Salt is the sun, traffic is cold honey, and no-one knows why Phoenix exists

Phoenix spreads like a teastain across the bare skin of the earth. It begs the question: What is this place? and Where are we? Aside from the fact that part of my vampire novel was set in Phoenix, the place made me feel nothing. Why do modern humans treat the desert as if it were just a giant parkinglot, a tract of land pre-paved for them, a realtor’s sign perpetually at the corner? Infinite acreage. Commercially zoned.

I posed this question to Lawrence, who is a learned man with a head full of thoughts and a clear way of speaking, as we trolled the dark city streets on the edge of town. I had talked to no-one in days and days, and now here was Lawrence, my own personal Google.

“Why is Phoenix here?” I asked.

“Why is Phoenix here.” He repeated.

“It’s a good question.” I said.

“A very good question.” He agreed.

“Why here, and not somewhere else?” I asked.

“Why is Phoenix here…” He said.

“Yes.” I said. “Why.”

We drove on in silence for a while, the streets seeming to repeat themselves like background images in an old videogame.

“I don’t know.” He said, after a time.

“Me neither.” Suddenly I had a thought. “Is there anybody that knows?”

“Why Phoenix exists?”

“Yes.”

The car grew quiet again, nothing but the sound of the wind in the window crack.

“No.” He said, astounded by his own answer. And in that moment, we both knew it to be true. It was like the last knot of thread on a new shirt-button, closing fast a gap to keep out the cold air.

“Maybe,” I said, turning to Lawrence, my eyes wide and bright with excitement, “maybe cities have gotten so complex, urban civilization has gotten so complex, that there’s no-one who can explain, anymore, why cities grow the way they do. Maybe it’s gotten so large it’s become even larger than we are- it’s become It’s own organic process.” I stared out the car window at the weedy lots and bright box stores of Phoenix, terribly excited by my new idea.

Lawrence seemed to turn this over. Cities like Himalayan blackberry, like English ivy, like kudzu. Bearing strange box-store fruits and suffocating the landscape with their thorny canes.

Lawrence’s friend lived in a small red barn on a sprawling piece of property that once had been a farm. There was a pool, still and blue, and a goat and dog, who were friends. In the barn there was an upstairs and a downstairs. The stairs to the upstairs twisted as you climbed, growing smaller and shorter, as if you were Alice in Wonderland, finally forcing you into a crouch. My bed was to be a loveseat covered in cat hair, too short for me. I talked for hours, using up all the words I had saved, waved my hands about, ate dinner twice and slept wonderfully. A person had called me from craigslist to say, somewhat cryptically, that they were driving to LA at four a.m. the next morning. They might not, however, have room for me. They would call me at said obscene morning hour and let me know.

The cryptic craigslist ride never called me, and sped off into the darkness on his own. I woke in the morning and took a shower, making breakfast while Lawrence worked on the computer. We’d made an agreement the night before. I had need of a bookstore, he would drive me to one.

We drove past strip malls and bare, colorless sidewalks, everything blasted in sunlight, until finally we were at the huge chain box bookstore, which Allison Bechdel, in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, calls “Bunns & Noodle” when it moves in and pushes out the non-profit feminist bookstore. This store had been a guilty pleasure for me while on many a middle-american adventure, a safe refuge from the wheat fields and cold, screaming freight trains. Now Lawrence and I wandered the aisles in this Phoenix box store, so much like the others, and all the media scarcity of my previous week came crashing down around me as I trailed my fingers over the endless stacks of glossy, unread novels. There is enough of everything, there is enough, I repeated to myself. There is so much. There is too much. The Bunns & Noodle mantra.

I wanted to binge on printed matter but books are not like food. You cannot eat too many at once and carry them around for leaner times, an undigested spare tire of fiction and autobiography around your waist. I carefully selected a copy of the second book in the vampire series from its large display, one of many similar displays peddling vampire books that were placed strategically throughout the store. It was a glossy brick of a book, already smeared with fingerprints, pages white with excess. I then pulled a copy of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father off the shelf by its spine, adding it to the vampire book as a sort of fiber supplement. I had been meaning to read it, really I had. The simple fact that our new president wrote paragraphs that I enjoyed reading filled me with a sort of wonder. He even went so far as to create complex metaphors that teetered on the rocky outcrop of logic, metaphors that threatened to fall into the great abyss of nonsense. Not only that, but the whole book, practically, was about race. It was a sort of bravery I was unaccustomed to in a president, even in an old book he’d written in school. Turning into an aisle of greeting cards, I shoved the books under the back of my shirt, settling my backpack over them. Pulling Lawrence from his nerdy computer magazines, the two of us swam free of the great sea of printed matter. I’ll miss things like this, I thought, as we left the store, crossing the bright, hot parking lot, after the collapse of civilization. Really, I will.

Next I ate the biggest salad I could find, with an avocado on it and a can of beans mixed in, and then packed up my things for the highway, slowly. I was attempting to shear a few pounds of weight from my pack, and the process took the most intense amount of concentration, because by this point in the journey I had convinced myself of the necessity of every small thing.

I peeled a thick sweater off the small stack of clothes. My sheep. My sheep! How could I part with my sheep! But the weather was warmer, here, and it would not be cold again. I still had a lighter wool sweater and my heavy letterman jacket. It would be enough. I unrolled the nori-colored sleeping bag liner I’d used to cover the safety-orange outside of my sleeping bag, before I had a bivy sack. I didn’t need it any more. And I could get a new one in Portland if I did. I picked up the glass jar of sunflower seed butter, and placed it in the “leave behind” pile. I already had almond butter, and glass jars were heavy. I also got rid of a jar of salad dressing, and my stale corn tortillas. I’d found a loaf of gluten-free rice bread here in Phoenix. On sale, even!

And finally, my vampire romance- small and square and thumbed. It was finished, and I had finally found the sequel. It was no longer a metaphor for anything, no longer the only friend I had on a long solo journey. It was time to let it go. I placed it on the kitchen table for Lawrence’s friend, who had expressed an interest in reading it.

Finally I was ready to go, with new books and a lighter pack. Lawrence drove me to the highway on the very other side of town, right on the edge of where Phoenix really and truly did end, and the desert began again, eating up the horizon until it seemed bigger than all of mankind, bigger than god itself, and you laughed at the idea of human beings ever burying a thing in asphalt, let alone building a whole city there. Lawrence dropped me off at an onramp next to a string of hotels. The sun was sinking, it was rush hour, and traffic crept past, or stopped altogether. To heck with my bench warrant, I thought, and climbed the onramp onto the highway, waving my sign in the wind.

Backed-up rush-hour traffic is a hitch-hiker’s pot of gold. You are a roadside carnival attraction, a sort of mime, with your thumb out standing still, and the people file past one by one, in their shining, empty cars, vents blowing hot air or vents blowing cold air, cellphones crushed against their ears. Or you are a puppy, for free in a cardboard box. Eventually someone will stop, they cannot resist. They’ve always wanted a puppy.

A highway patrol car drove past and did not stop. Generally, a cop will not stop and harass you when you’re hitching unless someone has called them, or you do not get a ride within an hour or so, whichever happens first. When they do stop they’ll run your ID and then send you on your way, usually vaguely prohibiting you from hitch-hiking on their highway (I’ll be back around here later, I hope I don’t see you again) but they mostly understand that you’ll keep hitch-hiking, because however else would you get out of there? Sometimes they’ll even give you a ride to the edge of their jurisdiction and dump you there, blasting top 40 country the whole way and singing along, bright sun glinting off their reflective aviator shades.

The highway patrol car did not stop. I peered into the windows at the passing people, stared, curious, at their clean faces and bright shining clothing, the same way they were staring back at me. Finally a low sports car pulled off the road just past me, and I trotted up to it, joyful. The driver was a man in his thirties, very nondescript, like a JC Penney ad. Ah, America. I tossed my pack in the back and climbed into the front seat. The upholstery was fawn-colored leather and the interior was immaculate. The man had just unwrapped a sandwich, some sort of dark bread with a respectable amount of vegetables inside.

“I don’t usually like to eat in front of people,” said the man, as he pulled out into traffic, “but I wasn’t planning on having company.”

“That’s alright.” I said. “I just ate an hour ago.” It was true. There was also a haggen-das bar lying next to the gear shift, fresh from the convenience store. I could almost hear it melting, inside its plastic wrapper. I willed the man to eat his sandwich faster. I had a strange anxiety, when it came to icecream melting.

The man finished up and slowly ate the icecream bar, on hand wrapped around the neat leather steering wheel, after which we started talking. The man was careful to ration conversation, talking for a while and then saying Why don’t we listen to a CD, and then we listened to that and watched the desert go by. We listened to the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack as the sun set behind the jagged dragon mountains and then seemed to rise again as it followed the contours of the ridges; down, up, down for good. The man told me that he was a marine, but as of midnight tonight he was a marine no longer. He was headed to camp Pendleton outside of LA to pick up his honorable discharge papers. He had decided to pursue a career in the culinary arts, which was his newfound passion. He’d never been to combat, he said. He’d worked in the communications sector. He’d been to Iraq twice. Now he just wanted to start over again, and salvage what was left of his marriage. As the orange drained from the sky he told me about salt.

“Salt is the sun.” He said, sweeping his hand across the dash. “It illuminates the flavors.” He spoke about food as if discovering it for the first time.

He’d be getting into LA late in the night. I asked him to drop me off at a rest area on the outskirts of the city.

“Where do you sleep at night?” he asked me.

“I crawl off into the bushes.” I said.

“Have you ever had to deal with spiders, or snakes, or anything like that?” he asked me, his lips tight. I laughed.

“Sometimes spiders crawl into my bag,” I said. “and then they crawl out again. They’d rather not bite me, I think.” The man made a face. Who’s the marine? I wondered, laughing to myself.

He dropped me at a rest area eighty miles outside LA, the last one before highway congestion set in like honey hardening in cold weather. The rest area was flanked by a brightly lit RV park on one side and the deafening rush of highway on the other. One the other side of a tall fence was a sort of trampled forest, the ground strewn with torn landscaping cloth. I found the fence-hole and set up camp, practically singing to myself. California, California, California, west coast west coast west coast, I was almost home. The night was mild, the shadows dark, and I fell asleep, my dreams empty and light.

8 thoughts on “Salt is the sun, traffic is cold honey, and no-one knows why Phoenix exists

  1. ‘Why is Phoenix here?’ I asked.

    ‘Why is Phoenix here.’ He repeated.

    By the way, my friend Alex Marshall has written a book about why cities come to exist in certain places. He says it is all about transportation. Cities develop at the nexus of transportation modes. You can buy it on Amazon, but he’s posted long excerpts to his website. I think you might like this bit:

    http://www.alexmarshall.org/index.php?pageId=56

    Especially this:

    The struggling town is called Kissimmee. It was founded in the mid-nineteenth century and grew as a shipping port and then a railroad and cattle town. But people stopped using the big lakes for shipping, and railroads became less important as well, and the town suffered.

    The successful town is called Celebration. It is a new place, founded in 1994. It is, in reality, not a town, but a subdivision, built by the Disney corporation in conscious imitation of towns like Kissimmee. It sits next to a freeway and an exit ramp. Its homes are being bought by the Orlando upper classes, and its stores are being filled with tourists….

    We can glimpse the distinctive characters of the respective “main streets” of Kissimmee and Celebration by looking at two eatery proprietors offering simple fare there. Kissimmee has a small restaurant on Main Street, called “Mrs. Mac’s,” that serves sandwiches, hamburgers, meat loaf, and pie. Celebration has a restaurant on Market Street, called “Max’s Cafe,” that serves sandwiches, hamburgers, meat loaf, and pie. One is a magical realist version of the other.

    This is also good:

    http://www.alexmarshall.org/index.php?pageId=58

    The book, How Cities Work, seems especially good at describing why crazy unreal cities like Phoenix come to exist.

  2. Great blog..
    I look foreward to seeing you new ones here..
    you amaze me…I would love to do this–but “fear” keeps me still and age(lol)
    be safe, little one..

  3. Lawrence- YOU ARE SO SMART. I’m going to get those books and read them, if I can. I WANT TO KNOW THINGS.

    Sloth, Chris, Reamus, Jill- A GIANT BUCKET OF THANKS.

    Sandra- Life’s too long to waste it being afraid of stuff.

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