Dispatches from a past life: GART ’06 highlight reel

(NOTE: don’t let the WP date stamp fool ya; this was composed and posted May 1, and then edited on the 2nd. I ain’t no slacker.)

Oh hai, Blogathon. What are you doing here? I didn’t expect you till May…wait a sec: it’s MAY 1st already?!? Criminy. Guess I’m gonna have to improvise somethin’ right quick.

[rummages through dark recesses of brain]

Aha! I’ve got it! I’ll take us back to the heady days of 2006, when I was fresh outta college, Twitter was a newborn babe, and Facebook was still a noun.

Before attempting to identify some real-world application for my Anthropology degree, I embarked on a far less daunting but no less exciting journey with my dear dear friend Jonathan. We decided to embrace both the uncertainty of our future and our dwindling carefree days by circumnavigating this massive country of ours in a ’96 Ford Taurus stationwagon (below – ain’t she a beauty?), packed to the gills with camping gear, sundries and yellowed highway maps from prior travels.

Twelve weeks. Thirty states. Thirteen thousand miles. And no fewer than four fiberglass lumberjacks. That was the Great American Road Trip of 2006 – GART ’06 for short.

Inspired by William Least Heat Moon‘s classic travelogue “Blue Highways,” we created a Ning blog with the same name (which apparently no longer exists) and chronicled our adventures in national parks, Waffle Houses and post offices far off the beaten path. What follows are excerpts from our time in Arizona, Utah and Wyoming. It was funny to dig this out of the digital archives, wax nostalgic about (relatively) simpler times and reflect upon how my writing has changed (or not) since I exited academia and entered the daily news cycle.


Tombstone’s official motto, “The Town Too Tough to Die,” seems to have been emblazoned on every heretofore blank surface, from cheaply made shot glasses to the sides of stagecoaches constructed solely for tourist enjoyment to faded street signs that sway in the dusty desert wind. Even if Tombstone is indeed as tough as advertised, however, one gets the sense that it has been just barely clinging to life for quite some time. Despite its garish storefronts and spirited “gunfights” that take place every hour on the hour (more tourist-friendly facets of the town), Tombstone feels as if its heyday has long since passed, and has nothing new to promote or purvey. So, it’s doing what many former boomtowns or places of age-old infamy in the West have done: staking its future on its past.

Tombstone gained fame in the late 19th century, first for its silver mines and then for the notorious shootout at the O.K. Corral in 1881 (signs for the corral entice tourists with the beguiling slogan, “walk where they fell”). Because of the shootout between then-Sherriff Wyatt Earp (and his cronies) and the McLaury-Clanton gang, and aided by the numerous movies about said shootout, the town has constructed a lawless, shoot-‘em-up, string-‘em-up image. In addition to the staged gunfights, an animatronic pirate with beady, red eyes invites visitors in to see “ye olde ghosts of Tombstone.” It’s a wonder that they don’t have somebody releasing tumbleweeds into the streets at strategic intervals.

Our visit to Tombstone was brief, to the point, and without fanfare. We came to see the kitsch, and we knew we could see it without spending money on a gunfight. We walked down the two main streets, closed to all traffic except the garish carriages, and popped into stores with such names as “Madam Mustache’s” and “Big Nose Kate’s Saloon” (Big Nose Kate was Doc Holiday’s gun-toting girlfriend). We picked out a few postcards, and took nothing else but memories of the pink-and-green, campy, kitschy Wild West that Tombstone would have us remember (a version, it should be noted, that has put its current status as a National Historic Site in jeopardy due to its deliberate alterations of historic buildings for financial gain). Unfortunately, the inaccurate and downright tacky main drag is not worth remembering, except as a cautionary tale to other historic places with aspirations to profit off the past.

-Miles: 7,258


The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.

– Edward Abbey

Who better than the American West’s most passionate protector to introduce what is arguably the American West’s most exquisite landscape? Indeed, when one stands at the mouth of Zion Canyon, staring up at the monoliths that cast long shadows over the canyon floor, one can understand the urgency with which he wrote about the need to protect the sacred Western wilderness from humanity, most specifically urban developers. Looking at what has transpired in much of the American West in the past few decades, it is easy to see not only why Abbey championed land preservation so vehemently, but how his and other environmentalist protests were continually ignored. From Palmdale to Phoenix, from Flagstaff to Fort Collins, development – and the condos and factories that go with it – have swept through the landscape like wildfire. Unlike fire, however, the bulldozing and concrete-laying required to establish “civilization” render the landscape impossible to regenerate.

Even the outskirts of Zion National Park – hallowed ground to me since my first visit there in 1994 – are not immune to expansion, and every year more resort hotels and ritzy condo complexes are plopped down on the desert cliffs, landscaped with non-native plants and watered in a way that looks and feels wasteful in a climate that sees less rain in a month than the sprinkler shoots out in a day. The once-small town of Springdale, just outside the park, has swelled in size to accommodate the resorts and New Age fusion restaurants, which spring up ever closer to the park’s entrance.

To be fair, however, the National Park Service is doing a few things right. Zion’s Visitor Center is a nationally renowned example of sustainable design that attempts to counter the less environmentally conscious development occurring just outside the park. Building features like passive-solar heating and thermal mass flooring incorporate the natural features of the Southwestern landscape and save thousands of dollars a year in energy costs. Bonus feature: it’s gorgeous.

Perhaps the niftiest feature of the park is its innovative shuttle bus system, which significantly cut down on individual car traffic and has made it far easier for visitors to navigate the park. In 2000, Zion shut down the main park road to motorist traffic, and started using propane-fueled shuttle buses to transport people to various trailheads throughout the park. It has been embraced by visitors (myself included), who have marveled at the buses’ quiet efficiency.

Of course, more stunning than any environmentally friendly innovation at Zion is the environment itself. Even as a 10-year-old child, I was in awe of the landscape’s expansive beauty, and felt what in retrospect must have been reverence for the land, which was like a strange and wondrous alternate universe within our own. Never before had I seen colors like those on monoliths like the Watchman and the Great White Throne; never before had I seen shadows transform a place into a completely different world before my eyes; never before had I climbed to the top of a cliff, looked for miles in all directions, and been moved in a way that I could not explain nor truly understand. It was Zion, I believe, that kindled the first spark of my love for those wild places that remind me of what a privilege it is to be alive on Earth. Abbey again: “The highest treason, the meanest treason, is to deny the holiness of this little blue planet on which we journey through the cold void of space.”  – Miles: 6,703


After a night of epic thundering, we awoke to a still-gray sky and benign drizzle. Relieved to see that the brunt of the storm had passed, we quickly dressed and broke down camp, hitting the road in near-record time (for us, at least). No more than ten minutes later, as we drove towards Wyoming, the sky was once again an ominous coal gray and the wind whipped the trees into tangles. Undeterred by this unwelcoming weather, and in need of a few postage stamps, we stopped at what might be the world’s smallest post office – the USPS side-of-the-road shack in Four Corners, WY.

A large, bespectacled, white-haired woman sat at a cluttered desk. To her right were roughly 40 post office boxes – perhaps the same number as the town’s population – and decades-old posters declaring the arrival of now-defunct commemorative stamps. She peered at us from behind her large-rimmed glasses as we awkwardly shuffled into the office, unsure of how to fit ourselves into the miniscule space.

We were seeking a stamp to send a postcard to Canada and asked the woman how much postage we needed. She didn’t know. She apologized: she didn’t actually work in the post office – her daughter did – and she was filling in for the day. She pulled out a fat binder of postage-rate tables, specs, and regulations and began flipping through it, in search of the desired information, but she didn’t have any idea where to look. Forward and backward, backward and forward, she looked through the rate tables. Several minutes later, I lost patience with that and just asked for a 55-cent stamp (my guess at the necessary postage). That turned into its own ordeal, as she searched for the correct combination of smaller-denomination stamps, which led to a trip to her house (behind the shack) to make change, as there weren’t enough small bills in the cash register to complete the transaction.

It was only about 200 feet from the postal shack to her house, but the rain had begun anew, and by the time we were inside again we were soaked. The woman told us that once a year or so Four Corners would experience a three-day rain; perhaps this was it. Judging from the torrential downpour in which we found ourselves, a three-day dose of this rain could put the entirety of Four Corners underwater.

After finally receiving our change, we departed Four Corners rather abruptly (the woman, instead of showing us out, went to check on her mother, who had to have been approaching the triple-digit age bracket) and headed towards sunnier skies. We found them in Newcastle, WY, along with a fine plate of food at Donna’s Main Street Diner. Still soaked from our Four Corners experience, we eagerly gobbled up monstrous oatmeal pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and a behemoth breakfast burrito. Hit the spot like nothing else could. Between the hot food and Paula, our perky permed waitress, we recovered from the rain and found ourselves ready for an adventure on the Oregon Trail.  – Miles: 3,086

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