Alien territory is what I kept repeating to myself as we drove from The Grand Canyon to Flagstaff through Sedona through Phoenix through Tucson – alien territory because I forgot that the big alien museum was in New Mexico and Area 51 was in Nevada and maybe it’s the conflation of those two things that makes Arizona the alien territory. Arizona as somewhere halfway between Nevada and New Mexico.
The Arizona we see feels like a non place. The hipster café in Flagstaff could be anywhere. If Nevada is escalators, Arizona is roundabouts. The roundabouts in Sedona dropped from the sky so we can’t even stop at a stop sign to look up at the looming red cliffs. The Phoenix and Tucson we grudgingly sit in traffic to pass a weak impression of the idea of Vegas – a city risen up from the desert. The retirement community in Green Valley a summer camp of golf carts and cacti that is only populated in the winter. Or maybe it is that the Arizona I see always seems to feel like the idea of a place. Maybe that says more about where I am internally while in Arizona than where we are externally.
Storms look less threatening when you can see all their edges. After traffic in Phoenix and saguaros in Tucson, the clouds shared space with bright sunny blues like some Romantic painter had seen an Arizona travel mag and busted out all their paints, loading up a Jeep for the desert, abandoning the sea.
It makes the world look so big and accessible. But then you’re running through the streets of a retirement community, coming up against Neighborhood Watch signs on cul de sacs of darkened houses, snowbirds flown off, golf courses empty. Nobody’s watching. It feels like the desert again, despite the green lawns. Despite the gated terraces. Those saguaros keep watch better anyway. That’s all they do all day.
In Arizona, I felt like I was losing my sense of self and gaining some weird perspective on something older than me, hurtling 80mph through space, blaring NOW! CDs from 2003. There’s old, and then there’s old. There’s a line of white retirees outside the thrift store in town, and then there’s a field of petrified wood in the middle of the desert. There’s patience and there’s enormity. There’s six-lane interstates and there’s Pangea. Everyone says stupid things at the Grand Canyon. Everyone cracks corny jokes at the National Parks. It’s like we’re scared of how big and old things are, like we have temporal agoraphobia.
The day we leave Green Valley we are instructed to take recycling to ‘The Office’. We cannot find ‘The Office’. We wander the rows and turnabouts of low slung bungalows. We decide this is probably the end for us. We have stumbled into purgatory.
As our last hurrah on the way out of Arizona we stop in the Petrified Forest. Where the idea of fallen trees has been for millions of years, and likely will be for millions of years.