American Sabbatical 58: 12/1/96


12/1.. Arizona.

Our last day in San Diego was spent shooting the MATERIAL WORLD photo of Red Owl and his contents. If you haven’t see the Sierra Club book, it is a collection of photos of families around the world, posed in front of their houses with all their material possessions. Your homeless reporters spread their culch on their camp tarp, and smiled at the camera. We still have too much stuff, even with the limits of Festiva-ism.. all the backup discs for the laptop, for example.. but we have a well-tested sense of autominimalism, and it was an eyeopener to see our “essentials” all laid out.

Owlers' Material World

Other essentials were laid bare in our parting conversations. After two weeks, there weren’t many secrets left untold between old friends, and those were pretty transparent. And I have to wonder about the role of bygone companions in a mobile culture. First we were immigrants who had left our homelands. Then we were westering wanderers, ready to pull up stakes at the least rumor of greener pastures. Now we are industrial nomads following the whims of fortune or our imagined grails, wherever the trail leads. Most casual friendships are too fragile to survive these transplantings, and wither when they are no longer face-to-face. So the American way is hard on enduring companionship.

But I’ve always believed that friends are for life. If friends are those who bring out the best in you, then they are the necessary mirrors to reveal what we can best be. Maybe they tell us who we are. Friends become part of my life, and that’s of one piece, not a serial chronology. I find it impossible to simply move on to new intimacies and let old relationships die, and am surprised that others find it easy. This journey has put my idealization to the test.

It's been a joy to breeze into familiar lives and pick up where we left off. Even 25 years hasn’t been long enough to create an impassable strangeness with some old buddies. If we really knew each other when, it’s easy to find the connecting threads. The mutual recognition has reaffirmed our self-knowledge, and we’ve danced the old friend dance. But what happens when a fondly remembered part of you has gone off a deep end? Into an abyss you’ve looked down into, but scrambled back from. Can you look into those eyes and still see yourself? What responsibilities do you bear? Can you just honor the old relationship by sharing nostalgic reminiscence, without confronting today’s truth? But who are you to judge an old friend’s behavior. Can you not become involved, when the face in your mirror is haunted? And what can you do when home is a continent away?

We thought this trip was a way to discover America and get a tangible sense of our national history. We hadn’t anticipated that it would recapitulate our personal histories through refound friends and family, or that America would become an inner landscape.

There is still a lot of outer landscape between here and there. Sunday at sunset I climbed the nearest hill in Encanto and looked down onto the city center, watching a dirigible circling in the yellow dazzle, and the smutch redden behind the steel towers. Then I looked east, where naked conical peaks poke up out of the settlements, promising dryer mountains beyond. From up there Encanto has a hillcountry charm that I’d missed in the malcontent below. If only everyone could climb a far hill and look down on their troubles in a sunset light.

Monday morning we made our escape from far Diego, and wound the Owl upcountry in fourth gear. It was fascinating to retrace my trail to Anza Borrego after I’d written a log about it. Seeing all I’d forgotten to describe, or got backwards. A sobering experience. And we were all too sober, trying to let the tensions we had been absorbing ebb away. It’s hard to see landmarks in the middle of a storm, and the farther we got from the maelstrom, the clearer our vision became.

The air was dry over the California desert, but there was a blessed cover of high cumulus, so our eyes got a break. East of Ocatillo the desert vegetation gets even more sparse, and when the first irrigation plots of the Imperial Valley come alongside the contrast is striking. The outermost plantations are mostly hayfields, green alfalfa in leaf, piles of yellow bales out in the open. Northern veggies appear, but most of the land is plowed barrenness in this winter season. The temperature is only 65 degrees. Just as in the Central Valley, we are surprised by the prevailing aridity. You expect the vegetable basket of America to be humid and luxuriant. But these foodstuffs are nurtured in an alien environment. Just beyond the watered geometries the thin shrubbery turns to dunes. Lawrence of Arabia meets John Deere.

Then we are across the Colorado, what’s left of it after thirsty California, and into Yuma, Arizona. And the major landforms change immediately. Sculpted solitary mountains and pleated purple massifs stand up suddenly out of the flat desert. Arizona license-plate maroon is the dominant color, while yellowgreen creosote bush and silver cholla rule the flora. We jack the first side of a book-on-tape into the noise machine and enter a state of dissonance. VERTICAL RUN is a violent-action thriller that takes place in a New York Office Tower, while we are locked into the highway drone of a flat world. The mind’s eye and the reporter’s awareness blur into one another. Are we sprinting up the firestairs, or doing 75 between two semis? Occasionally the spell is broken by agribiz in the unlikely. Miles of cotton, some looking very productive with fat white bolls, most like raggedy lint caught in dead bushes. In the vivid green patches beside irrigation canals egrets were striding. High above, Air Force jets performed acrobatic maneuvers. Then we were running down office corridors.

Arizona License


Desert winds had been pushing us around ever since we descended out of the In-Ko-Pah, and as we easted occasional balls of tumbleweed galloped with the dust. Oases with rattling palm trees loomed and sped by, and snowbird estates, motorhome parks, sometimes naked to the sun, sometimes with a few smoketrees for shade, swung by. One palm cluster, a date plantation near the highway, had an outlet store and takeout where they offered date-shakes. We didn’t slurp.

Our audio adventure made time fly, and we’d been flogging the Owl for 6 hours before we began to weary of the chase. We were due in Tucson on Tuesday afternoon, and had thought to swing south through the organpipe cactus country along the Mexican border, but we doubted there were any motels that way, and we wanted a place to hole-up and catch up on our puting. So we pushed on to the nearest Super8, in Casa Grande. By the time we found it, the skybeings were limbering up for one of those desert sunsets. Dawns and dusks are simply spectacular in this dry skycountry, where a bit of dust and a hundred miles conspire to paint the horizon livid. A patch of thin clouds made a canvas for another one-dog show, and purpleblack mountains stood around the edges of the level landscape. We puted gladly til the fever left us.

Tuesday awoke with another skyshow, sizzling yellow up the wall, and we Owled out onto the warming flats, heading southeast for Tucson. We’d left our audio hero hiding in the cablerun on the 14th floor, and he was soon dodging bullets in our ears. But we shut him off quick when we entered an enchanted cactus-scape: saguaro raising their prickly arms all around us. We swung off the interstate and pulled into a byroad at the foot of Picacho Peak to gawp in awe. An evenly spaced sea of sage and creosote bush ran up the mountainsides, and towering above this undergrowth the eloquent saguaro rose 15 to 20 feet high, each old master (200 years or more we’re told) standing separately, 10 yards or more apart. In the distance they looked like green spiny fingers gesturing at the sky, all the way to the top of the mountain. Closeup each swollen semaphore seemed to signal an ancient message over our heads. We stayed and sketched until a park ranger shooed us out of the road.

Picacho Peak

We abandoned the fastlane again, next chance we got, climbed out of the flats, and meandered through foothills covered in marching armies of saguaro. And all their kin came to visit. Silver cholla, with blossoming heads of prickleballs shining like metal, and the articulated pad-sculptures of prickly-pears, along with barrels and hedgehogs. The display grew denser as the byway wound up into the Saguaro National Monument, until the pricklefest nearly hid the shattered fragments of rocky ground. In among the elders and their bristly kindred were winding tracks leading to campers and shanties, and piratical types in beat pickups would appear here and there giving us the onceover. Outlaw country. Felt like Bowdoinham.

We pulled into a picnic area for bread and cheese under the shade of green-skinned palo verde trees, then walked a circuit in Saguaroland. One of the wonders of desert plants is that almost every one gets to grow to its full symmetrical potential. Because of the arid economy and the chemical warfare, the habit of every well-spaced survivor is completely expressed. In a desert every plant, at least, can be be totally himself. Is that what people seek in a desert reclusion?

We came out of our reclusion into the outskirts of Tucson with or heads on the 48th floor. Seth had advised us to check out a crafts mart on some numbered ave or street near Speedway, but I’d forgotten the particulars, and we made a spiral approach through the increasing urbanity, while our hero tried to outwit his pursuers. When we finally lit on 4th where the street rastas were teaching their puppies streetsmarts, and the skateboard kids were curbjumping among the alternate boutiques, our blood was pumping from audio running and traffic dodging. (Result of a short sample: Arizona drivers have it all over Californians for sheer rudeness.) But the shopkeepers are great, and Peggy was led to bolts of gaudy Guatemalan fabrics and the silverwork she was seeking, while I toured the kitsch collections: my favorites were dayglow desertscapes, cactus critters, cholla-skeleton napkin rings, and Kokopeli playing basketball.

Then it was almost time to arrive at Peggy’s step-cousin Judy’s house, so we joined the cut-thoat traffic headed north and found our way to her inner suburb. The southwest cities defy our eastern categories. A metroglomeration rises up out of the big empty and oozes out into the flatness in all directions. While there is generally a core of skyscraping towers, most of the city structures are one or two stories, with residential and commercial buildings mixed together. The corner store may be a minimall: this is an automotive universe, of course. So where the city ends and the burb begins is moot. Tucson is a suburban burg, and Judy lives down a quiet sidestreet off a throbbing artery. We sat on the shoulder just shy of her house to listen to our hero make his final escape from his highrise nightmare. Commuting to this stuff must be difficult: you’d always be late for work.

Judy’s house is a modern desert dwelling on a single story, all in rounded brightness and filled with light. I was entranced by the yard. Tucson has stringent water conservation ordinances, and this neighborhood doesn’t have lawns, it has cactus gardens. Palms and other desert trees punctuate the scene, but the rest is a jungle of agavi, yucca, saguaro, chollas, etc., with accenting roses and bougainvillea still in bloom. This thorny, spiky, prickly decor may spoil soccer for the neighborhood kids, but it creates images of savage beauty I find irresistible.

Judy is fun to be with, too. As Peggy’s lone relative on her step-mother’s side, she is an important part of Peggy’s self-understanding. As girls and young women they were kept apart, in Zimi’s CIA-style cellularity, and neither of them ever knew much about Zimi’s past. Pooling their bits and pieces leads to fabulous conjectures, and is a lesson in what happens to history when a party wants the past forgotten. Sitting between them, I’m amused a how many mannerisms and ways of thinking these two women share with their mystery relative, acquired by nature (Judy), or by nurture (Peggy). It’s a bit disconcerting to have so much of Zim in a room again.

We have to hurry back onto the road again in the morning, because I’ve got a gallery meeting in Scottsdale Wednesday afternoon, and our homeward pace is quickening. Peggy and Judy do manage to get a desert walk together, while Judy’s husband George gives me cuttings of various cacti. I’m dreaming of gravel and desertification for the dooryard vs. all that greenstuff that needs mowing. How the dogs will take to this is a good question. We watched rabbits and quail feeding in the dawn prickleyard, and the dogs would love the rabbits, I’m sure. As for the javalina and coyotes that frequent this neighborhood, they weren’t offered for export. The local woodpeckers feast on the cacti, but I wonder how long it would take a Maine pecker to figure out the prickle-dance. I planted the cuttings among our camping gear, and hope we don’t need to pitch tent in the dark.

Between Tucson and Phoenix the desert is almost unrelieved by near mountains, and those saguaro close to the highway don’t look healthy. We are told that road pollution is taking a toll on the old giants, as it is on the Maine pines. The palo verde look lush, however, and the brush and cholla are hostile enough to survive anything. The plants get might thin in spots, and we are glad it’s winter and in the 60’s, with some cloud cover. This must be a harsh road in high sizzle.


There was a yellow-brown smutch hanging above Tucson as we put it over the horizon, and Phoenix is definitely rising from its ashes, to judge by the smoky air. After LA, this city feels like the biggest borough we’ve encountered, which may be because it is so flat and you see so far over the megalop to the clusters of commercial pride. And it's all so new. Sprung up overnight, like Tucson. Phoenix seems to have the multi-centered qualities of Los Angeles, and we pass through a number of sectional urbs on our way to Scottsdale.

Unlike Tucson, which only has mountains standing on its periphery, greater Phoenix has pale redstone mounts erupting occasionally out of the gridded level. Scottsdale nestles on the northeast side of some dramatic outcrops, and has all the stylish ambiance of Beverly Hills. The gallery we are seeking is in an arts shopping district of fashionable vendors, in a Spanish setting on mesquite-shaded streets connected by brick-paved roundabouts.

I was distinctly put off by the ultra-posh and the German autos, but the gallerians completely won me over. They were smitten by my work (a quick way to my heart), and their shrewd business sensibility, coupled with their esthetic insight, made them instant allies. The works they had on show were a stunning collection, and the place was full of soulful laughter. A place where sacred clowning is welcome feels good to me. We made mutual pledges to conjure up a show of Brycework in a year’s time. Feels good, folks, to have found a possible pitch out here in the sunshine. We yahooed to the Super8 in Tempe and swam laps in the balmy air. Then bubbled in the Jacuzzi. Could we take more of this? Well, maybe. Even the Mexican restaurant we were pointed at was one of those happy-staffed places where the food was excellent, and cheap! Just goes to show. I thought Phoenix was the pits when we were hustled in on the rushrush, and now it seems rather charming, like a young wine perhaps.

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