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SIX STRANGE HOURS, THREE ENCOUNTERS WITH DEATH (OR WHY I MOVED TO SANTA FE)

- Lisa Davenport, Santa Fe

Depending on the weight of your foot and the size of your bladder, it’s about a six-hour drive from Santa Fe to Denver. I have done it (as well as the same route in reverse) dozens of times, ever since I met my husband, Rob, in 1991.

Back then, I was the Denver City Girl, he the Lamy Yurt Man. Rob lived off the grid in a beautiful wooden yurt he had built outside Lamy, 18 miles from Santa Fe. I had been smitten by this sensitive artist since the night we met, when he serenaded me with a song he’d written called “Road Kill on the Highway of Love.”

Soon, the 360-mile trek between my apartment and his yurt had become a fixture of our long-distance romance, in which every rendezvous was filled with Santa Fe magic, from moonlit walks along Acequia Madre to evenings sipping sangria at Tomasita’s bustling bar.

After Rob moved to Denver and we got married, that familiar route became a favorite road trip, returning us to where our love story started.

When some good friends moved from Denver to a community north of Santa Fe with long views of juniper-studded hills and spectacula­r sunsets, we found yet another reason to visit. In the spring of 2019, I made the drive to Santa Fe by myself, excited to spend a few days catsitting for those friends.

As I wandered the city that brought back so many sweet memories, I was struck again by the unparallel­ed beauty of New Mexico’s landscape, architectu­re, and sky. And I was struck anew by the realizatio­n that Santa Fe felt like a refuge from the enormous, crowded city that Denver had become.

Each day, I was reminded of how long, and how much, I had loved this place.

But my friends returned from their vacation, and it was time for me to head home. I got an early start on the morning of my departure and was driving north on I-25, singing happily despite feeling a bit blue to be leaving.

I had been on the near-empty highway for 25 minutes when I noticed something up ahead on the shoulder. Judging by its size and shape, I assumed it was a tossed-out bag of trash. But just before I passed it, I realized it was a man lying on the side of the road, motionless and alone. There were no cars nearby. No homes in sight. He could easily have been mistaken for a dirty, discarded tarp. But there was no mistake: It was a man. And it looked to me like a dead man.

Within seconds, I was too far beyond him to stop and walk back, and the next opportunit­y to exit the divided highway was miles away (although I’ll admit, I was also rattled by the thought of what I might find if I turned around). So I noted the roadside mile marker and pulled over to call 911. After providing the man’s location and being assured that they would investigat­e, I continued my journey — saddened, subdued, and no longer singing.

By the time I reached the long, lonely stretch between Wagon Mound and Raton, I was feeling a little lighter. At one point, the vast emptiness was enlivened by several small birds that appeared out of nowhere and swooped, carefree, in front of my car, but otherwise, the drive was uneventful.

Happy to be halfway home, I pulled into a gas station in Raton and sat for a moment texting Rob with a progress report. When I looked up, a young couple was standing in front of my Mini, staring at it with looks of mutual disgust. Odd, I thought, as I got out and went behind my car to fill the tank. While I was waiting, a young boy and his father walked past my car, pointed at it, and moved hurriedly on.

With a mixture of curiosity and trepidatio­n, I hung up the hose and went to see what was causing the peculiar reactions. There, plastered to one of my headlights in a smear of blood and feathers, was what remained of a small bird, a member of the happy-golucky little flock that had crossed paths with my car earlier in the day.

Six strange hours, three encounters with death is written with an engaging voice; this essay is a well-honed tale of how unexpected events can shape our lives or, in this case, lead us home.

— JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS, NONFICTION FINALIST JUDGE

Horrified by the bird’s violent end and seized by guilt and queasiness, I grabbed some paper towels and scraped away the mess. Returning to the safety of my driver’s seat, I got back on the highway as quickly as I could, my heart beating fast and tears in my eyes. I spent the next hundred miles trying to brush away thoughts of the two unsettling scenes I had witnessed.

When I finally made it past the incessant road constructi­on near Monument, I silently congratula­ted myself for being almost home.

A few miles south of the C-470 interchang­e on the outskirts of Denver, I took a leisurely look in my rearview mirror, only to notice a police car coming up fast — scarily fast — behind me, lights flashing and siren howling.

I veered into the next lane just in time for it to pass me like I was standing still, although my cruise control was set at 81. My relief over not getting stopped for speeding didn’t last long, however, because within moments, three more police cars hurtled by. Then another three, hot on their tail.

I watched anxiously as they all barreled down the exit to C-470. As I continued uneasily on my way, one eye scanning behind me and the other glued to the highway in front of me, my heart sank. Up ahead, another string of speeding, flashing police cars was blazing south on I-25 and peeling off onto C-470 heading west. I counted as they swept down the ramp and disappeare­d: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, now merging with the original group.

Thirteen police cars, all racing at top speed in one long, urgent, litup line.

I felt sick. Whatever was going on, it had to be very, very bad. The final 30 minutes to my house were filled with foreboding. I couldn’t wait to walk in my front door and have this stressful, surreal road trip come to an end.

After hugging Rob and petting our dogs, I said, “Something terrible is happening.” I opened my laptop, wanting to know and at the same time dreading the answer.

And there it was: A mass shooting at a STEM school in a suburb south of Denver. Police and SWAT teams were on the scene, but details weren’t available.

I stared at the screen, numb. A dead man. A dead bird. Dead children. The road I had traveled over the past six hours seemed strewn with dark portents. But suddenly, the path forward was startlingl­y clear.

I walked out to where my husband was sitting at our dining room table in our beautiful home, in our beautiful neighborho­od, in the beautiful city that I once swore I would never leave.

“I want to move to Santa Fe,” I said.

Rob never hesitated. He simply replied, “Let’s go.”

 ?? ?? Lisa Davenport is happy and grateful to be living in Santa Fe with her husband, Rob, and their two dogs, Bugsy and Skippy. She is a recovering copywriter and a mosaic artist who enjoys breaking dishes and transformi­ng them into beautiful things. Lisa still loves to sing in the car and around the house and is currently taking voice lessons in an effort to remain married to Rob.
Lisa Davenport is happy and grateful to be living in Santa Fe with her husband, Rob, and their two dogs, Bugsy and Skippy. She is a recovering copywriter and a mosaic artist who enjoys breaking dishes and transformi­ng them into beautiful things. Lisa still loves to sing in the car and around the house and is currently taking voice lessons in an effort to remain married to Rob.

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