duck-shaped pain


24 November 2001
A Long Drive To Get Groceries And See Cactus

Monday, 5 November to Wednesday, 7 November

I left Salome, happy to be on the road again. I felt like my driving muscles had atrophied during my time at the grandparents, and I needed to get away from the enormous quantities of food that my grandmother was putting out, anyway.

I drove east and then south, heading towards Tucson. I didn't have any one compelling reason to go there, just a collection of vague notions and ideas, but also wasn't ready to wrap up my trip yet, and the only other option I saw was to go to Phoenix -- a place which I hate with the heat of a thousand suns.

(I don't have a good, thought-out explanation as to why I dislike Phoenix so, but the reasons tend to boil down that it just seems wrong to have a city of that size out in the desert with no real water sources of its own. Central Arizona Project, anyone? And the way it keeps growing and spreading out and the fact that there doesn't seem to be anything there at all, just subdivisions and golf courses and freeways and people driving between one and the other. I love cities, but there should be a reason that they're there, and Phoenix doesn't seem to have any real reason to be.)

The drive was fairly short and unexciting. I passed a lot of outlet malls on the way, and dodged many hidden state patrolpeople.

My original plan, dating from when I left home to about 5 miles outside of Tucson, was to stay in one of its two hostels. Having learned from my Santa Fe experience, I read up on the Tucson hostels while I was in Salome, looking for reviews or accounts of staying at one of the two places. Everything I found seemed to be positive -- these were places without the dankness and creepy hippie guys sometimes found at other hostels.

But when I entered city limits, I started thinking about double beds and hot showers and endless TV channels and so I ended up pulling into a convenient, nationally advertised motel and checking in. I had a coupon, and it was sort of the off-season, so the motel ended up being only $10 a night more than the hostel.

I brought my stuff in to my room, took a shower, and then consulted my guidebook and the telephone directory to see what it is, exactly, that I wanted to do during my two nights in Tucson. My plans were kind of simple: check out the university, find some decent food, try to find my way around.

That last one turned out to be really easy. Tucson, like all Western cities, is laid out on a strict grid system, and once you know the main roads where things are on, finding things is pretty simple. And my randomly chosen (well, chosen via coupon) motel turned out to be very close to the university, so everything turned out, location-wise, better than I thought.

I will be honest here. Sure, most of my reasons for coming to Tucson were sort of vague. Except one, that is. The one place I didn't want to leave Tucson without visiting. It wasn't a museum, or a building, or anything listed in the guidebook. I'm not proud -- it was a store. A store that I once lived near [1] and whose absence I feel every time I search for decent coffee or good cheese or big bags o' arugula. Which explains why I drove 700 miles from my home just to go to Trader Joe's.

I am so lame.

Might as well make the best of being lame while I could, though: I bought two big cans of coffee, an enormous chocolate bar, some tiny cartons of tomato puree, some boxes of Arborio rice, some dried pears, a jug of hand lotion, some cheap wine, a package of salmon jerky, a bag of taro chips, and some other stuff that I have since eaten and forgotten about. Had I a cooler, there would have been cheese and frozen rice bowl purchases.

Now that the important part was out of the way, I drove some more around Tucson, figuring out where things were. I passed some thrift stores (noted for future reference) and other things of possible interest, and then honed in on the next most important stop: the used bookstore.

I'm sure Tucson has more than one used bookstore, but I went to the important one: Bookman's, which claims to be the largest used bookstore in the Southwest. I can't think of any others off the top of my head which could compete, so I'll have to agree. It's big. I wandered around it for a long time, but in the end (and this should be a shocker) didn't buy anything.

After this, it was time to eat. My guidebook listed many restaurants, the majority of them specializing in Sonoran-style Mexican food. But I can get that back home, and I was in the mood for Vietnamese food, anyway. Not sure why, but that's all I could think about. I figured that if I drove around the university enough, some pho joint would turn up sooner or later.

This did not happen, at least not on this night. Which turned out to be a good thing.

I drove and drove, and ran into about every other type of Asian cuisine, but not that which I was looking for. I got hungrier and hungrier, and finally I drove by an Indian restaurant, and figured, why the hell not?

The restaurant was empty -- not a good sign at dinner time, in a part of town populated by hungry students. But I was here, so I might as well eat. I ordered some typical stuff -- saag paneer, naan, rice, all the standards. Which came to the table sooner than I expected, seeing that I was the only customer and all.

After eating, I had to wonder why I was the only customer, because the food was terrific -- the best saag paneer I've ever eaten. Creamy and heavily spiced, and not sweet-tasting, like it's made at some other restaurants I've eaten at. Each bite was a revelation of the perfect blending of spinach and cheese.

After that meal, the rest of the evening was spent recovering. I went back to the motel and luxuriated in bad TV.

Tuesday was the day I did something educational, something that helped feed the cactus obsession that I've had ever since I was a kid: I went to the most cactus-intensive national park in the country.

There are other things to do in Saguaro National Park besides seeing cacti, but I wasn't interested in them. What I wanted was to be overwhelmed by cacti, to see vast fields of them as far off as I could. And that's what I got. I drove on the aptly-named Cactus Forest Drive, an eight-mile road through thickets of saguaros, ocotillos, prickly pears, chollas, and (in the not-cactus category) many, many palos verdes trees.

There were not many visitors that morning - it was basically me and three guys from Tennessee who were out seeing the country on a leave of absence from college. I ran into them a few times during the drive -- they were in a big rented minivan, with one guy driving and the other two hanging out the open side door, filming the cactus as they sped by. I also ran into a bunch of people out running and biking. The park is right on the edge of Tucson city limits, so it's a convenient place to exercise for those who live close to the park.

After I viewed the cactus, the rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I went to some thrift stores, spent some time at a weird themed mall (the real native environment for many Arizonans), checked out the "hip" shopping area by the university (bead store after bong store after bead store after bong store), napped for a while back at the motel, and then finally located some Vietnamese food for dinner. I had tripe-and-meatball pho and some bizarre lemon tea for dinner, and it was good. I went back to the used bookstore to look around some more, but I was still really tired, so back I went to the motel to sleep and watch TV and that was basically the end of my Tucson adventure. I actually liked it a lot there, since I went to determine whether or not I could handle living there for a few years if I decide to go to grad school at the U of A. It's a pretty nice place, full of little adobe-type houses (and no lawns -- always good to see towns that have escaped the tyranny of the lawn), and it doesn't seem too expensive to live in, so it's a possibility.

But at this point in the trip, I just wanted to get home and sleep in my own bed and not go anywhere for a while. So after I checked out of the motel, I headed for home -- a nine-hour drive.

The drive was uneventful, except for one thing.

I was in Arizona for the end of the World Series, so many people in the state who were not me were excited. However, I was in Tucson when many of the major celebrations were going on, and it seems that the people there regarded the victory as not something all Arizona could be proud of, but rather something that happened only to Phoenix, which means it should be ignored by any means necessary. So I didn't get any real glimpses of fan mania until I drove through Phoenix on my way home. I went through there about an hour before the victory parade was about to start, and my new definition of hell is sitting in my idling car while the entire city of Phoenix tries to use the same freeway exit at the same time. There was a lot of honking. [2]

Eventually, I got home, where my bed and the dog and the washer and dryer were waiting for me. I was very happy to see them.

Now that you've slogged through the above, you should reward yourself by requesting one of my super-fancy, homemade, 2001-edition Christmas cards. I do this every year for friends and interested journal readers, and all I ask of you is that those interested in getting a card send me their address or other sign of intent by December 1st. Mail me now and receive bounty later. I'm sure I'll mention it more than once between now and then, so if you need to think about it…

[1] In Oregon.

[2] To give Phoenicians some credit, though, I didn't hear or read any stories about victory-induced mayhem. I'm used to the Colorado school of celebrating sports victories, where people riot in the streets and light things on fire and punch random strangers in the face, so it was a nice change.

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