This feature is designed for landscape viewing.
Over the summer, we mailed six writers a Rand McNally road map of Arizona, a bag of sunflower seeds, and a Slim Jim, and asked them to take a road trip.
In their introduction to Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, Rebecca Snedeker and Rebecca Solnit argue on behalf of paper maps. “The problem with these technologies,” they write, in reference to smartphones, GPS, and services such as Google maps, "is that though they generally help get you where you're going, that's all they do. With a paper map, you take charge; with these other means, you take orders.”
With this idea in mind, we asked our writers to take a road trip, using only their Rand-McNally map as a guide. We wanted them each to explore a part of Arizona in a different way than they normally do, and now we invite you to explore their results.
Forty years after researchers declared the black-footed ferret extinct, I plug the 1,000,000-candle power spotlight adapter into my car’s DC port by the gear stick. I reverse the car onto historic Route 66 and drive away from the research trailer. It’s the longest (and longest-lasting) span of America’s historic Mother Road. A series of red-and-white Burma Shave signs appear along the side of the road, spaced seconds apart.
You can drive
A mile a minute
But there is no
Future in it
Burma Shave was known best for its roadside signage, not its brushless shaving cream. Equal parts poetry, punchline, and PSA, the Burma Shave signs surviving along historic Route 66 in northwest Arizona portend their own obsolescence. They’re cautionary words to a speeding driver, sure, but also predictive of the quietus that would befall the Main Street of America after the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act. President Eisenhower, envious of Hitler’s Autobahn following World War II, insisted U.S. infrastructure keep up with the motorist’s need for speed. As a result, Interstate 40, which runs parallel to Route 66 and the Santa Fe Railroad, superseded the Mother Road as Arizona’s major east-to-west artery for the second half of the century. Burma Shave’s last manufactured sign read:
Farewell O verse
Along the road
How sad to see
You’re out of mode.
At mile marker 132, we pull up to an iron gate, one of dozens of entry points to the Navajo-owned Big Boquillas’ Diamond A Ranch, the largest cattle ranch in Arizona. The scrubby valley is ringed by thousand-foot steep escarpments. At sunset, the cliffs are pink and ridged like the roof of a mouth. By nightfall, though, especially on slim-moon nights like this one, the Aubrey Cliffs smudge into a broad silhouette carving toward the Grand Canyon. My wife stands in the headlights, unlatching the chain and swinging the gate open. She gets in the car, and we go, the wheels rolling over the rutted dirt roads.
We’ve been told that cows have the right-of-way on the ranch. It doesn’t take long to encounter a first mob crossing to their companions who are prone beside the water troughs. I stop for a minute, click on the car’s aerial lights, and recheck the map on my lap. The colored map looks like a lava lamp with its multicolored globules indicating the density of the ranch’s prairie dog colonies. The area we’ll be driving through has as many as 300 active burrows per hectare. When the cows have crossed, I gas forward, awaiting the junction where our spotlighting transect begins. My wife slings her arm out the window, and clicks on the spotlight’s trigger. A cone of light illuminates the sagebrush steppe to our east.
One million candlepower is enough to discern our favorite desert plants from the clumps of sage: yucca leaves daggering shin-high, the occasional prickly pear or cholla, barrels and cups of cacti emerging from the otherwise lackluster terrain. There are eyes too, blinking brightly, reflecting the spotlight like a miniature stoplight: red, orange, and green. Most tapeta are pinkish-red and belong to the desert cottontail. They jackknife across the rocky earth, nestling behind saltbush shadows. Elsewhere, we see the distant eye shine of pronghorn, badger, skunk, mice, owl, and cattle. This segment of the ranch, part of a state land trust, is a nocturnal drive-thru wilderness. My wife oscillates the spotlight, scanning 180° from front bumper to back.
The Metropolitan Gas Act of 1860 strictly defined candlepower as the amount of light given off by a 2.7-ounce candlestick made from pure spermaceti. Burning at a rate of 7.8 grams per hour, these candles were made of the waxy ester found in an organ in the heads of sperm whales. Spermaceti, derived from the Latin semen + whale, looks milky and smells milky, so it’s no surprise that early whalers erroneously believed the substance to be seminal fluid. This means in the decades prior to the electrification of our cities, candlestick makers thought they were dipping their wicks into melted whale spunk.
We pass through the ranchland at just ten miles per hour, occasionally turning onto byroads that run parallel with adjacent transects. This is when the other volunteers’ spotlights glare in our direction. We shield our eyes from the intense light using sun visors, suddenly feeling apologetic to the cows that must endure the roving beams for hours on end. Our nightlong vigil produces billions in collective candlepower across the Aubrey Valley. My wife holds the trigger as we peer out the window’s frame, looking across the field, hoping for a set of shining emeralds to duck and peek in and out of a prairie dog burrow. Since its presumed extinction in the 1980s, the black-footed ferret has steadily reemerged. From a single carcass killed by a ranch dog in Meeteetse, Wyoming to a live Lassie-like specimen on Hogg Ranch that led researchers to a small business of 18 BFFs to a seasoned captive breeding and reintroduction program that has led to a continental population of nearly 1,000 wild individuals, this site in the Aubrey Valley was one of the flagship areas for the rewilding the ferret.
The first flecks of green tapetum lucidum, though, belong to a stocky badger. A nocturnal mustelid like the black-footed ferret, the badger spends its evening hunting for snakes and burrowing owls. Rather than head bob from burrow openings, the badger stands its ground, its broad clawed forepaws planted in the sand and sage. I run across the steppe, forty yards or more, just to make sure. When the green eyes start running towards me (rather than away), I know we’ve ID’d the correct mustelid. Closer now, I can see the badger’s spade-shaped face, the nubby ears and striped badges on its cheeks. I see the buffy fur coating its chest, and recall my barber lathering my face with a badger-hair brush just last week. I nod at the badger before spinning away. “As you were.”
We finish the transect circuit with no black-footed ferrets to report. The vacant traps clatter in the back as we stop near the gate. We see cars parked at the research trailer, meaning at least one of the groups has trapped a ferret in this first hour. My wife gazes through the moon roof at dark sky constellations.
“We should really figure out what all these stars are called before we have this kid,” I say.
She nods slightly, smiles slightly. Her chin is still upraised. We are trying, really trying, to have a baby. Some hours she thinks she might be pregnant. Those hours, we get giddy like there might be three of us in the car. This is not one of those hours.
“Ready for another go-round?” I ask.
It’s after midnight. A car zips past us on Route 66, destined for Peach Springs or Truxton or Valentine, Arizona. Maybe even Needles, California. I put my car in drive again and idle toward the cliffs, toward deep ranch.
Driving a car this slow for this long, I feel my attention drift to the screen display. I scroll from the odometer reading (48,211 mi.) to trip meter A (116.4 mi.) to trip meter B (238.1 mi.) to outside temperature (53°) to oil life (56%) and back again. These numbers seem more real to me than the wilderness through my crud-splattered windshield. Even when I do focus on the road ahead of me, it looks like the music video for Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” only less paved. In this place, void of cable and cell reception, I have to fabricate screen entertainments. My wife rummages through the glove compartment like it’s a library. She hands me the paperwork I’ve asked for. Now is the restless time to start caring about the fine print on recent transactions.
There is an itemized service receipt in my glove compartment that shows that when my car was last serviced in March of 2016, a technician—after checking the dipstick and unthreading the drain plug to let the transmission fluid ooze onto the pan—poured three liters of new beet-red automatic transmission fluid into a funnel. Once it’s gulped into the reservoir, the fluid courses through the vehicle’s circulatory system, lubricating and cooling it.
Once, when Route 66 was single-filed with automobiles, before transmission fluid was an amalgam of toxic chemical additives, motorists used whale oil to get the job done. The oil was sourced from the same spermaceti organ as turn-of-the-century candles. We found half-empty jars of whale oil in my Pap’s garage in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania when we tidied the space after his death. We overturned the last of the canisters into his Chevy Caprice, the tin glugging and glugging until there was just a thin strand of oil falling into the car. I can’t help but imagine my grandfather, who suffered from painful plaque psoriasis in later days, rubbing the whale oil onto the skin of his forearms as ointment.
It’s not exactly known what spermaceti does for a whale. Most likely, it aids in echolocation; the wax-filled sac becomes a medium through which sonar clicks pulsate to create a subaquatic Doppler effect. This is how many aquatic species detect the distance of their prey.
Crickets stridulate like metronomes across the prairie; churning in polyrhythmic waves, their music can sound alternately meek or miffed.
“There,” my wife says, surely. “Right. There.” She clicks the spotlight twice to show how the emeralds manifest.
This time, I take a trap with me. The burrow complex is not that far from the road, maybe the length of a grocery store parking lot. I can see its eyes seeing me. It springs in and out of the mouth of the burrow like a veritable pop-going weasel. A ferret is a weasel, just like the one Dillard saw in her famous essay as they stood mutually startled, exchanging that long glance inside which she recognizes she “could very calmly go wild.” I do not go wild in this moment, nor could I, as I stuff the trap into the entrance mound. I see the black-footed ferret recede into the network, only its nose and whiskers still breaching. I set the trap, pinning the treadle down with just a couple centimeters of a rusted metal rod, and cover it all up with a burlap sack to simulate darkness, as if this trap is just a dead-end of the unknowable prairie dog burrow network gouged out beneath me. The thing about a burrow network is that Gunnison prairie dogs, likely aware that a single entrance mound is the architecture of suicide, often puncture as many as two dozen backdoors for escape. They convert the prairie into Swiss cheese, which is perhaps why ranchers took to murdering them en masse (a malicious strain of “species cleansing”) for much of the twentieth century. I gently plug all available entrances and exits to the system with a stack of empty Big Gulp cups—eleven in total—and canter back to the car. My wife records the GPS coordinates, takes a few field notes, and we drive away with plans to return in less than an hour.
Whether in Seligman, Arizona, where historic Route 66 commences, or Peach Springs, the tribal center of the Hualapai Indian Reservation, there is the constant insinuation of busy-ness, with antique cars parked, some even double-parked, in kitschy road-stop gravel lots that sell little more than candy bars and postcards. The decrepit towns appearing along the Mother Road in northwest Arizona are the basis for Pixar’s Radiator Springs (from the film Cars). Tottering around the antiques, it’s obvious that their ignitions haven’t been keyed in years. It’s likely that some still have whale oil within them.
The “indefinite moratorium” on sperm whale oil and other cachalot products like candles and scrimshaw went into immediate effect with the passage of Nixon’s 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). It’s the kind of act that would have really pissed off Ahab, the obsessive sea captain who vowed, from hell’s heart, to stab at the sperm whale, Moby Dick, and spit at it his last breath. The ESA was an expansion of the original 1966 Species Preservation Act where one can find the first-ever list of endangered species, also known as The Class of ‘67. Of the 78 species on the list, three have since dropped out:
- Blue pike (Stizostedion vitreum glaucum)
- Dusky seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigriscens)
- Longjaw cisco (Coregonus Alpenae)
According to Dale Goble’s The Endangered Species Act at Thirty (2005), 88% of the original species remain on the list, and eight species are “almost certainly extinct, too: Bachman’s warbler, Caribbean monk seal, Eskimo curlew, Kauai ’o’o, Kauai akialoa, Kauai nukupu’u, Maryland darter, and ’o’u.” In the introduction to her bestiary, Zoologies, Alison Deming writes: “Who wants to hear again the sad summary of loss?” There are some who would surely raise their hands; racked with guilt, this vein of monomania is an inversion of Ahab’s. Thoreau, for example, disappointed with the incompleteness of the ecologies surrounding him in the wake of species cleansing, lamented that he “wished to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.”
Instead of lost species, consider the found: the black-footed ferret (BFF), an original from the class of ’67, is the single animal species to have twice been declared extinct, only to be downlisted back to “endangered.” The BFF’s story is an anecdote of resurrection. “Lazarus, come out!” and “Lazarus, come out again!” The ferret may habitually recede into its burrow, but for 33 years since its rediscovery in Meeteetse, Wyoming, it keeps coming back up for more.
At some point during the most recent circuit, my wife stops spotlighting. I’m speeding to thirty now, almost forty on straightaways, way too fast on these farm roads whose mud-packed tire tracks were formed by a wider chassis, the super-sized pickups whose drivers are invited to Diamond A Ranch on other nights to hunt pronghorn and trap coyote. We bump through ruts and brake for cows proximal to the road. We are racing back to the burrow, to the trap, to (we hope) a newly caught black-footed ferret.
I park and walk towards it. The grass clumps are frosted beneath my boots. They crunch like I’m walking over a field of celery. I click on my headlamp as I lift the burlap. Even though it’s for the ferret’s own good—in the trailer, it will receive inoculation and a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag—it feels momentarily diabolical to capture something that presumes itself to be wild. But the treadle has not yet been stomped. I check the Big Gulp plugs, each still lodged in place. I pace over every part of the burrow network; one of these steps (I can’t know which) positions me directly above the black-footed ferret, one of (/if not) the most endangered mammal in North America. I wonder if I’ve locked it inside an excellent prairie dog buffet, if its jowls are coated in dark red blood, its carnassial teeth gnawing clean through the bone. I wonder if the prairie dog bleeds out as it twitches by the sated ferret’s side.
There is an invisible roadway beneath me, as much as fifteen feet deep and sixty feet long. I try to visualize its throughways and byways, stop-offs and intersections. Sometimes, a prairie dog colony connects to another; like a country road linking two sparse towns—indeed, like Route 66—the single tunnel allows tourists like the black-footed ferret to have more lodging and dining options. In my mind, I am fake-snaking a fiber optic cable through the burrow like I’m preparing for laparoscopic surgery.
I turn around, sorry that I’ll have to tell my wife there’s nothing there—not yet.
At the International Wildlife Museum in Tucson (305 miles south of the Diamond A Ranch), the “Bringing Back Wildlife” exhibit’s first diorama depicts a subterranean burrow that chutes into earth. The complex begins with an entrance mound placed deceptively at eye-level. Not far down, there is a turning bay. There are two vacant air chambers, then a nesting chamber with a taxidermy of a prairie dog caching grass, then a nest chamber with three black-footed ferret kits sleeping alongside one another. Finally, there’s an exit mound that leads to a prairie landscape with more dogs and more ferrets, also four species of quail, plus coati, javelina, and white-rumped pronghorn.
Standing there, I can’t resist depressing the button to make the nest chamber glow. The kits’ sable fur turns champagne. Museum Director Richard White claims that when he staged the kits—after opening the package from United States Fish and Wildlife Service, letting the kits’ freeze-dried carcasses thaw on his desk for a bit, with only a few minutes to get the positioning right before initiating a permanent freeze—he was merely improvising the adorable scene. “Nobody really knows what it’s like down there,” White says. “There’s nothing in the literature about what a burrow looks like.”
I wanted to crawl into the human-sized burrow beneath the diorama, but a young girl got there first, collapsing to her knees before disappearing into the colony, the rubber heels of her shoes last of all. Her giggles echo in the low-lying fiberglass hall. Her mother stands next to me and calls after her. “Where’s my little ferret?” she asks. The girl giggles louder. I glance at the kits in the nest chamber. For a moment, when I envision the girl, she is more miniature than when I last saw her. With each beat of silence, she shrinks from kid to kit.
I have taken to calling our future child Superpredator, a name my wife (reasonably) loathes. I say the word like one might “Junior” or “Buckaroo.”
“I bet Superpredator will be so smart she’ll be the one to teach us the names of the constellations,” I might say.
And my wife might respond, “Please don’t call our baby that.”
Hillary Clinton’s racist usage of the word “superpredator” in a 1996 speech (a speech that resurfaced after a strategic reminder from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus hoping to complicate the presumption that Donald Trump is the only racist nominee in the 2016 election) insinuated African American youths from urban backgrounds commit violent acts because they lack empathy and have impaired consciences.
Political scientist John Dilulio was the first to define this vein of superpredator in The Weekly Standard:
They kill or maim on impulse, without any intelligible motive… The buzz of impulsive violence, the vacant stares and smiles, and the remorseless eyes… they quite literally have no concept of the future… they place zero value on the lives of their victims, whom they reflexively dehumanize…
In ecology, though, a superpredator does not have a racial valence at all. Instead, it refers to an apex predator (e.g., the human species) that exterminates its prey so generally that the consequences are potentially irreparable for global ecologies. The lack of empathy, impaired conscience, and disregard for the future are symptomatic of being human in the Anthropocene. In Science Magazine, Darimont et al. (2015) wrote:
The species that we target are thus far in considerable decline; however, predators in the wild generally achieve a balance with their prey populations such that both persist… Humans function as an unsustainable ‘super predator,’ which… will continue to alter ecological and evolutionary processes globally.
By calling my future child Superpredator, the inane art of baby naming is postponed through eco-self-criticism. Some bioethicists crusading for a small-family (even no-family) ethic are taking it a step further. Take philosopher Travis Rieder’s provocation recently on All Things Considered: “Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.”
Since 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity has distributed over 500,000 endangered species condoms. The center advocates for wildlife ecology by calling attention to the link between human population growth and the current (sixth) mass extinction. The condom wrappers feature an illustration of an endangered species along with a catchy contraception-as-conservation couplet. Rather than educate would-be fornicators about the same-old (“proper use of this condom may help prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases and pregnancy”), the memo transforms the prophylactic into an ecological tool for protecting rare and endangered species.
- DON’T GO BARE… PANTHERS ARE RARE.
- WHEN YOU’RE FEELING TENDER… THINK ABOUT THE HELLBENDER.
- BE A SAVVY LOVER… PROTECT THE SNOWY PLOVER.
- IN THE SACK? SAVE THE LEATHER BACK.
- WRAP WITH CARE… SAVE THE POLAR BEAR.
- SAFE INTERCOURSE SAVES THE DWARF SEAHORSE.
- COVER YOUR TWEEDLE… SAVE THE BURYING BEETLE.
- USE A STOPPER… SAVE THE HOPPER.
- WEAR A JIMMY HAT… SAVE THE BIG CAT.
- HUMP SMARTER… SAVE THE SNAIL DARTER.
- SAVE THE SPOTTED OWL… WEAR A CONDOM NOW.
- FUMBLING IN THE DARK? THINK OF THE MONARCH.
- BEFORE IT GETS ANY HOTTER… REMEMBER THE SEA OTTER.
- CAN’T REFRAIN? REMEMBER THE WHOOPING CRANE.
And my favorite (for its slight condescension):
- FOR THE SAKE OF THE HORN LIZARD… SLOW DOWN, LOVE WIZARD.
Author Jonathan Franzen was once asked in an interview in The Guardian whether one’s fondness for the natural world necessarily leads to social isolation. Franzen’s response: “If you take a devotion to other species to its logical conclusion, you reach a point of pretty radical misanthropy.” Some mornings, I feel more radical than others. By midday, though, every day, I’ve got ferrets in the mind. I’ve decorated my office in such a way that I’m reminded of the black-footed ferret no matter which direction I swivel my chair: a newspaper article to the north, two framed prints south and east, and a laminated, anachronistic quotation to the west:
“It is with great pleasure that we [re-]introduce this handsome new species.”
—John James Audubon and John Bachman
When I first saw the catalog of endangered species condoms, I was a little peeved that there was no BFF condom. I imagine the center’s condom poet laureate, stumped and slouching at their desk to this day, their index finger rubbing through a rhyming dictionary, unable to conjure a perfect rhyme for the ferret.
“Where’s my little ferret?” the mother’s question echoes and echoes into the burrow. And then, a few seconds later, she’s asking: “Elsie?” This follow-up, now in a register of concern, betrays the zoopomorphic charade. Just like that, the little ferret becomes a little girl again.
“Do you want me to go in?” I ask, trying not to sound too presumptuous or fatherly.
“Could you?” the mother asks, clutching her other child closer to the chest.
I barely fit inside the opening. It’s my one chance to crawl beneath the prairie, to imagine what goes on in the cramped curls of a burrow. In this space, designed for small human bodies, a bonus room snug as a nest chamber, I announce my arrival to Elsie so as not to scare her.
“Hello?” I say.
Being underground is perhaps as animal as it gets. I think of my cousin’s husbands, how their first order of homeowning business in suburban Appalachia was to construct man caves for themselves, to trick out their basements with pool tables and liquor cabinets, surround sound and deer antlers. When I am invited downward with them into their vestigial dwelling places, I’m mostly waiting and wanting to re-emerge to the main floor. I’ve known the man cave to be a place latter-day troglodytes elect to go when they’re thirsty for something the kids can’t drink. It’s where alcoholism finally became passé for me. It’s there, in the man cave, where plaster illusively mineralizes into limestone and the stairwell is barricaded with scree, that a person finally shows you the tail they’ve been hiding from you for years.
On my first hike through the Lava River Cave in Flagstaff, my friend and I spontaneously slipped into caveman caricature. He made a grouchy guttural sound like a depressed Tim Allen, and I returned the sentiment. With headlights affixed to our foreheads, we could see just ahead of us in the lava tubes: two adult chaperones guiding their sixth grade class through a fork in the cave. “Go left if you want to walk straight through. But if you choose the right, you’ll have to crawl on your knees.” Those who went to the left maintained their bipedal posture while the others, those who embraced their inner animal, scrambled through on all fours across sharp basalt rubble.
I often wonder how animal I am or could be. The eccentric environmentalist, Charles Foster, has earnestly lived liked a badger—blindfolded on all fours, keeping very low to the ground, his nose muzzling the dirt, gorging on worms, and sleeping by day in a hollow. The Guardian has called it a form of extreme camping, but for Foster, it’s more that that. “In order to be properly human,” he says, “we’ve got to be properly animal.” Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Marc Bekoff concurs. Quoted in Dan Flores’s Coyote America, Bekoff believes modern Americans “are really craving to be ‘re-wilded.’ They’re craving to be reconnected to nature.”
I’m sitting with Elsie in the tunnel. She leans against the burrow’s wall, her face soured and arms folded.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
She explains how she thought it would go farther. Additionally, she is disappointed there aren’t any ferrets inside. It is a deceptively shallow burrow, not at all “complex.” Wanting to help her, I ready my paws for digging, and like the inept prairie dog I’m not, I scratch and dig at the fiberglass. Between barks and yips, I tell her I’m part prairie dog. That I’ll find us another way out of here. She regains her enthusiasm for burrow life and reminds me she’s a ferret. I wonder if she knows this means she’s supposed to ambush me while I’m sleeping, puncture my neck and devour every last shred of me.
It’s after 3 a.m. now. Even with the one trap set, we continue scouring for more green tapeta. We can set as many as four traps at one time. Since we’ve started, my wife has twice burned her flesh with the heated glass of the spotlight. Her wrist has gotten sore, so now she rotates the light against the half-down window’s curve. No matter how much hot coffee steams in the thermos, fatigue has begun to set in. I pull over, and we switch roles. Now, she drives while I squeeze the spotlight’s trigger.
To create one million candlepower worth of candles, a candlestick maker would need 84 tons of spermaceti, or the equivalent mass of two adult sperm whales. I imagine a silo full of white, translucent whale wax.
In addition to my summer job as an ocean lifeguard, I used to babysit three local kids who were always swapping oceanic trivia. The eldest child was an Atlantic surfer grom who tended to tell fictoids, not factoids. Once, he tried to convince his younger siblings that the ocean was salty because a whale ejaculated a hot tub’s worth of semen every time it climaxed. As supporting evidence, he pointed out that there were no whales in the fresh water of the Delaware Bay in Lewes. I assured his horrified siblings that whale semen is not the reason the ocean is salty. When they asked for the real explanation, I heard myself using phrases like slightly acidic rain, rock erosion, and ionic runoff, and knew it sounded way less probable than their brother’s story, so the grom’s answer reigned. “That’s why they call it the sperm whale!” he added for good measure. For weeks, Grace and Luke refused to even get their toes wet.
Even when I imagine having a baby, I still can’t discern the difference between that and babysitting. Friends promise the difference will make itself radically known.
For two decades, researchers have been storing black-footed ferret semen in liquid nitrogen. Sourced from seven individuals (of the original 18 survivors in Meeteetse), especially the prolific ferret known as Scarface, the semen bank is meant to preserve genetic diversity in future captive-bred BFF populations. In 2015, an article in Animal Conservation claimed sperm was “transabdominally inseminated into the uterine horns of female conspecifics.” Howard, et al. reported on:
… the first successful integration of [artificial insemination] with frozen semen into a formal recovery program… Eight black-footed ferret offspring were produced using thawed sperm samples (including after two decades of cryopreservation).
With their genetic father twenty generations removed, these kits are mustelid genetic history obliquely repeated. By comparison, consider Queen Elizabeth II (born 1926) whose 22nd great-grandfather is William the Conqueror (born 1028), the first Norman King of England. Despite being the first of their kind, these ferrets inherit little more than the chance to be rewilded to the prairie.
As a “genre,” black-footed ferret literature is a diminutive one. Dig in on the classics for a couple weeks, and you’ll soon find all that’s left is a lot of research on ferret semen. Lately, I’ve been reading articles on low-voltage electroejaculation, about the ideal temperature threshold for slow-cooling ferret semen (25 degrees Celsius, not 37), and how genome resource banks support genetic integrity. Because “getting pregnant is a game for two,” I’ve been reading a lot about my own semen too—about morphology, motility, liquefaction, and pH—I sometimes transpose the facts. I imagine my nurse friend, Steph, dressed in her scrubs and running from the bathroom to the lab in my brain, mistakenly swapping the containers, writing “Larry” instead of “Scarface,” and vice versa.
I’ve been thinking a lot about BFF (best-friend forever) semen too. Over the course of a month, Steph’s husband, formerly my college roommate, collected his semen in dozens of glass vials with baby blue plastic lids. He stored those vials in our shared refrigerator in the condiments drawer. Hoping to become the highest-volume donor at the university’s forensics lab, he spent much of that month panting behind closed doors. Now a father of a superpredator himself, I think back to the first time I saw his seed in the fridge—looking oddly palatable amidst the mayonnaise, tartar, and ranch—and wonder if my semen is potent enough to burrow through the egg’s gelatinous coat too. I’ve twice lingered in the reproductive aisle at Walgreen’s, reading the backs of at-home sperm count tests, wondering what I would even do with such a number.
It only takes a couple minutes for me to come up with a couplet of my own, just as good as the others I think:
- YOU KNOW YOU SHOULD WEAR IT… TO SAVE THE BLACK-FOOTED FERRET.
We’re running out of chances to trap the ferret tonight. We chase the coordinates back to the burrow, where we park roadside before killing the engine. She sets the timer for a fifteen-minute nap while I activate the hand warmers. I power recline my seat. With comic slowness, my back falls flat with the prairie. I stare through the moon roof, blinking the stars black. I dream myself subterranean.
There is an actual way of getting beneath the prairie. For $20.95 + tax, an elevator will lower you 21 stories deep to dark corridors and cavities. Once an ancient seabed, the Grand Canyon Caverns is now a massive complex of dry rock formations whose limestone bedrock is derived from a slurry of shells and bones from long-gone oceanic species. Weeks ago, as we went down, I looked for a burrow-level button on the elevator wall (“Floor Negative One, please,” I wanted to say.) Instead, we proceeded to Early Carboniferous depths.
The tour guide pointed out Gertie, a mannequin of a giant ground sloth whose dimensions were extrapolated from a sloth’s skeletal remains found in the cave. While the Pleistocene was known for its megafauna—from wooly mammoth to saber tooth cats to cave bears—it was also the epoch in which the black-footed ferret, at just twenty inches, emigrated from Eurasia to North America; part of the mammalian march across the Bering land bridge, the ferret was vulnerable to megafauna’s cracked-sole stomp.
Looking at the taxidermy of Gertie, I dream up her de-extinction. Considered extinct for 11,000 years (compare with the black-footed ferret, “extinct” for just two years before its re-emergence), how would she find Earth now? Would this (very) Late Holocene appeal to her? Would Arizona Game and Fish Department coordinate with Big Boquillas to help re-introduce the giant ground sloth alongside the ferret, allow it to graze yuccas and grasses alongside the cattle? The parking lot to the caverns is a literal stone’s throw away from the ranch. To be sure, I chucked a pebble across Route 66, and saw it arc and crash with a spray of dust before one of Diamond A’s many gates.
Elsewhere in the caverns is the “largest, deepest, darkest, oldest, quietest motel room in the world.” As soon as I heard about the cave room with its 70-foot, 65-million-year-old ceilings, I envisioned James Turrell’s Pleiades, a dark piece installation at Pittsburgh’s avant-garde museum, The Mattress Factory. Pleiades is where “the realm of night vision touches the realm of eyes-closed vision.” It is art as cave theater. At $800 a night, one can borrow this same darkness in the Grand Canyon Caverns cave room, incorporate it into their meditation, tourism, lovemaking. Imagine conceiving a child just around the corner from Gertie, a mile-long moan pouring into prehistoric cavities, across the undiscovered skeletons of the last mass extinction. Here, in the dumb black of the cave room, one can conceive a superpredator of their own.
The black-footed ferret is hunchbacked in the trap. It chuckles, unable to retreat past the treadle to its burrow. I shimmy the trap free, take the juvenile ferret with me. It sways along my denim thigh, across the steppe to the SUV. I knock on the window, and hoist the weasel to my wife’s eyes. They blink each other into existence. When I set the ferret amongst the unused traps, I see: an endangered life living in my own compact hatchback.
Invisible to me in Bangladesh, Panthera tigris tigris manifests instead in northwest Arizona. Forty miles west of the ferret ranch, the big cat paces the length of his cage for ten minutes or more, towards me then away on endless, restless loop. Of the two dozen big cats in the exotic animal sanctuary off of Valentine’s stretch of historic Route 66, this one’s my favorite. Due to the elevation and the construction of his cage, I can see, all at once: the Santa Fe Railroad, Route 66, and a Bengal tiger. It’s a physics problem waiting to be solved.
If a train departs the station.
If a car departs the garage.
If a tiger departs the planet.
I wait for Victor to rev up his haunches, to sprint the length of the big cat chain link. He could, in short bursts, compete with train or traffic. If I squat just a little bit, squint my one eye to forfeit my binocular vision, I can create the illusion that Victor is standing on Route 66.
When I think of the historic Mother Road now, I see a parade of endangered, extinct, and de-extinct animals in the form of tiger, sloth, and ferret. They strut this stretch of asphalt, not for useless boosterism, but as a demonstration of their survival cheer.
Hello O species
Along the road
How great to see
You’re back in mode.
It’s like we’ve got a kid in the backseat. I look in the rearview mirror, knowing full well I can’t see deep into the hatchback. Instead, my eyes fixate on the space where the car seat would go. It’s a car commercial, the perennial heartwarmer: a nuclear family is off road again, and giddy about it. Everyone’s smiling omnidirectionally. Smiles come too soon or too late, and it makes everyone nervous, but in a good way. Sun’s coming up, almost. All we’re missing is some Americana melody, maybe M. Ward. Maybe Neko Case. Her song, “Yon Ferrets Return,” opens with the line: “Welcome home, Blackfeet” and points to the species’ high approval rating, going so far as to call them the new pioneers of the territory.
When the ferret chitters, my wife and I glance at each other. It feels good, this being three, regardless of the musky scent slow-filling the car. I put the windows down. My wife is calling out names for the BFF in case it’s its first time being captured. Sunrise is minutes away at which point ferrets will fall to daysleep as the horses are let out from stable. I’ve seen the horses race astride, nearly a dozen, as if on an invisible track. The dust they kick up lasts only for a minute, and when it’s gone, the steep Aubrey Cliffs are visible again on the horizon. Pronghorn will stand still as antelopes, as if being painted, some nibbling forbs and grasses. And prairie dogs, the ones who survived the murderous night, will stand up on hind legs at their burrow’s exit mound.
By the time we reach the Mother Road, we’ve agreed on a name. For a moment, it feels like we’ll just skip the trailer and take this beast of a baby home.
Lawrence Lenhart received his MFA from the University of Arizona. Essays from his essay collection, The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19), appear in Fourth Genre, Passages North, and Prairie Schooner. He teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and is reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.
One of my favorite things about Tucson, Arizona is the way it supports businesses that in more competitive cities would certainly die. Metaphysics’ World. Mostly Bears. The Reggae Shop. BEADS. For a while, there was a place on Speedway Boulevard that did nothing other than buy gift cards for other businesses. As in, if you got a Starbucks gift card from an office Secret Santa, you could take it there and sell it. I spent a couple of hours one day trying to figure out how this worked, presuming in my faith-based American way that everything with money behind it deserves to exist but I remain stumped. They’re still there, too, but changed their name to CFC Gift Card after being known for years only as Card Father.
I’d heard of Tucson’s Map & Flag Center before, but only as the more user-friendly “the map and flag store.” The store occupies a white stucco building in one of the city’s shittier, more nondescript neighborhoods. Small brick ranch houses back up to vacant lots and service shops and bars that open before lunch. Like most of Tucson, the landscape is flat and the development is repetitive, giving a driver (because in Tucson you are almost always driving) the dreamlike impression that life goes on this way forever, until suddenly, in some ungraspable distance, there are mountains.
I walked in the door and was greeted by a man with a stringy ponytail and an expectant look on his face. Two more men in nylon Adirondack chairs sat behind him and ignored me. The arrangement suggested a hierarchy. The man with the ponytail welcomed me and asked if he could help with anything in particular. I spread my arms and summoned my best show-me-what-you-got voice and said, “Well, I’ve never been here before but I’ve always heard about it, and I got curious!” I felt like a traveler in a side-street café asking what the locals ate. One of the men in the Adirondack chairs sighed audibly.
“Well, we’re the largest map and flag store in the southwest,” the man with the ponytail said, pausing before adding that they were the southwest’s only map and flag store, too. I imagined the thousands of ways he’d tried to keep that line fresh. The man hastened to add that all his flags—and that’s how he put it, his flags—were made in America. None of that Wal-Mart or China stuff. I told him I didn’t realize the provenance of flags was such a big deal. Were the American ones really that much nicer?
“Absolutely,” he said, with stiff reassurance. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a wicker basket filled with iron-on military patches, like a bowl of candy in a waiting room.
I started browsing. Most of the inventory on the map side seemed like the kind of stuff you could buy online, or at a good rest stop. Everything had a lot more room on the rack than it needed. The three men briefly resumed a discussion I imagined they were having before I came in, about sugar-glider kebabs. The man with the ponytail was having trouble with his girlfriend, who hadn’t spoken to him since he sent her the glider kebabs recipe at some unspecified point in the past. I imagined the animals—tiny, helpless, with that perpetually startled look people find so marketable—lying on their backs with grill lines on their bellies. It wasn’t until later that I realized the man was probably talking about kebabs for the gliders, not of them, which I mention because it exposed a prejudice I didn’t realize I held, namely that men who love paper maps take special pride in eating things other people find cute.
The inventory got more interesting and more dire as you moved toward the back. Interim maps of the Kaibab National Forest with promises of being updated in 1984, a guide to Chicago’s best restaurants circa 2002, weird remainders and lacunae too new to be charming but too old to be useful. An old Compaq desktop sat under a table against the far wall, purring like a cat.
By now the man with the ponytail had navigated his way across the store to a recliner in what was labeled the Children’s Corner and sat down with a thick book. Between the book and the Children’s Corner and his apparent exile from the other men, he suddenly looked petulant and small, as though he had no idea what was on the pages he was turning but would turn them purely as a demonstration of hurt until the men invited him back.
I wandered toward him and picked up the flags absent-mindedly. They felt like trash you could win at the fair. If things were worse in China, I didn’t want to know. The man didn’t look up but I sensed he wanted to. The book turned out to be a Tom Clancy novel. I asked about a map on the wall, a colorful “historical map of Arizona” illustrated with old-timey cameos of patriarchs with muttonchops and bolo ties. I said I wanted to buy it for my son’s room, laminated please. He dug me out a copy of the map but suggested that I instead buy one of those maps of the cosmos with a little circle around the Milky Way that says YOU ARE HERE.
He was on to describing outer space before I could even say, “No thank you.” Novas, dwarves, et cetera. I understood none of it other than his desperate need to connect. “Man,” he said, looking at my driver’s license to match the name with my credit card, “you should’ve kept the long hair.” I said I didn’t have a need for it anymore. He stroked his own ponytail with both hands and said he could still go down to 4th Avenue and get a few interested looks, and he was 40, emphasizing the last bit as though it disqualified him from something.
“Had to cut it though,” he continued sadly.
I was confused. “It’s still long,” I said. Yes, he said, but it used to be longer. I asked why he cut it. He said his mother died suddenly a couple of years ago, and she’d always hated his hair.
“So you cut it for her?” I asked.
“Well, I cut it the day after she died.”
“So you cut it for her, but she never actually saw it.”
“Yeah,” he said, handing me my map. “I’ve always been a little late.”
Pulling into the street, I noticed that there was only one car in the lot, a blue Prius with the license plate MAPSMTH. I assumed it belonged to the owner, who I then assumed was one of the men in the Adirondack chairs. I wondered what had to happen to a man’s pride that he would ignore another man’s curiosity in his business.
I later emailed the store’s general inquiry address about a note on their website stating that they had to discontinue their toll-free number after receiving too many faxes meant for an accounting company because of some confusion between the numbers 2 and 3. The email asked what the accounting company was, and whether they ever tried to communicate the error to them.
The reply came quickly. It opened by stating that they would not list the accounting company’s name because several years had passed. The email capitalized Accounting Company, capital A, capital C. And yes, the Map Store tried to contact the Accounting Company several times, and at one point even sent them an invoice for paper and fax ribbon. They received no response until pointing out that mistaking a 2 for a 3 on a phone number demonstrated that they could never be trusted as an Accounting Professional, capitalized, or someone to be counted on for even simple Accounting—capitalized—needs. This call was returned only to say that they believed the Map Store was not professional in making that comment.
Since the toll-free number had been disconnected, I went to the public library to try and find it in an old phone book. My dream was to find the old phone number, then reverse engineer what the Accounting Company’s number was, then fax the accounting company several questions about maps, but none of the books listed a toll-free number and sometimes a dream is just that.
I got back in the car and drove southeast to Lochiel, a dot on the border between Arizona and Mexico surrounded by national forest. I knew nothing about Lochiel other than that the map told me it was there. The trip takes about two hours. I had made part of it several times before, between Tucson and Patagonia, where my wife occasionally has business. The roads got progressively smaller and more primitive with each leg. I started thinking about all those faxes meant for the Accounting Company, sensitive information turning down the wrong road and ending up nowhere. For the last 45 minutes, I was basically driving on loose piles of rocks with the occasional cattle guard. At some point I started seeing signs about bicycle safety. The notion that anyone had made it that far on bicycle was absurd, and yet it gave me the sentimental feeling that the state was looking out for us.
A few minutes later, driving behind a Border Patrol truck at what I decided was a safe but not suspicious distance, I thought of El Jefe. El Jefe is a wild jaguar that was captured on video camera roaming the surrounding mountains. He is in fact the only wild jaguar known to exist in the United States.
My neighbor, who works in jaguar preservation—and this is another thing I could have never imagined being able to say before I moved to Arizona, that my neighbor works in jaguar preservation—has told me about driving into the wilderness to harvest footage from cameras placed in the trees. She said the cameras had often been turned off, the lenses smashed and the memory cards wiped, presumably by drug smugglers or coyotes bringing people across the border.
I like this image, of a string of broken cameras in the trees, and I also like the image of a solitary jaguar pacing through unmapped wilderness, back and forth across a border it doesn’t know is there.
I say Lochiel is a town but the last estimate puts its population at 9. Its post office closed in 1911. Its border crossing closed in the 1980s, around which time there was some interest in reopening its one-room schoolhouse, but that didn’t happen because there were no students to attend. On the day I drove through, the library, a freestanding shelf under a tree at a bend in the road, was empty, and the town bulletin board was empty too.
But the thing I found most remarkable was a few miles away: A huge stone cross about 20 feet tall, just off the side of the road. There were two cherry red ATVs parked in front of it and some elderly people in cargo shorts having what appeared to be a packed lunch. They glared at me as I slowed down. I am always struck by how the smaller the place is the more forbidding its people can be.
It turns out the cross was a memorial for Fray Marcos de Niza, a Spanish friar credited with being the first European to set foot in Arizona. De Niza crossed near Lochiel in 1539 and supposedly made it as far as the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, during which time he saw the mythic Seven Cities of Cibola. His reports home were wondrous and likely fabricated. On returning to the region a couple of years later as guide to the conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, de Niza played dumb and spent the rest of his days in a kind of reputational purgatory. I know his cross is where it is because it marks the path he traveled, but I like to think that people of questionable legacy only get memorials in towns with a population of nine.
On the way home, I stopped in Patagonia and got a sandwich. I ate it in my car with my Rand McNally map unfolded in front of me. Small print on the back of the map suggested I visit the company’s website if I had “questions, comments or even compliments.” I went to the e-form and wrote that I had two questions and a compliment. The first question was whether or not they ever made errors in maps and had to recall or destroy them, and if so, what the nature of those errors were. The second question was whether or not they printed fewer maps now than they did ten or fifteen years ago. And the compliment was that it felt romantic to be sitting in my car in the middle of nowhere holding a large paper map.
I imagined who might be responsible for fielding my message. Was it like a call center, where the people responding were also responsible for trafficking e-forms from dozens of other companies, like the Card Father of call centers? Or was Rand McNally more of a mom-and-pop enterprise riding out the twilight of its industry, staffed by young zealots and old people too afraid to change?
This response came quickly too. If there was an error on my Arizona map, it said, I could send a note to the mapping staff using the online form and they’d fix it. It happened sometimes. If I’d meant that there was a printing error wherein a color was either faded or too saturated, or if the map was cutoff or mis-centered, well, that happened sometimes too, but far less often, though certainly they could furnish me with a replacement map if that was the case. As for print map sales, they were up, and here was an article on the Philadelphia Inquirer’s website to prove it.
I had mixed feelings. I appreciated the speed of the response and that it seemed to have been written by a human being. But either they didn’t want to answer my questions or didn’t understand them. The Inquirer’s article, for example, noted that sales of paper maps were up by eight percent, but that didn’t account for whether or not they were just printing fewer maps. The more I thought about it the more I felt like it was a political dodge, though I admit my heart was smarting that they hadn’t responded to the compliment.
I wrote back and asked at what point the Rand McNally company would remove a location from a map. In other words, how small or insignificant would a place have to be for people to have no reason to know it exists. The answer was decorous and multifaceted and concluded by saying that barring the presence of major roads or other travel markers they might remove a place from the map if they look at the region with satellite imagery and determine that there is “truly nothing there.”
Later, I learned that the owner of the map store wasn’t in fact its first owner, but had taken over the business after the death of its founder, a navy man named Burt Miller also responsible for a company in Green Bay Wisconsin called Dort Plastic Industries, of which I could find no other record. It seemed like a dubious inheritance. As for de Nizo, I wonder if the people at Rand McNally can see his cross, and what “nothing” really means.
When I came back from Lochiel, I unfurled the map I’d bought at the store and showed it to my wife. It was colorful and bombastic and suggested a place in which a lot of things had happened in a wild hurry. Looking at it, outside the store and outside its drama, I realized that every supposedly important Arizonan on it—their portraits printed over their region of impact—was a man. I laughed and apologized to my wife.
I briefly imagined a moment in the future where I would have to sit my son down and explain that maps were nothing more than diagrams of conquest and history was always written in the blood of those who lost. The guy at the map store was right: It would’ve been easier to just point at that little white speck in the middle of the cosmos and tell him that we are all very, very small.
Mike Powell lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Remember what it’s like
your phone to no end
and your hands will become flags
in every headlight’s field
My arms are forgotten against the wind
shuddering off the interstate
But consider your ghosted figure:
you could be anybody
with the desert at his back
is what it’s like to drown
alone in the open
The truck driver’s girlfriend is asleep on a bunk bed behind me. He removes his headset, a question mark wrapped around the ear. A collection of phone chargers converge in the adapter planted in the lighter. A CD slides a little on the dash. We pass the exit I thought we would take. Instead we lean toward Chandler, AZ, the truck stop passing on our left. “This is as far as I can go.” Donuts sunning on wax paper behind glass, the babble of a corner T.V. screen: memory’s sanded-down imagery. Later, do you call the loss of detail an impression? The donuts in their glass case, clean, while we, under harsh overheads, suffer our reflections. My face is not my own.
There’s a town outside of Phoenix named for a feeling—
I slept three nights once in Surprise.
Thanksgiving, 2012. The inflatable
bed I fell asleep on
had lost its air
by the time I was awake.
All these lawns look the same, though
everyone is here and we’re all fine.
My Sister lives here. If you’re not
my sister, you might find it simple,
An hour outside town there’s the former
military training grounds
used in World War II.
You can find me there, eating a Foster’s Freeze
from up the street.
You can look out over the palimpsest
of history, like Civil War re-enactments,
only it’s your job to reconstruct
what it would have looked like,
but it’s just practice, copy of a copy.
In her living room my sister
is shaving my father’s face
with black a bic razor. His hair
on the floor gathering.
—or how anything resembling a scene my mind moths up against: teething a flashlight, my brother-in-law dislodges the car battery, wiggles the Walmart bought replacement into place. This work a world I can’t hold onto.
The Patton War Memorial Museum
exactly is located three hours away
from where I am. Why
did I remember myself
standing here with ice-cream
cone in hand, looking out over
some flatness, a cemetery of tanks?
Why do I elide these distances?
Because this world will always
be more beautiful than you
the overpass arching over me seems
to say, gridding sunset.
I want to scrub the glow from memory.
Ben Rutherfurd received his MFA from the University of Arizona and is now pursuing a PhD in Poetry at the University of Georgia in Athens. His reviews have appeared in the Volta and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Spork and Green Linden.
I was thinking of saying I love Arizona. But attachment, history, terror: love isn’t technically the word for that.
I’ve wrapped myself in this map and used bungee cords to hold it to my body. I squeezed my arms back in after I hooked the cords and now I’m waiting.
I’m waiting for a feeling. I’m waiting until the temperature of the map and the temperature of my body become the same.
I drifted into the side of Arizona, the eastern side, when I was in my late twenties or early thirties. I came from New York to the West and rented a car. I didn’t have a lot of money so I spent nights at campgrounds. I stretched out on the back seat. An undeniable slant. A hump, also. Don’t talk to anyone. Or do.
I went to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, off Highway 191 in the Navajo Nation. By the time I got there, it was late in the day. An old woman was selling jewelry on the sidewalk. A few tourists wandered in the distance. The canyon, the sky, the earth. Miles as far as I could see, a tilt to the ground as I stood there on my two feet.
The idea was to go down to the valley floor and see the petroglyphs. Seeing the petroglyphs would be an experience, like the whole trip was an experience, a quest for experience. I walked to the bottom of the canyon and I was the only one down there and it was dusk. There they were, the petroglyphs. Anything could happen to me here, I thought. I could be raped, murdered, or have a spiritual encounter. I stood by the petroglyphs and waited for something to happen, and nothing happened, and then I hurried back up the trail to my car.
In the movie Out of Africa, Meryl Streep regales her gentlemen callers with a story. Fine brandy, African plains, Oriental rugs. Listen to me all night long. She was in love, in love with a cad. They were so experiential together, so passionate, so committed to the moment. They could fling brandy glasses, they could flout convention.
The storytelling part got to me, and the part where the lions laid on his grave.
When I look at the Rand McNally map of Arizona, I want to know about Rough Rock, Round Rock, Wide Ruins, Sweetwater. They are close to where I’d visited back on that first trip, when I was living in New York with my cats, and I may have even passed through Round Rock on my way to the canyon, or on my way to or from Window Rock, to or from Four Corners. I circle the places I could pretend to have gone, could imagine, could make up for myself, a territory of my past where it all happens here, in the desert, in this square state.
Last night’s dream: I am in the house where I grew up. I call Pima Animal Control and tell the girl I want my cat back. Apparently, I gave Astro to them (a cat I had way back when I made that Arizona trip). I have to explain why I want him back, but in order to do that I have to know why I gave him to them in the first place. I can’t think of a reason. I have to say something—to evade and shape and get her to do what I want: release my cat. Half awake, I’m still trying to figure out what to say. The only reason I can think of is I thought he’d be safer or better off at the animal rescue place. This seems like, it most certainly is, a lie.
At Canyon de Chelly, it was powerful and excellent to feel the sky and the earth and the supernatural. The man stalking me in the city couldn’t find me there. I was creating a story of myself for myself. I was an adventurer, alone but not lonely.
Things were what they were but more often they were other things.
I drove in the rental car and I looked in and I looked out also and saw a long road ahead of me and a long road in my rearview mirror. I passed places I never thought I’d see again. I was in danger of implosion, but I didn’t break.
There are rabbits and cats by the highways in Arizona that I want to keep safe. There are birds I want to keep safe. Birds are flying into turbines and windshields. At our house in Tucson, we keep the picture window dirty so the birds don’t crash. On the window is also a girl standing by a flower that my daughter made out of liquid plastic: window art. It’s there to let the birds know, this is glass. They still fly into the window sometimes. Sometimes they thump and then fly away. Sometimes they fall to the ground and either die instantly or don’t die instantly but die anyway. Yesterday a flock of birds was on the roof. The cat noticed it. I noticed it. They sounded like rain.
The roads I travelled back when I was in my late twenties or early thirties, when I was gathering Experience and being Alone but in a theoretically good way, when I was smoking just rarely enough to obsess about cancer with every cigarette, when I was having memories and false memories, when I was looking around and wondering if I liked anyone, or whom I actually liked, and noticing that there weren’t all that many of them, except for I was alright with men who did not speak but rather drank, and I was alright with Isak Dinesen, are marked in orange on my map. They come pushing in from New Mexico like a dubious storm. I really did have an experience there. The experience wasn’t what I thought it would be, but is an experience ever what you think it will be? What about the experience of bringing a cat to the animal shelter for no particular reason? What would that be like? Or of feeling the mistake of what you’ve done but not being able to apologize for it or acknowledge it, because you need to pretend that things are normal and reasonable when they are not, when you are seized, for some reason you can’t now remember or understand?
We drove close to Round Rock once, on Highway 160, on the way back from Denver, when our daughter was very young, watching the road or dozing in her car seat in the back of the Jeep Cherokee, same vehicle my husband was driving when we met, and which he drove to Arizona from DC. I’ve marked that trip on the map in green.
But since moving to Tucson in 2000, we’ve made deeper tracks in the highways traveling west. We go to Los Angeles and San Diego, usually in a loop. We take I-10, I-8. Roads are different when you drive them a lot instead of just once. Roads are different driving out and coming back.
This summer’s trip included a college visit. I was single at Canyon de Chelly, and then we were two, and for seventeen years we have been three. The theme of this year is: she is going away.
The trip from Tucson to Granada Hills, north of LA, is 514 miles, eight and a half hours if all goes well. We begin at seven in the morning. Pulling onto I-10 is like joining something. We’ve got supplies: beach stuff and suitcases in the trunk, pillows and a blanket in the backseat, maybe a little coffee, definitely water, some grapes, some Goldfish (in the old days), trail mix or cookies. Soon after we get on the highway we put in the CD. Over the years we’ve listened to every Harry Potter, one or two from A Series of Unfortunate Events, Stand By Me, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For the last three trips, we’ve listened to J.K. Rowling’s crime fiction, our daughter has aged into that, and the familiar cadence and writing style is soothing. While driving, napping, looking at the desert scrub, at the shops outside Phoenix, at the wind turbines.
Places we’ve never stopped: Picacho Peak, the red rock mini-mountain that looks like it belongs on Mars, or the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch in the same town. Places we’ve sped through and been caught on police radar: Eloy. Always slow down in Eloy. We stopped once at what is now a ghost outlet mall in Casa Grande, a stretch of empty storefronts. In Coolidge, an older ruin exists—we went here, too, when she was small, when we were new to the state—the Casa Grande Ruins, 600 years old. We fly by the Mesa exit, the airport where we get in and out of here, where once an airplane scared her. Hurtle past Scottsdale, where she and her friend picked up awards one night, walking across the stage together like tumbling deer, changing into floral cocktail dresses in the bathroom, putting makeup on one another in the backseat on the way back to Tucson and the prom. The white light of their phones. The silence of concentration. Also in Scottsdale, the Mid-century modern Valley Ho, and the restaurant with grilled artichokes and banana cream pie, and running back to the hotel in the rain, then walking in the rain drenched so why bother? Right before Phoenix you come to the replacement outlet mall, where we went one Thanksgiving night with money to blow. We bypass it all, LA a long way off, don’t stop, the longer you can go before the first bathroom break the better. Then there is a lot of nothing, and the book really kicks in, the first naps have been taken and we’re all alert again. This is the Arizona of miles and miles and miles. This is the Arizona of space and dryness, the Yuma Proving Ground, the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. You must be a connoisseur of the desert to like some of these places, to understand them. What can you know of any of it at 85 miles an hour? You know the feel of velocity and hurtling and you know the numbness and thrumming and sense of dislocation and insularity. You think about how many miles more until you’ll need a rest stop. You pop a grape. You listen to a story.
And if she would stay, I’d take her to Friendly Corners outside of Eloy, and we could go to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and we could hit Wickenburg—whatever that’s like. Otherwise, I might be spending a little too much time on Signal Mountain, or throwing my weight around at the Proving Ground, hanging out in Gunsight or Why. They don’t even play shuffleboard any more in Sierra Vista, child, did you know that? It’s all gambling online, lavender lotion, and special stools from Bed Bath & Beyond—
Her legend. Her vicinity, her index, her downtown, her map, her distances, her driving—she’ll drive through Arizona.
She’ll drive on.
Just yesterday evening when I was weeding the patch of gravel we like to think of as a yard, she came barreling in the driveway. I could hear music from behind the closed windows. When she drives, she looks calm.
I’m standing on the valley floor.
This is the landscape of your childhood, little one. These are the shopping centers and the indigenous ruins, these are the weeds and the blasted truck tires and these are the blooming Palo Verde and these are the paintbrush flowers. The tendrils of our journeys hold this map down. I would never give you away. And yet, here we are.
It feels safe, in our hurtling car. I know it’s not safe. Nothing is truly, 100% safe.
Picking apples and pears in Willcox.
First fishing expedition in Pine Top.
Easter bunny arrives at the Grand Canyon.
I do, I will always love it here.
Aurelie Sheehan is the author of five books, most recently the story collection Demigods on Speedway. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals including Alaska Quarterly, Conjunctions, Fence, Mississippi Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review. She teaches creative writing at the University of Arizona.
There are some roads you shouldn’t go down.
But you do it anyway.
Highway 89 connects Flagstaff to Tuba City. It runs right through the Navajo Nation, where your clock turns from Mountain Standard Time to Mountain Daylight Savings. The Navajos align, time wise, with Utah although much of the reservation lies within Arizona Borders.
Here’s a road that shouldn’t exist. Or, shouldn’t exist for me. I am going from Point A to Point B. The in-between is not meant for me to see.
If you suffer an aneurysm, a doctor might insert a shunt to reconnect your broken arteries to allow fluid to flow again freely. The heart likes free water.
Perhaps your heart has been abused. Perhaps your boyfriend left you when you were pregnant. You didn’t have a job. You had a quilt your mother made. Maybe you could pawn some jewelry.
On Highway 89, vendors sell jewelry under booths made from the wood of old cabins and reclaimed fences.
I can’t remember for whom or what they made the fences. I see horses in the distance. There are so many wrong news items about horses. They are wild. They are ours. They are original. They are not original, just as this road is not original. I can see the old bridge over Moenkopi wash. Its concrete is cracked but it will last as long as the horses, depending on the water, which is good for the animals but bad for the bridge.
From out of the wash ride a line of men, women, children. They live here so I avert my eyes. I am on a road not a reservation. I don’t know about horses or hats or these scarves—red, blue, so bright, even brighter than the dirt below the hooves of horses or above the tops of hats. I don’t look. The riders and the horses deserve some privacy.
A shunt is a kind of jewelry for your heart, the kind of jewelry a cheating man buys a forgiving wife. Does the silver reconnect her halves of heart? She has some solder she keeps in the garage but someone told her she needed some flux too and the only place she knows to get that is from her husband.
I could never stop to buy jewelry. I have to go 75 miles per hour. That is the speed you go to get from point A to point B.
In 2010, a landslide pulled the land right out from under the switchbacks of Highway 89. No way to get from Flagstaff to Page. My original home is on the other side of Highway 89. I am from Salt Lake City. My mother lives there. My mother ignores my pleas for an airplane. She tells me to get a horse.
I plan a sneak attack. Highway 89A runs beneath the Vermillion Cliffs, up to Jacob’s Lake, through Fredonia, then across the border to Kanab, Utah. It takes longer to get from Flagstaff to here but once I’m here you can’t kick me out of Kanab. My feet have touched the red dirt of my home state. I pretend I’ve been here so long, I don’t have to avert my eyes.
A stent is not a shunt although a stent may be made of the same material as a shunt. Its job is to reinforce the artery, like the engineers who reinforced the hill below Highway 89 so I could go home the fast way again.
My husband who has bought me jewelry but never the sorry kind because he’s never sorry (although he has little to be sorry for) drives in his car without me. He has the kids. I have the dogs. It’s some kind of tit for tat but I don’t mind the radio.
There is less water in this part of Arizona than there was because they moved the water to Utah. The Little Colorado is busy otherwise. The Big Colorado. Well, you know how it goes. Not even doctors or engineers know how to restore its passageways. The horses know but they’re not talking.
If you take a left on Highway 89A to Highway 67, you are no longer going home. The Grand Canyon waits for you like an aneurysm.
My husband, faithful companion, is not going home with me. He’s going fishing. I go with him, because there is something I want to see.
But we can’t see this road. No, no, no, not this one. The road he wanted to fish on is closed due to fire. The Hot Shot crew found water to extinguish the flame but now the fish have nothing to drink.
Forest Road 206 takes us to Scenic Vistas but we forgot to fill the gas tank. Three hours of dirt road driving and we have to turn around before we get there. To be safe. There’s as little gasoline as there is water on the edge of the Grand Canyon. It’s better to just pretend there’s nothing to see, avert your eyes, drive back. Taking the bumping road twice won’t kill us.
We turn around, drive back on Highway 67 to the gas station at Jacob’s Lake. We switch passengers. My husband gets water for the dogs. I get water for the kids. At the junction, I take a left. My husband takes a right. I watch him and the dogs until I can’t see them anymore in my rearview mirror. I know full well the way I’m going is not the way home because it really never was my road or my home, because it never was my home in the first place.
Nicole Walker is the author of five books: Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.
Miller’s Surplus sells, among many other things, retractable batons and grenade shells. I didn’t mean to start at Miller’s Surplus but I couldn’t help it. I feel like a tourist at Miller’s because I never really need anything they sell. The thing I remember buying here most was a pair of Danner boots that left hard-to-remove scuff marks on every hard surface they touched. I tend to gravitate towards the glass display cases that house the knives, binoculars, paramilitary literature and all things small but expensive. Like a tourist, the first thing I do is buy something: Field Manual 5-31, a Manual on Boobytrapping (hereafter FM 5-31). I feel uneasy buying it but the guy who rings me up is super nice and is particularly fond of FM 5-31.
I go across the street for coffee and to pour over my new book. I don’t quite know what I’m doing but want to be mentally keen for observation anyways. I take my toddy and sit down to flip through FM 5-31 and find cool passages like this one from Tactical Effects:
The ingenious use of local resources and standard items is important in making effective boobytraps. They must be simple in construction, readily disguised, and deadly. They may produce unexpected results if conceived in sly cunning and built in various forms. Boobytraps cause uncertainty and suspicion in the mind of the enemy. They may surprise him, frustrate his plans, and inspire in his soldiers a fear of the unknown.
Why am I here? The prompt said I could catalog trucking hats and write poems about emus. What does any of that have to do with maps though? Meanwhile I’m sitting here with my Ice Toddy, getting that familiar feeling of inner strobe light that only good Toddy gives, with a palm-sized map of downtown Tucson and a no-nonsense guide to hidden explosives.
If it sounds like things have gone wrong, it’s because they have. I dropped out of this assignment once already but was cunningly guilted into reentry by Nicholas T. Greer, my once writing teacher, who introduced himself to me by sending surveys about paradoxes and binaries since before day 1 of class while I was still drinking champagne out of the bottle and trying to enjoy what was left of summer break.
I cross the tracks on 7th St right by the mural on the back of Borderlands Brewery. The mural is of a desert landscape inhabited by desert animals with human faces. A few paces behind me are two men discussing contingency plans for in case they get kicked out of their halfway houses. Then, a different man in a blue shirt approaches and asks if somebody might be looking for me. I really hope somebody’s not.
It’s partly cloudy, your second favorite forecast to rain.
I realize I’m headed towards Tucson Meet Yourself, an annual festival also known as Tucson Eat Yourself. I’ve never personally been to Meet Yourself and really had no plans on going this year but the tour, if that’s what this is, seems like a good occasion. At least I’ll have something other than buildings to write about.
I stop at The Dusty Monk for a drink. I want to ballast the Toddy and yet again try to figure out what I’m supposed to do with the map. This is essentially just another dodge in a long string of assignment dodges that I’ve engaged in since I bought the map. One of the previous assignment dodges involved me watching the movie Apollo 13, after which I began to see the assignment as something that had gone horribly wrong and had to be miraculously helped back to earth by teams of physicists in Houston. In this metaphor I am Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell and the moon is meaning made out of my interaction with the map.
It turns out though that I’m more like Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland in the movie Castaway and the map and FM 5-31 are the volleyball Wilson. In this metaphor, I have to make ingenious use of local resources and set out for what I can only imagine is certain death and just pray that I get discovered by a more sea-ready cargo ship.
Let’s not even go into Turner & Hooch.
Stopping by the Monk also gives me a chance to say hi to my colleagues because—full disclosure—I work here. If today is to be a small sampling of culture as well as a tour of an area, it’s important that I experience both bars and coffee shops because, between the University of Arizona and the southwestern fringes of downtown, there exists what seems to be an unsupportable number of them. For me, this roughly 1.5 miles between school and work is Tucson, although I have to keep in the back of my mind that this 1.5 mile string of coffee shops, bars, and tattoo parlors is only a small walkable island in the much larger and sprawling sea of pot-holed grid that is also considered Tucson.
You will not be getting a tattoo today.
I flip through more of FM 5-31. It’s all totally over my head. I don’t even know what a blasting cap is. I could use the simple illustrations for adult coloring purposes, but I’m not into adult coloring. I’m just a fool who likes to buy stuff.
I enter Tucson Meet Yourself through El Presidio Park’s north entrance. This place is one of Tucson’s most renowned skate spots. As a skate spot, it’s called The Blocks because of all the staggered and layered cement slabs surrounding the fountain at the park’s center. When we were kids, my friends and I used to take the bus here to skate. I was never really good enough to do much with The Blocks but it was still fun and afterwards I got to tell people I had skated the blocks. Serious skateboarders were good enough at skateboarding to damage the blocks, and could only get skating done there at odd hours, and tended to have video footage of themselves that spoke for them.
Tucson Meet Yourself has a mission statement on its website that reads: “To research, document, interpret and present the living traditional arts and expressions of everyday life of the folk and ethnic communities of the multi-national Arizona-Sonora region.” It’s a pretty steep mission statement. For me though, there is something about removing the traditional arts and expressions of everyday life from the places where they usually present themselves that essentially cancels the cultural impact of experiencing those arts and expressions. It’s like going to a Running of the Bulls museum instead of running with the bulls, which, even actually running with the bulls now seems to me here in Tucson to be touristy.
But you’re here anyways, and you find yourself watching belly dancers in gold and red sequins.
Please pardon me my hometown weariness. I understand that many of us want to partake in special meats-on-sticks, and maybe actually would like to take 10-20 minutes out of our day to watch people perform a traditional folk dance since—for your’s truly at least—the bland and sterilized American culture I grew up with consisted of Pop-Tarts and Saved by the Bell.
The best thing here by far is the lowrider show. Lowrider shows are always good. Cruising culture and lowrider culture were huge here when I was growing up and, even though I was too young and too disconnected from the area to be a part of it, I was always fascinated by it. Many of my classmates at Safford Middle School carried lowrider magazines and were constantly building lowrider model cars, even going so far as to install miniature-lowrider hydraulics in them so their front ends would spring upwards, albeit much less romantically than life-size lowriders that, at their best, resemble vehicular dressage. Today’s showing is Cadillac and Chevy heavy with lots of Monte Carlos and DeVilles. Towards the easternmost edge of Meet Yourself, I see a buddhist monk scrolling down through the screen of his tablet and I realize how truly zen he is to be using an electronic tablet. Meet yourself fizzles out on the corner of Pennington and Stone.
I go for another beer at Hotel Congress. It will be relatively quiet there, all the action being still down the street. Hotel Congress is famous for having almost burned down one time and its subsequent connection to the capture of infamous gangster John Dillinger. Congress celebrates his arrest but, with all the pictures of the guy’s image scattered around the hotel, it’s easy to get confused into seeing him more as Congress’s patron saint. I’m surprised that Congress doesn’t sell votive candles with Dillinger’s face on them. In fact, I can’t say for sure that they haven’t. If they did, I would shell out the ten bucks Congress would charge—they would charge ten—and go light it at El Tiradito, a small wishing shrine behind a Mexican-food restaurant’s parking lot which is important enough to this town to have its own spot on the Rand McNally map.
On my way there I pass by The Stillwell House where a wedding party is getting ready to start their procession down the aisle. The bride is struggling with her heels. Just beyond, Armory Park is mostly empty. There is a man passed out by our south-bound walkway and a boy and girl setting up a slackline tightrope between two trees. Like a yoga studio across from a bar, they are visions of sickness and health, albeit hard to know for sure which one is which sometimes.
My friend Pinche Robert was the first person to show me El Tiradito. On my 26th birthday Pinche Robert got me so drunk that I woke up early the next morning on the side of a road in the industrial district, so far away from my house that I couldn’t see the Catalinas and had to walk around for a few minutes looking at the numbers on street signs before I could even determine which way was North. It’s for reasons like this that everyone calls him “Pinche.” From what I can gather, it really should be “pinchi,” not “pinche,” but, usage wise, the two are pretty much interchangeable around here even though “pinche” is more like “kitchen bitch” and “pinchi” is more like “fucking” as an adjective.
The map guides me to El Tiradito, which is good because I haven’t been for a long time and it’s not where I remember. El Tiradito’s facade is pocked adobe with prayers and notes tucked into the pocks. There are votive candles everywhere. It looks like it just rained here but only here, and all but two of the hundred or so candles have gone out. I am not religious or even particularly superstitious but I wouldn’t ever even dream of fucking with any of the notes, despite really wanting to know what’s written on them. There are a few framed pictures and all of the photos have those watery ink bubbles that pictures get when they get wet inside of a frame. Perhaps most curiously, there is a rain-warped pocketbook copy of J.A. Jance’s Shoot Don’t Shoot laying on one of the shrine’s adobe mantles. When I come back a few days later to photograph the book, it will be gone.
Granada Ave swoops northeast back towards Meet Yourself. It would be a perfect tour-conclusion type street to take in order to observe one of Tucson’s religion-inspiring sunsets, but today’s is lame: a period rather than an exclamation point at the end of this tour. This wack tour.
Two men on miniature motorbikes ride by smiling and waving.
There are lots of folks trudging back to their cars from Meet Yourself. It’s at this point that your tour guide, Investigator Scott Turner, returns to the Dusty Monk, Hooch in tow, fatigued, ready for drink and decompression, only to find a poetry reading in progress. The poems are in praise of black matriarchs whom the readers call Big Mamas.
Denry Willson is a student at the University of Arizona.