I went west for the second summer in a row with my sister and her husband (and their two little Yorkies) in a big pickup truck I was mercifully not considered skilled enough to drive. That meant I sat in the spacious back seat with the tiny and very friendly dogs looking at the scenery, and when the scenery was boring I lay down and took a nap.

I had a task. Online navigator. That simply meant looking for good places to eat -- sleeping accommodations had been arranged by my sister months in advance, the route had been mapped out by her and her husband. We met up with my sister's sons (plus GF of one) in Tombstone, Arizona, after they'd finished a tattoo convention in El Paso, Texas. They are both tattoo artists. They're also professional magicians. I like them tremendously, though so far and in spite of their great artistry their uncle's skin is inviolate: I don't do pain.

 I love the American West, an affection that comes from a lifetime's diet of cowboy movies. The real thing is even better. Magnificent scenery. Very friendly people. And Indians. Traveling through this territory I see more Indians than I've ever seen except in a movie screen -- and many of those extras on galloping painted ponies were hokum.

We stop at the Navajo roadside stands where I always find something beautiful and inexpensive. We stop at serious craft places where I find rugs and pottery that I covet but cannot afford. I talk to the shop people. Sure, they are in business and can spot an old hippie a mile away, so I do get gentle-toned spiels about the symbols and their powers. But some can sense my curiosity and are more than glad to explain the history of the crafts (a Hopi shopkeeper tells me the Navajo took everything they know from the Hopi; I'm sure a Navajo would tell me the other way). They understand I'm more in the market for knowledge than for artifacts and they talk to me at length anyway. The crafts are beautiful and leave me with a hunger for more. Last summer when I got home, I ordered books on the history of some of what I saw.

I want to document the journey. On a website where people like me geek out on traditional clothes and other stuff, I read about what I need to take on the trip. A beautiful notebook of creamy unlined pages that will fit easily in the messenger bag I lug around, and a good pen. I plan to document my travels with notes, maybe even drawings. Great talents filled notebooks, no? I mean, Leonardo. Or if I want to look for closer role models, Basquiat or Kurt Cobain.

One notebook will get filled in no time, but if I need more I'll buy them. This is America. There's plenty of everything. Somewhere on the trip, I don't remember where, I wrote on the first page in a very messy scrawl and in Spanish, the language I thought would work best for intimate notes, "Where does the West begin?" And at the bottom of the page, "where does it end?"

I don't know the answer to the first question, Texas I suppose. The answer to the second question is two pages later. Meaning that's all I wrote, the rest of the beautiful book is virginal. The second page is covered with my chicken scrawl writing about cowboy movies and Indians and the spaniards who first encountered them. The next page has something like a poem widely spaced on the creamy page.


¿se oirá el clamor

      de una


Nothing more. A desert indeed. A desert of pages. The sketches? I forgot I don't know how to draw. OK, so I was going to do very rough neo-naïf stuff, in the manner of Basquiat or Cobain. I forgot they were very talented. I also forgot that at an altitude of 8,000 and later 10,000 feet my desire to take notes and draw sketches like some gentleman traveler from another century would leave me completely. It's only now, months later, that I set down these observations. On an iPad. In a blog. I just can't geek out on the go, and even at sea level and not in a tent I reach for digital technology not a pretty notebook and a fine pen.

In the real desert my voice doesn't clamor. That's what the West taught me.