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This essay first appeared in the January 2012 Centennial issue of New Mexico Magazine. Writer Hampton Sides wasrecognized with top honors—the Gold Award in the Essay category, by the International Regional Magazine Association during its annual conference in Baltimore, Maryland, September 30, 2013.


I know it when I'm here, but I know it even more keenly whenever I fly back to New Mexico after a trip to pretty much anywhere else in America. Gazing out the window as the plane begins its long descent, I contemplate the endless space, the wrinkled blue mountains, and the merciful dearth of human scars on the land. After Dallas, after Phoenix, after any of those Bubba Gumped, Mattress Finned, Olive Gardened, La Quinta-fied rat warrens of modern America, I often find myself literally breathing a sigh of relief. Home! I remember all over again why I came here, and why I stay.

The contradictions of New Mexico never cease to astound me-and they lie at the root of why I love this place so much. Who can make sense of it? Here we are, one of the youngest states in the Union, constructed on the ruins of some of North America's most ancient civilizations. Dry but high, vast in size but puny in population, we're a great state that suffers from an inferiority complex. Yet people the world over fantasize about coming and living here--somehow, some day, some way. We're an oasis of high culture (Santa Fe Opera), but also of high kitsch (Roswell's UFO Festival- "a great place to crash!"). We're a place with deep strains of humility (penitents on the road to Chimay6), and also of cosmic arrogance (nuclear interlopers at Los Alamos). We're a state that's tied to the old ways, for better and worse--cockfighting was declared illegal only a few years ago. And yet we're also poised on the furthest frontiers of futurism and technology-home of the Virgin Galactic Spaceport, Intel, and the Very Large Array.

It's ironic that the very things that make New Mexico marvelous and unique--dramatic climate, sere country, a sharp diversity of peoples-were the very things that so many bewhiskered windbags in Washington found loathsome when they were pondering statehood candidates in the late 1800s. To many back East, this place seemed a crazy-quilt of weird religions, unintelligible languages, and warring tribes, all set in a forbidding moonscape. Some politicians vowed that New Mexico should remain a Territory forever; others contended that the U.S. should just give it all back to Mexico and be done with the place.

But New Mexico is rather like cholla cactus: It has a way of sticking to people. It worked its way into the national imagination and eventually won over those politicians back East. On January 6, 1912, America welcomed her 47th member of the Union.

Yet even with statehood, I'm not sure New Mexico was ever fully conquered or assimilated, and that's something I've always loved about this place. It's still very much its own land, at the crossroads of myriad cultures, where the desert meets the mountains meet the plains. Living here is probably the closest one can come to an expat experience in the Lower 48. We're in the United States, but not entirely of it.

So, happy lOOth birthday, New Mexico. There is nowhere else quite like you. You offer a sense of space and possibility stretching to the horizons. And you keep reminding me, whenever I leave you: I live in the right place.