Back in early May, my husband V flew to North Carolina to see his eldest daughter A graduate from college. Being less than seven weeks beyond major spinal surgery where healing of my bone fusion was critical, I was sadly unable to navigate a trip like that to attend. Each member of her graduating class only had a couple of tickets to share with friends and family, anyway, and she was unable to invite to the ceremony many people I’m sure she would have loved to share that important life milestone with. I attended virtually from Mexico, cheering from a hard-backed chair.
For me in early May, I was moving fairly slowly, had some difficulty getting up and down, and was not permitted to lift more than five lbs. I had been back at work since mid-April and in physical therapy since the end of April though, and the mental and physical haze of weeks of bed rest and the shock of the operation were beginning to lift. After spending a long work week in the office and coming home to an empty house night after night, I was ready to be somewhere else. I decided to take a Mother’s Day trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico; at about an hour and 40 minutes away from Ciudad Juárez, Las Cruces promised fresh air and a chance to change the scene while making some use of my new and fragile body. In other words, to feel like me again.
The opportunity to go to the United States for travel (and shopping, and medical care, and family visits, and and and) is one of the tremendous privileges and benefits of serving in a Mexican border post. Few jobs in the Foreign Service allow such proximity to “home.”
We previously took advantage of that proximity when V’s DETO was approved and he returned from Washington after months of being away by traveling to the Land of Enchantment last October for my birthday, visiting Alamogordo and White Sands. But since then we hadn’t been back to New Mexico, largely due to the pandemic and trying to minimize my exposure to other people and viruses until we could be vaccinated, but also because of my spinal cord injury and trying to avoid hurting it further before it could be rectified.
As we near the one year anniversary at Post (meaning our assignment that sometimes feels like it has never started is already one-third over), we are cognizant of what the pandemic has taken from us personally and professionally. I have also been working so much lately that on the weekends I have often just collapsed to rest and recover, and prepare for another work week. But in preparation for a busy upcoming month in June, in May I wanted to do better at having fun in my free time.
During this day trip as I mentioned it happened to be Mother’s Day in the United States (Mexico observes it as a federal holiday the following Monday), so many things were closed. But my main objective was to spend time outdoors and leave the museums, wineries, restaurants, markets, and other attractions Las Cruces is well-known for until a future date with V anyway. I assumed most people would be with their families and I would have plenty of space to range around outdoors by myself and fortunately, that turned out to be true.
Our 4Runner was parked at the El Paso Airport, so I brought my trusty Volkswagen, also an all-wheel drive vehicle, with me. I headed first to Picacho Peak Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, following Google Maps out of Mexico, cutting across the edge of western Texas and zipping into roadrunner territory. (The greater roadrunner is New Mexico’s state bird, and can run up to 20 miles per hour.)
When the road dead-ended just beyond a new upscale housing development partially still under construction, I was disappointed. The dirt road looked more like a rocky footpath than something you could or should maneuver any vehicle down. A large buzzard feasted on grizzly roadkill nearby, not the slightest bit interested in my presence or the Doobie Brothers emanating from my open windows, inviting one and all to “listen to the music.” I started to turn around and look for another way, and then I thought, The hell with it. I’ll give it five minutes.
Sure enough, after several minutes of bumping along with no signage, the dust flying, and nothing but the vast open space around me for reference, the road widened and I started to see a couple other trucks and cars pulled off along the sides. Finally I came to an empty, remote parking lot and a trailhead. I struck out slowly to enjoy the desert landscape, leaving my consulate parking placard visible for a ranger on my front passenger seat in the unlikely event I didn’t return; I wanted to contradict the VA license plates on my car and any notion I was a tourist passing through.
It was exceedingly hot as the sun rose and I watched a man literally ride a mountain bike up one side of Picacho Peak. I soon realized that even navigating some of the hilly foot paths was going to be beyond me, despite being 47 lbs down in my 2021 weight loss journey at that stage and in decent cardiovascular shape (as I write this, I’m 63 lbs down). My left leg and foot were still significantly numb and any trip or fall could have spelled disaster, so I moved immediately off the hillside to flat ground. I could tell that I was weaker and had much less endurance than I thought, despite being able to walk at 2.5 miles per hour on a treadmill in a gym for 60-90 minutes at a stretch. Being outside in the sun with boots on, on uneven ground, was quite different.
I was easily winded, and the weight of the water I had to carry was uncomfortable, even though it was the only thing in my pack besides my car keys and bug repellent. I carried my phones, Virginia driver’s license, and consulate work badge in my buttoned up pants pockets. Don’t fall, my right brain advised, noting I hadn’t seen more than three people in the last 45 minutes.
The sun beat down on me and I felt immense gratitude for remembering to wear a hat. I stopped frequently in any shade I could find, and took pictures of abundant desert life. Two lizards scampered under rocks at my approach, and the occasional butterfly flitted nearby. Some kind of hawk circled high overhead. I called it after less than 90 minutes and headed back to my car, somewhat surprised I couldn’t stay out there longer, but realizing it would be better to turn around and head back to save some energy and not completely wipe myself out first thing in the morning.
I went next to a scenic overlook off the freeway nearby to see something Google Maps was calling the “Recycled Roadrunner Sculpture.” I found it at a rest stop, perched high on a hill and surveying interstate 10 like it was calculating its chances of breaking into a run at any moment.
According to Atlas Obscura, the 20 foot tall roadrunner “first stood at the Las Cruces Foothills Landfill to draw attention to our consumption habits, the power of recycling, and how much we toss away into landfills.” It was later moved to watch over the I-10. I noticed it was made of old shoes, cell phones, crutches, keyboards, bike parts, and I even saw a guitar in there!
Some masked older folks trying to pose with the roadrunner so their daughter could snap a photo eyed me warily, but I kept my distance and my mask on. You’re in good company, I thought as a fierce dry wind whipped my hair around.
For my last new place to explore of the day, I visited Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. I was attracted by a map I found online showing walking trails along the Rio Grande.
However, it turns out that currently, the Rio Grande in Las Cruces is every bit as dry as it is in El Paso!
In any case, it was a nice, flat walk with nothing for me to trip over and where I exceeded my 10,000 steps for the day. The only things I didn’t like were the total lack of shade and the bugs! I have to mention the bugs there were somewhat impervious to my American bug spray, but when I brought out my Australian insect repellent they buggered off absolutely, probably never knowing what hit them.
I finished up my walk by sitting in the park’s beautiful desert garden for a time and contemplating what I wanted to get for dinner. I’d carried my own breakfast, lunch, and snacks from home, but getting some Thai noodles for the first time since my 2021 diet began at New Year’s seemed like an excellent dinner choice. So I did. It was one of those restaurants so local they couldn’t be bothered to answer their phone so I could order ahead, but I could have hardly cared at that point, sitting dusty and sweaty in their parking lot like a refugee, other patrons glancing at my out of state plates and border crossing sticker on the windshield, and then looking again.
I left for Juárez in plenty of time to also wash and gas up Hilde, my Volkswagen, and arrive home in Mexico well before dark. I slept like a baby that night.
The whole day was a test of my limitations. On the following day, which was a holiday in Mexico and a non-working day for me, I would take two more long walks, and by the end of that week where I also walked every day in the gym, my entire left leg was alternating between sciatica and numbness and I was having difficulty laying down. Of course, I refused to take any pain medication. As a result of my overexertion, my physical therapist would put me on an exercise restriction for the following week. It frustrated me, but I abided by it faithfully, and all the symptoms stopped. Since then, I have learned to work with my body in better moderation and I haven’t had any more issues.