Exceeded in size only by Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana, New Mexico is America’s fifth largest state. Within New Mexico’s more than 121,355 square miles could fit more than seventy-eight Rhode Islands, as could sixty-two Delawares, twenty-one Connecticuts, or thirteen New Jerseys. All of America’s ten smallest states could fit inside New Mexico’s borders with room to spare, as could all five states of New England.
On a global scale, New Mexico could easily hold the entireties of Poland, Italy, the Philippines, New Zealand, or Great Britain. The state could hold three Icelands, seven Denmarks, or nearly two-thousand Lichtensteins.
The point is: New Mexico is big.
It is a monster of an area—and home to barely sixteen people per square mile. The state is so huge it needs the entire Midwest just to keep it from hurting all those tiny eastern states, and so vast that making generalizations about its terrain, its people, or its culture is nearly impossible. There are mountains and deserts and prairie, rivers and salt beds and flatlands, canyons and valleys and cities and parking lots. There are dusty, twisted-wire ranches along the New Mexico-Texas border, there are towns that speak mostly Navajo or other native languages, villages that speak mostly Spanish, and small cities where nearly everyone works for the Air Force or a top-secret government lab.
New Mexico is so big, and contains such a variety of people and places, that many parts of the state can barely even relate to many others. Residents of southern New Mexico often dismiss northern New Mexico as not much different from Colorado. Many northern New Mexicans write off eastern New Mexico as somehow tainted from its close proximity to Texas. Many ranching communities in eastern New Mexico consider Albuquerque a crime-ridden ghetto, decry its traffic and sprawl, fear its drivers, and accuse it of being entirely devoid of culture and beauty. Numerous Albuquerque residents—along with much of the rest of the state—jokingly refer to Santa Fe as Santa Fake, Santa Fey, and Santa Gay, hurrying to dismiss it as an inland island of eastern culture full of pesco-vegetarian, turquoise-and-silver-wearing, Georgia O’Keefe-loving Californians. Many Santa Feans dismiss Albuquerque as an ugly and haphazard town of strip malls and seedy bars, with an alarming lack of stucco, and Albuquerque and Santa Fe often both go on to dismiss or take for granted or ignore much of the rest of the state.
“I drove by Albuquerque once…and it happened to be Mother’s Day weekend, and a local radio station had decided for the theme of its contest to be ‘Hot MILFs,’” wrote “Kristiana” in a 2007 blog entry. “Claaaaaaassy town…and horrible drivers, I can vouch for that.”
“[Santa Fe ’s] galleries are piled up next to one another, and you quickly learn that they are indistinguishable,” wrote Pinworm, another New Mexico blogger, in 2004. “Some are folk, some are contemporary, some show ancient artifacts, and some are Southwestern. But once you have seen one Pueblo Blanket for 2500 dollars you have seen them all. [Every Santa Fe] street is filled with looky-loos walking up and down…typically white folks in their late 50’s. You cannot swing your arms without hitting a dirty Subaru.”
New Mexico could easily be compared to a country, with its various regions all distinct states or provinces, and all with distinct histories of their own. The reservation towns of northwest New Mexico’s Navajo Nation literally are part of an independent and sovereign country. Taos and Santa are famed for their historic art colonies. The state’s eastern edge formed the fringe of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Many towns along the state’s southern border were part of Mexico up until 1853—and some still seem like they are.
The histories of the various parts of the state are eclectic, and so is their lore. Northern New Mexicans tell of enormous flightless owls, the insidious Taos Hum, and one-eyed feathered worms that can kill a person with a single glance. On the reservations, people talk of flying snakes, native gods, and skinwalkers—demonic medicine men that can change into animals.
Ghost stories of dead Civil War soldiers are told from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, rumors of secret underground bases and tunnel networks are shared about Los Alamos and Dulce, UFOs and aliens and mutilated cows are reported from Socorro to Roswell, and many southern New Mexicans talk of the lost treasures of the Organ Mountains, sightings of living pterosaurs, enormous “thunderbirds” with fifty-foot wingspans, and the Lordsburg Door—an alleged portal into another dimension or another time.
New Mexico is so large, and contains such an eclectic variety of cultures and places, that one of the only generalizations that could honestly be said about it or its people is that New Mexico is kind of strange—across-the-board, without-regard-to-race-or-background, north-to-south, east-to-west strange.
Twenty-one times the size of Connecticut, and at least twenty-one times as weird, New Mexico is unlike anywhere else—and maybe, at least in part, that’s because we like it that way.