Tales of a
21st Century Gypsy

April 26, 2006. Albuquerque

I have a theory that when you are looking forward to a place, you know what you want there, and you plan to seek it out, you will be disappointed. But if you expect nothing and have been told it’s just like Phoenix, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised. So it was with Albuquerque. As in many towns, I got on the web to locate free wifi, good coffee, and a swimming pool. I started with wifi, which I found in a coffeehouse of only moderate interest. They weren’t open in the evening, but they told me who was, a chain with branches called either Satellite or Flying Star.

And so I found my niche in Albuquerque. After some laps in a nice pool, I made my way to the Flying Star restaurant in a neighborhood where I felt right at home, on old Route 66 a mile or so from the university. To the left of the Flying star was a

chic furniture shop, to the right a used bookshop. The neighborhood was a mix of trendy, student, and renovated retro 1950s. The streets had sidewalks, buses ran down Route 66 to downtown Albuquerque. I parked Matilda on a side street and settled into the Flying Star with my computer, a cup of good coffee, and a piece of cheesecake.

When I finally left there near midnight, I didn’t see any reason to move, so I pulled the curtains in the van and went to sleep. And so I figured out the right kind of neighborhood for stealth camping, too – a slightly upscale mix of houses, small apartments, students, commercial activities, and a few offices, with street parking. A place like that is safe, but the presence of students and apartments means no one can know all the cars likely to be parked there. So the presence of a van with out of state plates and a bike on the back won’t attract attention. There’s enough traffic not to feel isolated, but not enough to feel like I’m camped in the middle of rush hour. I spent a fine night there.

In the morning I moved Matilda, in case anyone was paying attention, and hopped onto my bike to cruise down Route 66. It was a nice ride – albeit much colder than I’d thought when stepped out of the van into the blazing New Mexico sunshine. Albuquerque is another of those towns with a spiffed up “historic downtown,” but this one seemed at least a bit alive at 9:00 on a weekday morning. I cruised past trendy bars and cute shops, past a boarded-up structure labeled “best Route 66 motel,” and across a wide bridge spanning a shallow river. On the way back I tried a different route, and found myself in the old part of Albuquerque; a few blocks of Spanish-style houses, a cathedral, a tree-lined square in front of it. I’m reading Willa

Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, a novel about two French prelates trying to minister to residents of the newly-bought Louisiana Purchase. Their base is this part of the country – Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and other towns that didn’t make it into modern cities in the 20th or 21st centuries. Riding into old Albuquerque felt like riding into the scenes of the book I was in the middle of reading. It was nice.

Past old town, I found myself in another nice area, of small imitation-stucco houses that looked to be undergoing some renovation. I stopped into a small bakery and chatted with the owner. He said Albuquerque was gong nuts, that the real estate market had been flooded with retirees from California driving up prices to far more than the locals could pay. Fortunately for him, he had purchased a home before the flood hit, so he was riding the market up, but people younger than he were being hit hard.

Back up the hill to where Matilda was parked, in the neighborhood they call Nob Hill, I stopped in at the used bookstore next to Flying Star, Bookstop. I found one book that looked fun, then got to talking to the owner. I asked about a book I’d seen many copies of in his store, so he gave me one, then reduced the price of the one I wanted to buy. His prerogative as owner, he said – if he were an employee, he’d have to fire himself for behavior like that. I told him about my travels, and he said it was too bad I wasn’t staying in town longer, he’d have had me over to dinner to meet some more locals. Then he introduced me to another customer, an architect who’s been in Albuquerque all her life and kind of envied my exposure to museums all over the country. They made Albuquerque seem like an interesting place, or at least a place with some interesting communities sprinkled in with the California retirees in their McMansions on the edge of town.

Nob Hill is definitely a trendy place. The shops along Route 66 were painted in pastel colors of the 1950s, the art deco graphics still (or again) in evidence in their signs. Behind the main street I found not one but two shops selling beautiful hand-made Japanese papers. I wandered through both shops admiring them, but couldn’t imagine how to choose just one, or what I’d do with it, so I resisted the temptation to buy. It turned out there was only one Japanese paper shop there, and the owner sold it. A few years later she wanted it back, but the new owners were doing fine and had no interest in giving it up. So the original owner opened a second shop, just a block away. I don’t know how either stayed in business – how much fancy paper does anyone need? Back on Route 66, a health food shop had small piles of organic produce, while across from it a clothing shop sold only goods made from organic fibers.

The owner of the Bookstop told me of other used bookstores in town, that might have a book about Albuquerque he thought I’d like. So on my way out of town the next day – after another night camped on the streets of Nob Hill – I swung by Title Wave Books to see what I could find. A great and dangerous place, though the folks were nothing like as friendly at the folks at Bookstop. I left there with a few more books in my van, and more than a few less dollars in my wallet, quite satisfied with my stop in Albuquerque.

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