Dec. 4, Las Cruces, N.M. – Up early for a change. With Becky and Max still asleep in the safety of Galaxy Walmart, I made the half-mile stroll to Mickey McDonald’s Emporium of Athersclerosis and Hypertension, located directly across East Lohman Avenue.
We’ve traveled 415 miles east from Organ Pipe National Monument and now repose in the shadow of the Organ Mountains.
The first thing you notice here is the chill in the air. Las Cruces, the “City of the Crosses,” sits high up in the Mesilla Valley, 4,000 feet above sea level. The rugged spires of the Organ Mountains, rising nearly 9,000 to their apex at Organ Needle, cordon off the city 10 miles to the east.
The scenery is striking, no doubt. But geographic peculiarities notwithstanding, we have come a long way from the lonesome Sonora Desert and plunged back into the heart of Retail America. Staples, Best Buy, Walgreens, Albertson’s, Applebees, Starbucks, Big Lots. All our friends our here. All our friends!
When you’re within hailing distance of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, the landscape always reconstitutes itself into a reassuring tableau of sameness.
We spent last night a half mile from here in one of what surely is no shortage of Starbucks outposts in the City of the Crosses. Rhoda and I scribbled furiously while Max watched “The Honeymooners” on the portable DVD player. He loves himself some Jackie Gleason and Art Carney.
He was getting a tad obstreperous, bouncing up and down with giddy laughter, resisting our pleas for restraint and threatening to annoy half the student body of New Mexico State University.
That’s how we met Meredith Hays, star outside hitter for the NMSU Aggies, elementary education major and all-around sweetheart. She was hanging with teammate Maggi Jo Keffury and working on a paper for her music class before she allowed Max to commandeer her evening. Instead of glowering at him, she gravitated to him with amazing aplomb.
She saved the glowering for us.
Max, as he’s wont to do, invited Meredith to watch videos. And despite the pressures of trying to complete her review of a recent Switchfoot concert, she pulled up right next to him. She was conversant in Thomas, Lightning McQueen, Peanuts, Frosty the Snowman and more. They even watched a bit of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
And she wasn’t faking it, either. Her ease with Max was natural as water flowing over river rocks.
Meredith, a vivacious, 5-foot-11 sophomore, led the WAC champion Aggies and ranked third in the WAC with 486 kills in the just-completed season.
She delivered 17 kills as New Mexico State stunned regular-season champion Utah State in the semifinals of the conference tournament and added 13 more in the final as the Aggies dispatched Idaho and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, where they fell to BYU in the opening round.
But enough about volleyball. You can tell she doesn’t let it define or limit her.
While this journal tends to occupy its time with eccentrics along the American road and trends heavily cynical, we don’t want to discriminate against someone just because she’s nice and well-adjusted.
She grew up in Hereford, which in addition to being a world-famous brand of beef cattle is an obscure Texas town about 350 miles northeast of here and 50 miles southwest of Amarillo.
Her father, John Hays, sells farm equipment. Her mother, Polly, is a first-grade teacher. The family also rents land to ranchers for cattle grazing.
Hereford, true to its name, is known as the “Beef Capital of the World.” Meredith said Hereford has roughly 10,000 head of beef capital per capita.
(Incidentally, because its water is heavily infused with naturally occurring flourine, Hereford is also known as “The Town without a Toothache.”)
It’s also a good breeding ground for college volleyball players.
“The town I’m from, if you don’t play sports, you don’t really have a shot at doing much else,” she said. “I played basketball and softball from the time I was 5. In third grade I finally picked up volleyball.”
I asked her about the Big Texan, the Amarillo landmark with the standing offer for a “free” 72-ounce steak. The catch is it’s free only if you finish it off along with an entire buffet of side dishes, including rolls, stuffed baked potatoes and dessert. And you have an hour to complete the feat of gluttony. She knew all about it.
“I had a friend whose grandfather ordered it and he’d kill it every time,” she said. “They finally said, ‘we really appreciate your business, but you’re going to have to start ordering a normal meal.'”
Now that she’s left home, what can she say about Hereford?
“It’s a good place, I think, to grow up,” she said. “It’s kind of enough of the real world but not too much. I was very sheltered. It’s the kind of place where everybody kind of knows everyone. There’s about 18,000 people there, and that’s more than people think when you say everybody knows everybody. It’s kind of a little safe haven away from everything.
“The thing that’s nice about it is it’s predominantly Hispanic, so I was exposed to cultures other than my own before I got to college.”
And what’s different about Las Cruces?
“It’s dry where I come from,” she said. “Here we have monsoon season in summertime, which means guaranteed rain storms. So at least you have that. At home we just pray for rain. It’s a small town and all the signs outside the stores say ‘Pray for Rain.'”
Ah well, how many ways can we say we adore Meredith Hays?
Normally when someone starts in on his or her relationship with Jesus Christ, I want to roll my eyes and throw up on my shoes.
Not Meredith. She defies treacly and eschews cynicism. She can say “I love my parents” and make your heart glad. We can only hope Max says something like that when he’s 20.
She’s a Christian who does the name proud. Her values are the inclusive, compassionate values Christ himself might have recognized, not the twisted, destructive and divisive theology espoused by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Rick Santorum and Todd Akin.
Wanting to avoid division, she’s moved from the Baptist faith of her youth to a more nondenominational approach. She wants to be a youth minister some day.
“Unfortunately, religion has created so many problems,” she said. “It’s all about certain practices and traditions. We do this and they do that.”
Her dad’s side of the family came from Kentucky, her mom’s from Fort Collins, Colo. Her mother’s family were Volga Germans. They were recruited to the Volga River region by Russia in the 18th century. In 1905, her great-grandmother joined the Volga German exodus to the western United States.
Her dad likes the Mamas and the Papas. Her mom digs the Beatles. Her Grandma Eichorn turned her on to classic jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington et al.
She can even talk Monkees with Becky.
“My parents raised me to kind of listen to what they listen to,” she said. “I’m very partial to Ella Fitzgerald.
“I think I’m very blessed. Some parents kind of force things on their kid, even morals. I think my parents did a very good job.”
If Meredith is any reflection of parental aptitude, I’d like to meet John and Polly Hays.