This past week, Jim and I completed the last scheduled trip in this fast-moving September. On Sunday, we drove to the Phoenix, Arizona area so that I could take part in the premier event in the SFAZ Author Reading and Signing series. Nearly two years had passed since we had made the drive to Arizona, and we quite enjoyed the trip. It’s a fairly long drive – nearly five hundred miles each way – but if you like stark scenery, it’s quite lovely.
Leaving west from Albuquerque, we drove along I-40 through what Jim said archeologists (and probably other people) call the Red Mesa Valley. Words don’t quite capture the setting, because “valley” to most people implies a dip in the landscape. The Red Mesa Valley isn’t so much a “dip” as a wide, flat area bordered on either side by huge sandstone mesas (and probably some buttes) which tower up to frame the landscape in various shades of red and orange.
The lack of vegetation any taller than piñon or juniper (and the occasional line of cottonwoods, huddling along the rare watercourse) adds to the impact of these mesas. This is a landscape so devoid of trees that many times I saw a cow taking advantage of the small amount of shade cast by a telephone pole.
Sadly, the Red Mesa country does not stretch all the way to Phoenix, or even all the way to Flagstaff. (More about Flagstaff in a minute.) Eventually, the mesas vanish or are, at best, distant outlines on the distant horizon. You’re driving through the middle of nothing.
Remember Eagles’ song with the bit about Winslow, Arizona? I bet the reason the girl in the flatbed Ford slowed down when she saw a man standing on a corner was because she was so astonished to see anything at all. Winslow and its neighboring (as in about forty miles away) town of Holbrook are set in some of the most hypnotically repetitious landscape I’ve had the pleasure to travel through.
You find yourself commenting on freight trains, cows, or the occasional hawk because scrubby grass and shrubs aren’t exactly notable. Happily, near Holbrook, someone has constructed a bunch of the worst dinosaur sculptures you could ever hope to see. But their lack of realism doesn’t matter. They’re painted in bright colors and break up the monotony. I love them.
Sometime after we left the Red Mesa country, Jim and I turned on a recorded book. We’d brought along The First Eagle by Tony Hillerman. Hillerman’s mysteries are set in the same general area through which we were driving. His protagonists drive hundreds of miles just to question a suspect. I first encountered these novels when I still lived in Virginia. There – among the crowded woodland, where a field can become a forest within a couple of years (if someone doesn’t take care to grub out the saplings) – the landscape Hillerman described seemed almost alien. Now that I live among it, it still has the power to evoke awe and wonder.
Jim hadn’t read any of Hillerman’s novels, so now these are among our first choices when we know we’ll be driving in through the West. One bonus is that sometimes we pass a setting featured in the novel. This time it was the Hopi Travel Plaza and the town of Flagstaff, Arizona.
Flagstaff, Arizona, is everything that Arizona is not supposed to be. Set among the San Francisco Peaks, the piñon and juniper give way to towering Ponderosa pines, the area is green and lovely, if not exactly lush. It’s cooler, too, a welcome break from the heat of the lowlands. While I can’t quite figure out why anyone would settle in Holbrook or Winslow, I have no problem understanding why travelers heading west decided to break their journey in Flagstaff and then decided to stay.
Leaving Flagstaff, we dropped down into hot, dry reaches again. Soon the saguaro cactus began to make their presence known, standing out even among a landscape full of weird-looking plants with twisting limbs and an ample array of not just thorns, but spikes.
Phoenix is a vast, sprawling metropolis about which, I feel, the less said the better. Many towns, including Scottsdale, where the SFAZ book event was being held, have been swallowed up and now exist as little more than enclaves within the greater creature. Our drive there on Tuesday was accented by a quick, violent rainstorm, which is how rain tends to fall in the desert, when it bothers to fall at all. Jim had to pay attention to the incredibly complex traffic patterns, but I got to enjoy a magnificent double rainbow.
The SFAZ event was held at the quirky SIP Coffee and Beer House. Victor Milan, Melinda Snodgrass, and myself were seated at a long table of highly polished dark wood set at one end of the long room. Attendees sat at tables for two or four arrayed around the room. It was a nice setting in many ways, evoking the classic literary coffeehouse.
However, no matter how great for mood, low light isn’t wonderful when trying to give a reading… I mentioned this as I was struggling both to read from the opening of Artemis Invaded and keep an eye on the clock. To my surprise, one of the patrons slipped his portable reading light into my hand! It definitely helped.
After we gave our readings, we took questions. These were many and quite varied, which made for a fun time for the panelists. After, we had a chance to chat in a much more relaxed fashion than is usual at a book event. I was particularly happy to meet reader Emily Newman, a winner of this summer’s “Help Make Artemis This Summer’s Hot Destination” contest. It was also nice to catch up with writer Mike (Michael A.) Stackpole, who I hadn’t seen forever.
Now we’re home… An inch plus of rain fell while we were away, so much of the garden is still going strong. The lunar eclipse was eerie and strange. But now I’m ready for normal. I look forward to getting back to my various projects, including an idea I have for a story…