Forming Relationships with the Road: An Interview with Tom Zoellner

The right tour guide can breathe life into the most boring stretch of highway.

Reading Tom Zoellner‘s Tucson Weekly piece “Interstate 10: A Personal History,” about the road between Phoenix and Tucson, I knew immediately I was meeting a native desert rat who knew my home turf. I grew up in Phoenix and went to college in Tucson, so I’ve driven that same stretch of interstate countless times. During my drives, I used to sketch ideas for ways to write about it, about the dry land it travels through and all the active roadside businesses and decaying relics of yesteryear. I never got past the note-taking stage, which is partly why I am so excited to see someone else write such a worthy homage to what Zoellner calls the state’s “most reviled” stretch of road.

People loathe it and do it on auto-pilot. By paying close attention, Zoellner functions as a tour guide in a place you’d never expect to want a tour, narrating all the interesting, ugly, and odd points along the way, as well as his connections to it. Ultimately, his piece is as much about the land as it is about learning to see past our own boredom and prejudices, to cast the familiar anew. When I read the word “caliche” on the last page, it made me homesick. Only a desert rat knows what caliche means, and seeing it in print warmed my red-chilé-colored heart. Zoellner talked with me about writing this piece and the nature of placed-based writing.

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You lived in Phoenix but grew up in Tucson. When did you get the idea to write about this stretch of desert highway?

I suspect every commuter has a funny ongoing relationship with the buildings and objects outside the window on their regular drive — little physical mysteries. Who lives in that house? How did that ugly sculpture get there? Does anyone really feel socially elevated after going to “Elite Car Wash?” These musings, often pointless, are the background noise of real thought, like a radio station playing a song of which you’re barely cognizant, and I realized with a jolt while on I-10 that the essential spool of these half-awake thoughts had not substantially changed since I was 12 years old. Nor had the highway, really — it was just as uninviting and shabby-looking as ever. And it occurred to me that this was Arizona’s most unloved highway, but it was also the one most traveled by a statistically overwhelming margin. That became the central paradox of the story, and pretty much everyone who lived in Arizona would get that instinctually, and likely have a similar interior relationship with this road.

Had you made other attempts to write about it? I ask because I did — I sketched notes for a piece about it for years while driving it — and I’m excited to see that you succeeded where I failed.

Writing can take place in the mind long before your fingers ever hit the keyboard. Stephen King has a wonderful simile about writers as paleontologists who are not so much creating material from scratch but merely excavating fossils that have existed in the subconscious for a long time. In that sense, I’ve been writing this piece since I was a sixth grader with no awareness that anything was being created. And so one day, while making my umpteenth Phoenix-Tucson drive for unrelated reasons, I just scribbled a note on every “old friend” that I saw out the window, as well as the same brief and entirely-predictable thing I always thought when I spotted it. The actual piece took less than two hours to spit out once I sat down. It had already been “written.”

What did your Tucson Weekly editor think of this idea at first? Were they like, “Why would anybody write about that boring drive?”

This was first pitched to Arizona Highways, the legendarily well-illustrated publication of the state highway department that has been touting the visual glories of the state since 1925. I thought they might enjoy a counterintuitive take: “You’ve seen enough of Monument Valley. Now here’s what you didn’t know about the state’s most butt-ugly road!” Suffice to say, this wasn’t for them. I’ve been friends for two decades with Tucson Weekly editor Jim Nintzel, probably the state’s most astute political reporter. He was good enough to give it a try.

Have you read or been influenced by other road stories, a genre that might be called roadside journalism or highway literature? 

One of my favorite books is U.S. 40: Cross Section of the United States of America, a collection of essays and photography published in 1953 by the under-appreciated American writer George Rippey Stewart, and then brilliantly updated by Thomas Vale in 1983 in a book called U.S. 40 Today: Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America.

Picacho Trading Post, demolished. Photo by Aaron Gilbreath

What’s it like writing for an alt-weekly right now? Some still seem unpredictable, fun, and adventurous.

When I was a daily newspaper reporter, I wished for the kind of length and freedom enjoyed by alt-weekly writers. I’ve been lucky these last few years to occasionally freelance an article for a few of them.

As you say in the essay, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) razed most of the town of Picacho, which had been there since the 1880s, and no media outlets wrote about it. Did you discover that while writing this, and is this essay sort of your way to correct that?

Yes on both questions. Picacho deserved a much better civic obituary than I could give it, or that it ever got. ADOT couldn’t tell me much of anything about the decision to virtually eliminate it for the widening of the SR 87 interchange. It was a vanishing whose paper trail seemed thin enough to have been anchored in the 19th century rather than the 21st. Highway villages have an odd relationship with history — built to serve people who are going someplace else, who never stay and who barely give it a close look or remember it.

What are your ideas about the way we relate to physical locations, and about writing about a personal relationship with place?

It’s extremely hard. You could write a ten-volume set about a small place, and still feel like you didn’t capture its real essence. The center will always retreat from your grasp. Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to motion seen behind windows.