Tales of a
21st Century Gypsy

April 23, 2006. Arizona Landscape

From Washington I went back to Phoenix, to collect Matilda from my friend Karl, with whom she’d been staying since early February. Life on the road seems to be repeating itself. Matilda has stayed with Karl before. While we were there in January, I took her in for some long-deferred body work. When I got back in April her new finish had cracked, so I took her back to the same place for them to repair her again. And once again I rode around Phoenix on my bike, made excursions to Trader Joe’s and Bookmans, hung out in the “progressive coffee house” not far from Karl’s house, and swam laps in the heated outdoor pool at the Y a few miles away. Karl pestered me about where I was heading after Phoenix, but I refused to decide till I’d already said my good-byes and Matilda and I were heading out of town. She wanted to see the Grand Canyon again, so we headed north. I didn’t mind either.

On the road, I decided I’d actually try something I’d thought of for a long time. I’m intrigued with the way the landscape changes, from flat to hilly to mountainous, or from desert to scrub to forest. One part of the country looks nothing like another, but I’d never quite seen the change happen. One day, or one hour, or one minute even, I’d be riding through a bare brown valley where a single tree five miles away was something to notice; then I’d be surrounded by rocks or climbing a mountain. But how did I get from one to the next? How did the land change from the green fields of Minnesota to the brown hills of South Dakota? From crops to cattle, and then to the badlands and then forested mountains?

I wanted to make a record of it. Not quite a film of driving cross country – now that would be boring to watch! – but a photo every ten miles or so, to actually catch how the landscape in front of my windshield was changing without my noticing it.

So as I left Phoenix, that’s what I did.

It turned out to be a very slow process. I couldn’t just reach for the camera every ten miles, snap a picture, and keep going. Well, I could have, but aside from getting hit by the traffic behind me on the interstate, the pictures would have been pretty dull. Instead, I found myself constantly on the alert for the next shot, one eye on the odometer, the other scouting for an interesting way to see the landscape. And the landscape between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon isn’t my idea of interesting. There were lovely green and yellow trees along the canals in Phoenix, accented by the very blue skies behind them, but once I was out of town everything was brown and shrubby. Where people live, it’s sprawling suburban development or run-down homes, doublewide trailers, car dealerships, fast food joints in strip malls. Prescott actually had a real “historic downtown,” the seemingly ubiquitous attempt at restoring what towns and cities used to be in a new form, as a tourist attraction that the locals never actually use. Another town had a totally fake historic Main Street, entirely a front for a real estate office, I think, though I didn’t look too closely.

I hardly caught the change in landscape, though. It’s sudden, happens within just ten miles or so. I could have missed it altogether in my photos. Indeed, I almost did. After Prescott, there’s a short stretch on I-40, which is hilly and lined with pines. But then the brown landscape returns on I-64 as it heads up to the Canyon. The mountains do get bigger, looming on the horizon with snow-capped peaks, and a sign on the road warned that smoke was from controlled burning for fire control, perhaps in the national park. But it was still a land of ranches and dry ground, not the high altitude forests of the park. Wire fences lined the fields, rows of mailboxes on the road told of dozens of homes somewhere out of sight.

Then suddenly it was different. Groves of tall pine trees enclosed shaded glens, soft beams of sunlight filtering down through motes of dust. I don’t know quite how that happened, but there it was, the forest had replaced the bleak grasslands while I wasn’t quite looking.

The Canyon itself, of course, is the biggest sudden change in the landscape. The first time I saw it was from an airplane, decades ago. We were flying to Los Angeles, I think, and the pilot pointed it out to us. From the air, it was just a crack in the dried mud of the desert landscape with a winding little stream at the bottom. On the ground, though, it’s a chasm, not a crack, and you come across it all at once. Imagine if you didn’t know there was a Grand Canyon. There you are, walking through the woods, nice trees, easy to walk through, but plenty of leaves so you can’t see too far. No sign of anything strange up ahead. And then all of a sudden the trees are gone, the ground is gone - wham! - this immense space in front of you and you can’t get to the other side, not without hiking way down and way across and way back up again, and crossing what’s actually a big river, not a little stream. No gradual changes there, not even if I'd made a movie of arriving at the Canyon.

Driving east to leave the park, though, it is more gradual. I stopped at lots of overlooks along the way, and climbed a lovely tower that looks ancient and is decorated inside with what look like petroglyphs, but actually dates to the 1930s and the “native” art is just good imitation. There the canyon is still huge. But once I left the park, the forests disappeared and the canyon petered out. The road wound down through brown hills, and “friendly Indians” sold beadwork by the side of the road. I stopped to look, and ended up chatting with a girl who had left the reservation to go the University of Maine – as far as she could get in about any way, I think – and plans to be a lawyer concentrating on Indian land use and natural resource issues. Her family runs the crafts stand, so in the summer she and her sister help out by selling there. They were totally used to the canyon, and paid no mind to what was still a huge crack in the earth right behind them. But then, I’m used to the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge, too.

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