monument valley

July 2009

Dear family and friends—

I had a couple people tell me that they wanted to hear about my drive from Chicago to Arizona. (I had even more people tell me to please not send any long emails about it.) Well, after desiccating in the dessert for four weeks now—the nice thing about the lack of humidity is that I can keep my hair long without worrying about it getting too curly—I finally have working internet in my apartment. (No furniture, other than my homemade coffee table, but I'm increasingly beginning to doubt that I need any.) So, without continuing the preamble: on July 17, I turned my last timecard in to the physics department. On the 18th, my father showed up in Hyde Park and handed me the keys to his rapidly-rusting minivan. Then I put everything I owned into it.

July 19
At 11 AM I drop Dad off at Midway Airport and turn left. I drive south through the cornfields playing Weezer at full volume and singing along off-key.

In Springfield I visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and buy a tie with the Gettysburg Address printed on it. "It's too bad you don't have a Second Inaugural tie," I tell the clerk. "I would buy five." We get into a conversation, and it turns out he knows a girl who was in my Lincoln class at the U of C this winter—the girl who was from Springfield. She worked at the gift shop, he says.

I discover that in Illinois, u-turns are illegal on one-way streets. Also, flossing while driving: not a good idea.

The farms and fields are boring and the real beauty is in the sky: a mountain range of thunderheads, white and blue and gray, full of majesty, all rising above the 10,000 foot dew-point plane. They are beautiful and intricate and stretch from Chicago all the way into southern Illinois.

In St. Louis, cousin Travis greets me wearing only surfer shorts; he later puts on a Chicago Critical Mass t-shirt. He says he's been to Phoenix once, on the way home from a two-month surfing trip in Mexico. Catherine, him, and I walk to an organic bakery and Travis tells me that he had been frustrated with medical school over the winter and distracted himself by building a bike, from scratch. I tell him about my new bike and he interrupts me—"The Surly Cross-Check? You got a Cross-Check? No way! Dude, that is, like, I think, my favorite bike ever. You can do anything that bike. When I had one..." We talk about bikes and biking for a half-hour. Inexplicably, both of Travis's big toenails are painted dark purple. 310 miles.

July 20
I sleep in. Catherine makes me tea and asks me whether I prefer soy milk or cow milk in my cereal. She gives me a large bag of snacks to take in the car—all healthy foods, like nuts and crackers and some Japanese version of Starbursts she and Travis discovered in New Zealand.

On my way out of St Louis, I discover that the Gateway Arch does not, in fact, span the Mississippi. I am greatly disappointed.

In Columbia, Missouri, I drop in on (great-)Auntie Liz. Her house is surprisingly nice, even though it seems to retain most of the original furnishings from when she built it in 1957. She shows me a complete edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1797, and I flip through a volume in a mixture of awe and horror. (My previous old-book record had been 1823, but that wasn't the EB, and it wasn't in private ownership!) She makes casserole for lunch and sends me on my way with a bag full of tuna fish sandwiches and two tins of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.

I arrive at the Harry S Truman Presidential Library a half-hour after it closes. I take pictures of myself by the sign and stretch on the lawn. In the car, I listen to the audiobook of the original scroll of On the Road.

Outside of Kansas City, it starts raining. I figure I will drive through it quickly. Instead it develops into the most powerful, longest-lasting thunderstorm I have ever been in. It is still in full force by the time I get to Salina, four hours and 200 miles later. At first it is just rain. But then it becomes the heaviest rain I have ever seen, and visibility drops to a few car lengths. I kill cruise control and brake to 35 mph. When night comes, the lightning starts. It is all around me. At one point I think for a moment that it has hit the car. I begin to be afraid of the storm. Cars act as Faraday cages, right? The country music on the radio is interrupted by tornado warnings. I can't remember whether one is supposed to stay in the car during tornadoes or lie down in a ditch, so I call Noah to ask. He is in Los Angeles, probably on some beach. Hail starts hitting the car. The lightning is everywhere, diffused by the clouds into an atmospheric strobe light, pulsing so fast and so bright that I experiment, briefly, with turning off my headlights. I can barely tell the difference. It is the sun on a switch. I huddle over the steering wheel and grip it with the same intensity I did when I was learning to drive. The radio has been quiet for hours, since I am fully focused on watching and surviving the storm.

I drive past the Eisenhower Library without stopping. I've already been there.

I am mildly concerned that there are no other cars on the road. Sure, it's late, and I'm in the middle of Kansas, but isn't this a major east-west truck route?

Outside of Salina I stop at a Flying J truck stop. The parking lot is kiddie-pool-deep in water. As I refuel I briefly question the wisdom of pumping gasoline during an electrical storm. I go inside, order an increased future chance of a heart attack, contemplate how out of shape I am, and type this trip report. 760 miles.

July 21

I leave Flying J at 11:30 PM. The rain has stopped but the sky is still illuminated by lightning. Speeding across the dark Kansas plains, I alternate On the Road with trashy late 90s pop. At 4 AM, I enter Colorado. Goal achieved, I inflate my Thermarest on top of the boxes in the back of my van and go to sleep.

In the morning I mainline another shot of coffee and set cruise control to 75. I-70 is flat, straight, and empty, and I see how long I can drive hands-free (four-tenths of a mile).

After two hours I turn off the interstate onto a two-lane road. This is the beautiful part of the Midwest—the part I didn't know existed—the Great Plains. Back in Illinois and Missouri, the hills roll and everything is small and boring. Here the plains are treeless and they stretch all the way to the edge of the sky, existing on a scale many times human. Later, I will decide that it is this aesthetic—landscapes that dwarf anything humans are capable of constructing—that I like.

Eventually the Rockies show up as blue cardboard cutouts on the horizon. An hour later I arrive in Colorado Springs, and find a coffee shop with free wireless internet. An enthusiastic Asian man serves me bubble tea. At the REI I ask about good hikes nearby, and am told that I should climb up Pikes Peak and take the funicular down. I decide this is a fantastic idea.

I drive up into the mountains into a tiny tourist town filled with art galleries, kitsch shops, and restored brick buildings. To my astonishment, I find a Mate Factor cafe—the small, cult-run teahouse in Ithaca is apparently part of a chain. At a restaurant overlooking a creek I order a bison burger and a beer. Then I check into a cheap motel room. 1,195 miles.

July 22

I wake up at 5:30 and drive to the trailhead. The  trail climbs quickly, and for the first few miles I pass joggers on their way down. It passes through pine and aspen forests and then emerges above treeline for the last 3,000 feet. I summit early enough to hike back down, but my leg is in a lot of pain—I sprained or pulled some sort of groin muscle in April, and it hasn't fully recovered. I need to see a doctor.

I lie on the summit for six hours waiting for the funicular and reading John Dewey. The complex at the summit is remarkable—not even Mt. Fuji was this bad. The tourist center has an Aramark-run cafeteria and a massive gift shop filled with all sorts of trinkets, most of whose only relevance to the mountain are the words "PIKES PEAK" silk-screened by some 12-year-old in a third-world country. As if the funicular isn't enough, there's even a road to the summit. Ample parking at 14,000 feet. My hiking boots, Camelback, and athletic shorts make me look out of place.

"When we went to Alaska, we saw Mt. McKinley. Not everyone who goes to Alaska gets to see Mt. McKinley. There's lots of clouds. But we saw Mt. McKinley."

The views are remarkable, though. Off in the distance I can see a thunderstorm in progress; later, it will pass over Pikes Peak, drop snow, and excite the tourists by making their hair stand on end. (They take pictures of each other; I scamper back inside to avoid the imminent lightning.) From the summit I can see all the way to the Plains, miles and miles of visibility and cliffs dropping thousands of feet and bare alpine ridges and rockslides the size of rivers—everything mountains should be about, with a scale orders of magnitude above the human scale, just like the Great Plains.

I decide that it is good that there is a highway up to the summit—everyone should be able to see this kind of beauty, even people whose diet consists primarily of McDonalds. And if the grandeur convinces one or two of them to get out of their SUVs and go for a real hike, so much the better.

At the funicular depot I limp back to my car and drive an hour or two south. Then I turn off the interstate onto a dirt road, spread my sleeping bag on the roof, and fall asleep watching the Milky Way. 14 miles, 7500 vertical feet.

July 23

I wake up with the sun and drive straight to Santa Fe. In New Mexico the plains give way to scrub-covered buttes. I pass a guy on a bike with a stenciled sign on his trailer that says something about not stopping until all U.S. troops are home from Iraq. I offer him some water. He takes out a cigarette and says he's been biking continuously since October 2003, subsisting only on donations and what he can fit in his trailer. He's a vet. On the trailer is mounted a small flagpole and a full-sized American flag. I give him the second tin of Auntie Liz's cookies.

I stop to get gas and dump two more quarts of motor oil into the engine. The best part about my father's former car is that you don't have to change the oil—it changes itself. Or rather, it empties itself. I've been running through about a quart every 300 miles.

In downtown Santa Fe I eat a very expensive sandwich. The city is nice, but the ratio of art galleries:coffee shops is a bit too high for my taste. I spend most of my self-restraint preventing myself from buying Southwestern kitsch. I do, however, buy a fedora. I have wanted a hat like this for five years. Now I will look like a real Westerner.

In Albuquerque I arrive at the house of family friend David. He has a second houseguest staying with him, also from Chicago. I ask where he lives, and he responds in that wonderful Chicago way of giving your address only in coordinates, no matter how far down the block you live: "Fullerton and Halsted." I have spent large chunks of the summer buying expensive tea and gourmet milkshakes from a coffee shop two blocks away, the Bourgeois Pig.

David's partner, Marty, is out of town. He is giving a lecture in southern New Mexico about a book he co-wrote with Annie Proulx (her words, his photographs).

We drive out to the base of the Sandia Mountains, an escarpment that runs 20 miles north-south and forms the eastern border of the city. We take a gondola up to the top, and I am stunned. It is amazing. We are there just before dusk, just as the sun is perfectly opposite the granite cliffs and strata and scrub that rise a vertical mile above Albuquerque. It is beyond my ability to describe. I cannot believe the sight. Fuck Colorado. I want to live HERE.

I decide I will return and hike the ridge.

We watch a thunderstorm drench downtown Albuquerque and move south. The sun begins to set, and the city starts twinkling. I have never seen lights twinkle this much. David suggests it has something to do with the dry air. The clouds and the mountains and the deserts and the lights—having spent the last week being increasingly awed by them, I am not surprised to find myself out of words.

Which would probably be a good thing, were it not for the fact that my camera is sitting 6,000 feet and twelve miles away in David's driveway.

We drive past the original headquarters of Microsoft (1975-1979), in a one story brick building that is now an art gallery owned by a friend of David's. We arrive at a Vietnamese restaurant five minutes after it closes, but David says he and Marty eat there often, and they give us a table. I almost order Pad Thai but realize just in time that Vietnam and Thailand are not the same country. I ask David what his favorite parts of the Southwest are, and, being an architect, he describes cities: Bisbee, Arcosanti, Prescott. 

I sleep on the roof deck on top of David's studio and listen to Albuquerque at night. 1,595 miles.

July 24

I sleep in and get breakfast at a place David recommends, the Frontier Cafe. It's like Valois on 53rd St., but larger, and with a Western twist. David says it's a popular hangout for University of New Mexico students. I order huevos rancheros and listen to a group of students talk about this and that. It reminds me vaguely of my last night before becoming a college student: sitting in Edwardo's eating deep-dish with Dad, Travis, and Catherine, and listening to a group of Labbies talk about their AP US History class.

I drive out of Albuquerque. A man is standing by the side of the road with his thumb out. A mile later, I see a sign: "WARNING: DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS (PRISON FACILITIES)". I pass the continental divide, conveniently at the same time that I have to pee, but I lament the fact that it will probably all evaporate before I am even back in my car.

In Arizona I turn off the interstate and drive through the high desert on a narrow two-lane road. A roadrunner skitters across. After a few hours the scrub turns into pine trees. I pass through a valley ringed by beautiful, high mountains. The engine starts to smell funny. Eventually I break through a pass and see the lights of a city at night. I call Ithaca friend and fellow new-teacher-in-Phoenix Anna, and spend the last twenty miles switching through ten-lane highways. There are $250 of gas receipts in my glove compartment. Several days later I will give them to Great Hearts Academies, receive my reimbursement check, and buy a gigabyte of new music. 2,051 miles.

Here's the backstory: At the end of May, I was offered a job teaching calculus at a great booksy charter school in Phoenix. This surprised me nearly as much as receiving a diploma from the University of Chicago two weeks later.  And, due to Arizona's strange scheduling, school starts not in the beginning of September, like in blue states, but in the beginning of August. So I have already been teaching for two weeks. These kids who are the same age as my siblings—older than my brother, even—are calling me "Mr. Alexander" and coming up to me during lunch to ask about the chain rule. Somehow they have been fooled into thinking that I am an authority figure. I suspect that my ties ($expensive, Grandma Jean), and non-cargo-pants ($7.99, Goodwill), are the most effective part of my disguise. But my cover story about being an grown-up seems to strain its credibility each afternoon when they see me leave campus—not in an SUV, like most Adults in this infinite suburb, but on a bicycle!

I'm having a blast, though. I gave my first test on Wednesday, typescript in LaTeX and with a title that was a reference to Freud ("Chapter Three Test: Derivatives and their Discontents.") I sat and read Light in August as they took it—the book has been absolutely enthralling and far too distracting—and then I spent four hours grading at a coffee shop that gives unlimited refills of Earl Grey (on the rocks). Last Sunday I woke up at 4 AM to go hiking on a mesa with another teacher—an old guy, ex-University of Minnesota lawyer who now teaches Latin, Greek, poetry, and humanities at the school. We saw petroglyphs and Indian ruins and I aged my skin several years with sun and cactus spikes. I should make a skinglyph: trace an inverse stencil on my back with electrical tape and UV-opaque paper and lie in the sun for two hours.


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