The Wonder of Wandering

As we crossed into Arizona’s high desert, leaving the little town of Seligman behind for the vast mountains that raise the ground for the Grand Canyon to split, a clump of tumbleweed soared overhead, well over twenty feet in the air. I’ve always loved the little things – growing up in Vermont, we didn’t have anything like tumbleweed – and I love to watch them trundle across the flat landscape, but I’d never seen one fly like this one. I find comfort in the way they dry up and travel, taking root only when there’s water to be found and then moving on again – if such a frail-looking plant can make a living this way, then maybe I can make it through.I’ve already been on the road for a month, traveling at least a few hours practically every day. My roots are tucked up beneath me, stowed in the camper that follows three feet behind us down the long road West. I’m not sick of it yet – I couldn’t ask for a better travel partner; I have a large task to focus on and other, smaller projects to distract me when I need them; the human and geographical landscape is ever-changing and infinitely fascinating; and I’m seeing more friends in these few months than I have in the past few years put together – but I wonder how long it’ll last. For now, I’m still antsy to get out the door, looking forward to exploring things like the mile-high desert, the rocky Oatman hills, the volcanic craters that dot the Mojave, the strange ruins scattered throughout the towns we visit, wading through the surreal haze of southwestern America as it flashes past me.

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Durango was nestled in the mountains and full of their air. Its year-round residents love their corner of the world and stay there for that reason; tourism money is their way to stay there rather than their reason – surprisingly refreshing. The sun was hot and the shade cold, and breathing was a pleasant exertion; the plains and deserts and mountains all came together in a fugue of tan and green and blue. Nature’s perpetual imminence startled me even in the middle of the town – walking beside the river at dusk, I watched a deer watch me from its vantage point on the high school football field. The night reminded me that seasons endured even when I left them, and I could feel the cool, leafy darkness welcome me back. It was not an easy place to leave, especially after only eighteen hours, even as I went into the desert’s peculiar beauty.

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After the gargantuan red rocks that dwarf Highway 40 as it crosses the state line, the first I saw of Arizona was the trillion tiny mica shards that decorate the hillsides, glinting in the sun like countless pieces of a giant’s shattered mirror. The hills roll along, interspersed with wide open plains and apparently level; then, much like my trek into the Rockies, we were suddenly a mile above sea level, then 6,000 feet. Low shrubs speckle the landscape, stark green against the dry golden grass. Sometimes the hills are close together, rising and falling every few hundred feet; at other times they seem to gather themselves together in one long breath before climbing into sharp peaks that tower over the highway. The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest could be another planet altogether; the rocky domes and dramatic chasms, streaked with earthily vivid hues, hold stones – once trees and living creatures – older than mankind’s written history.

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As we’ve traveled, I’ve made myself look for the wonder that surrounds us – and, increasingly, I’ve found it. I notice two crows squatting side by side in the shade of a speed limit sign, crouched like old men on a porch watching the traffic of the world pass them by, ever faster, themselves content. I guess at the age of the long-dormant desert volcanoes, distinctively black against the tawny desert, their rocks sharp enough to slice the shoes right off your feet. I can better estimate the distance of a mesa’s slow rise before I try running to its crest to check for the ruins of an old Indian trading post. I smell the hot wind that blows across the dry basin between far ranges of mountains, constantly carrying my words away and dry enough to erase evidence of my spit in the sand before I look down again. I listen in the beautiful emptiness, realize that I can hear the calls of coyotes and eighteen wheelers, see a hundred falling stars streak across the bright, clear sky. I find that life is bigger, better, fuller, when, as Antonio Santin put it, I don’t let my own expectations get in the way of life’s exhuberating beauty.

Halfway through Arizona, we stopped at Meteor Crater, which is exactly what it sounds like. The crater itself is huge, its very scale completely distorting perspective – standing on the rim, the cut-out silhouette of a six-foot-tall astronaut appears the size of a fly. The amount of ruin done by a little rock falling from the sky is very impressive.

Leaving for the highway we encountered the remains of the former museum. Our photos, maybe sixty years old, show a rugged yet elegant stone building with a square observation tower. Now there’s not much left besides low stone walls, the corners of the building, and a bathtub. Ravens nest in the remnants of the tower, cawing from the shadows and effortlessly launching into the air, circling above our heads with more than a suggestion of menace, watching over their young, the heirs to this shelter. The amount of ruin that simple time and a little bit of neglect can inflict on the work of mere man is perhaps more impressive than that of a meteor. Many times, all that we have to show for our years of hard work is… nothing.

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And for all the nothing I encounter, for all the empty space that’s out there, there’s an awful lot of strange to fill it up, the strangeness of man interacting with his world. The first Arizona town we stayed in, like many (but certainly not all) of the other old Route 66 towns we’ve passed through, had a conspicuous separation between the old and the new – the old town, along 66, sat in a state of decay and denial at the bottom of the hill, while the newer section, made up of fast food joints and chain hotels, stands at the top of the hill, shiny and thriving, close to the interstate on-ramp. Meanwhile, our campground, close to the new end of town, had a divided two-lane driveway with a sign in the middle that read “Please Use Either Lane.” That would have been strange enough, but once it starts, the world is rarely content to stop its revelations so quickly.

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Just past our campground, on the side road that heads back toward the highway, is a sign that says “No Outlet.” It’s followed closely by a modern-looking bridge, complete with a caged-in sidewalk, presumably to prevent ambitious folks from jumping onto passing semis. As dusk approached, I decided to venture out of the camper and see what was on the other side of the apparently dead end bridge. At first things seemed fairly normal – a little Lutheran church, a food shelf and emergency shelter, a few men playing horseshoes. But the road kept going, so I kept walking down the sidewalk.

I came to a big, new-looking brick sign, the kind you’d find in front of a modern business park – except this sign was empty and the floodlight beneath it was off, not to mention that it was in the middle of the desert. It was set in front of an overgrown parking lot, grass already splitting the traffic barriers. There were four or five large-ish buildings, too, set back from the road and clearly each in use by one or two people. Sidewalks’ outlines, running from the parking lots to the buildings, were surrounded by bare planters, still awaiting the arrival of their colorful bushes. I stopped at a white metal sign, hoping that it would elucidate me. It did, and also made the whole area even stranger.

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The sign was a poorly-oriented map of a college campus, alleging about twenty buildings. I couldn’t find the name of the college proper, when it was from, or any indication of when it had gone away. It was a miniature ghost town, forgotten well before it had even been completed, left to those who would drift through with the desert wind. I returned to camp and our trailer ready to move on from this town with only its unfulfilled memories.

Then it was into the true mountains – the only way I can describe them is massive. Thick, towering, expansive, and a formidable obstacle even to our SUV, they were covered in a patchwork of shrubs, thin roots digging into thin soil, soil covering the living rock with roots down to the heart of the earth. It is a unique sensation to be so thoroughly amidst the planet and yet so close to the sky. I lost track of time, engrossed in the journey – up one mountain, through a pass, winding down around another, nearly endless. The interstate makes traversing this range easier than when the pioneers tried it, to be sure, but even the long paved four-lane snake does not make the region seem tame. On the contrary, the mountains dwarf even the semis; the metal electrical poles that stand tall everywhere else appear miniature; and the steepness, the precariousness, the wildness of the mountains make us hurry through them lest we become lost in their endless wilderness. Again, it is a treat to feel so overwhelmed – just when we think we’ve conquered the world, to be reminded of just how fleeting we are, into the mighty mountains, into the ceaseless sun.

The wonder is here, all around me. I wonder if it will wear thin. I don’t know. Not infrequently I imagine that maybe some day I’d like to live in one place – be near friends, make a home, have a garden and maybe a family. And then, filling up at a gas station, I’ll see a brief glint of wistfulness in a stranger’s eyes when they see our gypsy lives, and I’ll know it’s a long road yet. Like the tumbleweed, I still have to fly before I find the ground where I can put my roots.

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One Reply to “The Wonder of Wandering”

  1. I too get distracted by that ‘wistfulness in a stranger’s eyes when they see our gypsy lives.’ I don’t know if i’ll ever be able to stay in one place.

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