I just drove from New Hampshire to Southern California. Here is a short story that kinda sucks, but whatever.
This is a cautionary tale about what lies beyond Tucson.
The desert itself is an interesting place, and we knew it wouldn’t disappoint.
“We”, being myself, and my copilot on the cross-country roadtrip, Magister Normannorum. Magister is not my husband, the husband is somewhere playing Navy out in the ocean, and hence why I needed a copilot. My initial plan was for a .45 to ride in the passenger seat, but the Navy Guy thought this would be a bad idea. I digress.
There’s nothing to say about escaping the Northeast. We were in a veritable wall of population from Boston to Kansas City. The real fun didn’t happen until New Mexico, when the Kind and Benevolent Rain God appeared above the mesas as the two of us barreled down I-40 head-banging to motherfucking rock and roll. New Mexico exists on a higher plain of existence than Arizona, spelling intentional. The majority of the state alternated between 4000 and 7000ft, and was somewhere between 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit. It was lovely. Colorful and vibrant. The colors of the sandstone mesas and mountains reminded me of a sunset, and it was everything we expected the Southwest to be.
Then Arizona happened.
You see, New Mexico is “the Land of Enchantment” for a reason. It casts a spell on you, an illusion, a veritable mirage that paints the image of what we want our American Southwest to be.
Arizona is none of these things.
We should have known, really, as soon as we crossed the Continental Divide and stopped at a rest area. It wasn’t bad, only like 95 degrees or so, but as ironically as the most bearded hipster would deploy, a tarantula hawk flew by the sign that warns about venomous creatures.
The Magister blinked, “Well, that looks like it could hurt a bit.” He said.
Me? I was already running back to the car.
Two hours later we rolled into Tucson. I think I must have folded space, but in reality, Arizona thinks Daylight’s Saving Time is for pussies, so we gained an hour.
Nurse Jen fed us our first home-cooked meal in a week, and Roger and I talked about the old times. And Science. Motherfucking Science. All the goddamn Science. The next morning he took us up the Mountain Where Science Lives, but we couldn’t stay long, as I needed to get into San Diego by the evening.
This is the part where the Weirdness happened.
Elevation and I don’t get along, and I learned this very quickly driving through the high ranges in New Mexico. This is because I grew up practically below sea level, and I’m simply just not able to adjust easily. So, dropping from 7000ft to 2000ft makes me feel like shit. Unfortunately, Magister beat me to the punch.
“I need to take a nap, I feel sick.”
And just like that, I was left alone.
We were already low on water, but I’d be fine until the next gas stop. Where ever that was. I felt a bit parched, probably from drinking my New England amount of coffee in the morning, and polished off a water bottle as I fixated on a mountain in front of me, and thought to myself how far it was, and how I could gauge the distance based on the current visibility.
But the mountain never got closer.
The road went on forever. A side road, really, one that we needed to get our way from the Mountain Where Science Lives to the highway, but it was still a state highway, one that would arguably have amenities dotting the tribal nation we were passing through. The next gas station, I would stop anyway.
But the mountain never got closer.
There were graves on the side of the road. Graves. Not just cross markers, not memorials, actual graves. Some in small makeshift cemeteries, some just marked off by rock borders or a mound of soil above where the body lay. The temperature was 105F. These poor souls tried to cross a fence to a better life, and never found it. They succumbed to the elements before the Rent-A-Nazis known as Border Patrol could reduce them to subhuman animals in sweltering detention centers wrought with razor wire. Perhaps after seeing the detention centers, I almost felt these bodies under the earth were in a better place. The natives saw to it as well. Somebody had to be burying them, and it sure as hell wasn’t the border Nazis.
I was on the Mexican Appian Way. Just as the Romans did, the Natives buried the dead along the road, outside of the towns. It was a miserable experience. Magister Normannorum was still sleeping.
But the mountain never got closer.
I passed through the reservation, and was reminded on how badly we treat our natives. Shacks. Trailers. Junk heaps littered with liquor bottles, lost causes, and broken dreams.
The mountain was mocking me. I was out of water.
I found a gas station attached to a casino. The temperature was still 105. Magister woke up and I pumped the gas. We used the restroom and got shitty hot dogs for lunch. Native women walked around the casino, which was the size of a convenience store, dressed in their finest cocktail wear, and hoping for a sign. An escape. Anything to free them from the hell they were tied to.
“How far do you think that mountain is?” I asked Magister.
He shrugged, opening his water, “Maybe twenty minutes or so?”
“It hasn’t moved in an hour.”
“Are you okay?” He asked, passing me my own bottle.
“Maybe it’s just the heat.”
My GPS lost its bearing. It was trying to put us into Mexico. I blamed Tucson. Bad idea.
I turned the car around on the dusty two lane road, and the mountain was back. My GPS tried to put me back in Tucson. We ignored it and opened the paper atlas.
Once we got to I-8, the GPS remembered we were going to California, and at least set us on the right path. The mountain had joined other mountains. Jagged, nasty looking mountains. It was suddenly 112F. The air was a blast furnace.
Dry heat? Humid heat? It doesn’t matter. Heat is heat. I felt every ounce of moisture being leeched from my body. It was so hot it hurt. It physically hurt. You know the feeling you get when you take a hot bath, or go into a hot tub, and it’s too hot but you endure it anyway? That hot. You think you’re going to adapt, but instead you feel pain as you’re starting to be cooked alive. Sweat cannot save you. It’s evaporating as fast as you can release it, and you were just low on water for an hour. Your car is solid, though. You had all the fluids flushed before you left New Hampshire for this reason.
That mountain is an asshole.
We crossed the Colorado, and fell below sea level. That mountain was still there will all of his buddies. Waving in the distance.
We had to stop for gas, because we didn’t plan well enough to get it in Arizona where at least wouldn’t be priceraped. Priceraped: Paying stupid extra tax on gas because you crossed a fucking border. Connecticut does this. Connecticut can go fuck itself. I took a tanktop inside, because we had resorted to wearing thin flannels IN the car so the sun wouldn’t murder us through glass, but the combination of t-shirt and flannel was still too much with the AC. The clerk was some old fucking hippy who tried to sell me a dune permit instead of water, I wasn’t amused. I was even less amused when we drove down the street and couldn’t make a U-Turn, and instead found a gas station for 50 cents less. Priceraped.
I blamed the mountain. The Magister looked at me funny. He had just gotten off the phone with his wife, and found their cat was sick. He was bummed out so he gave me back the keys. Now I had to stare at the mountain again, and I never got my fucking nap like he did.
Back on the road, here comes the mountains. There goes my thermostat. Windows down, heat on, AWD locked in at 50mph as we shot up from below sea level to over 4000ft in 7 minutes or something, and we screamed horrible things at the sun and the rocks. They weren’t listening. I swear I could still see that goddamn mountain in front of me. Through these mountains, through the next desert. Because in New Mexico, we learned that the Desert (capital D) is a series of little deserts of varying deserts: Sometimes vegetation, sometimes mountains, sometimes nothing but fucking sand for miles. “Desertception.” It was maddening.
These mountains were like driving on Mars: stark, rocky, red, and air unable to breathe. Then the temperature broke like a fever, and started going down. Before we got back to sea level, there were hardwood forests and 80 degrees. This range was the natural barrier that kept the sea breeze locked away from the previous desert. There was still no moisture. The trees were mostly dead. Just another desert.
The mountain was gone. Somewhere behind me, laughing at the madness it had bestowed upon me for the last six hours. It won, I’m trapped here, as the only way out is back through that range.
A desert by the ocean is still a desert.
Everything here is dead.