Often there’s an intriguing storyline about how people unexpectedly found themselves living in New Mexico. It might go something like, “I was driving through Albuquerque on my way to California when my old Volvo broke down on Route 66, and I never left,” or, “I traveled to Santa Fe to see a healer; not only did I never leave, I became a healer myself!”
Here’s my story:
In the mid 1980s, I was a teenager living in Naples, Italy where my dad was stationed as a US Naval Officer. My family’s time in Naples was a sweet chapter in life. We lived in a beautiful villa north of the city near the sea. We would take day trips to Rome and Pompeii and explore little towns and villages in our old Fiat. We made great friendships, both Italian and American.
I, along with my two sisters and brother, attended an American high school. When I was in ninth grade, the school yearbook needed a photographer, so I stepped forward. I quickly developed a passionate love for photography. The school camera was mine on the weekends and I would venture down to the heart of Naples exploring the maze of medieval alleys and take photos of Neapolitan street life. In time, I learned how to develop film and print photos and had practically unlimited access to the school darkroom. I loved working in the darkroom and usually worked alone. The combination of the acidic smell of the fixing chemical, the reverse image reflection of the negative, and the image magically appearing on the photo paper in the developing tray had an indelible effect on me.
As great as our life in Naples was, it wasn’t going to last forever. My dad was finishing up a three-year tour and would then retire. Upon his retirement, the Navy would move my family one last time. My parents had to decide where our new home would be and it wasn’t going to be Virginia, where we lived prior. They wanted our family to live in a new place, a place we had never experienced before. Our new home had to meet a few simple requirements:
- It had to be away from the water. (After a career in the Navy, my parents didn’t want to live near an ocean.)
- There had to be a military base (to utilize my dad’s retirement benefits).
- It couldn’t be too cold. (My parents grew up in North Dakota and Minnesota!)
My parents compiled a list of ten cities that met these most basic criteria. My mom wrote a simple letter to the chamber of commerce of each city requesting information about the place. The same letter went to all ten cities, dropped in the mailbox at the exact same time. My parents decided that the first city to respond would be our new home!
I didn’t come from a conventional home. My parents had an uncommon ability to move forward in life without having everything “figured out.” Whether it was family vacations to foreign countries or moving to a new, completely unknown place, there was always a trust in serendipity — an internal faith that things would work out exactly as they needed to and along the way life would provide new adventures, friendships, and opportunities.
A few weeks after sending the ten letters, we received an information packet from a realtor in Albuquerque, New Mexico — our first reply. The enterprising realtor had obviously received our information from the chamber of commerce and sent us information on this city with a weird name.
My parents announced, “Kids, we’re moving to Albuquerque!”
And then the instructions went to the Navy, “Send our stuff to Albuquerque!”
One requirement that wasn’t on the list was that we had to have actually been to the city before, so New Mexico was going to be a new experience for all of us.
I still remember the night we rolled into Albuquerque for the first time: my family traveling in a red Ford Astro van, coming from the Midwest where we had been visiting family after returning to the states. Driving through a canyon, just before entering the city, I was sitting in the back of the van, looking through the window, and saw the glow of the city lights off the rocky cliffs of the Sandia Mountains. In that moment, it struck me that this foreign place was going to be my new home.
We entered Albuquerque that night and drove until we found a motel with available rooms. The motel we found was one of the old motor lodges along the historic Route 66. It was in a sketchy part of town on Central Avenue near Louisiana Boulevard and would be our home for a week or so while we found a home to rent. This area of town has changed a lot since the ‘80s but one thing that hasn’t changed: it’s still sketchy, with no shortage of derelicts roaming along Central Ave.
And that was it — the beginning of my new life in New Mexico. It definitely was not “love at first sight.” New Mexico was a slow adjustment and an acquired taste. So dry, so barren. It certainly was nothing like the Mediterranean paradise we had just left. And I remember thinking, what the f*#k was with this green chili they put in everything?!
Within a month of arriving, I started my junior year at Manzano High School. Eventually, my parents bought a home in the mountains outside of the city. The home was perched high on a hill and had stunning views of the Sandia Mountains. Slowly, I acclimated to New Mexico and made friends.
My sister Kat had made a new friend who also lived not far from us. Her name was Jennifer and her father, Tom, was a professional photographer. Tom had an incredible darkroom in the basement of his family’s mountain home. Amazingly, he happened to be looking for a part-time assistant to help with processing black and white film and printing photos.
After meeting him and sharing my photography experience in Italy, I got the job! This was an incredible opportunity for me. Tom’s training took my darkroom skills to a whole new level. When I wasn’t working for Tom, I had unlimited access to his darkroom to use for my own work. I spent late nights developing photos, losing myself in the process. In the winter, I would often come out of the darkroom in the cold dark night and experience the sweet smell of burning piñon from the fireplaces of nearby homes wafting in the valley and the glow of the city lights of Albuquerque off in the distance.
Little by little, New Mexico started to grow on me. I started to discover the nuance in the seemingly rugged, dry terrain. I grew to love the piñon and juniper-covered hills. Our home was near the “Turquoise Trail” — a region with a rich and diverse history of old western towns, Indian pueblos, and the location of many Hollywood movies. Turquoise mined from the area found its way over 170 miles to Chaco Canyon nearly 1000 years ago. It wasn’t until years later that I learned I had the great fortune, as a budding photographer, to find myself living in a part of America that has been a great inspiration to artists like Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe.
I went on adventures exploring this region and other parts of the high desert with my camera. I developed a large portfolio of images of New Mexico and would sell my work online and at art festivals. The state of New Mexico approached me and my work was featured in the New Mexico Magazine and the 2014 New Mexico calendar.
Over the years I have used photography as a vehicle to explore and connect to this place I call home. As I write this, I’m in my home in Sandia Park, just a couple miles from where I got my first job in New Mexico, working in Tom’s darkroom. Tom and I are still great friends to this day.
My parent’s trust that life would provide new adventures, friendships, and opportunities has worked out just fine. Our move to New Mexico turned into many sweet chapters of life. I even have a refrigerator full of green chili!
I’m grateful my family moved to New Mexico.
I’m grateful for the lessons this land has taught me and that it continues to teach me.
I’m grateful for the lifelong friendships I’ve made in the Land of Enchantment.
Mostly, I’m grateful for that enterprising realtor who mailed a packet of information on a city with a weird name, to a curious family on the other side of the world, a long, long time ago…..
Seth Jacob is a writer and photographer
based out of Sandia Park, NM.
You can follow his adventures on Instagram: