It was almost 6 p.m., and all day I’d been bemoaning my failure to finish an essay on the riots in Charlottesville. A huge Motel 6 sign hung above the expressway; I was, as somehow only possible on long drives, both sweaty and crusty. I took the next exit, looped back and set about finding a place to roost in Albuquerque’s West Mesa, AKA the Sketchy Motel District.
Between Los Angeles and the White Mountains of Arizona, I camped alone on public land and in National Forests – wherever I could away with it for free. Fifteen miles north of Lake Havasu I shared a sandy plateau with Karl, who warned me of snakes and scorpions; he kept a light on outside his RV so he could see them at night when they emerged from the soil. Before biking into the Grand Canyon I pitched my tent in a field of sage and juniper, where opportunistic losers shattered beer bottles and left the shards scattered among the ashes of their campfire. Earlier that day I’d asked two employees at the “Peace Surplus,” Flagstaff’s locally owned outdoors emporium, if they’d ever tried any dispersed camping in Kaibab National Forest – both of them answered with a disappointed “no.” My smug satisfaction at their commensurate lack of experience ended two days later when I realized that I’d left my hammock swinging between two trees at the campsite sixty miles away.
Flagstaff, home of Northern Arizona University, defies every popular misconception of Arizona: it is high-elevation, liberal and hippie-fied, green and breezy in the summer with Simpsons-esque clouds hanging in a cobalt sky. In fact, most of northern half of the state is a stark contrast from the images we’ve all seen on postcards and Arizona license plates: a three-hour drive takes you from the brutal red sandstone and iconic cacti of the Valley of the Sun to a shockingly green realm of rolling hills on the cusp of the Colorado Plateau.
My plan for Northern Arizona evolved as I puttered around Flagstaff, immediately charmed by the clean public parks, well-preserved brick architecture and art deco marquees. The Grand Canyon is less than ninety miles north: in the late afternoon, after topping off my water bottles, visiting the local bike shop, and doing some writing in the public library, I would drive into the surrounding National Forest, set up camp, and the next morning I would load up my bike and pedal into the park.
Here’s the thing about a well-made plan: sometimes you execute it perfectly! While cycling folks on Reddit seemed wary of the heavy traffic on highway 64, the busy road maintained a three-foot shoulder and was well-paved. A beautiful McDonald’s greeted me in Tusayan, about five miles from the Canyon, so water was not an issue – an an employee even complimented my vest! At the fee station I opted for an $80 annual National Parks pass, and at one of the campgrounds I got a $2 hot shower before cruising along the South Rim.
I had never been to the Grand Canyon before, and was impressed by the first vista – I mean, it’s a big honkin’ canyon! However I did not have the time or materials to foray into the enormous fissure, so like most tourists I was resigned to observe idly from the rim. I’ve been told many times throughout my life that from a distance, the Grand Canyon looks like a painting – I will affirm this, but with the caveat that is not a carefully composed Ruskin landscape, but instead a giant sloppy mural that may have stood behind Gary Cooper on a Hollywood soundstage. There are many angles from which to view the Grand Canyon, some vistas more exposed than others, offering glimpses of red rock that would otherwise be hidden, but altogether every angle is equally iconic and equally unreal. Once the ubiquity of the splendor became evident, it seemed rather silly that hundreds of people were climbing into shuttle buses, clambering off every quarter mile to snap identical photographs and scrambling back up the stairs to rinse and repeat at every stop along the way. Naturally I found myself doing the same on my bicycle, but with the selfish assurance that the perfect Instagram post was just around the corner…
The Canyon hosts a sizable European clientele. In fact, I heard more Spanish, German, and Russian than English. I was glad for this, since frankly I didn’t want to hear the kind of gratuitous commentary that inevitably gushes from awed American tourists. However I did enjoy a nice conversation with a trio of beer-bellied baby boomers on bicycles, who were all professors at a nearby college. They saw me reading a book called Poets Teaching Poets and assumed I was an English teacher; I ended up sputtering out my elevator speech about my decision to turn away from an MFA. “That’s alright, no rush!” one of them immediately responded. “I took 15 years between undergrad and grad school – best decision I ever made.” It’s nice when strangers can effortlessly say the most comforting things.
After seeing the Canyon I spent one last day in Flagstaff, continuing to hone my essay in a bagel shop encircled by framed photos of dead dogs, then doing the things that are easy to do in a big hippie college town – visiting a used book store (I actually bought something!) and peering through the windows of chic-looking cafés. Strolling through an alleyway I heard strange music, then looked up to see a couple of people attached to cables, peering over the edge of a high brick roof. Below, a gaunt bandana-clad man smoked cigarettes and told me it was just the Dark Sky Aeriel Show rehearsing. “Is it free?” “No, but you can read about it on the front page of the Live!” He responded so crisply it was as though he was paid to say it, and I carried on in the thrall of this immensely seductive and adorable college town, until I remembered my hammock. The 120-mile detour to retrieve it left me exhausted and eager to rid myself of the exhausting company of my own thoughts.
Via Facebook I had made plans with my cousin Kurt to arrive at his house in Show Low, AZ on the 20th and stay for a few nights. My last night in Flagstaff I has planned to light out to the gorgeous but remote “East Pocket” I had read about on Outdoor Project; however, my long detour caused me to reconsider. I was eager to see familiar faces and a big raised bed, so I decided to find a closer, easier place to whittle away the night: a forest road leading to the “Pumphouse Wash” camping area was only fifteen minutes away.
The forest road proved to be another lesson in Google Maps Myopia: what the skinny gray line does not tell you – and a sign at the mouth of the road only hints at – is the condition of said road, which was all dirt and accented by patches of huge, rough stone. For twenty minutes straight I failed to reach 10 m.p.h. and came close to bottoming out – meanwhile the rocks were glowing more purple each minute, more jagged and foreboding.
I pulled off and rolled my windows down: signs along the road declared no camping for 3.5 miles, but I had no intention of getting that far. Given all the little pops I heard amid the drone of crickets, I assumed this restriction had something to do with ensuring that no ambitious and thrifty camper was mistaken for a lumbering bear or wayward elk. Cracking open a warm PBR, I let myself breathe and settled in for a momentous decision: either be a bad boy and camp out in the restricted zone, or prey on my cousin Kurt’s kindness and careen through the dark hundred-or-so miles to Show Low. Then I looked right: two big tents and two cars gleamed dully through the trees, and small children sprinted aimlessly among them. Well, if they were breaking the law, then I can too – but hell if I’m gonna take the ten minutes to set up my tent! Justifying it as some kind of poetic retribution for my previous errand, I decided to try out my hammock for the night.
The annoying paradox of sleeping in a hammock is that it is far more comfortable than sleeping on the ground but far less soporific. It didn’t help that my neighbors’ errant flashlight beams danced among the tall trunks that supported me, and that each time I felt the woozy flush of full sleep it was sharply interrupted by distant pops and howls in the deep forest. All night I thought about the cheese-stuffed tortilla and empty can of PBR I’d tossed just feet from my nest, in laziness; after interminable frustrated hours of stirring awake to the acute fear that a bear was attempting to snap open the Tupperware with his snout, I pulled myself out of the hammock and stashed the refuse back in the car.
I was anxious to get back on the road – not merely to see family, but to simply be welcomed somewhere, and step to the slow, awkward dance of hospitality. As daring and adventurous as camping alone in hammocks and tents throughout the Southwest might sound, the rhythms become a stale routine rather quickly. Dismount the bike, throw up the tent, eat a salty-yet-flavor-starved pasta in silence and wear out your eyes reading Graham Greene by headlamp. And as lovely as trees and forest can be, they do not make for a creative space: with its tracings and design so plain and bare, biology does not leave one much space to fill in the blanks. Which is all a pretentious way of saying that I have never been more appreciative of a sturdy wooden desk.
In the mauve smoke of first light I achieved my first bout of real sleep, then woke to nimble sounds of cleaning and sorting in the neighboring campsite. I fastidiously packed away my hammock, lathered my hair and underarms with a few drops of Dr. Bronner’s and my last liter of water, quite wary of projecting a peripheral manliness towards the beautiful women who were beginning to spark charcoal and set the breakfast table about thirty yards away. They may not have noticed my rugged morning rhythms, but I was covertly eyeing theirs, and as I slowly rolled back towards civilization I realized that I might have a fetish for Latinas in camouflage jackets.
Kratom coursed through my veins as I left Flagstaff behind and sped towards the White Mountains. I told Kurt I would arrive in Show Low around noon, which was perfect since he’d be throwing wings and burgers on the grill for his fantasy football draft. With that in mind, I decided to hasten the inevitable diarrhea with a plate of biscuits and suspiciously thick gravy from Carl’s Jr., where I stopped to download some podcasts and review the fraught and unsatisfying argument I had been tinkering with for almost a week.
Although building an essay excites me more than any other type of writing, there is always an inherent risk of betraying the original hunch by waging needless wars of nuance that an arresting meme could slice through with a simple, startling juxtaposition. When writing about as huge of a headline as Charlottesville, it is also very easy to get bogged down by the constant fluctuations of social media, the cascade of new memes and op-eds from writers that aren’t me. And of course there is the nagging feeling that all of the above are pitiful complaints, that if my writing is good enough it will not be beleaguered by the fickle fretting of the news cycle. Since leaving Portland I’ve kept one eye on the road ahead and another on the calendar, and the metaphorical watch on my bare left wrist – one condition for my trip is that I would produce publishable writing, as well as blogs like this to document my attitudes and reflections on the landscape. My most sobering – albeit vital – realization so far is that good writing does not care where are you are or what your goals are or your timeline or your job status; it only cares about being written. Yet the best way to make that happen is to have goals, to have timelines and all that, to treat writing like what it is – work. I set off towards Show Low with the urgency of a fedora-clad reporter seeking solace in a telephone booth, awaiting a clerk somewhere to transcribe his notes.
What I neglected – or elected to ignore – during my sojourn through Arizona is that before being a writer or a educator or a sometimes-filmmaker – or whatever else I’ve called myself in cover letters and one-sentence bios – I am a Berkley. Alternately eyeing Google Maps and house numbers as I slowly motored up a hill of Ponderosa pine into a beatific cul-de-sac, Kurt’s son Shep suddenly sprang up in front of my car and guided me with noodle-armed windmills down into their steep driveway. As I tumbled out of the driver’s seat, Shep’s sister Kaia handed me a bouquet of yellow flowers wrapped hastily in tin foil. Right on cue, Kurt emerged from the garage in a Chicago Bears jersey and offered me a beer and a bear hug and the redundant-yet-sincere observation that it’s been too long.
I stayed with Kurt, Lisa, Shep and Kaia for four days and four nights, and had a wonderful time. To carefully recount all the details of my stay would deflate the grander, more important revelation that until now I have been taking my large, vibrant family for granted. While my life has been punctuated by visits to aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends, I have spent very little time enjoying their company on my own. Now that I am 25 and most of my first cousins on both sides of the family are in their thirties or early forties, with families or at least comfortable, well-kept homes and a stable community of friends and neighbors surrounding them, I finally understand that “settling down” does not mean to stop growing. When not playing Big Cousin with Shep and Kaia, I chatted with Kurt and Lisa, filling each other in on the lives we’ve lived but never had the time to relate or disclose in our extended familial absences. Kurt talked about wanting to rent some houseboats and take over Lake Powell with the progeny of Doc, Bill, Jack and Dale – my father and his brothers – and as corny as this all sounds, it was a powerful thing to be so simultaneously nostalgic and optimistic. To not be writing, but to know why I wasn’t.
My room at the Rodeway Inn in Albuquerque had a small desk, a chair, a firm bed, cable TV and a big white GMC truck outside the window that spent at least six hours parking and re-parking, respectively, in a spot right behind and right beside my valuables-loaded car. In the tiny office a huge notice from the Albuquerque Police Department was posted above the check-in desk, warning of car theft; another sign just to the left released the motel of any liability for stolen goods. After polishing up my ever-unsatisfying essay and enjoying a dinner of chopped-up hot dogs wrapped in tortillas, I enjoyed my worst sleep since the hammock. I slept with my headlamp strapped to my forehead and the shades ajar in a fruitless attempt to catch meth-addled rednecks casing my car; hours of observing the white GMC’s sketchy parking patterns, and my thumb was dangling above the Albuquerque P.D. non-emergency line.
Then I considered what I would say: “uh, this big white truck – it’s being really sketchy! Can you, uh, send over a cruiser and kinda…spook em or something?” Like in the hammock, I fell asleep at first light and woke hours later to a shard of yellow sun piercing through the exposed section of window, through which I could see the white GMC truck and my little Toyota Matrix camped next to it, unharmed.
I got stuck in traffic on the 405 out of Los Angeles because I had spent too long finishing in my friend Henry’s kitchen finishing my first blog of the trip; in Albuquerque I shelled out $40 for a motel simply to have some space and a surface on which to put ideas together. Writing this blog now in the middle of Texas, halfway between coasts, I feel neither a rush to get home nor a desire to idle and “soak it all in.” The novelty of braving the road alone and the forests at night has diminished greatly in the week or so that it’s been my reality; as romantic an ideal as it may seem, this drive is ultimately a means to an end. Back in Virginia I’ll have to find work, make some money, revamp my résumé and ready myself for the vagaries of a mid-Atlantic winter. My last morning in Arizona I waved Shep and Kai onto the school bus; Lisa gave me a hug before she left for the gym and Kurt did the same in his scrubs, then headed off to the hospital. Two meatheads squawked it out on ESPN over preseason highlights, and a warm breeze blew leaves off the aspens and into the cracked sunroof of my car. On the phone Matt and I talked about camping in Pennsylvania come October, how stoked we are to start wearing fleece vests with flannels underneath – how it’s not Fall, but starting to feel like it.
After a weekend of low fast clouds and hurricane rain, I’m trying to stick the landing on this blog without getting too sappy or nostalgic. It’s hard. Everyone in Arizona talked about their lives like a brochure and the state like a best-kept secret; in Austin, in Quanah and Chrissie’s cute ranch-style house, I’m surrounded by beautiful Western décor and old photos of my uncles and live oaks where blue jays are the most mundane bird to roost there. Last night I made my mom’s vegetarian chili for all the Berkley’s in Austin, then taught Quanah and Chrissie how to play Dominion. And since I woke up this morning I’ve spent all day puttering around, reading on the back porch and writing a story that doesn’t have an ending yet – not home, but starting to feel like it.