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Traveling Absurd

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Vignettes of New Mexico

It felt a little bit like doom to check into The Lodge in Cloudcroft in December. Perhaps this was because a ghost is rumored to live in that hotel, or because I knew I had to get up for work the next morning at 3 am, just a few fitful hours from now. Perhaps it was because the woman at reception asked, when I handed her my passport, what it was. She’d never left the state, let alone the country, despite the unshakeable presence, three hours down Route 54 from here, of the Mexican border and Chihuahua. This was New Mexico and there was a fake fire in The Lodge just like at inns in New York and also many things decidedly not like New York. A notice outside a local restaurant read: “Concealed Handguns are welcome on premises. Please keep all weapons holstered unless need arises. In such cases, judicious marksmanship is appreciated.” I chose to find dinner elsewhere.

Maybe my arriving felt ominous because I knew the pervasive cold that awaited me in the desert before dawn, and the fierce heat after noon. Maybe because I knew the peculiar sunburn that comes of exposure to sun from above and reflective sands below. For I had been to this same patch of the Southwestern United States no more than two weeks earlier, to the arid Tularosa Basin where the first ever nuclear weapon was detonated by the Manhattan Project at 5:29 am one summer morning in 1945. The guns were only the beginning of the auguries that this was no New York: so few people lived here that on a Friday evening at seven o’clock the nicest restaurant in town was entirely vacant save our party of eleven. The community of people who did make their home out here under all this sky did not do so for the fine dining: their raison d’etre, the campfire about which they gathered in the famously cold desert night, was US Military base Fort Bliss. Everything that took place around here was suffused with military sobriety, obedience, and reticence; everything that mattered around here belonged to Fort Bliss or the White Sands Missile Range.  

Casey Wayne Hupp, hired by the New York producer to assist with New Mexico logistics on our shoot—location scouting and providing Alamogordo handymen to carry some glass cubes I would pose on and renting two Mercedes panel vans and a GigaTent for changing outfits in public—was himself an army vet. He was still under forty and still working “part time” to fill odd needs at Fort Bliss—needs of the base and, I think, of his own. The rest of the time he operated a tanning salon, which was a thing you could surmise after one look beyond his Aviator sunglasses at his bronze face and blond-highlighted bangs. Howie, driving one of the vans one morning, didn’t specify how he had been affiliated with the army, but he looked back on this affiliation as a proud time in his life. Now he owned a storage complex near the Texas border. Space: in the Tularosa Basin, it seemed the only resource to speak of. 

Amid the army holdings and the Taco Bells and Applebees’ which comprised the primary gastronomical scene here, there was one other presence in Otero County and this is the one that drew me to New Mexico twice in the span of two weeks. White Sands National Monument is a vast park consisting of 275 square miles of gypsum sands, a fine white mineral whose versatile uses range from mortar (it can be found holding together the pyramids of ancient Egypt) to foot cream to coagulant in tofu. In its raw form here, though, gypsum provides an excellent extraterrestrial backdrop for edgy fashion shoots. In 1976 David Bowie shot parts ofThe Man Who Fell to Earth here, and White Sands is precisely the sort of place where you expect to blink and find Bowie wavering, in sequins, on a nearby dune. 

My two trips to White Sands were for different jobs: incredibly, two brands had the same vision which combined me and pastel spring trends and this specific glinting setting for advertising material to be released the coming year. These two trips remain my only experience of New Mexico. It took a day to reach White Sands and a day to return home: the journey involved a succession of clipped domestic flights bridging the states between New York and El Paso, Texas, which were followed by a three hour drive into New Mexico. Four times I passed, on Route 54, the security checkpoint where officers requested to see our passports and peered into the backs of our vans: we were close enough to the Mexican border for them to suspect us of bearing illegal immigrants, and just far enough from the Mexican border for them to suspect that any searches they conducted would come, at this advanced phase in a dash towards the American dream, as a “surprise.” Looming up out of the plane, the grey checkpoint building which straddled the highway was a threatening sight, even to me with my arbitrarily inherited American citizenship. It seemed especially somber since the fates and dignity of immigrants all over the nation were being toyed with that month in a capital felicitously removed from the desert sun.

My night in Cloudcroft became increasingly less ominous once I got to my room. My shower was soothing, even if I’d forgotten conditioner and emerged with my hair more than usually unmanageable. Dinner was satisfying in the dining room downstairs where the whole team of this Bloomingdales shoot convened. The restaurant, like much else in this hotel, was named after its resident ghost: Rebecca’s. She was supposedly a chambermaid at The Lodge until she was murdered by her lumberjack lover who, according to a plaque mounted prominently in the lobby, “thought that he owned Rebecca, but she was a free spirit that nobody owned.” Was this the sort of town in which it was necessary to enunciate such a platitude? To assert (the obvious,) that nobody has rights over any being but themselves?

The gypsum was cold under my bare feet in the Park the next morning at dawn. Too cold to bear, almost; it felt for all the world like the snow it resembled, and numbed my toes as I stood in a white suit and swayed and squatted and spun before the camera. At high noon, however, when the sun scorched everything else, I came to appreciate the sand’s persistent chill. All day long we rolled a lurching rack of clothes through the dunes with us. I changed my outfits most times in the Giga tent so as not to waste precious daylight on the walk to the parking lot with the RV that was home base. Lunch was brought to us by the Lodge—by Rebecca’s—and we ate at linen-draped tables under tents. There was a strong wind snapping our tents and table cloths at our heads, our open eyes, open mouths. There was creamed corn and corn bread and lots of saucy brown meat dishes in tinfoil trays. I think I ate a sweet potato I had carried, wrapped also in tinfoil, from home for a need like this.

We shot until the sun set, racing on the silent plain against the coming of dark. As the sky colored pink and violet, so did the gypsum sands, and then blue, and then grey, and at last indigo. That night back at the Lodge I was so tired I could hardly keep my balance for the duration of a hot shower, and dinner with the photo team downstairs at Rebecca’s was out of the question. Rather, I brought some vegetables up to my room and watched an episode of Bojack Horseman in bed. Bojack is about the superficial and isolated life-in-Hollywood of a cynical horse living off his increasingly faint celebrity, and the next thing I knew it was time to descend again to Rebecca’s for breakfast with everyone, and to clamor into the panel vans for the two and a half hour drive back to El Paso International Airport. I was looking forward to getting back home. Looking forward to leaving behind the dark wooden resort, the concealed weapon restaurants, the deserted streets after seven. Leaving behind Rebecca and the prominent plaque distinguishing Rebecca as “not the Hollywood kind of ghost who goes around scaring people or being vengeful. Rather, like almost all country inn ghosts, she is a mischievous, playful ghost, not in the least sense macabre.” Because country inns, I think, wouldn’t advertise their macabre ghosts

Gazing out the window as we sped towards Texas, nursing a subdued sunburn, I thought about Bojack Horseman and wondered how superficial and isolated my own life-in-Fashion is, how cynical I may have become since I began modeling and traveling enough for me to forget to appreciate it. Unlike the receptionist in Cloudcroft, I have seen a passport. I have a passport. And it is filled with stickers and visas and stamps from border crossings into more countries than I can count on two hands. I have come of age on airplanes and in front of cameras, and that is a uniquely exciting way to come of age. But also an isolating way. And superficial, for all of my work involves me being someone other than myself, and all my time off involves me worrying about superficial—surface—traits of mine (am I swimsuit ready). As I embark on my day of connecting flights dotting the map between El Paso and New York, I am uniquely excited to spend the weekend wearing my own clothes, not being seen, not being moved places. And, for the time being, not being anyone other than me. 

So farewell Tularosa Basin, farewell gypsum that I might someday encounter again, in making gesso to plaster a panel for an Icon, in toothpaste or in tofu. Farewell missile range, 1945 nuclear moment, shrubs, dunes, and vast blue sky. Farewell ominousness and beautiful, breathtaking, spaciousness. Hello familiar urban bubble. Hello me.