Monday, May 31, 2021

Tableaus of the American West, spring 2021

There are stretches of Utah that are, frankly, boring. Pastures, shrub-covered hills, sage and tumbleweeds. But down near the southern border, it becomes almost other-wordly. The sandy red cliffs rising against a backdrop of cotton candy clouds. I feel my stomach unclenching the farther south I go. 

At Zion that afternoon, it’s too hot to sleep in the tent. So I lay my sleeping pad out on the ground in the shade of my car and nap there. When I wake, it’s still hours before sundown, but I make a fire and roast hot dogs for dinner anyway. I read. I look at the fire. I move my chair in a steady orbit to avoid the smoke. I am discovering that more than half of what I enjoy about camping is spending time with other people. Maybe if I had a good place to hang my hammock, I’d feel differently. I make two unsatisfactory s’mores and go to bed. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I unzip my tent to look at the stars. It’s only a moment, but it’s beautiful anyway. 

The Grand Canyon is truly and actually GRAND. It’s also fucking enormous. I feel like I pass signs for hundreds of miles that tell me I’m at the Grand Canyon. I pull over after crossing the bridge at Glen Canyon, then walk back over it. It’s so far down to the water it doesn’t even feel real. Later, I take a small detour and hike ½ mile in the desert sun to see Horseshoe Bend. Maybe one day I’ll kayak around it. For now, I lean over gaze down, the metal of the railing scalding my forearms. I hold my breath as I glance over at a man close to my age, sitting with his legs dangling over the edge, hundreds of feet above the Colorado River. 

I’ve decided I hate camping by myself, so I cancel all of my camping reservations and book cheap motels. It’s probably just the fact that motels have internet access, but it feels much less lonely. In Williams, Arizona, I eat a meal by sitting down in a restaurant for the first time in 14 months. It’s surreal and a little nerve-wracking. I sit at the bar in a 50’s-themed diner and devour a burger and sweet potato fries with my book propped up behind my plate. At one point, I glance up in time to see one of the dishwashers in the back drop a cup onto the ground and put it right back onto the shelf. 

I listen to books on tape while I drive, or BTS, or podcasts, or my “Wandering Tunes” playlist. I’ve learned that I do best when I take a break every hour and a half or so. I pull over into rest stops and stretch, I wander the aisles of Maverick gas stations and side-of-the-road gift shops. I see a sign advertising the ancient site of Montezuma’s Castle and drive a few miles past two casinos to see it. I feel like John Steinbeck, “traveling with Charley.” But instead of a poodle and an RV, I have a journal and a Prius.

At a gift shop on Navajo land, things feel like April 2020. Masks are required, spacing is enforced, entrances and exits are calculated so that only a limited number of people are in the building at a time. After I spent so much time in areas that probably never really took the pandemic seriously, and as someone who’s been fully vaccinated for a while, it feels like a time capsule.  

There are whole stretches of the American southwest that look so much like the quintessential idea of “The American Southwest” that it almost feels fake. If I lived in a different country and had never been to America, and you asked me to describe Arizona, I’d say, “Big open areas with tall saguaro cactuses, flat-roofed adobe houses with dogs sleeping in the dusty driveways, the occasional tumbleweed, metal sculptures in the yards of the more wealthy.” It sounds like a movie set, or Disneyland’s Cars ride. But it’s 100% accurate. 

There’s something sort of surreal about the moment when your drive home turns from unfamiliar to familiar. I don’t know my way around Spanish Fork, but once I hit Provo, it feels like I’m “home.” Even if I still have an hour left to drive. 

I’m not entirely sure how to end this piece. I can’t tell if it’s a love letter to the American west or reminders for my next solo road trip. 

I suppose I’ll end abruptly, in that crisp way that you pull your car into your own driveway after a week away. 

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