Back in the U.S.A.

When I moved from Tokyo, Japan, my home for almost 25 years, I went from one of the most densely populated cities in the world to one of the most sparsely populated areas of the United States: Coconino County in northern Arizona. Located in the high desert on the Colorado Plateau, and favored by astronomers for its lawfully protected and shockingly clear night skies, the high desert is an area of rocky soil, flat-topped mesas, and miles of sweet-smelling Ponderosa pines.



From my small danchi apartment, I moved into a 2000-square-foot house sitting on 20 acres of land on an open-range cattle ranch called Howard Mesa. Just getting to the highway from the house required a fifteen-minute drive on a winding and corrugated cinder road. Over time, the cinder dust will kill the electrical system in any vehicle and I was forever dodging wildlife that seemed to think that a moving vehicle is something to run toward. There are prairie dogs, bobcats, wild pigs, vultures, rattle snakes, roadrunners, coyotes, white-tailed deer, a billion jack rabbits, and of course, cows; free-ranging and enormous black bovines that suddenly appear in the pitch-black of night like apparitions with glowing green eyes. God forbid you should hit one of the them. Besides the damage to your vehicle, you can expect a costly reimbursement to the rancher.



Upon exiting Howard Mesa, you turn onto Highway 64; a narrow, well kept, and very busy two-lane state highway. Traveling this country tarmac are two categories of people: locals and tourists. In their dusty four-wheel drives, many of the locals are, by noon, three sheets to the wind. The tourists number in the thousands every day, speeding to and from the internationally-famous Grand Canyon – a mere 50 miles away.



Keep in mind that five million people visit the Grand Canyon every year! International and American travelers alike often fly into Phoenix, rent a vehicle, hop the freeway for a three-hour, steeply-ascending drive, and exit onto Highway 64 for the last 50-mile-leg of the journey. At the north end of the highway is the Canyon’s South Rim, the most popular tourist destination for viewing the 18-mile-wide gorge.



For anyone traveling into the the landscape of the American Southwest for the first time, it is truly, truly awe-inspiring. Though we’re quite familiar with postcard and calendar images of places like Monument Valley, the Petrified Forests, or Meteor Crater, when you actually visit, it’s almost surreal. Spatial relativity starts to disappear and the heat and wind can be intense. Driving into Sedona, near Flagstaff, or through the Native American Reservations, is an eye-opening look at the varied lifestyles of Americans. It can be so challenging to your senses that you’ll be forever changed, or dead if you’re not careful.


When you’re on Highway 64, there are signs warning you about animals like deer and elk. They’re big, gorgeous beasts and hitting one will send you floating into the clouds with a new set of wings and strumming a harp. Once you arrive at the Canyon, more signs warn that people die every year falling off the cliffs, or hiking down into the Canyon unprepared where they expire from dehydration. If you run into trouble on a trail, the only way out is by helicopter or mule. Outside the relatively-small tourist area with family-friendly guard rails, the trails are completely unguarded and the only safety barrier is your own common sense. When taking selfies on the edge of a cliff, remember, there are wind blasts that will knock you off like flicking a crumb off your sleeve. The Canyon is so beautiful, so vast, and unbelievably… well, grand, some people can only respond by having a panic attack.



If you’re a foreign tourist, it would be easy to think that everyone else traveling down Highway 64 is an American. You couldn’t be more wrong. The two times I pulled much-derided American SUVs out of snow drifts, they were Europeans. You know those ridiculously huge and laughable RVs that look like apartments on wheels? They’re probably rentals driven by Canadians or Swedes. I know because I filled lots of their propane tanks. How about the troops of leather-clad motorcycle gangs? They’re surely Americans! Possibly, but they’re just as likely to be German or Polish motorcycle clubs doing an American road trip. In this mix are the daily convoys of Korean and Chinese tour buses traveling north to the South Rim in the morning and rushing back to Flagstaff at night. Today’s Japanese are more likely traveling in family sedans or with friends in a rented Mustang convertible – the most coveted rental car for visitors to the Grand Canyon. At the Canyon, you’ll find multilingual park rangers and over 2,000 publications in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Korean!


On a northwest curve on that two-lane highway is JJ’s, a small, 6-pump gas station where I worked part-time. A magnet of activity, locals come daily for beer, tobacco, propane, and to jaw. The tourists arrive by the hundreds to refuel and recoup after the hot and forever-uphill drive from Phoenix. They spill out of their cars, vans, and buses to ask the number one question: “Where’s the toilet?”


In front of JJ’s you can chat with Native Americans selling their colorful handmade jewelry. Inside the store, you can pick up postcards, souvenirs, maps in multiple languages, sodas, candy of every stripe, T-shirts, and peruse a large selection of sweat shirts, because few are prepared for how cold it gets in the high desert. If you have a query, you can ask in English or Spanish. My presence as a Japanese speaker was unusual but came in handy many times – and usually to everyone’s surprise. If you’re lucky, you can take a selfie with the Cataract Creek Gang, a friendly band of cowboys hanging out in the parking lot. The dusty rascals regularly stop by JJ’s for snacks before mounting their horses and robbing the Canyon-bound passenger train.


Photo by Charlie Clark/Cronkite News


You know that shopping role play you do in your ESL classes? The task is to go to the counter, pay for snacks and gas, and maybe ask a question. Working at JJ’s was the real deal and I carried out that task with foreign speakers of English all day long. Let me tell you about some of my experiences and observations.


Nervous and tired, foreign travelers often rely on the kindness and patience of the stranger behind the counter. Some, on the other hand, aren’t nervous at all and won’t shut up. Most do their best to just get through the transaction with as little confusion as possible and the hope that their foreign credit card works, which it sometimes doesn’t. Gallons, liters, petrol and gas are the words customers stumble over the most. And, to be sure, I keep in mind that I’m not everybody’s bloody English teacher.


But, let’s begin with traveling Americans. Mostly outraged by the cost of gas in the area, many are as much a foreigner to the southwest as any international traveler. They also cross a wider demographic: young, old, wealthy, and poor. Americans most often travel with families, clubs, and religious groups. Accents range from the flat dialect of the Midwest, to fast-talking northern Yankees, or the sweet southern drawls of the Southeast states. Americans are as likely as any foreign traveler to be looking for exotic souvenirs when perusing the Native jewelry sold outside. Many are genuinely surprised (or annoyed) that the person pumping gas next to them is speaking French or German. Their all-American vacation turns out to be more international than they could ever have imagined.


Then of course, there are the much berated Mexican immigrants. I quickly began picking up store-related Spanish: banos, hielo, etc. The friendly Mexican cowboys were many. They were swarthy, plaid-shirted young men with pearl snaps, tan galán hats, more rodeo than most urban cowboys, and sexier than all get out. Damn! Sorely aware of their own lack of English, they usually took care of their business all too quickly and were out the door. In one memorable conversation with an older cowboy who spoke with blended Spanish and English, he told me that he never gets wet in the rain because he dances between the drops.


Europeans come to the station counter speaking English most every time. They’re generally polite and comfortable speaking sometimes limited but colloquial English. It always takes a bit to figure out the American system of buying gas as we usually pay by the dollar amount and not volume, with the biggest quandary being how many “gallons” it will take to fill their rental’s tank. Europeans are also the most surprised by the American fountain drinks and have to be reassured that, as illogical as it seems, small or ridiculously extra large, it’s still 99 cents. And if you catch me cleaning the toilets, there’s no need to tip.


Indians? These frequently seen tourists can be fountains of conversation! They are often smiling, inquisitive, and hang around the store the longest. One young man followed me all around the shop up and down 5 isles as I mopped the store floor – talking the whole time. When a local tribe of goats got loose and tripped down the hill to the station grounds, I could have sold tickets to the comedy that ensued. As I tried to trap them in the women’s outside toilet, a flurry of Indian ladies came flying out the narrow door trying to avoid the confusion of bleating animals. Eventually, the animals’ owner came down and deftly corralled them back up the hill.


Another day, a pack of Polish motorcyclists arrived; TALL, leather-wrapped, and mustachioed men, looking like models for Tom of Finland. Though their English was limited, they kept everyone in the shop thoroughly entertained trying on cowboy hats and playing with the Native American pipes for sale. When one asked where he could get some American marijuana, locals happily chimed in with advice and pulled out their own state-issued medical marijuana cards.



Most often, the Chinese and Koreans, like the Japanese of old, travel in large groups with one in their retinue dealing with any verbal transactions. The rest of the group pile goods on the counter willy-nilly and with no regard to queuing up. A nightmare for a cashier. Other Asian travelers come in assuming that everything is up for barter. With sympathy-invoking sighs and pleas of poverty, they usually exit the store with only a Cup Noodle and leave behind a large pile of T-shirts to be refolded.


One night shortly before closing, the quiet store suddenly filled up with a busload of noisy Chinese tourists who moved quickly among the narrow isles of the just-mopped store. When one young woman spied the store cat sitting on the counter, she pointed at the animal and let out a terrified shriek. Just as suddenly, the store emptied as the entire band of travelers rushed Helter-Skelter out the narrow door and I watched the bus flee into the night. It was a real Twilight Zone experience and is still a mystery to me.


The Japanese? Though predictably polite, they came to my register speaking Japanese almost every time. 満タンまでお願いします!(Fill it up please!) Over time, I learned that it’s easier to just go out and pump the gas for them. One day, a handsome and well-dressed JPop singer traveling with his male companion arrived in an expensive little sports car. He took lots of selfies and his travel companion reminded me several times (in Japanese) that his friend is very famous in Japan. Upon leaving, his 名刺 (business card) was handed to me like a precious keepsake. I Googled him later. ‘Famous’ was a long stretch.



One morning, a red-haired and freckled Russian family stood at the counter for almost an hour talking about their experience of fleeing the U.S.S.R, finding refuge in the States, and raising their two sons in the rural Midwest. It was their 3rd trip to the Grand Canyon.


Occasionally, the children of tourists are sent to the counter to conduct their own transactions and to practice their English while a parent stands by watching. High fives and free candy are the reward for their efforts and the teacher in me is flooded with contentment.


Mixed into all this international activity are the locals. Everything you may have heard is true: fiercely independent, go-it-alone homesteaders, and staunch open-carry advocates. There are Mexican immigrants and Native American rodeo riders, artists, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells, all surviving a harsh land with an “all or nothing” attitude.


I have to give credit to the locals as they were extremely patient with the presence of so many foreign travelers and more than happy to give directions or advice. Anyone living in the area understands that tourism is what greases the wheels of the local economy. Many residents are very poor people who work at the camp grounds, restaurants, and motels, cleaning up the detritus left behind by travelers, wiping down the toilet seats, and tolerating the sometimes condescending attitude toward their sad, sad American poverty.


Though I now live with my brother, Mike, in Austin, Texas, the transition I made from the Far East to the American Southwest was stark and memorable… kind of like the first time I arrived in Japan from Iowa so many years ago. After 25 years abroad, I couldn’t have picked a better place to reacquaint myself with America, bring my overseas experience into the fold, or have done so in a more beautiful place as the high desert.


If you visit, and I hope you do, slow down, drive safe, and enjoy the view.


Donald Kinney

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