Zachary Michael Jack lived in Las Cruces two decades ago. Now a published author with more than 20 award-winning books to his credit, he reflects back on lessons learned in the City of Crosses.
Nearly 20 years ago I was an early 20-something children’s librarian and occasional poet looking for a good graduate school at which to pursue my passion for writing. A former professor of mine told me I should give New Mexico a try. A native Iowan recently returned from a visiting professorship at UNM, she said she’d never seen a place so diverse—hippies, commies, Native Americans, environmentalists, ranchers, foodies, survivalists somehow living side by side. You name it, she said, and New Mexico had it with a side of chiles.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Except that it isn’t, not purely. While I’m a nostalgic at heart, I’ve never been good at returning to my own past. When Facebook first hit the scene, for example, friends of mine reported breathless online encounters with friend and frenemies they’d lost track of decades ago. Hearing the giddy stories of their personal exhumations only reinforced in me a decided need to live in the present. I’d stayed in contact with my best friends from long ago, I told them, and if I hadn’t, then maybe they were destined to remain ghosts of the past.
Now, somewhere north of 40 (the age rather than the Interstate), I see that the ghosts return whether you will or you won’t, and that circles, rather than straight lines, describe how life moves, drawing us back in concentric loops while at the same time spinning us forward into the unknown. Life imitates literature that way: like a good whodunit you finish a chapter only to find yourself circling back to suss out the small yet crucial details and divinities you may have missed along the way.
Back in the 1990s, when I moved to town, Cruces was a city on the move, “the next Tucson” some said with profoundly mixed feelings, “but more affordable.” Our graduate assistant teaching stipends at the time, somewhere around $10,000, put us at or above the per capita income, we were told.
While Las Cruces may not have become the next Tucson, predictions of the city’s precipitous growth have since come true, as its population and that of Dona Ana County have nearly doubled since 1990. Per capita incomes have grown, too, though sluggishly and not in proportion to the population boom. The Organ Mountains have grown up and become a national monument, and now, today, I read that some would like to turn back time on President Obama’s 2014 declaration to make them so.
Returning to a place you loved at a time when you loved life and all its vicissitudes is like the Heraclitean River, I suppose; the river may be the same, but you who dip your toes in it have changed, and therefore you can never step into the same river twice. And even if you could revisit the places of your past perfectly preserved, as exactly the same person you were back then, would you want to?
For me Las Cruces, even beyond the University, was a teacher; it taught me that rich didn’t necessarily mean happy; that it was possible for a dizzying variety of divergent people to productively share the same beautiful valley in addition to other lessons big and small. The ruins of the old tuberculosis sanatoriums in the foothills taught me that the desert Southwest was once a place to which Americans escaped en masse to heal, and that it will be so again; history, Mark Twain once said, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
The switchback trails over the Organ Mountains taught me that it was sometimes a good idea to let others know where you were going, and to be mindful of scorpions en route; the Golden Bull taught me that it’s good to be the kind of person who stays long enough in one place to find your coffee cup still hanging on its hook when you return; Nellie’s taught me that sharing a sopa with friends is its own kind of communion; Hatch chiles taught me to love the sensation of a mouth on fire. Las Cruces in the spring taught me to hang on, that the winds can play devil; the wet season, when it arrived, showed me that NMSU students sometimes need to take “rain days” the way Midwesterners take snow days. The snow on the Organ Needle, when it stuck, taught me that every place has a winter, and that every season, in a place as in a life, has a beauty all its own.
I am grateful that I was blessed to set foot in Las Cruces all those many moons ago, and I was doubly grateful, twenty years later, to recently plant my feet here once again, if only for a few days. The river, I am glad to say, still runs.
Zachary Michael Jack studied in the graduate writing program at New Mexico State University. He has published more than 20 award-winning books in a variety of genres, including fiction, poetry, literary journalism, creative nonfiction, and personal essay for adults and young adults alike, in addition to his work as an active playwright. Zachary’s fiction has earned national runner-up honors in its class in the Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award; his poetry has been awarded the Prentice Hall Prize, and his nonfiction has received nominations for the Pushcart (Best of the Small Presses) Prize, the Theodore Saloutos Award, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, the Herbert Warren Wind Award, and the Shambaugh Award. The author and his work have been featured in USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, among many other publications.
To learn more and find out where you can purchase his work, including his latest book, March of The Suffragettes: Rosalie Gardiner Jones and the March for Voting Rights,