the long road from los alamos to vancouver

A brown landscape stretched into sky blue. The ground looked thirsty; scars of streams cracked the hills like tendrils. Below, suburbs sprawled, the houses neatly spaced with a swimming pool here and there. Low-rise commercial buildings sprouted from the city centre, and through it all was a bright yellow ribbon of autumn leaves on trees the only place they could grow here, the banks of the Rio Grande. I landed in Albuquerque and he met me at the airport. As I giddily walked with him towards his truck, I saw something familiar: a yellow motorcycle. I thought it was a doppelgänger. No, it can’t be. I left that motorcycle in Chicago. But it was. He had shipped it across the country to his new home, hoping that just maybe, it would become my home too. It was the sweetest gesture, made sweeter because I never asked for it and never guessed he would do it. For all I knew, “Bumbles”, as we’d fondly come to calling the little yellow machine, was sold.

The desert was scrubby, and the higher the road climbed, the more Ponderosa pines sprouted out of the parched earth. After an hour and a half of driving north, the road hugged the side of high pale orange mesas; in the distance, mountains with ski runs looked down on adobe-style homes. There were no clouds in sight. There was evidence on the pavement that the cliffs regularly crumbled onto this two-lane roadway that seemingly leads to nowhere.

That must have been what he thought when he first made his way here from the depths of predominantly flat Texas and the interstate territory of Albuquerque. “New Mexico” doesn’t have very strong images associated with it, not the way that California or New York does. If anything, it brings to mind alien conspiracies, nuclear activity, Breaking Bad, arid desert and an art scene. So it must have been a surprise, this road on the side of the mesa that looked over the ski hills above Santa Fe. A pleasant one.

This was the road to Los Alamos, a town whose location was once a classified national secret at the height of the Cold War. There is a nuclear research laboratory here, and with a quick Google search you’ll likely find no shortage of The Manhattan Project, maybe a bit of NASA, and ongoing construction reports.

That laboratory is where my boyfriend decided to break his gypsy streak and start working again. I was stuck between Canadian unemployment and an American National Security clearance as a new graduate– what a place to be! The silver lining is I got lots of practice with job applications and what might as well have been mock interviews. They resulted in, “We’re sorry, but you’re Canadian and you’re not allowed to even enter this building.” Hard no. It was a Catch 22: I needed an engineering position to meet the requirements of a NAFTA visa, but for any engineering position, I needed a security clearance that required USA citizenship.

I’m sorry, is supposed to be my line. And of course there was November 2016, which was… how do I put this? It was the political equivalent of throwing up in your mouth but having nowhere to dispose of it so you just sit there panicking, tasting stomach acid and a half digested mix of foods and textures that were never meant to be experienced together. What a show, America! What a crazy place. I was unemployed and annoyed. But after November, I was also furious and bitter.

In my haze of temporary political anger– the image of the States had flipped drastically in one fateful evening and 2 bottles of wine (one celebratory when there was hope, and then one to cope with the inevitable)– Rick prodded me into an impromptu weekend road trip around New Mexico. What had been expansive views that were beautiful in their own desert-like way the day before, were now vast empty spaces punctuated by ugly rocks and sub-par rounded mountains. BC mountains make those look like hills, I thought. Stupid USA mountains. Where is the ocean? Stupid New Mexico with no ocean. Sad. In wise hindsight, let me present this as corny but true Exhibit A: Life is very much influenced by your perspective (contrary to the popular saying, life is not all in your perspective). I grudgingly said yes to the New Mexican road trip but I was upset that it was going to get in the way of my moping schedule.

We took our camping gear and drove south. Rick had recently bought a truck. Yes, he was fast digging himself into domesticated trappings. A vehicle, an address… furniture?! The mountains soon diminished into shrubs, fine dirt, and the odd gas station with gaudy advertising. Some five-ish hours of little to no scenery change on straight, paved yet cracking roads, we arrived in Roswell. It’s a weird town. We found a state park a few kilometres away, named “Bottomless Lakes” and set up camp. I was expecting lakes, but really they were more like swim holes. I hadn’t camped in a few months. We made tacos on the camping stove. I found it eerily quiet. We spent most of the next morning searching the town for a classic alien bobblehead, only to be told that there wasn’t a single one left. Their advice was to buy it on Amazon, as if that had any romance to it. We went to the alien museum, which was hokey but still quite interesting. If anyone from Roswell ever reads this, I very much apologize for what I am about to say: I am not a believer. I enjoy the stories though. It’s just that I think that if I lived my whole life in Roswell, I too would start seeing things to keep myself entertained. It was hours to get to anywhere. It was one of those American towns that looks and feels like it hasn’t been updated since 1970 (not unlike the entire way from Albuquerque to Kansas City). One of those towns that makes you wonder… why did people stop here and build things? In a souvenir shop, still looking feverishly for that damned bobblehead, we waited for the cashier to free up but she was talking enthusiastically to the girl in front of me. I could not help but overhear the conversation. “Do you believe?” was asked, and not as a joke. The answer was “Yes, of course, dear.” I was thrilled.

We continued to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I’d only seen some photos of the entrance, and I wasn’t expecting much more than… a cavern, as the name suggests. It comes out of nowhere, and I didn’t realize how massive it was until we started taking that winding path downwards. It was neverending. It took at least 45 minutes of hiking down to get to where the pathway leveled out. Google will tell you the system is made up of 119 known caves. It’s a very underrated US National Park, you never really hear anything about it.

We passed the Guadaloupe Mountains in the evening while the sun was setting. We had planned to camp there but the campsites were full, so we kept going into dusk. Rick didn’t want to get stuck heading through El Paso, and so made the executive decision to try and shortcut north around it by taking a county road. This turned out to be a misjudgement, as it quickly turned to gravel, and then pothole gravel, and then worse gravel with nothing around, for two hours, in the dark. Once in a while we would pass an RV with a light on. Maybe I was watching too much Breaking Bad, but what were these RVs doing in the middle of nowhere? It felt weird. Weird enough that Rick actually pulled his gun out of the glovebox. This is a very confusing action to me, but supposedly just what people do in America. 

We made it all the way to Alamagordo that evening and camped in a KOA (we dislike KOAs very much!), but at least at this time of year almost no one was camping there. Alamagordo is close to White Sands National Monument. Sometimes it’s closed for missile testing, but we were lucky. It’s the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, backed by mountains. It’s quite unique, if you just glance the whole thing can be mistaken for snow. 

We returned from our mini adventure, and it was back to work (for Rick), and back to contemplating my options. 

I felt defeated. It was like his life was careening on a rollercoaster track that they told me I wasn’t tall enough to ride. But they told me I could watch and cook dinner. So after the New Year, I went home and wrote job applications for four months. I applied all over the place: Canada, Switzerland, Washington State, Alberta, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Africa. I can’t say I turned many heads. I learned that online application systems don’t care how well you write cover letters, because no one reads them. If, say, you answer a screen question on a large company’s website that you are only willing to travel “50%” of the time, you may well receive an automated rejection email exactly 3 seconds after you press submit. These large companies don’t pretend to be subtle. They don’t have time for an answer like, “It depends, where am I traveling to?”

When I found a job it was in Fort St. John. I’d never been less excited for a flight. It was snowing when I arrived, and the roads were muddy and brown. Frost heave had made the power poles list in all directions. The lines hung off them as if they were feeling depressed. My stint there lasted a quip barely shy of three months, when I was plucked from the depths of dam building and placed gently on two feet in Parksville to build a water line instead. While the job in Fort St. John was meant to be very temporary, a throw-away option to pass time until Rick or myself figured out how to hop the border, the job in Parksville was the first one that I didn’t feel was a quick fix. I let myself grow into it. Rick and I settled into the quirks of a long distance relationship that yawned into the distance, not unlike that New Mexican blue sky. And boy, did it ever go on and on and on.

We got the hang of it within the next year or so. We would meet up every few months for breaks and holidays. A trip to Las Vegas to move Rick’s things out of storage there became a quick weekend getaway and a drive through the Valley of Fire. 

Christmas of 2017 ended with a road trip through Utah and Arizona. We lasted only 45 minutes in the Grand Canyon before running away from the tourists, and we got ran out of Page because the entire town was booked up. We learned the hard way that hotels are a book-ahead thing around Christmas. It’s not like camping. We stopped in Monument Valley again, and took the same road that we had taken on motorcycles. 

We explored Arches National Park in some light snow. I imagine this is much more enjoyable than visiting in the middle of summer and getting cooked. We drove down a snowed in dirt road and had a two hour hike entirely to ourselves. The desert landscapes of Arches and Canyonlands were vast. 

Canyonland desperately called for a mountain bike, a big hike or a dirt bike - it was a bit like the Grand Canyon, where standing at the top you know you’re missing out on something. 

By the middle of 2018, that long distance between Vancouver and Los Alamos was as far as it had ever been. Things were shifting under our feet. Contracts were lost, new companies took over. I bounced between the island, Prince George and the middle of nowhere north of Fort St. John between multiple projects. I put in a lot of hours. I tried to learn as much as possible without burning out. There were 14 day periods where I managed to crank out 13-14 hours every day. When I was on, I was on. When I was off, I was off. You have to draw a line, or you lose the ability to see that there should be one there. 

By early 2019, things were in motion. Rick had two offers in the chute. We both have never been so stressed. I would sit at my desk and feel like I was on a boat, the floor moving underneath me. Sometimes when I was standing, it suddenly felt like the room had tilted. My brain felt fuzzy, like it wasn’t completely connected to my skull. In February I spent one week looking at apartments in downtown Vancouver. The day after his official offer came, I signed the (FIRST!) lease with both of our names on it. On February 26, 2019, he picked me up in Phoenix. On March 1, 2019, we arrived at the Canada-US border and were redirected into the immigration office. A NAFTA visa is acquired at the port of entry, and although we had all the ducks in a row - all the letters from the lawyers, and the company - Canada still has every right to not give you the visa if something doesn’t look right. It was a somewhat tense 20 minutes. I had to try not to scream when I saw the border official hand over his passport with the little slip in it and start explaining to him what it was, and was not. I didn’t want it to seem like I was trying to smuggle him in or anything, I just couldn’t believe it was actually, finally, happening. 

Over two years since the drive to Los Alamos, we finally were in the same place. We have the same keys. We had an address. We walk the same direction to work. He drops me off at the door to my building most days. Rick has taken to the Vancouver lifestyle like he was born here. He’s very much like an octopus, or a chameleon; able to change quickly and adjust to surroundings. I saw him do the same thing in New Mexico, and I watched in real time as he did it here. It’s still happening, and I still love watching it. From the sudden penchant for raw oysters, to the skyrocketing standards for restaurant food, to almost never driving anywhere, everything just seemed to click. 

“It’s been ten years since I haven’t owned a motorcycle,” he said in disbelief as we unpacked. He’d sold all three of his to avoid moving them. He gave up a lot to be here, it was no small feat, it was a big risk, both personally and professionally. But one of the reasons I like this guy is that when he makes a choice, it’s always calculated, weighed, logical. He makes them with his head, and that’s why I’m confident it was the right one. 

Cheers from our home. 

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