When I was young, I didn’t care for the west. Actually, I hated it. It seemed to me the land of the dead. The desert was dry, dirty, devoid of anything other than the most prickly of life. And it was hot. Unbelievably hot. I was nine when I stepped off a plane in Phoenix for the first time. There was a jetway, but there was a small gap between the jetway and the aircraft door. As I moved from plane to jetway, my eyes opened wide and my mouth gaped. I uttered a childish ‘whoop!’ as I was blasted by a stream of superheated air. I had never felt something so hot before in my life. It was akin to a supercharged hair dryer. I couldn’t understand why the Phoenix airport felt it necessary to blow hot air on passengers as they left the plane. What devilish art was this? Why was it done? Were they trying to blow dust off the plane, or something else? I had no idea. Until I was led out of the concourse and into the parking lot towards my uncle’s car. Of course the hot air wasn’t the machinations of man, it was merely Arizona in August.
That first experience, and the following two weeks of hiding from sun and heat colored my perception of the American west for two decades. I had spent my entire life in Ohio, which can go from below zero cold to hundred degree heat in a single year, but Phoenix that summer was baking at one hundred and twenty plus. I really had never felt anything like it in my short life. As far as I knew, the desert was like that all the time. I couldn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily live in a place where you couldn’t go outside at noon to play in the backyard because the heat could kill you. It never occurred to me how silly it was to huddle in a well-insulated house in the depths of winter. But, I had grown up in that environment. That type of inhospitableness was routine. No so desert heat.
It was a family trip to visit relatives, which meant that in order not to wear out our welcome, it was necessary to hop in a car and drive to whatever lonely tourist outpost in the blazing hinterlands was within half a day’s drive. Invariably, we arrived at said destination exactly when native Arizonans were indoors, breathing canned air and refusing to unduly risk life and limb to the disfavor of a very angry sun god.
I was amazed at how quickly desert heat and sun began to scramble the thoughts after only about fifteen minutes of direct exposure. Being cooked alive like that made me stand in one spot, staring at the ground, at the darkness of my own shadow, which stood out in stark contrast to the sun-blasted rock or sand. Trying to think without words. Words in heat too hard. Dry throat, cracked lips and reddened neck. I remember swaying back and forth, giving in to it all. I didn’t want to move. I was pinned by those deadly rays. Always I was saved by the same two words. ‘Gift Shop.’ Oh, yes. Through the double doors with the faux western saloon paint job. In there be baubles to delight and air conditioning to breathe. And big coolers of icy Coca-Cola.
One of these trips was to Lake Havasu, to visit the yet to be built house that my uncle and his wife had bought. It was another hot one. And being situated on a lake, it had the added benefit of being muggy. But this was a once in a lifetime experience. The London Bridge had been moved there, to cook away in purgatory for some unknown crime. Possibly burning down. I didn’t know. There it was, down on the banks. A genuine, life-sized souvenir from jolly old England. To mine nine-year-old eyes, it looked like a stone bridge. No more, no less. And I wondered where the towers were.
So the west was spoiled. Not by the seedy tourist traps, or the swarm of cicadas (forgot to mention that, but I was nine, so I thought the thousands of shells clinging to everything in sight was awesome), but by the heat. I thought it was like that all the time. Even after I grew up, and learned that there were indeed cool days in the desert, winter even, I had acquired a visceral reaction to the desert after two more youthful August excursions. I think of it as very effective aversion therapy.
I didn’t begin to long for the open spaces and the solitude of the west until I was half a life away from those memories. And after eight years of being in crowded New York without a vacation to speak of. I longed to see forever. After seeing nary more than concrete and a few pitiful plants, after hearing my neighbors and people on the street laugh, yell, quarrel, fight and fuck, cars honking, sirens wailing, dogs barking, fighting cocks crowing, cats caterwauling, buses idling, stereos booming, Harley exhausts exploding, trains screeching around corners, midnight car alarms making me want to buy big boxes of grenades...after all this, for eight years, I wanted nothing more than to stand in a single spot, spin all the way around, and for miles in every direction, all the way to the horizon, see naught the footprint of man, nor hear the sound of his engines. I wanted nothing for my vacation, because eight years of being surrounded by everything rattles the brain every bit as much as the blazing sun of an Arizona August. So I had to return to the west, because in this country, that is where you go when you want nothing. When you want to see nothing and hear nothing, you go west.
Now that I’m older, though, I’m smarter. So I went in April.
The floor of Badwater in Death Valley was hot like I remembered the west. And the salt flats made it bright, as well. But a mile away, both vertically and horizontally, it was a dry sixty-eight, and I could see forever. The hand of man was there, as well. But that didn’t matter. Two days earlier I had gotten my nothing in Utah, in Zion. Up in the northwest corner of the park, tucked away from the hordes to the south, and still a little snowy, I stood at the apex of the highest trail in Kolob Canyons, turned in a circle, saw nothing and heard nothing. It was grand. Later, as I trudged through a ridiculous amount of mud back down the trail, smile ear to ear, I was greeted by the shriek of an eagle.