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How does it start? It starts with Google, of course. It starts with searching online for things to do in the southern part of New Mexico on the way from Tucson to Texas. You had originally planned on going up north for a bit, to visit friends in Santa Fe, but then you broke your ankle, and then you found out how cold it was there, snow and ice everywhere, and you decided to stay down south. Where it's safe.
First you discover there's a national park with pure white sands, and people slide down the sands in sleds you can buy in the gift store, and that sounds fun enough, but maybe not great for a girl just three weeks out of a cast. Hiking and sliding. No.
But what's that, nearby? A missile park? Fifty legendary missiles against a mountain backdrop. In the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. A few scattered pictures on a website - there aren't a lot out there, weirdly - and you're sold. It, in fact, becomes a bit of a vision quest. You may not be able to walk much, but you will make it to this park.
The White Sands Missile Range Museum is not too far from Las Cruces, where you're spending the night, and even though you should sleep - five days on the road already, the last two spent in a rock and roll hotel, five hours a night rest, if that - you are up and at 'em early. The drive is boring and then all of a sudden it is awesome, the mountains come up quickly, as does a little ghost town, shuttered grocery stores and motels, their fading fluorescent signage still wishfully erect, as if someone might come along and plug in their power once again.
Then you round a corner and bam, there is wide open space, desert stretching on for miles - a hundred miles? - and it is an odd shade of light green, the sky and the mountains a hazy purple and blue in the distance. Out loud, you say, "Whoa." And you think: Well, if I were going to test missiles, this would be the place to do it.
You take the museum exit, and soon, in the distance, you can see the tips of the missiles seemingly hovering in the air. As you approach you realize the park is part of the testing facility, and you soon learn you cannot enter it without a lot of paperwork. But you are allowed to park nearby and then walk through a secured walkway, where you are approached by a federal guard. She asks you if you are planning on taking pictures. You say yes, and stop yourself from adding, "Of course." Like, doesn't everyone on the planet want to take pictures of this business?
She tells you that you are only allowed to use the mountains as a backdrop. The desert area - presumably the testing area - is off-limits. And you are not allowed to take pictures of anyone who works there. And use the marked areas to cross the street. Do not jaywalk on government grounds. She is twenty-three years old, if that. She is stern and serious. You show her your ID. She tells you to enjoy yourself.
And the rest is a haze of delight and dizziness, magnified by the strong sun and the dry sting of the desert air. The missiles are, of course, beautiful, but their purpose makes you physically ill. Signs explain their history. You barely read them. You don't want to know. You already know. You are so happy Bush is leaving office. You are so happy that Obama is going to be president. (Even if you still distrust all politicians as a rule, you will allow yourself to be happy.) You are so happy that pilot landed that plane so gracefully in the Hudson and saved everyone's lives. You are so happy someone in this country knows how to do their fucking job already. That's what gives you hope more than anything else. The pilot's nickname is Sully and you love everything you read about him. A pilot's pilot. A gentleman. An academic. He would love this park probably.
There are two other people there, a couple in their fifties, and they smile at you as you limp past them. They are not taking pictures, but they are not like you. You cannot whisper to them, "Isn't this fucked up?" The man, with his great, hanging belly, is lecturing the woman at each missile. She nods. This is his bag, totally. So it is just the three of you, out in the desert, shuffling around next to the missiles. You cannot whisper to them, "Aren't you excited about our new president?" These are government grounds. You should learn a little respect already.
Later, when you leave, you pass another couple, this pair younger, closer to your age. They are friendly and stop to ask about your ankle and the air cast around it. You tell them your story, leaving out the parts about the emotional meltdown and the Vicodin and the isolation and the revelations, because maybe you are over it already, and also: who cares? They give you sympathy, they wish you well. They are so chipper. Heading off to see the missiles, they could not be happier. You are kind of happy too, now that you think about it. You have a camera full of pictures of phallic symbols designed to kill people. Missiles in the desert. With only a mountain backdrop.