One of the greatest gifts you can get from a place: the feeling that you’re allowed to be yourself when you’re there.
By Capital Thinking • Issue #1061 • View online
There’s something to be said about putting a Hot Pocket into a microwave in a two-star hotel in the middle of nowhere.
The yearning for who you were in a time you can never be a part of again?
Searching for Joy in the Desert of Arizona: “It Won’t Make Your Balls Shake, But It’ll Make Your Butt Pucker.”
I have longings for things like this.
Not death-by-preservative (if I’m doing that, I’m going DiGiorno all the way), but things like going for a summer bike ride when you’re thirteen, or making friendship bracelets on the front porch, or when the biggest expense you had was a $0.25 popsicle down at the corner store.
I miss scraped knees and Skip It; boys with bowl cuts and learning how to shoot pool. “What are you, going pro next week?”
I’d memorized that line to say it to my crush when he’d sunk the 8-ball into the side pocket at the local arcade. We kissed behind the pinball machine a few weeks later; not saying it was thanks to my EXCELLENT wit, but I’m also not ruling it out, either. 🤷♀️
Back then boys were gods, weren’t they? Two years older and 1,000 years more wise.
At least, that’s what it felt like, back then. Back when Hot Pockets were still an age-appropriate thing to eat. (And you were actually small enough to fit behind a pinball machine.)
Maybe that’s why I feel so strangely at home here in this desert wasteland outside of Maricopa, Arizona—a place I have never been, but have accidentally found myself in for the night.
It’s the simple, unpretentiousness of it all.
I didn’t have plans on visiting here—this is not exactly a hot spot for tourists—but a big rig had turned over on the long desert road to San Diego, and it was getting late.
I had driven the road to The Grand Canyon a few days earlier, and I saw what kinds of creatures jump out in front of your car once the sun goes down. (Coyotes, they say, are signs that good luck is coming your way—so I should be FULL OF IT since one jumped in front of me on two separate occasions. I was less lucky, however, when an Elk the size of Disneyland damn near almost did.)
I booked myself at one of the only roadside hotels for miles, La Quinta Inn. It seemed better than the casino next door. I’m not a casino kind of person: too many broken hearts all in one place.
(And probably STDs. Am I the only one who feels like that?!)
Despite only being an hour south of Phoenix, Maricopa felt like it was on the edge of civilization.
Desert dust bowl surrounded the hotel in all directions, like a bull dozer had come in and ripped up every living organism for miles, leaving nothing but flattened dirt.
I know, it’s a desert, but you still couldn’t help but feel the vast nothingness of it all. It made the place feel empty and tragic, as if it were a castaway, left to die.
But, maybe that’s what I liked about it: it felt like second chances.
From my room I looked out and, to my surprise, saw three children running in wide circles in the middle of the dusty plain, kicking up a cloud of dirt that hovered in the air like a ghost. They were so out of place, I figured they must’ve wandered over from the hotel.
But, once I peered a little farther out I saw what seemed to be a baseball field in the distance, as if it had just been plopped there like Stonehenge. Baseball felt like some small sign of hope, as if someone had planted a field of dreams in a place where you might imagine there aren’t many.
I took the elevator down and asked the receptionist, a woman with beautiful Native American hair, for dinner recommendations. She appeared flummoxed by the question, so I rephrased: “Which one of these places is better?”
I had looked at Apple Maps and spotted two of the only restaurants nearby that still seemed to be open at 8 o’clock at night.
“A lot of people go down to The Roost,” she said. “But I’ve never been there.” She blushed as she said it, as if going there were a naughty thing to do.
Fortunately, naughty doesn’t deter me much. Not the way a sweet little café serving breakfast at night would. Those kinds of places give me the creeps.
To my surprise, however, the GPS led me straight into a strip mall parking lot. From the reaction of the receptionist, I practically thought I was headed into a strip club parking lot. But instead, I was greeted by a pizza joint, a tanning salon (do people still go tanning?), and an income tax office, with The Roost situated on the end.
It seemed like the very heart of town, this strip mall: I pictured teenage girls going door-to-door collecting money for their school trip to somewhere with, I dunno, grass. Nearby, a Walmart Super Center lit up the pitch-black sky.
Growing up outside of Binghamton, New York, we practically used to go on dates to Walmart and roam the aisles, flirting with one another past dish towel displays. I remember one time I didn’t come home until midnight—we had stopped at Denny’s, too, for a real rip-roar of a night—and I got into big trouble with my mom.
ALL THOSE SCANDALOUS, SMALL-TOWN ESCAPADES, I TELL YOU.
A gaggle of brusque men sat on top of picnic tables outside The Roost, smoking cigarettes, pounding Buds, looking as if perhaps they had just gotten done with their shift driving truck, or maybe working on an oil rig. That, combined with the fact that all of the windows of The Roost were opaque black made me both more hesitant and more curious.
Places where you can’t see inside usually have a reason.
My city hair cut was a dead giveaway I didn’t belong. Ditto my frilly chiffon blouse and multiple strands of pearls.
I didn’t look the part, that’s for sure, but somehow, I felt like it: places like these were as familiar to me as church is to other people.
Even though I had spent the better part of a decade frequenting cocktail bars in London, Paris, and New York, I never felt like I belonged in those kinds of places.
Not really, anyway.
But, that’s the thing about identity, isn’t it? Who you were at age sixteen becomes a part of who you are forever.
As I approached the building, I found myself reverting into my twenty-year-old self, when I first got a job at a truckers’ spot just over the NY State border.
There, I learned how to walk:Head straight. Eyes defiant. Hips swinging like you’ll kick someone’s ass if they so much as open their mouth. Right as you reach the entrance, you look over at them, fully aware that they’re watching your every move, and you throw a nonchalant head nod in their direction…before smirking and disappearing through the door.
This not only earns you respect but intrigue—and you can make a man do anything when he’s intrigued. At least, that is how a woman learns how to survive in rural America: she takes as many prisoners as she can.
When I flung open the doors to The Roost, however, the inside was not dark and dingy like I’d imagined, but rather, a Buffalo Wild Wings type of vibe: clean, brightly-lit, with families and a big, endless bar, with plenty of tables for eating. The only difference was the sea of cowboy hats dotting the landscape, bobbing up and down in their little clusters.
“You’re cute, siddown!” a woman in a grey sweatshirt demanded. She was coarse, in her mid-forties, and absurdly drunk—which I rather liked about her.
”Oh no, that’s okay!” I replied, realizing the seats next to her were taken.“
Ohhhhh, they’re outside right now, anyway—you sit your ass down!”
Tonya had been drinking there all afternoon. (The bartender told me this later.) She was a CPA. She was originally from a nearby town in Arizona called Chandler, but Chandler had gotten too expensive.
”It’s called Tonya’s Tea!” she yelled, thrusting a shot of alcohol in front of my face. I hadn’t done a shot in, I don’t know, years?
When I asked her what was in it, she told me it was her special mix of Jim Beam, Peach Schnapps, and a splash of Sprite. (But not too much.)
“You come in here anytime and ask for Tonya’s Tea—they’ll know what to do!” she beamed. I explained I was just passing through, on my way to San Diego.”F**k San Diego,” she said. “Move to Maricopa, instead!”
For a moment, I imagined what my life would look like in a place like Maricopa. I’d need a hell of a lot more moisturizer, that’s for sure—and probably some nunchucks, too. You know, to fend off coyotes (and probably Tonya).
Photo credit: Robert Murray on Unsplash