Most of us have had at least one experience of running into someone who doesn’t think New Mexico is a state—hence the regular stream of always head-shaking, sometimes knee-slapping stories that have populated this feature for the past 45 years.
Jan Mellor experiences an unending firehose blast of “One of Our 50 Is Missing” incidents every time she helms the New Mexico Tourism Department’s booth at the Oklahoma and Texas state fairs. Yes, Texas and Oklahoma, our next-door neighbors. The ones we share our eastern border with.
A slim blonde with a northern England accent and mirthful eyes, Mellor has heard it all, including lots of “We love New Mexico!” shout-outs from groups of people walking by, and folks who stop to point to the tiny town (pop. 27) where they were born.
“I so appreciate the customers who want to make sure we know everything about our state that they know,” Mellor says. “This leads to some very interesting stories. They have ancestors who made it across the country in a covered wagon, or who built a saloon in what is now a ghost town. Others have relatives who knew Billy the Kid, or who claim their forebears came down in a UFO and settled near Roswell.”
The booth vibrantly represents our state’s key attractions with large, colorful images of our landscapes, including a ski scene.
“New Mexico must have trucked in a lot of snow to take that picture,” observed one teenager. Another one said, “I wonder if the instructors speak English.”
The booth’s complete lack of anything resembling an ocean didn’t stop another Texan from requesting, “I’d like you to set up a cruise for me.”
“Sorry, sir, but this is New Mexico, not Mexico,” Mellor patiently explained. “We are landlocked.”
“Oh, you mean you’re not giving away free cruises?”
Not everyone can be convinced. Sometimes Mellor just nods and smiles and lets them go, because there’s a thirty-something, sophisticated-looking person right behind them who is sure to be stopping by to ask about a Ghost Ranch retreat or a Santa Fe Institute conference.
“So who got you?” is what the promising fellow asks, though.
“Who got you, Mexico or Texas?”—an apparent inquiry as to the outcome of the Mexican-American War of 1846–48.
“Well, sir, we have been a state since 1912.”
“Yeah, but who got you?”
Mellor shakes her head, reflecting, “It’s not like he was a backwoods guy in dungarees and red suspenders, with a big bushy beard!” Or Rip Van Winkle.
After picking up a couple of brochures and the New Mexico Vacation Guide, people often ask, “You need a passport to get there, don’t you?”
“Only if you are coming directly from another country,” Mellor answers. Sometimes she wishes that she had little yellow New Mexico passports to give out, with fun facts about our state—a teaching tool to enrich the knowledge base of these low-information browsers.
In the magazine, we recently ran “50” stories about a woman who brought a case of water bottles to Rio Rancho because “You can’t drink the water,” and a woman who asked a shopkeeper in Old Town Albuquerque where she could exchange her dollars for the local currency, pesos. But Mellor experienced the flip side of this when a woman insisted on showing her lots of cell-phone photos of her recent trip to New Mexico. Mellor didn’t recog- nize any of the sights. “Oh, sorry, wrong state!” the fairgoer said. “These are of Mexico. Not New Mexico—it’s the next state. I think I’ve been there, too.”
Geography. Is it still taught in school?
After spending quite some time examining the state map displayed in the booth, a fellow rubbed his chin and looked at Mellor. “I’m confused. Where exactly are you?”
“Me? Oh, I live in Taos.”
“No, where is the state?”
“Here are the bordering states: Arizona, Colorado, Texas ...”
He still looked perplexed, so she pointed out some more nearby states.
“I need to look at an atlas. I have been out of the country for a while.”
What she wanted to say, but didn’t: “We didn’t move the state while you were gone!”
Someday, Mellor just might have educated enough people to create a tipping point, so that all of the “50” stories dry up. But in the meantime, we can all agree that New Mexico can feel like a different country, in all the best ways: the landscape, the space, the light, the food, the culture, and the kindness and patience of the people. The latter trait is modeled by Mellor—who has an English accent, you recall—every time she’s told, “You speak really good English for a Mexican!”
Send your “Missing” anecdotes to firstname.lastname@example.org or Fifty, New Mexico Magazine, 495 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87501. Include your name, hometown, and state. Thanks!