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Maxed out

Cultural landmarks in the desert

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"You can never go home again."

I think my father said that. Or maybe what he said was, "You can never come home again." Whatever.

I am where I grew up. Since some time in August, I've been yo-yoing between Arizona and the Land of Enchantment. If a rootless person can be said to have a hometown, Albuquerque, New Mexico is mine.

Albuquerque is best known as the town where Bugs Bunny took a wrong left turn. Until Santa Fe chic became the rage among people whose only previous encounter with the desert was in dreams they suffered after drinking too much tequila, New Mexico was mostly known only for its footnotes in the annals of warfare.

Not too many miles north of Albuquerque, the best and brightest minds not hiding in Argentina from the Nuremberg investigators developed the atomic bomb. They trucked it south, to a remote part of the state - don't ask how they were able to tell it was more remote than the rest of the state - and created the world's first nuclear sunrise. One of them is remembered as saying, while watching the growing mushroom cloud, "My God what have we done?" Another, completely forgotten to history, said, "Hey, what did we ever decide about that fallout stuff? Is it dangerous or what?"

The people of Alamogordo, the closest down-wind town to ground zero, unwittingly became guinea pigs that morning. Having lived and worked in Alamogordo for the longest year of my life, I can say with some authority it represented a significant elevation in status for most of them. I can also say with authority, fallout has long-term side effects you don't want to witness first hand. Then again, I lived there during the disco years, so who's to say what was the result of radiation poisoning and what was culturally-induced polyester poisoning? Not me.

Albuquerque has the distinction of being the city more people will make you spell when taking down your address than any other. The town was named after a Spanish duke sent over to the New World to subjugate Indians whose most violent act up until that time had been the fashion faux pas of wearing white before Easter, a holiday celebrating a god they'd never heard of. As such, Albuquerque is a proper noun, a name with no other meaning. No hormonal boys ever shout out, "Hey, show me your albuquerques."

If you've ever been to Albuquerque, you can understand Bugs's confusion. It sits at the crossroads of Interstates 25 and 40, cultural conduits of America's melting pot. As a result, whatever distinct culture existed in Pueblo Indian and Spanish colonial times has been pretty much sucked into the vortex of fast food, strip plazas and cultural genocide that defines life in America today. Several examples of early culture remain, but recent events show even they are endangered.

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