"The desert stretches as far as the Earth exists" (Arizona, 2020)

The eye goes and goes until, almost in Mexico, hills rise as if God pinched up the tablecloth.

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

I jotted down these postcards on a road trip in the American Southwest at the start of the bad year. They're a writing exercise from my friend and mentor Jacqui Banaszynski – a postcard a day, always intended for a friend but never sent, committed in seconds without pausing the pen, just to let the mind excrete without judgement before the real work starts. I recommend it. Published for traveling minds, without comment or intention.

05.01.2020
Phoenix

I drove out of Phoenix on roads six-lane wide. Everywhere else they'd be called highways. Here they're just streets. Bland houses on both sides, cloned to infinity, retreating behind cinderblock walls and moats of sterile lawn. It must take a strong inner life to survive a childhood here, but how could they grow one? A desert of the imagination.

09.01.2020
Saguaro National Park

I had imagined the cactus a lone sentinel of the desert. They are armies, descending from the slopes, pouring into the valley, silent, unrelenting legions. They grow in forests with no canopy and no birdsong, only the crunch and swoosh of my boots, alien visitor to an alien land.

11.01.2020

Tucson to the Mexican border

You don’t really turn south on highway 80 in Benson, you descend onto it. The road dips and suddenly the desert stretches as far as the Earth exists. The eye goes and goes until, almost in Mexico, hills rise as if God pinched up the tablecloth. I’m heading to Bisbee, tucked in one of the folds. Forty-nine miles in barely bending lines. As I travel south a careless visitor, I think of those who move north in hope and anxiety. I see the acacia shrub that shreds their clothes and the ocotillo that refuses to make shade. I see a border patrol checkpoint. All that ails me vanishes.

12.01.2020
Bisbee and Tombstone, Arizona

There couldn’t be two more different towns in America, and they’re just 20 miles apart. I came to Bisbee first, a copper mining town all stairs and twisty streets between the hills, minutes from the Mexican border. There, store owners put up signs in their windows defending the right to give water to migrants in the desert. The library was awarded Best Small Town Library in America, the locals are quick to point out. Town folks opened it after they woke up one morning in 1882 to one of their own hanging from a street pole. "We’ve got to get more wholesome entertainment," they thought. I’ve barely opened the door to a breakfast joint at the back of a private home that John sits up in his booth and opens his arms wide:

‘’Welcome! Join us. We’re debating how many perfect squares are in a waffle.’’

His smile splits his long grey beard and lights up gentle eyes. John washed up in Bisbee twenty years ago after a life here and there. He’s mad about Trump and climate change and hippies that became yuppies. The kind of mad that just sighs and shakes his head.

"High stakes breakfast then," I say. I order a 16-square waffle and I am in.

Tombstone is the red to Bisbee’s blue, and it mined silver. Here, signs proclaim Jesus and the second amendment. Roads are on a perfect grid. For entertainment, there’s the OK Corral reenactment every day at 2 and 4 pm. I‘ve barely parked on 5th Street in front of the Tombstone Epitaph newsroom — the longest-running newspaper in the West, the locals are quick to point out, born 1880 — that Virginia shuffles up to me.

‘’You here for the band?’’

Her face betrays no doubt that I know exactly what she’s talking about. She’s a professional photographer, she says, the band played new year’s eve at the American legion and they’re good and they’re at Crystal Palace tonight and her husband died of cancer in 2001 and thank God there was photography to keep her going. We grab bar stools together. She keeps walking up to the stage to take pictures, before shuffling again to one patron after the other, showing off a few passable frames. I have dinner, one beer, two beers, I write. I want to go, she wishes I wouldn’t.

"You should meet John," I wish I’d said. He’s just down the road.

13.01.2020
Apache Country

Even my sat nav could have fallen asleep today. “Turn left, continue 76 miles. Turn right, continue 87 miles. Turn left, continue 47 miles.” This country just won’t end. The drive from Tombstone, not quite at the southern border of Arizona, to Holbrook, not even close to the northern border, is exactly the length of a book. Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor started working together in brown, rust and gold plains. With every new ashen hill I ascended came a new sickening revelation of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. He fell in the red canyons of Apache country, and I drove through snowy pine forests with Christine Blasey Ford. I look forward to birdsong only tomorrow in Petrified Forest National Park.

14.01.2020
Petrified Forest National Park

If America fell, abandoned truth and betrayed everything she promised the world, I would love her still for one institution: the US National Park Service. Here is the best of Earth and the best of Man.

The painted desert astonished me. Browns, greys and purples. Yellows, reds and whites. Colors I don’t have words for, like so many languages I don’t speak. There goes that land that won’t end again. A 118-car freight train looks a toy for the giants in the sky.

Under my feet lie trees of stone, giants who cast themselves in quartz so we may know them. What will the planet have of us when we have finished destroying ourselves? Let me not be dust in the wind. Make me a mountain.

15.01.2020
Navajo country

I felt uneasy today. As I drove with 150 miles of open land in every direction around me, my chest tightened and my mind suddenly grew anxious. I felt an urgent and undeniable need to escape. The truth is the desert is starting to get to me. I crave horizons I can reach, landscapes my eyes can embrace and comprehend. English hills, say. Here the universe stretches faster than I can travel across it. The desert holds me and I may never emerge. Is there a world beyond this red one? Does green still exist? I peeked at the madness that threatened those who first traveled here with no certitude that the desert did, indeed, end.

16.01.2020
Monument Valley, Utah

On the road to Monument Valley, I understood the true meaning of isolation. After 60 miles without seeing a soul, I came to a crossroad. There stood a gas station. It had a market with 40 kinds of soda and three kinds of vegetable — if you’re going to have only three kinds of vegetable, I really don’t know why you’d make celery one of them. It had a laundromat. It was the only sign of civilisation or community for another 40 miles.

Ilene, my Navajo host, is 52 years old. She left home at 15 to go to high school in Salt Lake City. She lived with a Mormon host family who converted her. She returned home at 17, in 1982, when they finally opened a high school on the reservation. Within 3 months, she had graduated against her will. She was too far ahead of her classmates. She talks about living 275 miles away the same way I talk about being an exchange student across an ocean. “I think it was good for me to live off the reservation, to see more,” she says. “But I had to reconnect with the friends I left behind. I had to get to know my siblings all over again. My mother. It was hard.” Today, her kids do the same. One daughter is in Salt Lake City, another in Page, Arizona, two hours away. There are no jobs here, she says. Grocery shopping is a day trip. Her youngest son, 27 but could as well be a sulky 16, lives here and helps with the lodgers. I think she wishes he’d go, too.

Essays

Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.