It was a 20-minute drive out of Santa Fe to my mother’s land. On a hot but breezy June day about a decade ago, she drove my younger brother and me out there in a rented white Jeep Liberty. Outside the closely huddled adobe city, the desert opened up into rolling hills as we made our way to Lamy, population hovering near 200. The railway station justifies its dot on the map, a place that exists to link other places.
We shot down Highway 285, exited, turned onto a dirt road. “How do you guys feel about the idea of me moving out here?” my mother asked, car wheels raising reddish dust as we bumped along. Her tone was casual, but the question was likely more freighted than she let on. She and her boyfriend still lived in New York, and they had purchased this land with loose intentions, the someday-dream of building a house and a life in Santa Fe’s sagebrush sprawl.
“It’s your life,” I answered. I was 20 years old, halfway through college back east. Living in temporary spaces, a series of rooms stocked with the same anonymous dorm furniture. Comfortably unmoored. My brother, 17 and already more business-minded than I’d ever be, began expounding upon real estate strategies, land value, buying before you sell. I stared out the window, watching the spaces between the houses grow and wondering how far off the hazy mountains were. To my northeastern mind, expansive seemed to be the only right word for a place like this. Expansive and divided into manageable, buyable plots.
We parked at the edge of a cul-de-sac and stepped into the stretch of piñon- and juniper-speckled land labeled Lot 15. The air buzzed, an insect orchestra hidden in the dry grasses. My mother was quiet as she walked onto her 12-acre lot, weaving among rabbitbrush and the occasional beer bottle. Her lot. Her land. I found myself wondering how that felt — to own the place where you stood.
To her, at that moment, it probably felt uncertain. To buy a piece of land was one thing, to make a life there was another. She had yet to decide whether she really would or could choose New Mexico, so far from New York and her family and nearly everything and everyone she’d known for the half-century of her life. With my brother preparing to apply to college, she would soon face an empty nest. And her relationship wasn’t in a certain place, either, though a year later, she’d be planning her wedding. I imagined it was a daunting sensation: gazing into a possible future out West, outlining the next chapter of your life in pencil.
Steady as I was on the well-worn path from suburban upbringing to liberal arts, I couldn’t yet relate to that kind of life upheaval. But I could see how a place like this might provide the canvas. Taking in the rolling desert hills, the mountains that lapped up the land on all sides, I understood how a person could fall in love with all this. My mom had brought our family to New Mexico a few times before, and I was always the one stopping to gape at rocks, asking to pull the car over one more time so I could take another photo. Already, I was smitten with desert horizons and open skies.
Deep into the lot, I noticed a stake — a marker of the spot where someone had decided a house should go. Where wires should reach, where a driveway should lead, where a person or a couple or a family should settle down and build a life on arid soil. It occurred to me that I’d never knowingly looked upon anything like this before: a place wanted only for its potential, a piece of land poised and waiting to become something much more complex. Loose as I was in the world at 20, this moved me.
Trying to imagine this land before Lot 15 was a measured tract, I thought about the purposeful ways that Americans have moved across space. The hope and hubris of those who settled here, how they chose to make this dry place home and see what would grow: land ownership as trial, survival as success. How we built our western cities and towns out of myth and sheer stubbornness.
This was the beginning of my attraction to the idea of empty land as blank canvas — an idea that brings with it a host of problems. Such spaces are empty because they have been emptied. The land I was standing on had been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. When it comes to the American West, every clean slate is an erasure.
Years later, when my mother and the man who had become her husband moved to Santa Fe, I had just started graduate school, and I filled in the blanks of my new apartment with their cast-off furniture. Their home — first a small house in Santa Fe proper, and later a larger one near the land they still own — became my jumping-off point for road trips, the western springboard for my heart’s divided geography. My fascination with southern Utah and the rest of the Colorado Plateau, my year in Colorado — all my leaps into the West were possible because my mother and stepfather leaped first.
Though they never ended up building on Lot 15, they haven’t managed to sell it either. Sometimes they take their two large dogs there to run around, a trivial yet practical use of their slice of fallow land. But it seems right to me that the land remains undeveloped, that it still exists as a place of potential — a place where an imagined future remains suspended in fantasy while they live out the real version just a few miles away. The disjuncture between what we imagine and what comes to be doesn’t usually manifest quite so physically, but the West is like that: myth and reality intersecting only intermittently, endless revisions following every act of hope.