A Masshole Visits America: Arizona

Arizona reminded me a bit of Angelina Jolie, with stop-and-stare beauty concealing a deeply weird interior. It got dark shortly after I crossed the state line, 700 miles into a nearly 900-mile haul to Flagstaff, Ariz., I’d started 12 hours earlier in Oklahoma City. No reasonable man sets out to cross Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, and half of Arizona in between breakfast and dinner.

 

Driving in Arizona on an overcast night is a risky thing for anyone, let alone a New Englander. Outside of populated areas, which is to say 99 percent of the state, it’s empty in a way nothing in New England is, not even the vast forests of the north Maine woods. Seeing nothing but blackness infinite as deep space around me, I flipped on my high-beams, and all that happened was the media reflectors glowed a little brighter. It was hypnotic, maddening even, and if not for the occasional truck to remind me of reality, I could have skidded off the road.

I woke up the next morning in Flagstaff, and it took me a few moments to figure that out. After 12 days and nearly 4,000 miles, and more than both of those ahead of me, the rhythms of my normal life—the conference calls and meetings and all the rest—had at last faded completely from view. I’d chosen this particular Motel 6 because it was a short (read: 70-mile) drive to the Grand Canyon. I’ve been to a few truly stunning places—the Forbidden City in Beijing, and Mt. McKinley come to mind—and as I walked to the first viewing area after entering Grand Canyon National Park, my jaw dropped. August is monsoon season, and throughout the day thunderstorms boiled up and dumped rain and lightning across the canyon.

Photo by Colin Kingsbury

In the afternoon I drove to Phoenix, a leisurely 200-mile run after the previous day’s marathon, and checked into the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale. First opened in 1956, it’s a jewel of mid-century modern design penned by a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple that nearly fell to the wrecking ball after decades of decline, re-opening just in time to draw hordes of Don Draper wannabes to its weekly pool parties.

I asked the concierge to recommend a good Mexican restaurant, and he suggested one nearby. I asked him if it was walkable, and he glanced sideways for a moment before saying it was. Describing Phoenix as “sprawling” is a little like calling the Grand Canyon “big,” but that misses the point, which is that it would have been easier to walk the four blocks to the restaurant on the shoulder of the Masspike, where everyone has at least seen a pedestrian once or twice before, than it was dodging SUVs as I snaked through the series of parking lots and street crossings in between me and my enchiladas. I might grumble about bike lanes, but, come on, no sidewalks?

On my way back I noticed a highly-suspicious watering hole called the Carriage House. If my visit to Galveston had taught me anything, it was that I had a professional responsibility, nay, a moral duty to investigate every boozed-up bolt-hole on my route, so I went in and occupied the one empty seat at the bar. It was around 10 p.m., so it had cooled down to the low 90s, which is too hot for me to drink good beer, so I ordered a Miller Lite. The tank top on the stool next to me turned and observed, “That’s the worst beer in the world!”

He was a hearty fellow, with the manner of someone used to moving pianos. I knew I was being measured, and quickly decided that my best bet was to disarm him with wit. “You know what’s the best beer in the world,” I asked.

“No, what?”

I smiled, and replied, “First one of the day.” A second later, a silly grin rippled across his face and he high-fived me, and shouted towards the bartender, “Yeah! Get him another on me.” It turned out he was from Coventry, R.I., and had settled in Phoenix after a brief career as a semi-professional mixed martial-arts fighter. I asked him what he was doing these days. “Real estate.” Isn’t everything bankrupt or in foreclosure, I asked. “Nah, there’s always deals,” he said, waving his hands. “If you came out here, you’d dominate. Guys like you and me, we’re intelligent. Where we’re from there’s competition. Not like the people around here.”

“So it’s like the movie Casino,” I said. “Exactly,” he exclaimed, and told the bartender to get me another beer on his tab. A little later, he asked me to show him how I make a fist, as in, if I was going to deck somebody. “All wrong,” he said of my effort, and walked me through the proper form, involving folding the fingers over your palm, and aiming to hit with my first two knuckles, which would bite into the target and make sure the full force was transmitted to their jaw. I had visions that I would soon find myself in the back lot practicing with him, like Ed Norton and Brad Pitt in Fight Club, but he excused himself shortly after and wished me luck on my trip.

The next morning I walked down to the hotel restaurant for some breakfast, and found myself seated next to what seemed to be some sort of meetup. Judging from the mostly middle-aged, completely white male crowd, it could have been a bunch of camera geeks, or maybe vintage muscle-car aficionados, but soon I heard one talking about how Alex Jones had opened his eyes. Jones, in case you’re not up on the quasi-right-wing fever swamps, is the impresario of an alt-media empire that includes the websites InfoWars and PrisonPlanet, a YouTube channel with 250,000 followers, and a radio show airing on 60 stations. If you imagine the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street having a baby, you’d be getting pretty close.

A guy in his early 30s introduces himself to the group then says, “When I started my journey, I was looking at the bread aisle, and trying to figure out if regular or whole-grain was better. Now I realize, it’s all just poison.” Another fellow who looked like the owner of a hardware store nodded and talked about out-of-body experiences while freebasing DMT, and how organized religion had severed man’s direct connection to the universe. “Your chakras are identical to the constellations,” he said. “They’ve known this for thousands of years.”

These days people think of the hippies as exclusively a left-wing phenomenon, but there’s an argument that they were more libertarian than liberal. For many, they just wanted the choice to be left alone, to take nothing from and owe nothing to a society they saw as broken, and restart things on their own terms. Cities may inevitably gravitate politically left as the challenge of keeping a million people packed together from rioting and killing each other makes ever-bigger government necessary, or at least the most obvious strategy. But out in the great empty spaces of the Southwest, there’s plenty of room to drive a hundred miles down a one-lane road into the desert and be as weird as you want to be.