As a boy growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, one of my greatest pleasures was my regular walk to Thomas Branigan Memorial Library. The library opened its new building in 1979, when I was ten years old. It was a major event for a kid who lived in his head and on the pages of books as much as in the real world.
The library's architecture had an exotic appeal to me, with its rounded edges and swooping curves, which to an impressionable kid resembled the matte paintings used as city backdrops to science fiction series like Buck Rogers or the original Star Trek.
Though the library was a moderate distance from my elementary school and an even shorter stroll from my junior high, I rarely went during the school week, due to the constraints of bus schedules, parental pickups, and car pools, followed in later years by the requirements of basketball practice.
My trips to the library took the form of weekend and summertime excursions, invariably on foot, from my home outside the city limits deep into town.
After I reached the end of my street, I walked past a trailer park where kids a short decade or a stint in juvenile detention away from sporting tattoos rode bikes that trailed squat pitbulls attached by dangling leashes, bonds that snapped taut when they caught sight or smell of a potential playmate or victim like me.
The next phase of the journey took me along Dona Anna county road, trudging between the shoulder and the boundaries of onion fields and pecan orchards, a path strewn with loose gravel and the sort of large, hard clods of dirt you get only in arid climates where stubborn soil has met the irresistible plow. The stray onions spewed up by the picking machines and left half-buried in the dirt make dangerous baseball-sized projectiles in accurate hands, hands which, I'm sorry to say, did not belong to me. As for the pecans, to this day I bear a deep love of pecan pie.
Beyond these pastoral scenes lay one of those commonplace monuments to life in those places on the borders between rural and suburban America, holding court alongside institutions like the propane store: the septic tank dealer. There, behind rattling chainlink fences, patrolling concrete sarcophagi of shit like Anubis guarding the gates to the underworld, roamed a pair of Dobermann sentries. Ever vigilant, they padded along in eerie silence, pacing my progress along their sacred boundary, deigning to growl only if I stopped or moved in their direction.
Beyond that lay the delights of the "day-old" bread store, where chemically treated blocks of Ding Dongs and Twinkies sat inside their hermetically sealed packaging and quietly mocked the expiration dates stamped on the exterior. If I had money and I wasn't too thirsty, I bought these sweets and devoured them en route, mixing sugar with sweat on my fingertips.
Then I typically climbed up to the top of a dirt path that ran alongside an irrigation canal lined with bamboo, a narrow, crooked forest of stalks that marked the transition into civilization as I crossed onto Alameda Boulevard and its undulating, cracked sidewalks. I would pass my elementary school and head on to Solano, hooking a left through the large intersection, leaving behind my junior high and a large bowling alley, coming at last to the library nestled next door to the Furrs grocery store where my mom shopped for several years.
(Visits to the library while Mom was at the grocery store were strictly frowned upon, as I could not be relied upon to return with any punctuality, and my mother was perfectly willing to leave me behind, knowing full well that I could walk safely home.)
In all the trip to the library took me roughly an hour each way, depending upon my sense of urgency and whether a rare burst of rain had turned the dirt fields into mud. This walk gave me plenty of time to think, which in those days meant daydreaming about adventures in faraway places. There weren't many other pedestrians around for most of the walk, and I stayed as far from the county road as possible to avoid being choked by dust or hit by stray bits of gravel kicked up by cars rubbing the shoulder.
Sometimes my thoughts would be interrupted by the sudden appearance--always sudden because I was rarely watching my surroundings--of mundane threats, such as wandering bullies, snide kids on bikes making fun of me for being on foot, or stray dogs. Often these people would call out to me in Spanish, which I would inevitably translate with the most embarrassing interpretation possible. I ignored the people who passed by quickly, carried rocks in my pockets to throw at any aggressive dogs, and did what I always did with the bullies--tried to avoid and ignore them, sometimes dashing across the road. For the most part, I was quite fortunate.
Looking back, I think this physical journey prepared me admirably for the mental journeys I would undertake once I was within the Branigan's walls. I had plenty of time to think as well as the opportunity to exhaust my stores of hyperactive energy. More importantly, the effort and independence of my travels reassured me that I was embarking on an important quest. I sacrificed something to get there, and that sacrifice made the goal valuable.
No wonder then that once I arrived at the Branigan, I stayed for several hours. No quick trips to pick up a book. The library not held intellectual delights, but it was an oasis of creature comforts, particularly after walking an hour in southern New Mexico's blazing summer heat. In the Branigan I found air-conditioning, cool, sweet water fountains, and clean restrooms. Even the 70s style modular furniture, all molded plastic and brightly carpeted cubes, felt comfortable when I was so tired.
I read entire books in the library without ever checking them out, sometimes over the course of several visits. In part this was due to practical concerns; anything I checked out I had to haul all the way back home. But there was also a real pleasure to be had in reading books in some quiet corner of the library, away from the children's section. It made me feel like an adult, taking part in thoughtful, adult pasttimes.
There was also the fact that I could read books at the library whose content might not always have been . . . deemed appropriate by my parents. Paradoxically, the library, with its rules against making noise or having food or even kicking off my shoes, provided a relaxed freedom that I couldn't find anywhere else. Nobody ever bothered the quiet kid hunched in a chair or sprawled out in a corner.
As for the nature of the journeys that I took once I stepped inside, that's another story for another day.