Mike Powell’s column is about living in Arizona.
Courtesy the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The other day, I drove out to a vast expanse of desert just south of Eloy, Arizona, where geologists recently observed a fresh, large crack in the middle of the earth. The crack is one of dozens in the region, caused by pumping for water at rates faster than the aquifer can recharge. A 1949 news item from the Arizona Republic shows a Mrs. Vince Taylor of Eloy in a nearby spot, staring uncomprehendingly into a lighting-bolt-shaped hole. The report notes that at the time, the cause of the fissure was unknown. Now, people debate whether or not real-estate agents should be bound to disclose the possibility of someone’s yard splitting open, which they occasionally do.
I had gotten a map to the crack from a local scientist, having lied about going out there with company. I pulled off the highway and took, as one often does in the desert, a series of progressively narrowing, informal roads, until I was driving on tracks that only a couple of other cars had driven on before. I followed my odometer carefully to the point and parked. Contrary to an image I know many visiting friends have carried in their heads, Southern Arizona is not a biblical desert, not a desert of swirling dunes shaped like soft serve, but scrubby and lush, with strange, skeletal trees, little patches of orange and yellow wildflowers, spiny grass that cracks under your shoe and plants a green so pale and yet so vibrant they look fluorescent.
I walked south for a couple of miles. I saw lizards. I saw cow bones. I saw an extraordinary jackrabbit with ears the length of my forearm, standing up like antennae. I saw two large black helicopters flying low overhead and wondered what they were looking for. I have only had a smartphone for about six months and have thankfully never had to use the emergency function, though I do privately doubt that it works.
People here always seem to be going into the middle of nowhere. Land art, tourist traps, places whose perceived meaning rises in direct correlation to how remote they are. For years, my wife refused to tell me the content of a roadside attraction called The Thing. When, one night, after considerable pressure and no small amount of beer, she did tell me, I felt disappointed in a way one only feels when they have ruined something for themselves.
Contrary to inspirational literature, the journey is still not the destination; the destination is the destination. The problem is that journeys without destinations are boring, and boring things tend to only be interesting to people experiencing them. I didn’t even notice the mouth of the fissure at first. It started small, unannounced, then widened to a point that I could not have jumped or even laid across it, and I am six one.
I recently quit my job. It wasn’t my only job, but I had had it for a long time, and it paid me well enough to keep both of my sons in linen kimonos, get real butcher-block counters in the kitchen, and make healthy investments in emerging markets. Am I afraid? Yes. But not as afraid as what might have happened had I not. The only difference between the land on this side of the fissure and the land on the other side of the fissure is that I was standing on it.
Walking back, I met a surveyor with the state geological survey. He was shorter and fatter than me, but had a similar mustache and was also named Mike. He seemed unsurprised to see me, and I was somehow unsurprised to see him. As for my job, it seems criminal that Western culture puts such an emphasis on risk and yet the English language makes no differentiation between a good risk and a bad one.
The last time I did something like this was about ten years ago, when I moved from New York to Little Rock, Arkansas, a city most of my friends seemed to think was in Alabama. I rented an apartment on the second floor of a town house outside of which, every morning, the same woman hassled me for money to buy a hamburger.
I quickly started dating someone, but the relationship was more fraternal than romantic. By day, she would send me pictures from her job at the newspaper, my favorite of which was of a laughing woman covered in money, which the woman’s family had submitted with the woman’s obituary. At night, we lay in bed watching live footage from NASA command centers and Martian rovers, lots of empty computer terminals and desolate landscapes.
One weekend, I invited her to help me throw some plants I had been harboring from a previous relationship into the Arkansas River, which separates Little Rock from the neighboring municipality of North Little Rock. She was several years older than me, thirty or thirty-one, and seemed to find my heartbreak quaint, the reminder of something she was finally prepared to joke about.
Several years later, in a coincidence I try not to attach special meaning to, the woman who had given me the plants became my neighbor in Arizona, where she lived with a triage nurse who moonlighted as a river guide. Nothing ambushes like the past. Incidentally, people often called North Little Rock “Dogtown,” on account of a myth about how people from Little Rock used to drive over the bridge and dump their stray dogs as a kind of living insult, as though only a person would know what to do with a bridge.
Mike Powell has written for Grantland, Pitchfork, the Ringer, Rolling Stone, and other places in print and online. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.
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