Monday, January 21, 2013

The Arizona Diaries: 13-21 October 2012, Part II

In October of 2012, I spent ten days on a road trip that traced a loop. Starting in Los Angeles, I went through Tucson, Arizona to the Grand Canyon and back to Los Angeles through the Mojave Desert.

Lighting out from Los Angeles, I settled into the speed and the scenery. The last time I'd made that drive was over a year ago when my then-boyfriend was moving across the country. Memories of that trip and that relationship were inevitable; they were strangely humorous and comforting, and I wanted to share them with him. It was only the first day of a ten-day journey, and the high lonesome had already taken hold. But then again, that's just kind of my natural way. Maybe I was made for this empty, wide-open country...

I made it to Tucson in six hours. Being at the Hotel Congress was like going back to 1995. I would have fit in so well there back then. It made me think of playing music in college town bars. I missed my Doc Martin wingtips and my cropped, dyed hair. But in 2012, rather than do a soundcheck, find a cheap supper, and drink beers until the show, I took a little nap, had a shower, and put on a nice outfit for the rehearsal dinner. On my way, I saw a Miata up ahead of me on the freeway. At the end of the offramp, I pulled up next to the little convertible and shouted a greeting across my empty passenger seat to Lucy and Alex in the adjacent lane. I followed them the rest of the way out to the old barbeque spot where we ate ribs and roast chicken and stewed beans and garlic toast while a band wearing matching fringed cowboy shirts played old time country music.

In the morning, I drove out to Saguaro National Park. Right at the edge of the city, the park is a mysterious Sonoran desert landscape. A jagged range rises abruptly above the flat plane that runs along the park's western border. Its dark rocky face is a stark contrast to the sandy washes below it. The air was already warm. I jogged down a stretch of smooth blacktop, my footfalls swallowed by the heavy quiet. Turning onto a dirt path, the ground rose gently, weaving through saguaro cacti. I learned later from a botanist I met at the Congress bar that those enormous cacti are a hundred years old. Beneath the outstretched arms of the saguaro, the chollo perch low to the ground, their needle-sharp thorns looking like soft rabbit's fur, and the prickly pear, too, with their interlocked paddles, rise improbably from the rocky ground. The shift in scale between these varieties of cactus and the ample space between each plant gives an airy, light impression, belying the hostility of the climate. After passing over several washes, I emerged back onto the scenic drive. Steep little hills pushed the limits of my strength, and the increasing heat tested my stamina. But the beauty of the place distracted my thoughts away from the strain.

The wedding was moving and wonderful. I met so many friendly, interesting people. Afterwards, we retired to a bar on the edge of town and drank tequila until late. After brunch the next morning, I said goodbye to the newlyweds. Now I was really on my own.

Cast concrete tiled wall at the Arizona Biltmore

I had intended to camp somewhere outside of Tucson before heading to Scottsdale, but I had some outstanding work to do. I reserved a room at the Arizona Biltmore, a sprawling resort designed by a student of Frank Llyod Wright. After the short drive to Scottsdale, I checked into my room, ordered a Bloody Mary and a BLT, and got to work. By eleven o'clock the next morning, my work was finished, and I was on my way to Taliesin West. The restricted tour left me wanting, but I liked being there. I tried to imagine what it was like when Frank Lloyd Wright first sited the house. At that time, there was nothing but open desert all around. There was no electricity, and he had to bring in his own water. He originally built Taliesin West like a sort of tent with open walls and canvas panels for ceilings. Photography is forbidden in some of the best parts of the house, so I looked carefully at every detail of the living room, study, and bedrooms, trying my best to absorb the vibe and to remember the small touches that make these rooms so unique. Wright had such an interesting way with scale, and I love how his rooms are both intimate and dramatic.

Ceiling fresco in my room at Arcosanti

After a huge lunch of enchiladas, I started north toward Arcosanti, where I was scheduled to spend the night. The Arcosanti website instructs guests to call if they are going to arrive later than five o'clock. It was getting late, so I started calling. To no avail; no one ever answered the phone. As the sun glowed more orange and the desert ridge lines darkened against the dusk, I got turned around on some roads that were under construction. When I finally found the two-mile drive to Arcosanti, I was relieved; the desert rolls out for miles in this area, and there was no telling whether I would find it once night had fallen. The store where I was meant to pick up my key was closed.

Here is what I wrote in my notebook later that night:

This is, perhaps, the strangest place I've ever been. People here were expecting me. But when they saw me, they looked away and then walked away, too, at a gait just a degree cooler than a scurry. In a closed community, we visitors are obvious, I suppose, an apparent intrusion. I finally found someone willing to engage me. She gave me a key and a map. She told me about meal times and encouraged me to walk around. She told me that no one has been using the pool lately because it's not heated, and she pointed out the visitors' trail heading up to the top of the mesa. I drove as quickly as I could down the bumpy dirt road and loaded my stuff into my room. I put on a pair of boots and walked out the visitors' trail for sunset. Orange light set the whole ramshackle place aglow. The thing that makes it so strange is that Arcosanti is simultaneously under construction and falling apart. Arcosanti is like a case study in entropy. Back down from the mesa, I walked up to the pool. Chairs were turned this way and that, plastic flags in tatters waved in the hot evening breeze, traffic cones littered the pool's decks, and it was clear that people are more likely staying away from the pool because it is so dirty than because of its temperature. Walking into the cafe, I felt like a true stranger. Maybe it was the extent of my fascination that alienated me, kept me on the outside. I wanted to talk to everyone in the room. I wondered what they do, what brought them here, why they want to live in community, whether they think it works. I envied their routines and their camaraderie. But instead of talking to anyone, I left and drove into Cordes, a "town" consisting of two gas stations and a truck stop, to get some cash and fuel. Getting back into my car, I noticed that it was really starting to look the part: dust covered the tires and the lower body, greasy fingerprints decorated the hatchback door, and the prow was covered in dead bugs. Back at Arcosanti, I poured some tequila into a blue enamel camp mug, turned out all of the lights in my room, and sat outside on the promenade. The mesa stood before me like a black paper cut-out, and the inky sky rose above it, dotted with stars that actually twinkled for real. Coyotes were howling. When I saw the Milky Way stretch out over me like an arc of white sequins, I realized it was a new moon. I was born on a new moon, and so the astrologers say that I am born again with each new moon. It seems appropriate to be born again in this strangest of wonderful, most wonderful of strange places.

To be continued
Go to Part I

No comments: