When I was 23 I took a weeklong trip through the American Southwest with my mother’s ex-best friend. It was unfortunate that things didn’t work out between them, especially since she’d already had my mother’s initials tattooed into a Celtic design on her back. But she and I were still mostly cool and more importantly she was old enough to rent a car for much cheaper.
When I was 23 I had a haircut that looked like I had gotten it at a mall, because I had. It looked like a stringy mop head with frosted highlights. I had a clutch of cheap cotton shorts I had gotten at Kohl’s, even though I hated the way my legs looked in shorts. I had some tinted shimmery body lotion I imagined would make me look tanned instead of making me look like I’d rolled around in a pile of gold glitter. These are the things I brought with me on the trip.
It my first real adult vacation, the first occasion for which I’d ever purchased a plane ticket and meekly asked a supervisor for time off. I don’t even remember how it was planned anymore. Phone? Email? Pigeon carrier? What happened in the early aughts stays in the early aughts. All I know is that the end result was a white PT Cruiser, a clutch of dutifully printed motel reservation confirmations, a folded paper map, and the open road. We hit three states, three national parks, and miles and miles of old Route 66. And that’s really all we needed.
I’ve had a real hard-on for travel by car lately, especially travel through the bizarre desert moonscapes of my childhood. Rainbowed, bleached, or sunburnt rocks, all stacked atop each other like a capricious giant’s builders set. We’re now anchored on the other side of the desert than I was when I was a kid; New Mexico is within easy reach and I quake silently at the sheer possibility. Going anywhere is not happening anytime soon, but I’m already pitching the beau about next year. Maybe next year we can take a late-season trek to a park, get a cabin, stay a week or two. Maybe.
In the meantime, maybe I can placate myself with this handful of memories from that long-ago trip when I was 23.
The Grand Canyon
One of the stupidest things I ever did, I did at the Grand Canyon. We were somewhere near the southwest rim when we saw a long, skinny precipice that jutted out into the canyon. The drop on either side was steep, steep. We decided it would be a good idea, as a personal challenge of sorts, to walk out there right to the farthest edge.
We were not the first people who’d chosen to undertake this insane vision quest, and as I awaited my turn I listened to a conversation about us between a tour group and a park ranger on the ledge above, standing safely behind a railing. “Oh my god, that’s so dangerous. Isn’t that illegal?” a tourist asked incredulously. “Unfortunately, being stupid isn’t against the law,” the ranger replied. Chuckles all around.
I went out anyway. The rock was not nearly as narrow as a tightrope but it sure felt that way. One foot in front of the other, slowly, staring at a the few square inches just in front of me and pointedly ignoring the dizzying view down on either side. I made it to the end where the rock was wider, but it still felt like my stomach was in my shoes and my heart was in my throat. I made myself turn and take in the sweeping vista like I did not even have a small audience watching critically to see if I’d become a statistic.
When I got back to safer ground my traveling companion and I enjoyed self-congratulatory “we didn’t die!” high-fives. As we made our way back to the car a new cluster of people were already lining up, nervously anticipating their own solitary baptisms in rock and air.
Utah is not all Mormon of course but there are sudden, subtle reminders of a religious undercurrent, especially in the rural areas. Communities without a single bar; diners that prop Bible pamphlets up near the cash register and close on Sundays. Once I was standing on a sidewalk in shorts and a tank top, taking a photo of some forgotten small-town artifact, and looked up just in time to see a passenger van full of bonneted women turn their heads in unison at the sight of me, mouths agape. Oh! Right.
I bought a heavy white bathrobe at a Costco in St. George, Utah, and a bottle of red wine from somewhere else I don’t remember. Later that night, In Zion, I filled the almond-colored motel tub for a soak. Afterward I put my new robe on, unwashed, and lolled about on the polyester comforter sipping wine from a weak plastic cup. It was the closest to a spa experience I’d come yet. I still have the robe. It’s been laundered since then, by the way.
The next morning we got up before the sun to hike The Narrows, which are (surprise!) narrow canyon passages between rock. A thunderstorm miles and miles away could theoretically flood The Narrows without warning so I kept an ear out for the sudden sound of rushing water, but all I heard were snippets of conversation from the German tourists surrounding us. Fact: Germans LOVE the American Southwest.
At the Zion visitor’s bureau I paid $28 for a reproduction of a WPA-era park promotional poster, which felt like a painful amount of money at the time. Years later it’s one of my treasured wall hangings. Sometimes you don’t realize you ended up with the perfect souvenirs until much, much later.
Rural Arizona / Route 66
There is a peculiar sort of desperation to the desert. Signs are bigger, colors are brighter, and schemes are more ludicrous to compete against the unrelenting vastness. Balance a car on top of a building? Erect a giant cartoon character next to a campground? Sure, whatever gets folks to tap the brakes. Roadside shops and attractions are street urchins tugging on your sleeves. Please stop, please look, please buy.
You could trek from one end of the road to the other and not see anything new, but this isn’t some sort of nod and wink to nostalgia. Vintage, here, is a tombstone; a somber marker of the date of that town’s death, or at least when it fell into ailing health. And the next time you come through again it could all be gone. That’s the transitory nature of things in the desert.
Their ghosts, however, will never quite leave.
We stopped at Bryce Canyon for the day and as we were leaving we bought just the absolute worst pizza imaginable from a ramshackle gas-and-go village just outside the park entrance. You know this shit arrived on a Sysco trailer straight from the manufacturing plant. Disgusted yet starved, we picked at half of it before tossing the rest in the backseat.
Presently, my travel companion started complaining about the smell and said we needed to throw the pizza out. “But that would be littering!” I protested. No, not the box, just the pizza. “But animals will find it and they shouldn’t be eating pizza!” I countered. She was adamant. There were no towns, no trash cans, nothing anywhere but empty road. I acquiesced, and huffily grabbed the box.
There went the first slice out the window like a frisbee. In my mind I can still see it in slow motion, spinning in a lazy arc out and away from me, congealed grease catching a glint of the setting sun just before it disappeared into the tall wildflowers in the ditch. There went the second, and third. When the box had been emptied I just hung out the window, wind in my face, howling with laughter at the absurdity of it all.
Road trip tip: everything is funnier from a moving car.