Over the Christmas holidays, my wife, Regina, and I decided to stop for a couple of days in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with our infant son, because I guess we like places with clean air, no nightlife, and mediocre restaurants. Our first morning, we drove twenty minutes out of town along an unpaved road to the Organ Mountains. Apparently, there was a trail to an abandoned turn-of-the-last-century hotel that had become a sanitarium, but then it was looted. So nice to be back in the West.
With us was Hercules, our Boston terrier. The park ranger said no dogs because there was ice on the trail. But Hercules needed a walk. He’d spent the morning in the hotel, destroying my underwear. Regina and I studied a map for other options. Las Cruces seemed to have some public parks.
“How about this one?” I said. “Burn Lake. It sounds nice.”
We drove back into town. Burn Lake soon appeared, wedged between a sewage-treatment plant, a used-car lot, and the interstate. It was an oblong concrete shell, maybe the size of two football fields, containing three feet of silty brown water. At the far end of a gravel path sat some rusted-out playground equipment. I saw a fat little girl at lake’s edge, stirring mud with a stick. Next to us, in a van, two behemoths that I assumed were her parents coughed madly. The sweet nectar of marijuana smoke floated out the window.
When I was a reporter in Chicago, I would have probably hung out in that van and smoked up with those large people, quickly scribbled down what I remembered of the scene afterward, and pounded out a piece, full of salty local color, for next week’s paper. But not now. Instead, Regina and I got out of the car and front-loaded the kid into the baby carrier. Hercules was straining at the leash. He really wanted to walk around Burn Lake. I ran with him a few feet, stopping to talk to a toothless old Mexican who was baiting a hook with some cooked chicken.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“Catfish!” he said.
Earlier, on our way to the mountains, we’d seen a prison work crew. Now they were sitting in the picnic area, manacled together in their orange jumpsuits, eating their lunch.
“It’s the lunch area of the damned,” Regina said.
One of the prisoners asked, “Hey, what kind of dog is that?”
“Just a little dog,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
As I headed back to our Saab, carrying my son in the Baby Björn, with my purebred Boston terrier on the leash, I was full of genuine shame. I’d become a yuppie.