Earlier this year, I wrote two long essays about moving from LA to Tucson.
The second, “Rêve,” will appear in the next (September, Fall) issue of Dappled Things: The Quarterly of Art, Ideas, and Faith.
The first, “Everything Profound Moves Forward in Disguise,” I’ll post here in three parts (cause the thing is almost 8000 words).
“Sunil thought that he, too, had a life. A bad life, certainly—the kind that could be ended as Kalu’s had been and then forgotten, because it made no difference to the people who lived in the overcity. But something he’d come to realize on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy’s life could still matter to himself.”
–Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Travel for some people is a leisurely, relaxing affair, marked by enjoyable hours of research, calmly-formulated plans, and a sense of pleasant expectation centered around fine meals, comfortable hotels, and a gentle dip into local culture.
Travel for me is a form of extreme sport, marked by arcane, self-imposed rituals, disciplines, and rules that can transform a simple day trip into a modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress.
It’s not that I ever much go anywhere exotic: a trip from LA up the coast to Santa Barbara, a weekend in Joshua Tree. I did make a solitary 10-day pilgrimage to Rome several years ago and, more recently, spent a summer week in Oxford, UK.
But I’ll focus here on road trips—which start with the rule against wasted food. Thus, a week before travel begins, my eating becomes confined to leftovers. It’s nothing for me to subsist during this time for three straight days on quinoa and stewed rhubarb, or roasted beet salad and month-old lebne.
Coupled with the fact that I’m a truly terrible packer, this phenomenon alone imbues the simplest trip with a sense of high “adventure.”
Here I must venture briefly into the nervous system of an alcoholic/addict.
A recovering junkie I know once managed to put together a few days’ clean time, but then needed oral surgery and was prescribed codeine. He read the dosage. He thought, If I take two of these every four hours, I’m gonna cop a habit. That was the last thing he wanted! So he took all the pills at once.
A normal person, hearing the story, might scratch his head: I, sober 34 years, roared with laughter. Clean and sober or not, the addict mind, when confronted with certain courses of action, will simply jump the tracks.
This isn’t because addicts are lazy, or stupid, or indifferent, or incapable of planning.
Rather, when your life revolves around where to find the next drink, or drug, or sex “hit,” to be without mind-altering substances is to risk annihilation. This fear of “running out” generates an intense, almost frantic discomfort with such notions as waiting, doing one thing at a time or, say, reading instructions. You buy a Water-Pik: why read the manual? The dial goes from 1 to 10, clearly you tear away the packaging, plug that sucker in, and crank to 10. Grrrrrr, sand-blast off that plaque!
Similarly, why space the pills out when you can take them in one fell swoop and be done with it? Why pack your travel food in advance, knowing you’ll just obsess during the intervening hours that you’ve forgotten something? I like to wait till the night before, by which time my mingled enthusiasm and fear have reached such a fever pitch that reason simply flees.
For my most recent trip for example, a week-long foray to Arizona, I threw together brown sugar, raisins, cocoa, seaweed, almond butter, a handful of dried figs that had hardened to granite, two cylinders of rice cakes, a stick of butter, and some yogurt.
I packed a ton of food, in short, but nothing that added up to an actual meal. This makes for an interesting travel diet, as a corollary edict while “on vacation” is to avoid like the plague any form of grocery shopping. Having to suss out, drive to, and descend into the existential abyss of a Sprouts or Trader Joe’s breaks the very seize-control spell that the rule against wasted food is meant to create. Grocery shopping while “away” is a capitulation, a failure. It means I didn’t plan well.
Also—I don’t want to say I’m cheap, which is not strictly true. I do, however, have an almost pathological aversion to the squandering of food, time, or money. Granted, this can be taken too far—but what about those children starving in India, or Africa, or down the street?
Having been raised in a blue-collar family of eight kids where we snatched up every stray scrap of food (and attention, and love) like feral dogs, I come by these ideas honestly. Between generational psycho-spiritual wounds inflicted in utero and the unmet need for touch in infancy, I learned how to self-soothe early. Straight A’s, gold stars, candy, laughs at my jokes—the phenomenon of the endorphin “hit” grooved itself from childhood into my nervous system.
So did the love of solitude, quiet, trees, flowers, birds, books—antidotes for the world that has always seemed a little too much, too fast, too loud.
What remains, in my case, is a borderline manically-energized, perpetually tension-filled psyche that careens between fear—that there won’t be enough; that waste of any kind is an egregious, boorish offense against the common good—and the profound, near abject gratitude that there is ever any food, money, or love, at all.
Or as the Italian novelist and poet Cesare Pavese observed: “Religion is the belief that everything that happens to us is extraordinarily important.”
I’m anxious about everything—getting a haircut, filling the car with gas, anything that involves people. And though I’ve driven all over creation, somehow each time I prepare for a long drive feels like the first time—will I make it?
I wonder sometimes if life is like this for everyone: the smallest move so often the psychic equivalent of climbing Everest without oxygen.
The packing of road trip toiletries, clothes and books is thus additionally fraught with Holy Grail significance, the upshot being that the night before taking off I often barely sleep.
The next morning I suck down two cups of extra-strength coffee, pray, shower, start hauling the stuff down from my second floor apartment, and load the car. I bring two travel mugs—one of hot tea, “for the drive”; and one of iced or hot coffee, depending on the time of year, for my 3 p.m. caffeine hit.
Sunglasses jammed on, phone plugged in, hasty Sign of the Cross made while fingering the cluster of holy medallions dangling from the rear view mirror, and I’m off.
Inevitably I plan to listen to music en route—Bach toccatas, Townes, Ben Webster—and inevitably I find, for the first few hours at least, that I prefer silence. I’ll generally start by praying a Rosary which, what with distractions, traffic, meandering thoughts, mulled-over resentments, snack breaks, and checking my phone, can take the better part of two hours.
For the second of those hours I will have had to pee really bad. When and where to stop is always a quandary, as I insist upon waiting as long as I possibly can. I myself never know till the last moment at which exit my car, as if of its own accord, will veer off.
At the “travel station,” I first fill the tank. Then I make a beeline inside, scoping out locals and employees on my way to the restroom for bad bleach jobs, botched tattoos, and/or facial scars. Look at this poor, brave soul, I’ll think of the cashier; makes minimum wage and still has it in her (or him) be gracious and kind! (or not). Harking back to my own long years of waitressing (the bulk of which occurred forty years ago), I’ll codependently try to overbond—“Thank you so much! Really appreciate it!”—this, for ringing up a Diet Coke or printing a receipt.
Then, marveling at my compassion for “the common man,” I’ll head back to my verde oliva Fiat 500, settle into the driver’s seat, and sail off free as a bird to a writer’s residency in Wyoming; monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho; or in this case, what promises to be a charming Airbnb in the historic Tucson, Arizona, neighborhood of Armory Park.
I’m not a bad driver, I don’t think. If anything, I suffer from an abundance of caution: moving to the right ten miles before the exit; using the directional to change lanes even on a desolate desert stretch with no other vehicle in sight.
Inwardly, though, I’m like a horse pawing the ground at the starting gate. Nearing my destination, I check the map 20 or 30 times, kick the passenger side gear into a rough heap, and pray the Airbnb isn’t a total dump.
Until I’m completely unpacked and settled, I’m still (in my mind) “on the road.” So the second I wheel in, I throw open the trunk as if the car’s about to explode, grab all I can, and haul in my loot—staggering, dropping, dripping, spewing, spraying, banging shins, and cursing.
At the same time, I’m checking out the place and—whoa, this time I can hardly believe my good fortune! A ‘20s adobe bungalow with Madonna-blue trim! A front stoop with a pale yellow vintage metal glider! Hardwood floors, a kitchen nook with a built-in table, old-school jalousie blinds.
In record time I unpack, arrange, scope the place out (medicine cabinet—oh cool, Dr. Bronner’s soap!), fridge—(yesss, half a pound of Peet’s!), plug in my laptop, and test the wifi, which works perfectly.
Sigh—of mingled gratitude and disbelief. How did it even happen that I woke up in my own bed and tonight will sleep in this other bed, with sheets in a gray-and-white feather pattern and pink rickrack?
Then I make myself a cup of coffee, gaze out the window, and consider the lay of the land.
This consists chiefly of drinking in deep draughts of the surrounding trees, flowers, birds, sky, people, street, and smells. For my “job” while traveling is basically to praise, to thank. To receive a little of the body and blood of a place, and to leave behind a little of my own. To that end, I care zero for night life, tourist attractions, or even for the most part food.
My main goals when traveling are to locate a church for Mass, a 12-step meeting, and a place to take long, meandering walks. Riverbanks are ideal (Sioux Falls, San Antonio, Yuma). Good-sized cities will almost always yield up a shaded courtyard, plaza, fountain, community garden, public garden, or greenway.
But even in middle-of-nowhere towns, I’ve found, if you just set out from your mom-and-pop hotel and start walking, you will very often find a trail, or a set of railroad tracks with a path alongside, or a street that peters out to a welcoming expanse of prairie or desert.
I’ve done just that in countless places: Independence, California; Holbrook, Arizona; Winnemucca, Nevada; Nipton, California; Ozona, Texas; Watsonville, Pennsylvania; Kearney, Nebraska…
I like being among people without much having to interact with them. This is partly because I’m an introvert, and partly because, as the naturalist and novelist Edward Hoagland has observed: “To be human is to care for things that don’t care for us.” All my life I’ve seemed to love people more than they love me: bar pickups, family members, neighbors. Not, when push comes to shove, that I actually want to meet or converse with most of them!
This is one reason I love Mass. Back in LA, the churches have been closed for months due to COVID, and we parishioners have been reduced to the pathetically poor substitute of livestream services. Tucson churches are open, however, and St. Augustine’s Cathedral, a mere half-hour walk from my Airbnb I learn that first afternoon, has a noon Mass.
The next late morning set off on foot, practically salivating at the prospect of a real sanctuary, a live tabernacle, the smell of wax, the bloody statues, the hush, the gloom.
Mid-October, it’s still in the 90s: the heat has the effect of a sleeping pill. A guy in a stained sombrero snails along the opposite sidewalk. A teenager slo-mo zigzags across the street on her bike. The yards are overhung with old-growth mesquite and cowboy-and-Indians cacti.
I go the long way, through Barrio Viejo, which apparently till a few years ago was a derelict rathole. Then Diane Keaton bought a renovated adobe for 1.5 million and all hell broke loose. Happily, the ‘hood hasn’t been totally wrecked yet and still features lots of charming old hovels with caved-in rooves and termite-gnawed doorframes.
Other touches of local color include El Tiradito, a much-touted, somewhat shabby, local shrine where people light candles to Our Lady of Guadalupe; and a shaded pocket park, entirely deserted, that I make a mental note to re-visit later.
In LA, someone is always breathing down your neck, jostling to pass, or allowing their dog to crowd you off the sidewalk: “Bentley, down! She doesn’t want to be touched!” The slower, dreamier Tucson vibe is balm.
St. Augustine’s is up near downtown, on Stone Avenue. It’s brown and tall with a cross on top and a giant parking lot to the left. Two pudgy guys and a girl are yukking it up on the front steps.
“Are you Catholic?” I accost them. “I think there’s a noon Mass!”
“No, we’re on a scavenger hunt,” one of them smiles. Nice kids.
I tend to proceed on the assumption that other people are interested in the same things I am, which is in fact almost never true. As St. Thérese of Lisieux observed: “If we are able to bear patiently the trial of being displeasing to ourselves, we will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.”
Thérese was a bourgeois French girl who entered an obscure Carmelite convent at the age of 15, developed a form of spirituality now known as “The Little Way,” contracted TB, and died in agony at the age of 24 clutching a crucifix and crying “I love Him!”
I once wrote a book about “walking” with Thérese for a year—a year (and far from the only one in my tormented life, believe me) during which I myself was in emotional and spiritual agony.
This is the first I’ve been inside a church for months, and I wander around drinking everything in: the tiered banks of burning candles, the stained glass, the high ceilings: home. A priest, hearing confessions in the back, is seated across from a blond with false eyelashes and a rather thrilling décolletage. Ah, Mother church! Then I find a spot mid-sanctuary, genuflect, and sink gratefully into the pew.
A guy in a wool watch cap—head in hands, grimy red pack parked in the aisle—is kneeling opposite. His watch beeps: okay. A minute later it beeps again: okay. When it beeps a third time I peer over, see he’s perhaps mentally ill, and realize the alarm is set to go off every sixty seconds.
Which is annoying—but am I, with my own arcane rituals, much different? Aging body aching, head in hands, I’m kneeling, too.
I always get a kick out of the anti-Church brigade that scoffs, “God isn’t just in a little box; God isn’t just an hour in church,” as if anyone who comes to church thinks that. I, for one, come to beg for help, to plead for mercy, to receive the sustenance I need in order to function in the world for the other twenty-three hours.
I, the beeping-watch guy, and the thirty or so other people scattered around the sanctuary, have all been drawn, in the middle of the day, to this temple “not built by human hands”: unseen by the world, and if seen, marginalized, spat upon, sneered at. I’ve come as a member of the crowd to whom Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount: thirsting for meaning, starved for righteousness, poor in spirit.
The outsider sees molesters in bathrobes waving their hands, intoning incoherent prayers; people bowing, standing, kneeling like lemmings.
Losers, misfits, shuffling down the center aisle, mouths open, hands out for a wafer of bread.
That’s the part that always catches in my throat.
In the preface to her novel, Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor observed:
“It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death. Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations. That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to.”