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IWP Fall Residency 2009 Pt. II: On The Dusty Road

Marius and Kathy at one of the many breathtaking stops.
Marius and Kathy at one of the many breathtaking stops.

The leaves in Iowa City begin to change color in September, from dark green to all shades of amber, brown, or red. When the temperature starts to dip a little at night. This is also the time of year when the writers venture out on the first of two travel periods, where they get their choice of three destinations, each led by IWP staff members.

Behind Door #1 = San Francisco, California

Door #2 = New Orleans, Louisiana

And behind Door #3, a road trip down through the land in between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas, billed as a direct-dialogue with land that captured popular imagination as the American West, both as an American ethos and a metaphor for self-reliance; the birthplace of the archetypal cowboy, a figure embedded in the American experience. Artists such as Georgia O’Keefe have celebrated the sense of isolation and independence of the sparsely populated region; a region that inspired the films of John Ford and Sergio Leone; that made Iowan John Wayne a legend; and tracts of interstate that provided a landscape of inspiration for writers up through Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.

Ge Fei and Lijia hiking at Zion National Park.
Ge Fei and Lijia hiking at Zion National Park.

Writers who chose Door 3 chose to travel in concert with historic American artistic figures and the works they created. To travel like modern cowboys on the open road, to walk along towering cliffs and through narrow canyons, and listen to the roar of rapids either far below or at arm’s reach. Tabbed to lead the Mountain West experience, I flew with Ge Fei (China), Vicente Groyon (the Philippines), Marius Ivaskevicius (Lithuania), Hagar Peeters (the Netherlands), Kathy White (New Zealand), and Lijia Zhang (China), to Salt Lake City, where our chuckwagon (a 2008 Dodge Minivan) awaited.

“I can drive, anytime, if you’d like,” Marius offered.

After touring Temple Square, and walking a couple miles out of our way for a Thai restaurant Marius read about in a guidebook – which delivered, especially when it came down to the Michael Jackson muzak playing in stereo for atmosphere (there’s nothing quite like eating Moo Yang to Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough on saxophone) – we’d set out from Salt Lake City southbound on I-15, led by a British-accented GPS guide that had tried twice already to steer us incorrectly – Marius, as it turned out, really did have a keen eye for maps.

The interstate cuts Utah diagonally to its southwest corner, close to where Utah, Arizona, and Nevada meet, and at some point between Holden and Sulphurdale the sun started to fall in the west. Like a campfire, the writers huddled around each other in the glow across the back seats, exchanging stories of home, their own personal writing process, and of the places they’d seen featured in the books they’d read. Marius, our map guru, sat up front, pouring through the guidebooks and road maps for sites we just had to pull off the road for. It was hard not to feel a bit like the oddest sort of soccer mom, falling just short of an international “Are We There Yet?” chorus line.

The Gang at Sunset.
The Gang at Sunset.

I’d arranged for rooms at a lodge just south of the entrance to Mount Zion National Park, where we’d stay for two nights before moving on to the Grand Canyon. So of course when, on the road, I called ahead to notify the front desk we’d be checking in late, they were afraid to notify me they had no such reservations.

“That’s impossible,” I said. “I made them three weeks ago.”

“Please spell your name for me again,” the man on the phone asked.

Oh boy. “T. i. e. F as in Frank. e. n. T. h. a. l. e. r.”

They had nothing in their system under that name.

“Do you know if anything else nearby is available?”

This was the only point along the entire trip at which the van was silent.

“Not this time of year.”

In a rental car in the middle of Utah, I let the van know plans may not be as such. “Let’s stay in a roadside motel!” Vicente said. “The real American road trip experience.”

I dug through my papers for the confirmation numbers, and Marius, seizing another opportunity to drive, made an offer I still had to refuse. Billboards were a fairly uncommon sight along this vast stretch of Utah landscape, but with Motel ads splayed across exit markers, an excitement rose up from the back for a Best Western or the Spinning Wheel Motel. If we had packed sleeping bags, they would have laid out under the stars, our Dodge Caravan circled around us, celebrating the landscape that influenced artists who influenced them.

The South Kaibab Trail. Grand Canyon. 2 miles in. 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
The South Kaibab Trail. Grand Canyon. 2 miles in. 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another half hour down the road I called the lodge back with the confirmation numbers (yet a whole other story). As I should have guessed from the start, they’d butchered my name in their computers, swapping both a C and a P in there somewhere. The desk would stay open until we arrived, he said, we were not to worry about our rooms at the lodge. That’s not it at all, I told him. The group looked forward to it.

5 days, 4 states, and 1500 miles of driving later, these 6 writers hiked miles of the American West through 2 national parks; they trekked up the Mountains at Zion, and down the face of the Grand Canyon – Marius dipped his toes into the Colorado River; Lijia taught American idioms to Ge Fei along the trail to the Temple of Sinawava; and at the end of it all, they dropped a total of more than 3,000 feet in elevation. We’d long since shut off our faulty road guide, stopped off the roadside at vermillion rocks that grew out of the ground, at an old Mormon fort, and at a diner for “Ho-made Pie” (where I subsequently left my sunglasses). And somewhere across the Utah and Arizona roads, I should have let Marius take the wheel…what had we to lose?

At the rim to the Grand Canyon...where's Kathy???
At the rim to the Grand Canyon...where's Kathy???

joseph m. tiefenthaler, program assistant

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