In an altered state (part 1)

The flight left Australia at 11 am on Wednesday. 20 hours later I had checked in to my hotel at 1 pm on the same day.

America.  Arizona.  Scottsdale.



Still in the dark of the night before, the alarm on the bedside table sounded trill and annoying.  I had not slept well.  An unfamiliar bed, with too much empty space.  My body was in America, but its clock was still in Australia – somewhere in the future.  The room lacked for nothing that I needed and contained nothing that I wanted.  Dangerously, I closed my eyes for a while to listen; there were none of the familiar noises, no wheel squeal of metal on metal as the first trams move through the early morning, no sounds of approaching footsteps as the kids come down to continue – seamlessly – the conversations of last night.  Words flow from them like falling water, which sleep freezes and morning thaws.

The alarm sounds again, and I get up.  The carpet feels different underfoot.  I can’t find my shoes.  It’s the second of ten days that will contain three Wednesdays and only one Thursday.

Peeping through a gap in the curtains is the quickly growing light of my first morning for 36 hours. I only know it’s morning because of the clock. I feel old.

My head hurts, my fingers feel like sausages.  Something has disconnected my senses from my brain.  Fragments. Splinters. I look out of the window.  A car drives through the car park.  It feels strangely reassuring to know I am not the only person awake.

I hate jet lag. The thrill of travel mitigated by a lack of sleep and an unwound body clock.

At the breakfast bar, a lady who looks no more awake than I feel – Helen Cortez – points at the food and says, “Help yourself, sir”.   I pour crispy sugar cereal into a paper bowl and drizzle on no fat milk.   She points at a row of sweet, snow pale, bread, and says, “This is for toast, sir”.  The formality makes me smile, but in my befuddled state the help is welcome.  I manage to find the thin, bitter coffee without help.  The spoons are plastic.  I butter the toast with a bendy knife.  For all of Helen’s attention I do not really enjoy breakfast.  

Beyond the sliding doors birds are calling. I recognise none of them.  Collecting my bag I walk outside and sit on an ornate, Greco-Roman concrete bench.   A large dark bird, like an elongated crow, lands on the roof of a parked car, its beak curved down towards its chest, its voice a series of rattles, whistles and croaks. Even in the three quarter light of morning its plumage ripples though shades of blue and black; sometimes one, sometimes the other; often a mixture of both.  A duller bird, more brown than blue, lands on the same car roof, and the volume of noise increases.  A new blue-black bird arrives and a squabble breaks out.  I left home in late summer, but maybe, here in Arizona, there is an early hint of spring in the air.  A motorcycle drives nosily through the car park, and the Great Tailed Grackles trade courtship for fear.   All three birds take to the air, flicking their great tails.

Cold air and caffeine, sugar and the sight of new birds, combine to start the reconnection of brain and senses.  I suspect the silhouette at the very top of a nearby tree is a humming bird.  Briefly I become surprisingly awake.  The silhouette departs, the tour bus arrives.  “Get in the front” the driver says, “it’s the only seat left”. I walk around the front of the bus, towards the left hand side to get in, but decide that it would be best if I did not drive.  Laughing at myself, I walk back to the right seat, the correct seat. 

The humming bird adrenaline seems to have worn off already.

I enjoyed the wait more than the breakfast.


I know it’s not the wrong side of the road – but it surely feels like it.  Many of the cars look the same, and the road signs are the same colour and in the same language, but it’s the driving that gives me a firm sense of being elsewhere.  A small owl by the roadside and a median strip studded with cactus complete the “I don’t think we’re in Victoria anymore, Toto” feel.  I check my watch – back home my kids would be coming back from swimming, and an early autumn evening would be drawing down towards darkness.  Here, the thin light of the morning Sun is shaded by cloud, and a light rain falls.  Rain in the desert once more.

Our driver has a singsong voice and a tendency to repeat himself.  The bus slows as we pass over a glassy irrigation canal.  The canal is over 330 miles long we are told.  330 miles!  What we are not told is that water is the stolen body of the Colorado River, which now does not reach the sea and has not done so in my lifetime.  In the fields by the canal irrigation, sprinklers stutter back and forth, shooting water onto a half empty soil.  In the rain. 

Out past the fast food stores and car yards, cacti spread their film famous silhouette arms.  Many have holes in the base and limbs.  Owl holes.  Woodpecker holes.  Gun shot holes – a strange sport.  Bushes with green stems conserve water through the hard times by doing without leaves.  The palette of colours runs to pale grey greens in the plants and red in the soil and stone. If it was not for the cacti I could be back in Central Australia – maybe a little less red, and a little more developed, but the connection is clear.  Two deserts full of red rocks and life you can see nowhere else.  I see the desert of Arizona alone in a group.  I wish my trio of redheads were here.

The bus turns off the highway and follows a river along a small, roughly paved, side road and into a busy car park.  There are about a dozen motorbikes and two other small tour buses parked under the arms of the Arizona sycamores – the trees pale and leafless, the bikes shiny and polished, the buses garish with slogans. 

The trees are beautiful, but that’s not why we are here. Beyond and through the branches a rectangular structure, a building, sits within a natural cave in the rock face.  The sharp corners of the building contrast with the dull, plastic, edges of the cliff face.  The building glows a light red orange, the cliffs shine a chalky white.  On closer inspection the building is pock marked with stones, and its origin as baked mud is clear.  50 or so feet above the valley floor this was a multi-storey home to a thriving community that channelled the waters of the river towards their fields, fed their children and lived in the cool shadows of their cliff cut homes.  These were not just hunter-gatherers, these were farmers who relied on the waters of the river and their crops of corn.  These were farmers who, sometime around 1450, packed up their belongings and left.

Today the building is known as Montezuma Castle, a name that is wrong on both counts.  It’s not a castle, and Montezuma was born 100 years after the building was abandoned.  The name is a hangover from the early days of European exploration, when the lens of cultural assumption was applied to all that was found.  If the native people on the area were already “known” to be primitive, anything that suggested “culture” must have been created by somebody else.  So the castle and the connection were (and are) a mental invention born of assumptions that we now know to be untrue.  The question that comes to mind is “why do we still use this name?”

(As a kid I was taught that the great rock that sits in the centre of Australia was called “Ayers Rock” – it had been named by the first European to see it.  But it has an older, more authentic name, “Uluru”, and that is generally how it is now known.  Changing the current names of ancient places cannot alter history, but if we acknowledge what has gone before, it may help alter the future.)

Without being able to see inside the building itself it’s hard to imagine what life must have been like behind the thick mud walls, high above the valley floor.  But I can be sure that when they pulled up the ladders that reached down to the ground – either in fear or from habit – they would have had the same concerns as we do; the future, the weather, their children.  They were no more primitive than we are – it’s just they had yet to invent the TV or mobile phone.

At the time of abandonment, a great drought covered the lands that were to become the south-western states of America.  The rains failed.  The rivers failed.  The crops failed.  And in the end, so did this cliff cave community.  Did the leaders of these people insist that there was no real problem?  Did they say we have always had droughts?  Did they say that the profits of doom were crazy, that there was no cause for alarm?  Did they keep saying these things as the families walked away from their homes and into a future unplanned?

If they were truly like us, I suspect they may have.

The past mirrors the present and the future seems more uncertain than normal.  We cannot just walk away from our homes in the hope of future return.  We cannot just hide the ladders in the bushes and hope that things will turn out for the best.  I think of the government back home, and realise that I may not be the only one who is not yet fully awake.

It’s no longer raining and the sky is a crisp blue, but in the distance there are dark clouds.   A winter wind picks fallen brown leaves from the ground and spins them upwards. A blur of bright colour moves with the leaves, and lands, feather fluffed, on a branch.  Behind me I hear the thin call of an unseen bird.  The bird on the branch is a Spotted Towhee, the unseen caller a Brown Creeper – the existing wild gathers round to remind me of the wonders that we can still see, and in the appreciation of that wild there is (as has been said before) a world of possibility and hope.

The path back to the van weaves between Arizona sycamores, their branches bare, their smooth, thick trunks a patch-work of bark flakes.  Any trees within reach of the path have been rubbed smooth by the passage of hands, polished by the impulse to reach out and touch.  A woodpecker flies from the highest branches and a smile lights my face.  The nearing horizon threatens rain, but briefly the valley is bathed in sunlight.  Weather. Climate.  Culture and change.  

Back in the car park the motorbikes are still there, but the garish vans have moved on, replaced by others.  Another gust of wind lifts leaves from the ground and sends them spinning over a rough stonewall.  The farmers are long gone, the river has returned.  If there were ever places where we should listen for the possibility of ghosts, it would be places like this.

We drive away. The landscape moves by at speed.  The rain returns in short sharp showers.  Cold seems to seep through the windows.  I wish I had brought a thicker coat.  A grove of pecan trees.  A casino on an Indian reservation, taking money from the people who took the land.  It may be profitable, but I doubt it’s equitable.  One shower falls as thick rain, or thin snow.  

We arrive at Sedona.

The sky clears, but the threat of more rain remains.

I am finally awake.