Three years ago, after my first tour, I spent some time driving through America, where just six hours in a car can haul you into a different cultural paradigm. If you didn’t know any better, you’d have to squint really hard to place Santa Fe and Seattle within the same national borders, so different is the art and the food and the architecture in each. The same goes for Nashville and New York, or Lafayette and L.A. This miscellany is imitated in the country's geographical features, where the looming ancient pine forests of the Northwest make way for the beaches and orchards of California, which dwindle into the blast furnace of Death Valley, which peters out into the arid mesa-speckled landscape of Arizona.
In New Mexico, during a day in which I was continuing on an eastward trajectory, deep in thought, I drove up to a ghost town nestled along what’s called the Turquoise Trail, which runs from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. The name of this old pueblo is Los Cerrillos, and in another century, it was a place where people came from all over to mine precious metals – to settle down and find their little fortune in the desert.
This once-bustling town is now deserted. Main Street extends like an empty hallway, lined with boarded-up stores and an overgrown church whose sign reads “You Are Saved” to no one in particular. An old museum overflowing with an assortment of gimcrackery contained the only living person in sight. It seemed the kind of place in which you would expect tumbleweeds to breed endlessly in the streets, were the old stereotypes to hold, but I didn’t see any that day.
So, there in Los Cerrillos that afternoon, as I walked by these crumbling landmarks, sitting in the church courtyard, sauntering through the town graveyard at sunset, I felt my cup fill with some kind of strange feeling. Who was I to think that I had a shot in this life, any better shot than these folks that had settled here once upon a time, these dreamers who now lay buried beneath the sand? This is one of the paradoxes of life: having dreams and desires, and simultaneously knowing, being prepared to give them up, being prepared to fail, to let your greatest deeds live on in a handful of dust.
What is the answer to such a brutal question? As the wind picked up and the quartz-laden dirt coruscated in the dying sunlight, I reaffirmed it to myself: things don’t always have to be a means to an end. In fact, they can’t be, if you want to truly be happy. Just as you can eat the most delicious meal in the world, and later have to digest it, so can you create a life -- friendships, hobbies, careers -- in which you treat these moments as intrinsic goods in themselves, even knowing that they won’t last forever.
Hey, I never said these truths weren’t trite or obvious, but it’s undeniable that we sometimes forget them during the daily grind – our pathological focus on our short-term goals blinds us to that other kind of enjoyment, that momentary inner peace that doesn’t depend on all of tomorrow’s hypotheticals. That feeling, and the gratitude that accompanies it, are somehow a little more in focus when you’re standing among the tombs of dead miners, in the middle of the desert.