Countdown Story #1: Safford, AZ

I trade morning frost on my tent for a midday sunburn. Dodge angry thorns and rattlesnake carcasses, and flick a scorpion off my pant leg. Vehicles fly past at triple digits, leaving leave behind a trail of empty beer cans and Gatorade bottles of piss. All day the desert dares me to let my guard down. All day I focus on the rippling horizon and wonder if I’m actually getting anywhere.

The stretching landscape defines potential. It insists I live with pure intention. I am inspired to keep going. Not just on this walk, but in life, too. The desert fills my mouth with a steady heartbeat. My heartbeat. I suddenly know things I could never know back home. Visions appear in daydreams. Chasms of misunderstanding close into one ah-ha moment after another. This emptiness makes complete sense. Art makes sense. Love makes sense. Here I become doubtless. Absolute. I stop worrying because I’m finally certain that everything will work out as it must. Until I see buildings again, and all clarity goes away.

I stop after 31 miles. Book a room in Safford, Arizona. And fall asleep (without taking a shower) before sunset.

Come morning, I hobble to the lobby and place my loaded styrofoam plate on the last available table. I leave it there and return to the buffet counter. I tear open three mini-cups of hazelnut creamer and stir them into my weak coffee. I walk back to my spot and look at the faces of other guests. I expect to catch someone’s eye. Say good morning. Maybe strike up a conversation. But nobody pays me any mind. It’s like they can’t see me. Everyone’s chewing gaze is locked on the wall-mounted TV. For once it’s not Fox News. A minor miracle. But good money says there’s nobody here gives two shits about the soccer game playing silently on the screen.

I wolf down my heaping pile of eggs, sausage, and sugared grits, then repeat the process twice. Then I fill a small grocery bag with packets of cinnamon spice oats, a couple cartons of OJ, an assortment of small jellies and peanut butter, and a few cheese danishes. I used to do this secretly, which always felt wrong. Now I always ask a staffer if it’s OK to take a couple things for the road. It always is.

Just as I’m about to head back to my room, a middle-aged man wearing worn overalls walks in. He moves from section to section, eyeing the contents. Our eyes meet and we exchange nods. Then he leans toward me. Smiles and waves to get my attention. He’s got yolk remnants in his black mustache and beard. No front teeth. “Hey man,” he says as he points at the case of bagels. “You think these here got sugar?” I nod slowly. “Probably,” I say. “A bagel is basically a donut in disguise.” The man looks at the case and scratches his beard. “I tell ya man, it’s rough,” he says. “My doc said to quit the sugar. I already stopped drinking, and that was hard enough. But after fifty-seven years I can’t have the sugar? Gotta be kidding me.” He asks about the fruit cups. I nod. Then the yogurt. Then the pancakes. I give him a look like, seriously? I point to the apples and he lets out a huff. “Then you may as well go for the bagel, my friend,” I say. He agrees, then opens the plastic container and tongs out a raisin bagel. Then he looks around to see who’s watching before he removes two more and puts them in his coat pocket. “Don’t tell anyone,” he whispers. “I’m gonna take me some of this here cream cheeses, too.” I give him a thumbs up. “I know this is supposed to be just breakfast,” he says. “But I’m going to need something for the road. Otherwise…” He closes his eyes and pretends to fall asleep. 

The man wishes me a good day and walks towards the exit. Then he stops, turns around, and beelines to the mini-fridge where he loads the front pouch of his overalls with fruit cups and yogurt. Puts his finger to his lips. “Goddamn the diabetes,” he says with a wink. The bells on the door ring as he walks out the door.

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