On Saturday I got my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, which meant I had to drive forty minutes into the center of town to the building we use for concerts and livestock events. When I say we haven’t left the house, I’m not attempting performative precautions. We pick up groceries if we can’t get them delivered, and have taken the kids to the doctor a total of three times for an ear infection, flu shots, and the recent stitches drama. Activities and worksheets from school are placed in our trunk through a drive-thru pickup every couple weeks (those teachers are working their asses off, btw) so it was pretty alarming to be in a giant room with dozens of people.
In a city like El Paso that is rapidly expanding, driving along the main highway was disorienting. There are new buildings and businesses but also entire strip malls that have been built and filled in the time since lockdown started. By “lockdown” I mean the version we imposed upon ourselves at the direction of the CDC and my doctors, because Texas is the wide-open wild west and there are few hard and fast rules about masks or social distancing. Yee-haw.
The drive was magical. I have missed seeing the mountains, both in Mexico and Texas, in all their majesty every day. We can see them from our neighborhood, but it’s not the same. There’s just so much sky here, and it’s mostly clear blue because it’s too dry for clouds. About twice a year, when I’m having a rough time, I drive to this cute café in an adobe house in New Mexico and drink spiced coffee with my huevos rancheros, “divorced style” (one egg with red chile sauce and one with green). There’s something so special about Mesilla, New Mexico and I always drive home through the mountains feeling at peace and restored. I haven’t been in probably eighteen months now, and I really miss flying up the highway past the local dairies with verdant green crops on side and dusty mountains on the other.
There’s something so beautiful about the stark emptiness of our desert. This time of year is windy season, with humidity below ten percent, which means it’s also blowing dust season. The same way you’d look out on an ocean admiring it’s vastness and feeling it’s menacing strength, we respect that everything in the desert is trying to kill us. No water, poisonous snakes and spiders, scorpions, coyotes, mountain lions, and sun that will fry the skin off your bones. But, you know, in a very kind and neighborly way.
I arrived at the vaccine distribution center and passed empty animal pens to park in a half-full lot. I grabbed my purse, which I had to search for the night before because I haven’t needed one, especially one that wasn’t also a diaper bag, in a year. I double-masked like the cool kids do, and walked into the building. Just like the livestock that have graced the halls in years past, we were herded into socially distanced lines down corridors and around corners until we were allowed into the cavernous main hall to check in and head to one of thirty stations with medical staff poking people with experimental drugs. Because it was so open and well-spaced it didn’t feel like I was in a room with lots of other people until I sat down in front of a woman in scrubs who touched my arm and I jumped back. She was also wearing two masks, but I could see her eyes watching me like you might watch a spooked horse. Yes, okay, I know she has to touch my arm to give me a shot but it’s been an extremely long time since I’ve been so close to a human who doesn’t live in my house. It was alarming.
The shot didn’t hurt, but my arm got sore after a few hours, and that’s it. It’s only the first shot and supposedly the second is worse, but I’ll eagerly stand in line like livestock all over again to avoid being put on a ventilator. It was scary in the moment to remember this drug doesn’t have any long-term studies to explain what will happen over time, but there are risks with all medicine. I could try an exotic fruit for the first time on the way home and find out I’m deathly allergic. We take calculated risks every day.
It was comforting to see my city in all it’s glory on the way to my shot, and I wanted to drive around a bit before I headed home. I made a wrong turn to get through some construction and accidentally got in the line to go to Juarez, just as every El Pasoan has done before me. Luckily, there is always a U-turn at the last minute. It’s been so long since I’ve looked at Juarez up close, and I wondered how they were faring through all the lockdowns and precautions in their own country. A lot of outsiders envision the border as a desolate wasteland — a wall with empty desert on either side. El Paso’s downtown is abruptly halted by the border, slicing the valley down the middle. Our main highway is right on the border, so you can see into some of the houses on the Juarez side. El Paso and Juarez are intertwined, with fifty thousand people crossing each day (pre-pandemic). Families are sprawled across both sides of the dividing line with frequent travel back and forth for shopping and work every day of the year. I wondered how people were dealing with the limited crossings because of the pandemic, and whether people across the highway were able to get vaccines like their brothers and sisters on the American side.
There’s no place like El Paso. She’s windy and dusty AF but she’s beautiful and welcoming as well. People have lived on this land for thousands of years, and I’m so glad she’s growing to make room for more folks to move in and experience the healing desert sun for themselves. Just bring your sunscreen, okay?