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Diary: This American Road, Albuquerque

Cross-country 2015 - 14

Even just 800 miles into this trip, I don’t care if I never see another “unspoiled” landscape again. Spend enough hours driving through rolling hills or dry scrub or big skies or whatever, and you — or at least I — start to long for any sign of civilization, no matter how unpromising, even just a billboard telling you you’re going to hell. And so I met the modest Albuquerque skyline, the pyramidical tops of the Albuquerque Plaza towers jutting stubbily but distinctively into the air, with something like rapture. Finally, back in a city — maybe only the 34th largest in America, but a city nonetheless!

Cross-country 2015 - 15

There we stayed in what I consider one of America’s truly, fascinatingly generic spaces: a Holiday Inn Express. I’ve only stayed in about a dozen Holiday Inn Expresses in my time, but even that has led me to expect that, when you stand inside one, you stand in no particular neighborhood, no particular city, and indeed no particular country: you stand in a Platonic hotel realm, standardized to perfection. The Holiday Inn Express realizes, to bring it back to A Single Man, George’s vision of America, in which a “hotel room isn’t a room in a hotel, it’s the room, definitively, period. There is only one: The Room. And it’s a symbol — an advertisement in three dimensions, if you like — for our way of life. And what’s our way of life? A building code which demands certain measurements, certain utilities and the use of certain apt materials; no more and no less. Everything else you’ve got to supply for yourself.”

Cross-country 2015 - 17

And so, despite spending two nights in Albuquerque’s Holiday Inn Express, I perhaps spent even less time in Albuquerque than I thought. I often laugh at those New York Times “36 Hours in…” travel guides, but the country-crossing exigencies of this trip put me in a psychological position where I’d kill for 36 hours in one city. But their “36 Hours in Albuquerque” didn’t include what, for me, ranks as a destination of paramount importance: Burt’s Tiki Lounge, which Thrillist’s guide to the tiki bars of America describes as “like stepping into a TGI Friday’s that married a dive bar in Oahu, then wandered off into the desert to raise their weird kids.” Alas, my desperate need for such a dive went unfulfilled; we turned up at 8:30, when every reliable source said they’d open in the evening, but its doors stayed locked, its neon stayed unlit. The on-the-ground impression I take from New Mexico’s largest city thus amounts to not much more than brightly colored freeways and metal sculptures of various desert creatures real and imaginary.

Cross-country 2015 - 18

But we got a much more vivid impression from the air by taking the Sandia Peak Tramway, which offers a fifteen-minute ride up a cable to a restaurant from whose vantage you can take in a full nine percent of the state of New Mexico while drinking margaritas. (IF YOU GO, as the travel articles would put it, don’t forget to order them in plastic cups so you can take them out to the deck.) This being the 21st century, a great many of the tram’s riders held their phones to the window as we ascended. I had my camera too, but I couldn’t figure out a non-obvious shot to take, so I just waited until the sun went down and the lights came on, snapping the kind of shot from the tramway’s boarding platform that almost never works. But this time it worked.