dwindling demand for coal.
On that early Christmas morning the town carried the aura that it most likely developed shortly after its first life had ended. The streets were quiet, empty, and devoid of contrast as the light still shone flatly through the clouds and on to its little buildings. I drove slowly through town not finding a single human or animal in sight. The inhabitants were all inside, perhaps just now waking up and looking to the window to confirm something akin to the light of Christmas morning, or perhaps they were away for the holidays with the families they had left behind for a life in New Mexico.
The only stop I made in Madrid was outside a little antique shop, closed for the holiday, to photograph a framed image of Our Lady of Guadalupe leaning against a fence among various objects that seemed to have been rescued from a junkyard. Maybe someone would come along and adopt them into a new life as an antique, like the Misfit Toys of the North Pole, or maybe they were there simply as props for a tourist with a camera.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, as she is called in the Southwest, could be seen everywhere in New Mexico at the time I lived there. She is also referred to as the Virgin Mary or Our Mother of Guadalupe or the Madonna and is a brand name of spiritual iconography that has adapted to cultures all over the world. She is a superhero of sorts to Catholic New Mexicans and I saw her image painted on the sidewalls of strip malls, on fences, or anywhere an image could be painted. It is the most sacred graffiti in the area.
It is believed that she appeared before a humble peasant named Juan Diego in 1531, to plant the seed of Catholicism in Mexico. At one time I began a project photographing her image wherever I saw it rendered, and I never saw it share a space with other types of street art — her territory was marked and respected.
I bypassed Santa Fe completely since I had visited the city before, but found it to be more like a stylized stage — set to fulfill the expectations of tourists and outsiders such as myself. My day was reserved for the in between areas of the landscape that I could experience out of the context of local culture.
Beyond Santa Fe the clouds began to separate a little, revealing small patches of blue in which the sun was able to come through briefly, making the prospects for a Yuletide snow less likely. I stopped at a small mountain that lay under the clouds in a sphinx-like pose, its shape suggesting a dog or cat or lion at rest with forepaws in front and back legs curled underneath the hindquarters. A white cross, surrounded by religious statues, had been placed at the foot of the mountain; they looked like little miniature figurines from my perspective.
To compensate for the dark, flat light, I set my camera on a rock to steady it for a long shutter speed. The light had shown momentarily on the figurines as the clouds moved over the mountain, so I watched the scene below in my viewfinder and waited for another break in the sky. It wasn’t long before the light shone once again on the little scene below the mountain and I captured at least two or three images that revealed a patch of light in a dark landscape.
It was open season for anything with my camera — I wasn’t looking for something in particular to photograph or wanting to say anything about New Mexico— my camera served only as a note taker. I brought it along to create images that I could refer to when putting my experience into perspective later, but it seemed that most of the artifacts I took note of and photographed along the road were in some way religious in nature.
I was subconsciously choosing pieces of the landscape that connected with aspects of my inner world. I chose which points I would mark on my map with my camera and what I would isolate in my viewfinder. Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing — I was exposed to religious imagery and icons for most of my life and I remember studying these images as a child from a perspective devoid of preconceived ideas of spirituality. I passed some scenes that another visitor might have stopped to record, giving his or her images a different meaning relative to them, and a different perspective on New Mexico.
Image creation is a collaborative effort between the landscape and an artist’s personal experience of the world up to the time the image is created. At a particular moment in my world, I was choosing a spot and isolating a part of the universe outside of my senses with my camera, creating a flat one-dimensional icon that represented both the universe outside and my past experience of it.
By the time I reached Taos the day had turned bright and clear. I stopped to photograph a deserted car wash beside a Cottonwood tree with the sky above a polarized dome of deep blue and the winter sun casting harsh afternoon shadows into its interior. I drove northwest after spending a very short time looking over the town, anxious to be heading south towards home before night. I could see light snow in the upper regions of the mountains as the terrain took on features that highlighted the beauty of its geology.
In the late afternoon, I came upon an old Ace Hardware Store, housed in a steel, prefabricated, arch-shaped building. Its façade was shaped by the setting sun, now very low on the horizon, and closed in by a chain-linked fence — locked for Christmas. I peered into the window at all of the objects featured there but the only suggestion of any sort of formal window display was a simple strand of silver garland strung in loops across the sections of plate glass window and a plastic Santa who peered back out at me with his perpetually jovial expression. Long shadows were cast upon the windows from the poles of streetlights across the road. I took a photograph, and as I climbed into my car and looked back I felt a momentary sadness at this building. Maybe it was the way the last vestiges of light hung on to its face as the shadows pointed to the end of the day. I paused a moment to take it in before going on my way.
I turned west to cross the Carson National Forest and then finally, south towards home to close the circle of my Christmas day journey. The terrain outside my car window was transformed as the late afternoon light passed its torch to the light of evening on the mountains, softly trading gold for red. As the darker light moved up the mountains and hills overtaking the now red-colored snow at their summits, I began to experience what the poets and writers and artists and travelers of the West before me had all experienced — the spell and the enchantment that the western landscape in conjunction with the sun, cast upon the seeker of paradise or heaven on earth.
While I wasn’t on a vision quest or seeking spirituality or enlightenment, something unexpected came upon me in the midst of that landscape between light and dark that had nothing to do with the supernatural world, but everything to do with the natural world and the physical senses that we utilize to come to an understanding that we truly exist. I sensed that, as small and insignificant as I seemed in comparison to the universe, I was a part of its overall scheme and not just a spirit passing through. I had shifted into another paradigm of thinking about existence.
When darkness finally crossed overhead and the details on the mountains and hills faded to shadowy forms in the night, I pulled over and stood on the side of the road to face up to the stars. They seemed to surround me on all sides, being as small as I in relation to the universe, their thick clusters of twinkling lights acknowledging my place among them and becoming a signature to that particular day in my world. I stood with them that night and cherished the physical reality of being engrossed in a moment of sublime beauty at the top of New Mexico, USA, planet Earth, on Christmas Night, in 1994.
When I arrived home late that night I knew that I had experienced something special and unexpected not just in the land beyond the watermelon, but in my own inner world. What I experienced that Christmas day was not an enchanting episode of oneness with the universe, and it was neither an otherworldly vision in the wilderness, nor a spiritual or religious epiphany like Saul on the road to Damascus. A spell was not cast upon me by the landscape — I simply experienced the sensation of being in time and space where I belong, and being a part of nothing more than reality itself.
A day can be a lifetime from morning to night — I left New Mexico the following year and returned to where I grew up in the Midwest, once agian calling it home.
*All images in this story captured December 25, 1994.
May you find your moment. Thank you for your valuable time.
Copyright V. Plut — the appearance of this story and images on any other website or print publication other than Medium without the permission of V. Plut constitutes a violation of copyright as well as an admission of said violation.