I was on my way to Sandia Peak in Albuquerque, New Mexico when I recorded this. From miles away I could already see the mountain becoming a silhouette in the diffuse gray cloud, and I figured I could park at the tram station and wait there for the skies to clear. When I drove into the storm, the rain suddenly turned solid and I had to pull my car over in a shopping plaza, in front of a Subway and a State Farm. I shut off the engine and reclined in my seat and listened to the hail pelt the roof of the car, and thought how strange it was for there to be a freak hailstorm in the middle of summer – which I later learned from the tram operator is not so strange at all. It’s what the cold mountain air does to the moisture. I fell asleep in the car, and when I woke up a half hour later the storm had broken, the peak was visible again, and I drove the remaining distance to the tram station.
The Sandia Peak Tramway touts itself as the world’s longest tramway. The ride is fifteen minutes, and it puts you about a two-mile hike from the crest at ~11,000 feet. I rode the tram up and was halfway into the hike when I reached a clearing with a stone hut built in the 1930s, and from the cliffs I could see the crest a short distance away and the city of Albuquerque a long distance away. My plan was to take the tram back down during sunset, so I could take my time getting to the top. I sat on the edge of the rocks and and cracked open a used book I’d bought earlier that day, when I stumbled across a bookseller’s tables in a cafe downtown.
The book was Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. As I opened it and started reading, I felt guilty: Why do you always have to be somewhere else? I thought to myself. You’re already somewhere else – you’re here on this trip, here in New Mexico. Instead of burying yourself in a book, which you can do at home, why can’t you just take in the surroundings? Why can’t you read the landscape and the smells, the conversations of those two people walking their dogs by the stone hut?
That I still thought of this place as elsewhere – as not home, as not Brooklyn – meant I wasn’t present. And now there was another layer of guilt on top of that: instead of just doing what I felt like doing, I was feeling guilty for not doing what I felt like I was supposed to be doing.
I’m not always able to catch myself in these scenarios, but in this case I did. After some mental running-in-place, I simply decided I wasn’t going to feel guilty; I was just going to read my damn book with the mountain wind and mountain smells and the dog walkers by the stone hut and the entirety of Albuquerque just beyond my dangling feet, and on the first page was this:
In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.
Later that night, from the same book, after I’d taken the tram down from the peak at dusk:
The traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.