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I rolled back into Artesia around 11 p.m. Friday, stiff-legged and trying unsuccessfully not to hear how Michael Phelps did in the 100 fly so I could watch it on the late feed.

A few hours prior, I’d been enjoying mom-and-pop pizza on a rainy deck in cool, pine-scented Flagstaff, Ariz. A few more before that, there were slot machines dinging in the background as I sat in a dimly-lit authentic Irish pub in the middle of a pseudo-New York City.

The two quickest observations as night fell on our final 100 miles into Roswell were these:

Firstly, it’s dark in Southeast New Mexico. So dark. So, so stranded in the middle of nowhere, glowing eyeballs popping out of the black abyss like that scene in “Peewee’s Big Adventure” dark.

And secondly, we drove to Vegas, through Albuquerque, Grants, Gallup, various communities in Arizona including tourist-jam-packed Flagstaff, over Hoover Dam, through Boulder City, and finally into the limo-, taxi- and expensive-sports-car-clogged lanes of the Vegas Strip… and not once did I fear being wrecked until we got back to Roswell and Artesia. Then I feared it about 15 times between the Roswell Mall and my house.

(Seriously, guys, quit running stop signs/lights, pulling out in front of traffic, cutting people off, zipping into those roundabouts right in front of a car when you’re supposed to be yielding, etc. Especially with school about to start again and a new crop of teen drivers on the road, just wait two seconds and be safe!)

The broader observations were, of course, the same as everyone’s upon returning from a trip to a larger city: There was so much to do! And now… not so much.

I’m a culture junkie. Nothing makes me feel more complete than being somewhere where the options of shows, art, restaurants, and shops are a conglomeration of world-class and homegrown, and are literally available any hour of the day or night.

In a single afternoon, we could dine on Gordon Ramsay creations, watch dolphins sail through the air, have high tea and a 99 Flake, check out Stella McCartney’s new cat-themed collection, and visit a local Harry Potter-themed coffee shop.

Afterward come the annual queries from my friends who do live in similarly action-packed places: Why Artesia?

I’m not writing this to answer that question, by any means. I believe everyone has to have their own reason. Part of mine, for instance, is this newspaper. I’ve invested a great deal of my time, energy, and even health into it, and I want to see it continue to be the quality, hometown publication it is as well as to realise the potential I know it has.

The bulk of my immediate family is here, as well, and I know that comes into play for many. For others, the responses often include Artesia’s close-knit feel, economy (still better than most in the state even during the hard times), or the sentimental tug of the place they grew up.

Again, it’s not my question to answer, but as I drove away from the bright lights and the 24-hour everything back to the place where the only bright lights and 24-hour anything are both at Wal-Mart, I woke this morning to a few other observations.

I drove past Bulldog Bowl on my way to work and thought about the faces of the past two years’ worth of state football champions I’ve photographed. In another place, that might not mean as much to them. But it’s pure, and it’s taught them lessons about hard work, discipline, camaraderie, and pride they will continue to use throughout their lives.

I’ve had the opportunity to witness the last years of the historic career of coach Cooper Henderson come to an unparalleled close, and will have the opportunity to watch his nephew, Rex Henderson, begin his in two short weeks. I’ve watched new coaches embark on their own in every other sport at Artesia High School, watched them work to better their programs, and seen the way they truly care about youth, not just as athletes but students and people, as well.

I stopped at The Jahva House to grab a coffee, which beat the pants off of the Starbucks I’ve been taking out a second mortgage for the past two weeks.

While I waited to pick up said coffee, I drove around, past the library, wherein hard-working librarians Erin Loveland, Geri Dosalua and Jo Scott just capped off three Summer Reading Programs’ worth of nonstop effort to keep kids, teens and adults alike entertained, informed, and learning. I drove past the museum and its new Art Center, which Nancy Dunn and Co. are working to transform into a clearing house of interesting exhibits many Artesians might not have the opportunity to experience elsewhere.

Tonight, I’ll drop by the Ocotillo Performing Arts Center to snap a few photos of the Artesia Arts Council’s collaborative production of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” with Way Way Off-Broadway Theatre Company of Roswell, and in a few more weeks, the OPAC’s own Comedy Troupe will have its production of “Sleepy Hollow: The Musical” ready to entertain local crowds.

On Tuesday, I’ve been invited to enjoy the dress rehearsal of the Artesia Community Theatre’s upcoming performance of “Jake Revolver, Freelance Secret Agent,” and next month, I’ll resume my violin lessons with one of the community’s veterans of the arts scene, Laney Rountree.

I might not be able to ride a rollercoaster wearing a light-up gold fedora before taking in live rock band karaoke at House of Blues tomorrow, but that’s okay. For a small town, Artesia has plenty going on, if you make the effort to look. And as an added bonus, it’s all free of heartburn, hangovers, and sleep deprivation.

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