by Beth Cato
I’m the crazy person who hikes in the desert near my home when it’s still 115-degrees out. This is my place to ponder plot holes and promotional efforts. I might be crazy to take these walks, but I’m not stupid. I drink several cups of cold water before I head out. I carry a walking stick so I can navigate terrain and flick away barbed wire or rattlesnakes. A brimmed hat sits on my head. I carry a small pack with my phone, a notepad, pencil, and wintogreen mints.
I could wait until it cooled down to take these hikes, but then it would never happen.
Arizona summers are long. The daytime temperatures crawl above 100-degrees as early as April, and they won’t consistently stay below that mark until November. Through the worst of summer–July and August–the night time temperatures won’t even go below 90-degrees. That’s also the prime time for monsoon storms complete with mile-high waves of dust called haboobs that look like something out of Hollywood. Torrential rains can flood the parched desert within minutes. I check the forecast before I walk, and most importantly, I look at the sky.
I have an elliptical machine at home. I regard it as one of my primary writing tools, but nothing can match my desert hikes.
This is my zone.
I live on the far western civilization of Phoenix. After my city, there’s nothing for almost one hundred miles as nothingness sprawls toward California. The desert is a mere block from my house. I leave behind xeriscaped yards and houses in a dozen different shades of brown, and I enter the messy borderland of humanity and wildness. In the evenings, massive jackrabbits, adorable cottontails, ground squirrels, and Gambel’s quail flee my presence by hiding behind piles of abandoned tires and big screen TVs and couches with rusty springs exposed to the sky. Broken beer bottles crunch underfoot.
My neighborhood abuts an abandoned World War II airfield. Over the past decades, the overgrown landing strips have been routinely used for drag racing, parties, and illegal dumping. I walk the eroding asphalt and think of a post-apocalyptic world. It’s fitting, since my writing so often goes to that subject matter. Here, I watch small animals mummify as the months pass. I stare into their empty eye sockets and am inspired to write of hellish monsters. I struggle to walk through sandy washes, and I wonder how my characters feel as they emerge from the ocean in soaked Edwardian garb. As sweat courses my neck, I think of farm workers and day laborers who endure this for full days, not as a mere one-hour leisure walk.
No matter how many times I walk the desert and airfield, it never loses its sense of mystery. When I’m there, I’m freed of the shackles of my computer. I’m a writer, but now I’m also an explorer. I’m a scientist. I’m a geographer. A detective. I’m on an adventure.
I know several routes that make for a over a three mile round trip. I return home as the sun squints over the far edge of the White Tank Mountains. I head down the sidewalk, incongruous with my tall wooden stick. I hear children splash and laugh from hidden backyard pools. The air reeks of charcoal and luscious meat. I return to my air conditioned home, pry off my shoes, roll off my soaked socks, guzzle water, and rush to my computer.
Oftentimes, after my walks on the edge of nowhere, the plot solutions roll out of me as readily as the sweat.
Beth Cato is the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER, a steampunk fantasy novel from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Her website is BethCato.com.