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The midpoint of 2021 finds Tom and I spending the final night of our ten-day road trip in Page, Arizona. Tucked just inside the northern border of the Grand Canyon State, Page is home to Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, red rocks, and painted vistas that roll and repeat across distant horizons.
By the time we step through the door of our Scottsdale condo tomorrow afternoon, we will have driven nearly 2,500 miles … Arizona to Utah to Idaho to Montana and back again.
Along the way, we will have captured hundreds of photos; discovered a delectable German bakery (Forschers) in Orderville, Utah, where we consumed apple and cherry pockets; walked along the greenbelt and roaring rapids of the Snake River in Idaho Falls; marveled at our first live theatrical performance since the pandemic (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream) in Bozeman where we huddled with old and new friends on a blanket; and hiked around hairpin curves at magnificent Bryce Canyon National Park as a storm rumbled in the western sky.
Even with all of that (and much more I won’t detail here), the sweetest realization is conquering the twists and turns of life on a long road trip again. It is the first time Tom and I have ventured out to the highways and byways since I suffered a mild heart attack in 2017 in St. Louis on our shared sixtieth birthday on the way to our new home in Scottsdale.
Thankfully, this 2021 swing through the western states puts greater distance between the trauma of the past and the poignancy of the present. That brings me to the midpoint of 2021, where–tonight–the possibilities of post-pandemic, vaccinated life feel as endless as the Arizona horizon.
This must-see geological wonder in southern Utah proved to be more spectacular than imagined. On the last Tuesday in late June, threatening skies produced little rain over the hoodoos (spire-shaped rock formations) in the drought-stricken west, but plenty of photo opportunities.
Already dazzled by the majestic skies of Montana and Idaho, two sixty-something, homeward-bound, Scottsdale-Arizona guys hiked 1.5 miles along the Rim Trail … high above the Bryce Amphitheatre depression … from Bryce Point to Inspiration Point without slipping, tripping, tumbling or losing consciousness.
Traveling through the West, it is the beauty, desolation, and vastness that inspire me most. The sky and geography of Utah and Idaho collude to create soaring, lasting impressions. They seduce me, whispering ancient tales and promising a blur of stories of high plains, dusty buttes, painted plateaus, river rapids, and arid summer days.
As we travel highways and backroads, we gather and stack our stones. We accumulate memories of lovers and friends, tranquility and turmoil, balance and incongruity, strength and vulnerability.
Our teetering stones represent the yin and yang of our natural existence. Without them, we would have nothing to account for our discoveries, our disappointments, our victories, our losses, our presence.
Gaze beyond the earth to the cerulean sky. It lightens our load. The blueness invites us to forget the gravity of our stones, to aspire to possibilities loftier, to imagine peace over the weight of our past.
Despite the hellish Arizona heat (which has had me in a funk) and the general absence of much-needed monsoon rains this summer (more on that later), there is something stunning and cinematic about living in the desert southwest. Big skies. Jagged mountains. Spiky saguaros. Red rocks. Dazzling sunsets.
I realize I may get a few eye rolls here from a pragmatist. Or someone who’s lived in the Valley of the Sun for his or her entire life. But remember. I’m coming at this from the perspective of having spent thirty-plus years of my life in relative flatness. Namely, northern Illinois, where you can drive for miles and know you’ll never see a rise in the grade of the road.
Evidently, I’m not alone in recognizing the allure of a western landscape. Case in point: Hot Rods to Hell. It’s a rollicking road trip film about a middle-aged couple, who decide to leave behind the civilization of the east for an overdue escape to the desert in the west.
As the 1967 flick begins, traveling salesman Tom is recovering from a car accident that has injured his spine. Fortunately, he survives mostly intact. But he’s left with jittery nerves and a chronic back ailment. Tom and his wife, Peg, decide the best antidote is to leave their Boston home. They opt to spend their later years operating a motel in the California desert. They figure it will be a quieter existence and the dry heat will be good for Tom’s back.
It all makes sense, right? But they encounter a few problems on their way west. Tom (played by a haggard Dana Andrews, who’s nearing the end of his rope and career) and Peg (portrayed by a frantic Jeanne Crain, who must have needed the money desperately) are derailed on their journey by a band of teenage hoodlums.
The carousing kids crave controversy, drag racing and Tina. She’s Tom’s and Peg’s shapely, seventeen-year-old daughter. The terrible teens become fixated on the idea of trying to drive Tom and his family off the road. Apparently, just for the thrill of it and the chance for a rendezvous with Tina.
It would be criminal of me to spoil the ending of this overwrought, drive-in disaster, because it is a super-suspenseful spectacle that devolves into scene upon scene of jaw-dropping, delicious, B-movie mania. However, be forewarned. This desert debacle includes a cameo appearance by Mickey Rooney, Jr., and his band, (yes, Mickey had a son … and his son had a band) performing poorly in a seedy club that just happens to be on the premises of the motel, where Tom and Peg will soon become landlords.
At any rate, if you follow my stories, you know that, beyond the fact that my husband’s name also is Tom, there actually is a thread of thematic truth to be salvaged here. (Even though, my Tom doesn’t have a back problem or a nervous disorder; we have no plans to buy or manage a motel hideaway; we don’t have a teenage daughter; my name isn’t Peg; and I my friends tell me I look nothing like Jeanne Crain.)
When Tom and I packed up our car and traveled west in July 2017, my surprise heart attack in St. Louis nearly ran us off the road like a pack of hell-bent, drag-racing teens frantic for on An Unobstructed View. But, like Tom and Peg, we survived the experience. Now in my wide-eyed sixties, I write poetry. I dodge crazy Arizona drivers. I tell screwball slice-of-life stories. I bask in the dry heat. I swim outdoors to keep my heart pumping.
And, when torrential rains boil over the mountain peaks and spill into the valley, I savor the monsoon storms. Like the one that blew in last night unexpectedly. Blowing dust and bending palm trees. Igniting the atmosphere. Lighting up the sky. Dumping an inch of rain on the parched Phoenix area. Reminding me as I drove home through the shadowy Papago buttes that these “bonus” years in the desert southwest after that fateful road trip are an ever-evolving chapter in a story that’s far from flat.
I was wearing broken blended bifocals when my husband Tom and I arrived at our new home in Scottsdale, Arizona, on July 12, 2017. The frames had cracked in St. Louis during our July 6 cardiac ordeal there. Then, on the evening of July 10, as we prepared to check into our hotel room in Weatherford, Oklahoma, they proceeded to fall apart. The lenses landed on the counter in a clatter. I sighed and shrugged as Tom, the front desk attendant and I took turns taping the pieces back together.
Like the death of my smart phone heading south from Chicago to St. Louis earlier in our journey, it was just the latest mishap on our way west from one home to another … the latest coincidental casualty in the Bermuda Triangle of my mild heart attack (an oxymoron far less laughable than jumbo shrimp) on my sixtieth birthday in the city where I was born.
Fortunately, we arrived safely in Arizona less than a week after a cardiac swat team at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis removed the blockage in the left side of my heart and inserted two sparkling stents for good measure. By the middle of July, Tom and I found The Frame Doctor in Phoenix. For sixty bucks, he was able to salvage my lenses (they were undamaged) and insert them (a much less delicate procedure than the one with my back on a gurney back in St. Louis) into a new, somewhat stylish, set of frames that served me well in my first two years as an aspiring Sonoran Desert rat.
But I began to notice some changes in my vision recently. So, in July I visited my new ophthalmologist for an annual eye exam. He confirmed what I already knew. My vision had changed. He told me I needed a stronger prescription and a new pair of eyeglasses. I picked them up on Tuesday.
Perhaps it’s strangely poetic that the mangled glasses that got me here … the glasses that made it possible for me to write An Unobstructed View and tell my stories here about my first two years in Arizona … have now been retired. They have become my back ups. The more powerful ones you see above, straddling my latest book, have taken their place. I’m counting on them to do their job in my blended bifocal world. Propped on my nose, they will accompany me wherever I go.
I’ll need them to see it all clearly … every memorable and not-so-memorable moment, every stunning Scottsdale sunset and monsoon storm, every word I read and write on the road that is life’s journey.