Lands Touched By The Sun

May 1, 2022 / Eunjae Kim

The light engulfed New Mexico in fire, and my heart burned with it. 

I’ve always had a soft spot for the dead or forgotten.

Maybe that’s why I found myself drawn to my trip to New Mexico.  At the lively age of 21, I felt deader and more forgotten than I had ever before.

When my family and I crossed the border from Texas to New Mexico, we journeyed into lands even more barren and desolate than the ones we had just left. The overpowering stench of cow manure that had infiltrated our car vents disappeared, and for a while, all was devoid of life. There was just the endless sky, the rocks, the occasional tumbleweed, the grumbling hum of the car as we plowed through dirt roads.

A few miles past the border, there was a great cloud of smoke in the distance, its source too far away to be clear. Our roads grew closer until they were running parallel to one another, and I looked once again to see a freight train engulfed in the largest fire I had ever seen. The flames towered over us, outstretched above like claws grasping for the heavens. From mere feet away, it was impossible to see how high the smoke went up.

The train kept running, and I wondered if the conductor knew his train was on fire. Nevertheless, I watched passively, as I tended to do with most things in life.

We drove until we reached Santa Fe, where a great stag lay dead on the median strip a mere couple feet to our right, its massive horns tangled in the wildflowers. It was kind of beautiful in a twisted way — it was the deadest thing within sight, and yet, in a sea of steel and asphalt,  the most alive, too.

Death shows itself in a certain stillness. Lungs that no longer inhale or exhale, a heart that no longer beats. Within me, it was an inability to move on, stuck in one place while the rest of the world marched bravely ahead, my outstretched hand forgotten behind them. Things with no tangible bodies can also die — memories, love, a young girl’s dreams.

I felt as if I were stagnant, like a puddle of water that had been rotting in a deep hole. I had a vision of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life, but no means of getting there. I hesitated at all the crossroads that came with entering adulthood, unable to make a choice in fear that it would be the wrong one. My footsteps were unsure, constantly teetering on the verge of failure, and my proud arms desperately held onto childhood dreams long shattered, refusing to accept and move on.

Every corner of Santa Fe bursted with life and color. Adobes of every shade of red and brown lined the main streets and stood tall within mountain peaks. Specks of blue, from the turquoise jewelry sold on the streets to the vast cerulean sky, lingered in the corner of my vision. Blade signs of green, gold, crimson, and violet swayed with the breeze, gently luring tourists to enter the stores. 

Amidst the color, I walked around dressed head-to-toe in black. Though my eyes remained devoid of any spirit, I continued to scour every inch of Santa Fe because I liked the feeling of trying on different cities and their lifestyles like a blushing bride trying on wedding dresses — which lifestyle would fit me best? Which one would give me the life I envisioned?

Perhaps it was a survival instinct. The human urge to travel is as old as humanity itself, after all– to displace yourself time and time again when the life you live has lost all meaning and purpose, to explore the unknown like a quest to find and reclaim what you’ve lost. 

The late Georgia O’Keeffe and her paintings were a perpetual presence in Santa Fe. Her odd depictions of animal bones — most frequently, cow skulls — were framed and hung in Mexican restaurants, French-dining cafes, Indigenous jewelry and hand-woven blanket shops, right above the beds of all our Airbnb rooms. Wherever I went, the carcasses seemed to follow me around, as if the cow skulls in the paintings still had eyes.

Maybe it was because I had coined Santa Fe the City of Life, but eventually, even the dead things didn’t seem so dead anymore. If skulls and bones were being rebirthed into jewelry and art, were they still stagnant? Does anything ever stay unchanging? In this city that brimmed with life, it was hard to truly believe that anything could stay dead for eternity–including me.

On the last evening of the trip, I sat on the front porch to watch the sunset. Our Airbnb was at the tip of the tallest mountain around, like we were on Mount Olympus. In the distance, the outline of mountains blended into the sunset and it was impossible to tell whether they were mountains or ocean tides. Everything sprawled out before me, and just for that one evening, I was all-seeing.

The sun set like it was the last time it ever would, bleeding all across the sky and drenching all the land that it saw as it went down in pink and orange and red, as if the sun had breathed life into everything. Everything came alive with its touch, overflowing with a glow from within. I could see how people used to think the sun was a god.

Maybe it breathed some life into me, too.

There are moments in life when something beautiful comes to you at the right time. Art, a line of poetry, a perfect sunset… Things and moments that wouldn’t have meant much at any other given point in time aside from their beauty, but touch your life because they show themselves to you when you need them the most. Are they miracles? Merely a coincidence? I don’t know, but my perfect moment, which came to me when I was lonely and lost, seemed like a gift from the heavens above.

As I stood there, on what seemed to be the top of the world, where the air was so crisp and fresh that it felt like I was the first person in all of history to have breathed it, where I watched the evening sun set the sky ablaze, so impossibly vivid and radiant that no painting or even words could ever capture its likeness…

The burning colors of New Mexico bled into me, searing inspiration and hope into my soul.

And there it was once again: a steady thrumming in my heart, a whispering in my ear, urging me on.■

By: Eunjae Kim

Layout: Stevie Harvel

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
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