One of the perks of being a writer is being able to indulge in research. My wife, Emily Devenport, and I have made it into the art of the road trip. And yeah, it gets zen.
Like recently, when Em needed to do some research for the Grand Canyon for a post-apocalypse novel she was working on. We found ourselves driving up to Flagstaff as long shadows swept across the mountains and valleys. It was too long a trip to do in one day, so we decided to make a weekend out of it, heading north from Phoenix after I got off work.
Soon we were in Flagstaff, on Route 66, checking into the Luxury Inn. We stayed there the last time we were in town. The Ganesha decorations were still in the office. We even got the same room. Déjà vu all over again.
Sometimes you have to return places, reconnect, see what's changed, what's stayed the same.
The déjà vu continued into the evening when we ate at another one of our Route 66 favorites, the Galaxy Diner. It was packed; we had to crowd into overflow seating among swarming French tourists as a live musician played songs from the Sixties. And they still had the delicious Black Angus steak special. The Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit played as we paid our bill. Très Americano, amigos.
In the morning, a cloud shaped like a flying saucer hugged the mountains.
We returned to the Galaxy for breakfast. It was quiet; a few locals and some Europeans who were probably also heading for the Canyon.
There were murals on decaying structures on the reservations, mostly colorful images, plus messages: WATER IS LIFE and SACRED SITES NOT FOR SALE.
One thing I do on road trips – and life (hell, ain't life nothing but a road trip?) – is cherchez la weird. It's a way to do research even if you don't have a specific project in mind. Keep the senses open, take notes. Get enough of it rattling around inside your skull and they'll start bumping into each other, generating ideas. If you're lucky, some of them will be crazy.
The Grand Canyon is just too big for the human sense of scale. Too big to fit in a landscape, spilling over the horizon, like an ocean without water -- too big to fit on this little planet. Kind of like Jupiter, making me think of Cortez on Jupiter.
Then, a voice out my vision of Mars, spoke:
“Whatcha wanna make the Big Valle into an ocean for? Whatcha need an ocean on Mars for? The Valle is a universe. It's the universe! Everything outside it is insignificant.”
I'm not sure whose voice it was. Maybe a mountain man. Or maybe a valley man. A Valle man? Or maybe a woman? A person who lived outside of civilization and was comfortable with things beyond human scale. Like the Valle Marineris, the Grand Canyon, or the Unkar Delta down on the north bank of the Colorado River deep down in the Canyon, with its ruins of prehistoric and Pueblo occupations.
And once again, we were following in the footsteps of conquistadors: Signs reminded us that the Grand Canyon was discovered by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in the late summer of 1540. Later Garcia Lopez de Cardenas went down into the Canyon, led by Hopis.
Hmm. Was Columbus a conquistador? He was working for the same outfit.
Em took a lot of notes. I nearly lost my hat to the winds.
Soon we were on our way down a road with mountain lion crossing signs.
On the reservations, there were post-apocalyptic, abandoned-looking shacks with signs saying: WE'RE OPEN and INDIAN ART & JEWELRY. There's probably a story or two there.
There was lightning, and a rainbow as the afternoon sun blasted us. There were more rainbows near Flagstaff. For once they were chasing us.
We spent the night in Sedona, where the gas station convenience store has copies of What is a Vortex? next to the cash register.
Most of Em's research had to do with the Grand Canyon, so we mostly goofed off in Sendona, but I still found things worth taking note of:
As we checked out of the motel, a balloon hovered in the sky, and I picked up a brochure for UFO Vortex. They give tours of “a UFO hotspot.” “We provide the most powerful Military Night Vision Gear which amplifies the light 70K more than the naked eye sees” and “We ALWAYS see UFOs!”
We had breakfast at the Coffee Pot, Home of 101 Omelets with its dazzling New Age/Pseudo-Native American/psychedelic décor. They also had buckwheat pancakes. We ate on the patio next to the fake waterfall and a sign warning:
HUNTING OR FISHING
UNDER PENALTY OF LAW
Some people want to make the entire universe into a Disneyland.
After some hiking, where we encountered mule deer and saw datura blooming late in the season in Oak Creek Canyon, we went back to Sedona (remembering what Tahir Shah said: “'Previous journeys in search of treasure have taught me that a zigzag strategy is the best way to get ahead.”) We returned to another favorite restaurant, Oaxaca, for tacos.
They had a new habanero salsa. It got my ears tingling . . . and my brain . . . the effects were antidepressant at the very least. If only medical science would study the mental effects of chili – but then maybe not – certain forces would have it criminalized.
We took the I-17 south, homeward. A dust devil manifested, and collided with el Troque.
When we got home, our windshield was thick with splattered insects, and our minds were buzzing with inspiration.
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