Las Cruces, N.M.
The meeting place is at the end of a stucco industrial building and has a 3-foot-high wooden "AA" above the door. Inside, the room is about 500 square feet with chairs lined up in the middle and chairs around the perimeter, where I sit.
The secretary, a put-together woman with an East Coast accent, starts the meeting by asking everyone to pause for a moment to remember why we are here and to think about the alcoholics who still suffer. In my home group, the Serenity Prayer follows this. But not here. She asks for newcomers and for visitors, and I introduce myself and get a reception of "Welcome" and "Glad you're here."
This is a step study, and we are on Step 10: "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it." She reads the first two paragraphs and shares about it. There are about 20 people in the room, some in business suits.
To the left of me, a hunched-over man of 60 or 70 starts muttering. As his muttering intensifies, I think of moving to another chair, but two posters on the wall bear sayings of AA co-founder Bill W. about tolerance being the most beautiful thing and I don't want to appear intolerant. To the right of me, a man in full Army fatigues stands up. I expect he will ask the man to leave. Instead, he leans in and whispers, "Can you keep it down?" The muttering wanes.
When it's the muttering man's turn to share, he says a judge has made him attend meetings. He didn't like them at first, but with two months of sobriety, he feels good here. He is on Social Security and has a little job the next day installing a screen. When he's done sharing, Army Guy compliments him on his haircut, and the man takes off his ball cap and says the cut cost $12. In just this way, people who seem hopeless are helped back into the fold of everyday society.
There is some talk about road rage and tailgaters, and the secretary shares how she encourages other drivers to back off with a backward wave out the window. A man up front asks if she uses all the fingers on her hand and maybe that's what he's doing wrong. We laugh. Heading back to my mesa campsite, I think: If I lived in Las Cruces, this would be my group.
I make it to the Northeast Fellowship in El Paso about 10 minutes before the noon meeting, held in a club next to a piñata shop. Above a coffee cabinet hang a mirrored bullfighter painting and an American flag. About 40 people are present when the meeting starts.
The topic is the AA way of life. One man says that he's been sober well over 25 years and that if he were to drink he'd lose his family, and at his age, in retirement, family is everything he has. Another man says he was three years sober when his mother and wife died in a two-week period. He considered drinking because he handled it all so well without alcohol that he figured he must not be an alcoholic. That is the twisted thinking that keeps us coming back.
Toward the end of the meeting, a teary woman asks, "Where can you go where everyone wants you to be a winner?" A burly man next to her also gets teary when he shares his gratitude for sobriety. Before one man shares, he holds out his arms, looks around the room of smiling faces and says, "This is it. This is what it's all about."
The campground in Fort Stockton, Texas, is a needed respite from the 500-mile soul-deadening stretch between it and El Paso. I feel bad on that stretch, either because of hunger or bad juju. I search for vegetarian food in Fort Stockton but end up at the cheerful town center (a.k.a. Wal-Mart) where I buy an electric teakettle, a rechargeable LED lantern and a 20-foot extension cord. Back at camp, I enjoy leftover salad and tofu from my mini-fridge and finally feel grounded.
I arrive early for the 5:30 meeting at the Downtown Club and sit in my van observing the place. I have not been in a place this rough-looking since my early sobriety in Huntington Park and Bell Gardens. Spray-painted lettering on the crumbling stucco exterior proclaims "No Loitering" and "No Public Restrooms." Filled with irrational fear, I can't go in. I call the local AA hotline and explain my situation to a volunteer, who directs me to the nearby Club Twelve, which he says "has a lot going on."
The Club Twelve building is gray and nondescript with a big "Twelve" above a glass door. A sign notes that firearms are not allowed inside, where a plaque commemorates the club's history since 1949.
In a great room flanked by a bookstore and cafeteria, two men sit at a table with papers and the Big Book of AA.
Table lamps in each corner give the large meeting room a soft glow. Most everyone is well-dressed and well-spoken; these women do not dye their hair in KOA campgrounds. I arrive too late to introduce myself as a visitor, and for a while I'm relieved not to be a curiosity. As the meeting progresses, I want to announce myself because I haven't spoken with anyone for 18 hours. I share about my gratitude to AA for this tribe, this family, this fellowship. To have a room full of beautiful, functioning people listen to me is such a gift.
After the meeting, a crowd surrounds me. One woman envies my journey. Another invites me to join a group for dinner. But I have another commitment: to buy groceries and get to my campsite. The enormous San Antonio KOA is the nicest I've seen yet, with giant oaks and a creek with ducks. In the morning, I linger so long that an employee comes to remind me of the 11 a.m. checkout time.