Thursday, September 16, 2021



We left Phoenix on the hottest day of the year, straining the abilities of our aged Hundai Elantra’s air-conditioner. This trip up north had become very familiar to us over the last few years. It was cooler when we checked into the Matterhorn Inn in Sedona. We were escaping the brain-melting inferno, taking along what Emily called, “two cups of Mom.”

My phone plinged while we were waiting for tacos at the Oaxaca. It was a Gmail from Scott Duncan of Somos en escrito. Their Extra-Fiction contest, that I had agreed to judge again, was on. My career follows me, even on a memorial trek in honor of Maggie, my mother-in-law, who had died a few months earlier at age 99.

 Scott had attached a PDF of their flyer for the contest. I figured out how to take a screenshot so I could start doing some social media publicity, because the deadline for entries was September 30 and it couldn’t wait.

They also wanted me to make a video. I told them I was on vacation and would have to do it on my phone in a motel room.

When the going gets tough, the tough get creative.

That night I dreamed I was working at a combination store/warehouse and got trapped in a cramped, industrial elevator. After I escaped, Jodie Foster (who, along with the Very Large Array and the Movie Contact became obsessions for Maggie near the end) was lecturing my wife Emily and the other employees.

The next morning the famous red mountains were misted-over. The distant forest fires filled the skies and violated state lines. After breakfast at the Coffee Pot, we hit the road that was lined with robust datura from the rain.

In Flagstaff, we swapped the Elantra for Mike’s Prius Hybrid, which Emily had decided to name Zsa Zsa because of her peculiar license number. From a broken down relic of the past millennium, to a gateway drug to the transportation systems of the future, we hummed into the reservations, where a Trump sign, partly torn away from a billboard, revealed ONE NATION UNDER GOD.

The landscape seemed post-Apocalyptic, peppered with abandoned, graffiti-covered tourists traps and geodesic domes. 

An empty building sported a sign announcing that it was for hire. Another sign said DISCOUNTED AERIAL FIREWORKS.

The next day we spent in Grants, another post-Apocalyptic town with lots of empty buildings.

We had to visit El Malpais, the Badlands. We had the road to ourselves, as if the world really had come to an end. The lava fields were choked with greenery, a side-effect of the year's abnormally heavy rainfall. We braved a ROAD IMPASSABLE WHILE WET sign to the Sandstone Bluffs, another otherworldly environment. Then we hit El Morro with its ruins and ancient graffiti.

On the way back to Grants we saw a DISCOUNT TOBACCO AND VARIOUS ACCESSORIES sign.

The next day we drove to Santa Fe and once again stood at the fabulous Silver Saddle Motel. I managed to do the video for the Extra-Fiction contest, on my phone, in the Cowgirls room. Somehow I got through without Emily crashing in, naked from her shower.

After scones and coffee at the Dulce Central, and some so-so thrift storing, we headed for Taos via the High Road/El Camino Real.

Taos is trying for a comeback. Masks are no longer required on the streets. The reservation is no longer blocked off and guarded by the tribal police. Streets are torn up, buildings are being worked on.

At the Kachina Lodge we had trouble with the key-cards, but there were shiny, new murals on the exterior walls, one still in progress; airbrushes and compressors stood ready, awaiting the artist. With careful examination, I noticed that figures I first thought were warriors because they seemed to be facing off, had no weapons, so they were probably dancers or magicians.

In the morning we grabbed coffee and bear claws at Michael’s Kitchen, which featured a “life-sized” Betty Boop (just how tall would she be?). Couldn’t get decaf, but I could use an extra boost.

We had smelled smoke during the night, were the other guests smoking? By the time we hit the road we realized that it was in the air, creating a thick haze, turning the mountains into giant ghosts.

Highway 64 was eerily empty.

“Hokey smokes, Ernie, we may not have the best view of things on this trip. I’m also kind of enjoying having this apocalyptic landscape to ourselves,” Emily said.

To my shame, I missed a chance to photograph the Earthships--futuristic, eco-friendly, semi-subterranean, self-sustaining structures--under the smoke-filled sky as a balloon waited to be launched. I just gawked at the steampunk-ish scene.

Or should that be smokepunk?


There were no other signs of life for a while; then we saw flecks of yellow under the haze.

“At least we’ve got the wildflowers,” Emily said.

As we got into the hills, an effigy of Trump hung from a noose by the roadside.

Emily swerved to miss something, and said, “I don’t want to run over adorable little ground squirrels.”

We had also seen dead deer.

That got me imagining the Beatles' Why Don’t We Do It In the Road? as a travelogue theme song.

We topped off the tank. It only needed five gallons. It had been a couple of days since we last bought gas. Zsa Zsa just kept going, making her sci-fi noises. When she slows down, it briefly sounds like a police siren.

By this time I was trying to get pictures of the smoke, which isn’t easy.  “Stupid trees!” I said. “They’re getting in the way of the smoke.”

At a scenic view, I almost got an accidental shot of a guy pissing off the ledge.

Soon we were in Colorado.

In the City of Monte Vista, there was no view of the mountains.

It kept looking like we were driving to the edge of the Earth.

We saw a WE BUY ANTLERS sign.

I made a note that the symmetrical, green cross is replacing the marijuana leaf.

After zigzagging through New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, we never got out from under the smoke. A thick shroud covered Moab when we arrived.

It looked like a Mars colony. Maybe I had the Mars Colony Syndrome: Everything looks like a Mars colony . . . Or maybe I’m really on Mars, hallucinating about the Southwest of a place called the United States of America, back in the 21st century.

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