The Road to Santa Fe

I have seen my dad about once a year since he moved out of Massachusetts approximately five years ago. One day this spring, he called me up and asked if I wanted to fly down to Texas and go on a road trip with him to Santa Fe. I said yes, of course. The following story is a collection of my thoughts about Texas and New Mexico.

I’m at the register at Whole Foods with my father. He’s paying $100 for food and wine for our week long stay in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The young woman behind the counter looks like so many people here do: an earthy shade of brown from either heritage or heliocentric lifestyle, warm eyes, relaxed smile. She’s talking about the celebrities who come through town on a semi regular basis. “Adam Sandler…” I interrupt with a hand wave, “Oh, Adam Sandlers are a dime a dozen. You can’t leave the house without running into Adam Sandler back in Massachusetts.” She goes on as if I hadn’t said anything, “The pretty one from Friends—Jennifer Aniston—Terry Crew (sic), oh and that woman who was Wednesday on the Addams Family.”

“Oh, Christina Ricci comes here?” My dad, suddenly interested. Big Christina Ricci fan, apparently. This cashier is in no rush to move us along; the line is getting longer. “Oh yeah, she owns a place down here.”

Outside the store, it’s a cool enough day for summer in Santa Fe. Maybe 80 degrees. Breezy. Despite the favorable weather, my dad begins to sweat immediately upon leaving the air conditioned store and doesn’t seem comfortable again until we have been in the car for a few minutes. His ancient GPS causes some trouble, which adds to his anxiety. But soon we get back on the road. It’s late afternoon. We were at a taco cooking class all morning. I was the only person in their mid-twenties in the class. Some were possibly teenagers, possibly college aged, but most people were well into their sixties. Weirdly, the former group were about a decade younger than me, while the latter group were a decade older than my dad. This left me wondering whether people who go to cooking classes just have kids later in life, or whether the young people were the grandchildren of the old ones. The al pastor tacos, described as “Santa Fe spicy” were good, but about as mild as anything at Chipotle. “This ain’t the Connecticut school of Cooking” laughs the instructor as we blend up some esoteric collection of local peppers. He’s right, I think—only for the fact that you can get some gut-wrenchingly spicy tacos in Hartford.

The preceding Sunday, we drove twelve hours through Texas to our Airbnb in the canyons in Tesuque, outside Santa Fe. My dad’s Dallas apartment is two blocks from Dealey Plaza. When we left town, we drove over two X’s painted on the pavement where our thirty-fifth president was shot to death in 1963. We stopped for lunch at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, a palace built to celebrate Texas Beef. We were seated in the main dining room by a brace-faced tweenage cowgirl in high waisted jeans and a bolo tie. Our waiter was wearing a denim shirt tucked into jeans with a white cowboy hat. He stopped by our table to check that “everything was okay” roughly twenty times during our half hour meal. And that wasn’t because the joint was dead either. Every table in the place was packed. It was late afternoon, well past peak lunchtime, but the place was packed nonetheless. Cowboys, truckers, old men with faces like baked clay, asian businessmen crowd into communal tables for the big steaks, ample sides, and southern hospitality.

Under a particularly large set of antlers on the front wall of the banquet hall (almost every square inch of the Big Texan is covered in either pelts or hunting trophies) sits a raised dais with six chairs. This table is set aside for this eatery’s signature attraction: here, diners are invited to take an hour to eat a seventy-two ounce steak with sides. If they can, the meal is free. If not, it costs a fairly reasonable $72.00. Nobody is sitting there now, but the waiter tells us they’ve served about fifty thousand of the steaks since the restaurant opened. He goes on to tell us that only six hundred (my dad remembers him saying six thousand) people have completed the challenge. Some back-of-napkin math shows that the seventy-two ounce steak challenge has grossed the Big Texan over $3.5 (or possibly $3.1 if my dad is right) million in revenue since they opened in 1960. There are worse businesses to be in up here in Amarillo. And this is a county where you can still drill a hole in the desert and pump out barrels of crude oil.

After Big Texan we drove down the road to Cadillac Ranch, a patch of dust off Interstate 40 with ten 1950’s Cadillacs stuck hood first in the clay. The whole place is littered with empty spray paint cans. It’s become kind of a ritual for visitors to spray paint something on one of the cars. These aren’t typical tagger kids; it’s mostly middle aged men and French tourists. The paint is so thick that the windows are almost painted shut.

From there we are straight off to Albuquerque where we are meeting one of my dad’s coworkers for what we are assured is an Authentic New Mexican Dinner. Rice, pinto beans, enchiladas, and salsa. The salsa is a big deal down here, I learn. There’s red, or green, or both combined together in what is called “Christmas,” for obvious reasons. I am not sure if these choices divide consumers into definitive camps as do other purchasing decisions such as Camel vs. Marlboro cigarettes or Fender vs. Gibson guitars. You are either a Camel guy or a Marlboro guy, after all. Unless your pack is empty and you’ve had a few beers. While it’s not clear to me that Santa Fe salsas are so tribal, the choice seems important nonetheless. It seems to depend on what mood the consumer wants the meal to have. It’s very important what mood the meal has, or so I am told. My dad’s coworker, who I will call Julia, goes out of her way to request that her tortilla be made with blue corn because “It’s just more special!” Most of the others agree. A pitcher of margaritas is ordered to share, and several baskets of sweet breads with honey called sopapillas.

This is technically a work dinner. Notwithstanding the presence of Julia’s extended family (husband, in-laws, two children) and myself, Julia’s firm is happy to pick up the tab after she and my father have a brief discussion regarding the timeframe in which a certain pdf will be emailed.

After the pdf problem is resolved, the subject of conversation turns to Texas. Earlier in the day, my dad tells everyone, I may have made a non-so-oblique observation that nobody would notice or care if the whole state burned to the ground. This elicited a couple chuckles (most of these people are from California). “I mean have you noticed how proud they are of their gas stations?” I ask, “I’ve seen billboards bragging how many pumps a certain gas station has. The awnings are all a hundred feet in the air and the signs two hundred. They are temples. Back home we are ashamed of our gas stations. They are grungy and out of the way. A gas station is like the neighborhood liquor store. You don’t want to be seen there too much, you get worried if the guy working there starts to know your name. Going to get gas is like you need to give someone a ride and your car is full of McDonald’s bags and unpaid parking tickets and half empty Coors cans. You just try to push it all away before anyone sees it, you know? But they totally own it here. It’s not shameful. In Texas, it’s just on display; they love it. They want it as big and clean as it can be. And across from a Motel 6 and a Whataburger or whatever. The whole state is just a shrine to the chain store, to the biggest billboard, the biggest road sign. That’s what you are losing if it burns to the ground, or if Mexico takes it back. A bunch of very nice gas stations.

“Everyone says, “well Austin is nice,” and yeah, Austin is alright. But Austin is like the present your abusive boyfriend gives you after he threatens to kill you because you bought the wrong brand of soup.”

My west coast elite dinner partners seem to appreciate my rant. Of course, who expects them to stand up for these fly over states if they aren’t getting a margarita out of it. I wonder whether New Mexico qualifies as a fly over state. I guess I can’t remember ever flying over it, though I’m sure someone has.

Conversation moves on to movies the “kids” are not allowed to see. Those kids are apparently Julia’s children: the two young people sitting at the end of the table. It strikes me as strange that they are not allowed to watch Fargo or The Shining, when they are, right this minute, sipping glow stick green glasses of Jose Cuervo Silver margaritas out at dinner with their mom. “It’s more laid back out here” my dad said earlier that day when we drove by an Indian Casino and gun range offering pistol rentals and the chance to “Shoot Full Auto!” I guess I get what he meant. Some cars just have paper license plates out here. A few don’t have any plates at all.

“Tuesday we are doing a glass blowing class” my dad has his mouth turned up in an ironical smile, he emphasizes glass blowing like we are going to make Chihulys or something. Then the punchline, “we’re making paperweights.” He finds this incredibly funny. “I can’t imagine how making a paper weight will require any blowing at all. I guess you don’t leave with it either. It has to cool overnight. They probably have a whole room in the back full of paperweights and they just hand you one of those and tell you good job.”

I chime in that “I saw this bit on YouTube a few days ago where the host of this show goes to Italy to truffle hunt and the dogs find, like, five truffles within the first minute and, I think it was Conan, Conan turns to the camera and says “they obviously just buried these five minutes before we got here,” same kind of deal.”

My dad nods solemnly. “You are paying for the experience. Nobody would go if you never found truffles, and I’m sure real truffle hunters spend hours without finding anything.”

“It’s a fine line between the authentic and the fake experience. And you know, it’s a line we choose to walk when we step outside our house, or outside the state, or whatever. When you put your life in someone else’s hands and tell them to show you an experience. And we’re headed right to that line tomorrow at 10:00 AM,” Julia’s son is loving this part, “I don’t know whether we are seeking it out, or just accepting it, or whether we just usually ignore it.” It reminds me of this meal, but I don’t say that. The drinks are real enough, the food is real enough, the check gets paid and someone gets a bill for a work meal and stamps it approved. The line between business dinner and relationship building is blurry. Some things just work better if nobody asks too many questions.

We leave the restaurant to drive to our rental house outside Santa Fe, about ninety minutes up the highway. It’s in a small town called Tesuque, population less than one thousand. It’s a wealthy area with houses built high on hilltops to avoid flooding during the rainy season. It’s surrounded on three sides by much poorer towns, pueblos, and Indian reservations. The contrast is noticeable driving up the highway. Some time during dinner, my dad told this story about how the last time he was in Santa Fe he bought a pair of buffalo cowboy boots at a western wear store. He only wore them once, on the trip home. At the airport a woman supposedly gave him a ton of shit for wearing the skin of an “endangered animal.” “Remember that story about the buffalo?” he asks twenty minutes into the ride. “I made the whole thing up. What do you think about that?”
He thinks this is incredibly funny as well. My dad is very old school. The other day he gave me this big speech about how collaboration is overrated. He reads books on how to make good decisions. He once told me he got rejected for a job because his personality test showed that he was too honest. Now he’s laughing about bullshitting someone about some trivial pair of fictitious buffalo cowboy boots. “I guess the point is to tell a good story, right?” I ask.

“Exactly! We both get what we want. It’s about building a relationship. That’s the whole point of this.” Building a real relationship on fake cowboy boot stories and fake business dinners, which will lead to real contracts and real work being performed.

“It’s like there’s reality, and there’s the truth. Something can not actually happen in reality, but still have value as “truth” in a sense. The story is fake, but the message you are sending about yourself is real.”

This sets him off about a book he’s reading about the midcentury New Yorker magazine. Back in the day, according to my second hand information, the New Yorker employed a few very talented storytellers who wrote amazing profiles of the characters they ran into at the city docks and fish markets and places like that. It later turned out many of these stories were embellished, and some were entirely fictitious. “But they made people feel real feelings, and they reflected reality in a way. In some ways they were more real than the reality of going out to the docks and interviewing real fishermen.”

We got to the house close to midnight and crashed for the night. We had been on the road for over twelve hours at that point. The rest of the trip is essentially what I wanted. Father/son time for a couple of black sheep. We drove up to Taos on the scenic route through a couple Indian reservations and small villages. We got matching T-Shirts with skeletons playing guitars on them. I’m reminded that a casino is moving in half an hour south of me back home and it makes me sad. Casinos never move to the rich areas; the patrons at the casino aren’t millionaires having extravagant parties. They are the working poor, or the elderly on Social Security smoking endless one hundred millimeter cigarettes down to the filter, or the white collar guys on their bachelor parties whose friends couldn’t think of anything better to do.You can tell me I’m wrong when a casino moves into Winchester or Concord, or when Foxwoods institutes a dress code. “Massachusetts used to be a temple on the hill,” my dad says, tapping the kitchen table for emphasis.

I think of everything I know about New Mexico: Oppenheimer watching the Trinity test, a rift to another dimension opening above Skinwalker Ranch, Hunter S. Thompson firing a revolver off into the desert air, Christina Ricci buying salmon burgers at Whole Foods, UFO crashes at Roswell, roadkill Jackalopes, the two sets of laws governing tribal and non-tribal jurisdictions. I love the desert, I miss home. I love my dad, but it feels like we are growing apart. New Mexico is the first post-modern state. They brought us into the nuclear age and are therefore responsible for all the uncertainty that comes with the threat of immediate annihilation.

On our last night in Santa Fe. My dad takes me to the opera. The production is a twenty-first century piece, written in English, about Robert Oppenheimer and the first nuclear test at Trinity. The opera is called Doctor Atomic and while the older gentleman next to me explains that it premiered in San Francisco, I can not think of a better venue than here in Santa Fe, just a few miles from Los Alamos Labs. It’s the end of the monsoon season. Halfway through the first act, the sky absolutely tears open and unleashes rain like I have never seen. The opera house is open on three sides, more or less, and it’s on top of a hill with a good view. Massive lightning bolts are visible in the distance in all directions. The rain blows in through the west opening and forces about a third of the orchestra section our of their seats and into the isles. As a twenty foot reflective metal ball is raised on a scaffold on stage, meant to represent “the Gadget” (the nuclear device), the singers’ voices are nearly drowned out by the apocalyptic thunder.

I imagine the guitar playing skeletons on my souvenir Taos t-shirt coming to life and playing along with the orchestra as they dance down to the underworld. I imagine a white rose blooming on a bleached horse’s skull. The stage lights go out, the theater lights come on, intermission begins. Interns come on stage with mops. In twenty-five minutes the second act will start. The bomb, the gadget, is approaching its teleological purpose. Some gadgets are built to destroy, some merely destroy because of some accidental feature of their nature. The men on stage, the nuclear scientists, are of the latter sort. Men, through noble intention or selfish desire, through myopia or genius, create the weapons of other mens’ destruction. The following morning, at breakfast, my dad shares some advice with me. “Too many people get married for the wrong reasons. They get married out of embarrassment. And people get divorced out of pride.” Then he adds, seemingly for no reason at all, “You know what I do every morning, Ben? I open YouTube on my phone and put on a Beach Boys playlist.”


Unsolvable: A Summer of Real Life Mysteries

I am sitting on a hand-me-down chair on the porch of my first apartment drinking a cheap beer. It’s hot as hell. A couple years later, I read in Haruki Murakami’s memoir that out of the places he’s lived, he found the heat and humidity of Massachusetts in summer the most oppressive. Living in Amherst, my college town, in the summer of 2015, I felt about the same. The air inside my apartment became too thick to breathe around noon and stayed that way until dusk. Unlike in other parts of the country, the old homes in New England don’t typically have central air conditioning. When I would step outside to escape the humidity, any exposed skin would burn, in an instant, into a lattice pattern that mirrored the latticed enclosure of the porch. At night every piece of clothing would stick to my skin as I tried to fall asleep. Every morning I would wake up dehydrated in a pool of sweat. I would coast my bike down the hill near my house over and over to pretend the air had woken up from its summer sleep and uncoiled itself, maybe thinned enough to breathe.

I graduated college that May. My lease was good for a few more months. I was living with this guy who graduated the same year as me. I woke up at 5:30 every day to go to work, he stayed up all night. We didn’t see each other a lot. In the summer, I went to bed when there was still some light left in the sky.

A few weeks after graduation, he moved out of state. Before he left, he invited me to a going away party at his friends’ townhouse. When I showed up, a stranger opened the door and asked who I was. I told him, and he pulled me me inside. The first floor main room was packed with people, it was dark, there was barely any furniture except a beer-pong table and a small television. I didn’t know anybody. There was a disco ball, one of those electric spinning ones that projects big dots of color on the walls, and music playing from speakers somewhere. My roommate saw me, he had a lite beer in a red solo cup in his hand—the first time I saw him drink anything but water—“nobody thought you would show up!”

I left the party with a slight buzz, early and a little upset. The bus was packed on the ride back into town. Everyone was shouting—getting ready for a night out I guess. It was still pretty early. The bus driver told us he would call the cops unless we all calmed down. Someone kept pulling the stop request cord and not getting off, forcing the bus to make every stop. I went right to bed and slept well enough that I didn’t hear it when my roommate came home.

I had nothing to do at work the next day. Summer was a dead time. A day is good if sales pay to keep the lights on. Work in the summer in a college town is an extended period of training for the first week in September when fifty thousand kids and parents descend on the town, clogging the roads back all the way to the highway and demanding coffee and snacks and notebooks and bumper stickers. I felt a little off. What was it that day? Not enough sleep, a little hangover, not enough coffee, too much coffee? That’s when I first listened to Serial.

I had one earbud in my ear, the cord running down my sleeve so nobody could see. The narrator brought me to Baltimore, the last year of the old century. It was like I was a teenager again, trying to solve a high-school murder mystery. A girl turned up dead, her ex was arrested for it. But as the story unfolded, I got more and more fascinated by the little details. Zeno paradoxically claimed that an arrow, once fired from a bow, can never reach a distant target because first it must pass through infinite spacial points in finite time. Indeed, as more and more details emerged in the case, each one begging for a satisfactory answer, it became harder and harder to see them all added up into a perfect conclusion.

I spent the next week listening and then re-listening to the podcast. I found forums and discussion boards online where I could see original documents, interviews that weren’t included in the podcast, and fan theories and opinions. I found that I was less interested in the biggest question—whether the boyfriend was guilty—than I was with nailing down every detail. If you take out the murder, it’s a classic teen movie. Gossip easily becomes fact, reputation is everything, everybody’s personal life is everyone else’s business, and everything is garnished with a dash of forbidden love and a healthy dose of pot smoke. Somewhere in the mess is one universal truth, waiting to be uncovered. But there are also countless small moments of truth revealed through lies or misrepresentations. The beauty of documentary storytelling is that truth is not just presented as a statement of facts, but as a series of stories that the audience can interpret for itself; stories that may be untrue but which might reveal crucial information nonetheless. Whenever someone tells their story, you learn from listening to it. You learn what that person chose to emphasize, and to downplay, and to lie about. I dig as deep as I can into the archive of interviews and witness statements, looking for clues and explanations of the inconsistent stories I was hearing.

Researching Serial I found posts directing me to other podcasts about mysterious events. Some were other crimes, disappearances, weird artifacts, mysterious lights in the sky, aliens, conspiracies. A grab bag of stuff to keep you up at night. AM radio moved to the iTunes store. On some shows, the hosts just act as storytellers: they will go over the details of a case and stop there. In others, the hosts play detective and actually try to solve the mysteries or, at least, spitball theories. I prefer shows that fall into the second category. There is something thrilling about an unsolved mystery. A good unsolved mystery needs to have two qualities: first, it must have enough detail to generate multiple reasonable hypotheses about what happened, but, second, it must lack the one key piece of information that would point to any one hypothesis over another. In other words, multiple people need to be able to use the facts that do exist to construct narratives for what happened, but there can’t be any objective way to rank these narratives in terms of probability. Endless debates arise because the evidence points different people in a variety of directions depending on their personal psychologies.

A real unsolved mystery like this is my favorite type of case. There is nothing like the feeling of riding the waves of different theories out to sea, feeling completely on board with the evidence and the reasoning, then riding another wave back to land as holes are picked in the first theory. Then of course, riding another wave back out…. But an uncontrived mystery is rare. For instance, I don’t get any enjoyment out of so-called “conspiracy theories”. A conspiracy theory is usually a narrative that makes internal sense, but lacks any external reason for someone to believe it. It’s an ad hoc hypothesis. Conspiracy theories do not make up facts—a point which conspiracy theorists will gloat over, asking over and over “which one of my facts is wrong?” or inviting you to “learn the facts”—rather, they push for an unbalanced interpretation of the facts where more weight is given to, say, a coincidence or a slip of the tongue, than is given to physical evidence or expert testimony.

This type of contrived mystery is created out of fear. Their solutions are an attempt to prove that somebody somewhere is in charge, someone who is responsible for wonton death and misery, even if that person is a malevolent alien human hybrid wearing a Queen Elizabeth skin suit. Because of this desire, conspiracy theorists start to see design in randomness. Instead of certain events being unrelated tragedies or accidents, they are viewed as planned steps in someone’s scheme. Everything happens from the top down, not from the bottom up. The alternative is acknowledging that even the brightest among us—and conspiracy theorists are often very bright—have not been able to create a completely safe and stable world.

When I started getting deep into unsolved mysteries—listening to up to three or four hours a day of podcasts, reading books and magazine articles, posting in forums—I was after something different. I loved the chaos of the mysteries. There was something magical for me in seeing hundreds of people argue over an unexplained event from decades earlier. On my couch late at night, snuggling up with my cat, I would drink a glass of wine or cup after cup of herbal tea and try to solve the case of the week. I got frightened sometimes. I started checking that the doors were locked before I went to bed.

There’s been this shadow over me for a long time. It’s something that might come from Victorian England, from Sherlock Holmes and his derivative characters, or maybe it comes from history class: the enlightenment era in France, revolutionary America, Voltaire. It’s this feeling that everything can be solved. Magical thinking is absurd and outdated. Empirical analysis allows us to understand truth: scientific truth, yes, but also moral and practical truths. In the context of my obsession with mystery, this created a small paradox. Some events seem so unexplainable and random, yet the cultural history of success in empiricism tells me that nothing is truly unexplainable. In a more personal context, this worldview creates a sort of anxiety for me. If rational analysis can be turned on practical matters, it should be fairly easy to determine what the best course of action is for yourself for any given decision. Yet so often it seems impossible to decide. Of course, the fact that truth can be discovered through empirical study does not imply that I, or even anybody, has an unlimited ability to reason. Sometimes we lack the ability to access all the facts, sometimes we fall victim to cognitive biases we aren’t even aware of enough to address. The reason unsolved mysteries both frightened and excited me was the same: they showed the limit of empirical analysis. I became obsessed with finding a truly unsolvable mystery. I was addicted to the rush of coming up with theories and searching thorough clues, sure. But I also wanted something outside myself to assure me that, for some questions at least, I could forgive myself for not being able to find an answer.

Later that summer, I found myself sitting in a friend’s front seat parked next to a small pond in northern Vermont. It was dark, the stars were out. There was a small town a few miles away, its light pollution a dirty circle on the horizon. But directly above us, through a stained moonroof, was pure oily black. The milky way was visible splashed across the darkness like a glitter bomb. We sat reclined, music in surround sound playing from four car speakers via an aux cable and from an iPod classic resting in the center console, waiting for an appropriate time to open the doors and walk through humming mosquitos to the house across the pond. Conversations are like movies: the dark ones telegraph their hand from the start, dipping a jocular toe into gallows humor or the macabre. “Have you ever seen a dead body?” my friend asked in a pause between songs.

I told him I had: earlier that year.

Some families have a tradition of hosting a gathering in a room with the deceased loved one. For many, this involves staying up all night and consuming absurd amounts of booze. Others host more reserved events with a photo of the deceased and maybe some bouquets of flowers. But there is something fake about seeing a dead body like that. To really see a dead body it has to be unplanned. In the body’s natural habitat. It’s like if I ask if you’ve seen a lion and you say “Yeah at the Brooklyn Zoo.” Not the same.

The first time I saw a real life dead body was in San Francisco. I was on the public bus, not a cable car, standing facing my seated partner. The black women standing next to me saw it first. They started whispering about something and pointing out the window. We slowed to walking pace and I could see a stopped bus next to us. Almost under the front tires was a young man supine on the pavement. “Oh he dead,” one of the women whispered, louder and more excited. Yes in fact, his head was clearly cracked wide open and surrounded by blood. There wasn’t a cop car or an ambulance around. It was calm, mundane. An accident that went unnoticed by half the other passengers, though they were mere feet away. My partner’s back was turned and she missed the whole scene. We kept up our conversation like nothing was happening. The bus sped up again after we passed the scene, back on schedule. The women went back to their conversation. My partner and I got sushi for lunch.

Death makes more sense when it’s part of a story. Serial, in its purest form, is the producer’s search for a perfect explanation of a death. She generates different explanatory narratives and compares them for us to judge. Each one is a chain of events that tries to perfectly explain the death. Some are more elegant, some more far fetched, but they all presume to make sense of a tragedy. Up close, death can feel more meaningless and random. Sometimes there is no obvious explanation for why something happens. This is especially true in the case of unsolved cases. After all, mysteries are mysteries in the first place because there is no perfect explanation readily presented. The only thing we can be sure of for a mystery is that whatever happened, it was something improbable. In the case of Serial, the mystery angle seemed contrived and non-mysterious. The prosecution’s theory appeared eminently likely. Another theory could be true, but there was not enough wiggle room in the facts for me to fulfill my criteria for an interesting unsolved mystery.

I started looking around for a new obsession when I found a book called True Crime Addict by James Renner. Maura Murray was a name I heard a few times listening to podcasts or browsing the forums. She was a UMass student who, in the winter of 2004, disappeared after crashing her car on a snowy New Hampshire road near the Kancamagus Highway. The case didn’t stand out, and I wouldn’t have remembered it at all if I didn’t have connections to the place she lived and the place she disappeared. I started attending UMass seven years after Maura disappeared; I lived in the same part of campus. We both worked on campus, we parked in the same parking lot. When I read the description of her final week, I matched the names of stores, dorms, parts of town, and restaurants to memories from my time at UMass. Liquor store. Burger place. Driving ten minutes off campus to find an ATM without a fee….

I Imagine her driving up a winding snow-covered road in New Hampshire, with no cell service, past houses with no electric hookups, people drinking well water. It’s the kind of place where you go to get away, for a while or for ever, sure. Maybe she just disappeared on purpose. There’s a sort of antiquated amusement park near there with a mountain man mascot who chases you in a steam powered train car; they have dancing bears and trapeze acts. There’s a summer camp for hasidic jews nearby and black hat wearing young men with the traditional sidelocks can be seen in groups observing the contortionists or eating cotton candy made in a large spinning kettle. There used to be a libertarian convention where you could buy handguns with gold shavings, or bacon proudly advertised as “not FDA approved.” I can’t imagine the locals lining up to call the cops on every weird character they encounter.

Driving to a campground I was staying at in 2014, I nearly got in an accident on those roads. A family of moose came out of nowhere around a bend on a single lane highway. There was no time to brake. Incredibly, I managed to steer the car between them and almost immediately pulled over feeling like I was going to throw up. I looked at my phone. No bars of course, not up this far north. Your best chance up here is being passed by a lonely state trooper. The catalogue of hypotheticals is invisible except in circumstances like this, when it becomes impossible to ignore. I imagine this is how Maura felt.

Despite my familiarity with Maura’s college life, and my own near death experience just miles from the site of her disappearance, the case didn’t immediately draw me in. She was a college kid who crashed her car and probably wandered off and died of exposure in the New England winter. That changed when I was reintroduced to the case via James Renner’s book. Maura’s case is special because it contains a mystery within a mystery. Nobody knows why she was up in New Hampshire that night. The reason why might depend on what your opinion about her disappearance is. To some, the fact that she was up there without telling anyone is evidence that she wanted to start a new life. To some it’s evidence she was suicidal. To some it’s evidence that she had a secret relationship with an unknown guy. And to some, like Maura’s father, it’s a red herring. After all, she clearly did not intend to crash her car, so her plans might not matter. Whatever they were, they went awry and something unplanned happened to her. Maybe she was kidnapped by a stranger or died of exposure. The case is half an investigation into Maura’s life before the crash, an attempt to understand her thoughts and feelings leading up to the drive to New Hampshire, and half an investigation of her time following the crash including dog searches, interviews with witnesses, and arguments over the weirdest clue of all: a rag that was found stuffed into the tailpipe of her broken down Saturn sedan.

Online, leads pointed every which way. Some people were quick to fixate on a police coverup, arguing that there is no other explanation for how someone could vanish in a five minute window between crashing and police arriving on the scene, especially while multiple witnesses were watching the whole thing from their houses and their passing cars. Some, including James Renner, decided to dredge up every secret they could from the Murray family history. They found out about Maura’s sister’s drug problem, exaggerated her father’s odd behavior, documented her ex-boyfriend’s abuse allegations. This was all supposed to be evidence of… something sinister. It could be evidence that Maura was scared of her life and decided to run away, or maybe one of these weird characters lured her to NH and killed her. In Serial, the victim’s family was off limits; amateur investigators’ motives are good: either they want an innocent man freed or a guilty man punished. In Maura’s case, nobody knows what they want and everybody is fair game: victim, family, police. The only way to solve the mystery, the justification goes, is to find as much information as possible. Only then can a story be constructed to explain what happened. It looks an awful lot like mudslinging as entertainment.
I disagreed with this approach. Without some impetus to believe one theory over another, any details uncovered are just white noise. Such details about Maura’s life might be irrelevant and only obscure the case, or important details could be ignored because they are just items in a list next to some bits of hearsay. The difficulty with Maura’s case is not a lack of detail, it’s a lack of direct evidence. The arguments online go back and forth unresolved. There is evidence for any hypothesis, even the most absurd. But there is always more evidence pointing a different direction. This forces people to back themselves further and further into one position: discounting contrary evidence and playing up supporting evidence.

Participating in the discussion felt voyeuristic, and firmly supporting any hypothesis felt dishonest. Sometimes I would make posts pointing out omissions or flaws in someone else’s theory, but it felt like a useless addition to the cyclical argument. The case is not solvable with the evidence we currently have. It’s one of those cases where police are waiting for a confession, or a body, or some other chance discovery.

Until then, it’s exactly what I thought I wanted: an unsolvable mystery. A mystery where we know the four or five possible solutions, but have no means of choosing between them. This was a bittersweet realization about a month into my research on Maura Murray. I wanted an unsolvable case that everyone could agree was going nowhere. I wanted a consensus on the limit of investigation. Instead, I got an unsolvable case where everyone was sure they had solved it. Everyone except for me. Well, I admit I find myself dragged back into the case whenever some new detail turns up. I don’t know what the lesson is.

I came away impressed with the Sisyphean effort of the online community. The sole accomplishment of all those hours of investigation has been to keep the cycle of speculation churning for fourteen years. We don’t know any more now than we did in 2004. Yet, despite that, there is a living fervor that any day now the case will be solved by some minor discovery. I am not so optimistic. Instead, I believe that something major will need to happen to solve the case. Then, the evidence we already have will fall into place. Until then, Maura is just missing.

One day, later in the summer, I got off the porch and got into my car. The same car that I maneuvered between moose on the Kancamagus a year earlier. I backed out of my driveway and drove past UMass, slowing down as I passed Maura’s dorm. I pulled out onto Route 116 and drove to the Goodwill where she used the ATM the day she disappeared. I passed the pub she had dinner at on her last night. I passed the liquor store where she bought the box of wine that was found spilled inside her abandoned car. I drove up Route 9 towards the highway on-ramp she would have taken to drive north. I imagined getting on the highway myself and following her path. Her trip took a couple hours longer than it should have. Maybe she stopped somewhere? If I recreated her drive, would I get an urge to stop somewhere? If I drove past her crash site and kept going, would I eventually get to Maura’s destination?

I shook off the urge to turn onto the highway and drove on

Travel: Lima

I’m laying in the bottom bunk in a dark dorm room at a hippie hostel in the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru. Some seafood I ate yesterday was a little off and I’ve been laid up in bed since then. I skipped breakfast this morning, and only made it out of bed to eat a light lunch. A piece of fruit or something. Everyone else in the room, maybe six or seven people, slept in until two in the afternoon and then left. It’s was either almost midnight now, or maybe it’s already early tomorrow morning, and they haven’t come back yet.

I’m listening to a podcast about unsolved murders. Luckily this series has a back catalogue, and I’ve been working my way through. I’m a little pissed at myself for being sick and stuck in bed listening to my iPod when I’m in a foreign country. This might be the only time I come here.

The door to the room opens and I can hear a couple people come in. They are whispering and muffling their laughter. I have the lights off because I want to sleep. I can’t tell if they know I’m there or not. They don’t turn the lights on so I figure they know someone’s here. They go across the room to the bunk in the far right corner. I’m in the far left. They go quiet like they are going to sleep.

I’ve been thinking about death in a new way in Peru. I went into this old Church for a couple dollars. There were a lot of people in the pews, pilgrims or locals or just tourists like me, I don’t know. They were mostly kneeling towards the altar and praying. This was a big place. One of the biggest churches I’ve been in. I don’t believe in God, but I enjoy going into churches. This one was special. Sometimes churches feel esoteric or aloof like they are meant for people who only think of higher things. Some, especially in America, are completely unadorned and all the action comes from the congregation itself. Not much point going in there during the off hours. This one felt different from ones I’ve been in before. There was a small room underneath the altar where every bishop of Lima since the 1700’s was entombed. They each had a stone plaque with a name and time of service. There were even some open graves waiting for the next guy and the guy after him. After you left that room and crossed a stone hallway decorated with indigenously styled Catholic icons, there was a two or three foot doorway into a catacomb. They had excavated most of the graves in there, and covered them with glass so you couldn’t steal souvenirs. Down a claustrophobic path and through an even smaller door was a fifty foot pit dug straight down into the earth. At the bottom I could see a single femur sitting on a pile of dirt. I got the impression that some time in the past this entire pit had been filled with human remains.


I was struck by the closeness of worship and death. 

In the national gallery, I saw traditional death masks, conquistador icons of angels holding trumpets and muskets, Jesus Christ with the skin tone and facial features of an indigenous Peruvian, and a pre-Columbian urn depicting an orgy of the living and the dead. A boxy brunette woman throws her head back in anger or pleasure as she grasps at an aroused skeleton.


Sex is, in a way, a means of escaping death. We are the shadows our dead ancestors still cast on this Earth. 

These scenes have been going through my head all day. I find it meaningful, therefore, that as I listen to the story of a young woman who was kidnapped and murdered through my earbuds, I come to realize the couple who tried so hard to be quiet coming into the room have been discreetly fucking the entire time they’ve been in here.


I wondered whose bone this was, or if it even mattered. Maybe it was left by mistake. 

At some point they finish. It’s hard to tell when. Then the rest of them come in. These people in my room all seem to know each other, or else they just made friends really quickly. A couple are French, a couple some type of American. Some Australians too. Lima is different from the cities in Argentina I’ve spent the last month in. People come here for different reasons I guess. Surfing, partying. The people in this hostel are younger and whiter than the ones I stayed  with in Argentina. One of them is rolling on ecstasy. She takes a pill case out from her backpack on the bed next to mine and shows it to one of her friends. Her voice has this breathy quality to it that makes her sound far away.

“I’m fucking hungry,” one of the French girls says. She either turned on a lamp, or some of the overhead lights, because it’s light enough to see now. She and one of the guys leave to eat some leftovers in the hostel fridge. The group splits and reforms in different ways for the rest of the night. One of them gets mad when she finds a used condom in her shoe, they scream obscenities in French and English, eat more food, change clothes and finally leave. I don’t know when these people sleep. I’m not mad, I would have slept through all this if I wasn’t sick. As it is, it’s a new experience. I feel like I’m hidden inside one of the props on some stage somewhere.

The next day I force myself to get out of bed at noon. I wonder if anyone has even noticed that I’ve been laying in my bed for the last two days. If they noticed, I wonder what they think. I wish I could read their minds. Getting a glimpse into the life of another is the strangest feeling. What are the bars like that they all go out to at night? What do they order there? Pisco sours? Cusqueno? Bud Light or Heineken?

I missed breakfast but luckily there’s still coffee. That’s about all I feel like anyway. They use this thick sweet cream here instead of milk or half and half, so the coffee is close to a full meal.

I go out for a short walk to see the central square for the last time. My stomach is still killing me. But, it feels good to be outside and part of the world again. The last couple days felt like a fever dream.


A white angel loads his musket

Whole blocks of this city are indoor markets selling the same souvenirs to tourists. Alpaca sweaters, coca infused liquor, pottery, toy llamas. On a quiet morning you can walk through one of these markets and someone will jump out of every stall to offer you something. Everyone wants you to look at what they’ve got, everyone calls you amigo and waves you over.

The most famous museum in Lima used to be the Gold Museum. It was full of all these ancient artifacts made out of Incan Gold. A few years ago, historians discovered they were nearly all forgeries. If there were ever such artifacts, they were long gone. Maybe they got melted down and sent back to Spain, or maybe they never existed at all. The museum is still there, in a corner of the city there’s no other reason to visit. Now it’s a museum about Incan forgeries.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 11.50.56 PM

The Cliffs of Miraflores

Last, there’s a long promenade along the cliffs. You can run or bike or just walk past the parks and scenic overlooks of the Pacific ocean. If the sun is out it’s quite beautiful. Instead of seagulls or pigeons, flocks of green parrots sit in the trees and in the grass. They squawk at you and beg for scraps. What strikes me about the promenade is the enormous nets draped over the cliff faces to stop rocks from falling into the sea. Some day the nets won’t cut it anymore and pieces of Lima will start to break off. Rock by rock the city will disappear.