Writer’s Block

Here’s a little essay I wrote back in the day when I was a working journalist. Camping in the bottom of Arizona’s wild Aravaipa Canyon, I was on assignment for what was then the country’s largest regional magazine.

Writer’s Block

A starry blanket covers us. Tom lies in a hammock strung between the branches of a gnarled mesquite tree, Virgil in his hiker’s tent, and I beneath the open sky. The men fell asleep as soon as our candle guttered out, but, as usual, I am slow to sleep in the wild, my mind aswarm with the images, adventures, and talk of the day.

Stars are about all we need as bedcovers. This morning Debbie remarked that her thermometer hit 105 yesterday. It was easily that hot as we started down the trail,and beneath a buttermilk sky we were all dripping before we even reached the creek. Here at Horse Camp, just above the confluence of Virgus Canyon, the heat softened a little after sunset, and now as I lie atop my sleeping bag I am not uncomfortable, except for the ache in my knee and hip brought on by a fall in the mud.

That’s Cepheus, the rectangle of stars with a couple of arms sticking out and the Milky Way flowing through it, framed between the cliffs and the lace-like canopy of mesquite leaves overhead.

A bat flies past, searching for bugs—I shoo a mosquito in its direction.

What, I wonder, am I doing here?

How am I going to do the job I was sent to do?

A single breath of air sighs through the still, dark canyon. Crickets sing in the brush around us, and some small night creature trills like a bird. A plane flies over—Aravaipa Canyon lies beneath a flight path, and a concatenation of jet noise echoes through this place.

The problem, I realize, is not in the story but in me. I’m no longer sure I want to continue writing. Why this should be so, I do not understand. But it is so, and it has erected a barrier as solid as those rock walls glowing silver in the starlight.


A blue starpoint of light twinkles in the brush behind Virgil’s tent. Some kind of glowworm, perhaps.

Tom says he saw fireflies in here on an earlier trip from the east end, but I’ve never seen one, not here in Arizona.

We hiked in here over four types of paving:

  • loose, polished river rocks in dry floodplain;
  • loose, polished, slimy river rocks underwater;
  • ankle-deep mud with the lubricating power of axle grease;
  • and ankle-deep sand.

That sand turns into a film of ball bearings the instant you set your foot on a rock.

Attack horseflies the size of F-16s lie in wait for the warm-blooded, as do swarms of gnats and mosquitoes. We kept an eye out for rattlesnakes and tried not to do anything stupid like putting a hand under a nice, cool rock where one might be resting.

Deep in the gorge, lion-colored cliffs rose 1,000 feet above us, mottled lichen-green, studded with agave spires. Saguaro forests, cholla, prickly pear, and barrel cactus cover the high, buff palisades down to the wine-red ryholite streambed. Clouds of butterflies blew in the air like autumn leaves, and red and blue dragonflies cruised the still pools.

Tentworms festooned young cottonwoods with silken filaments like angel hair; thumb-sized toads speckled with ruby spots hid in the rocks, invisible until they moved.

Vail, Buzan, Brandenburg, Kilberg, Zapata, Martinez, Wood, White, Hartman. They ran cattle and farmed—citrus, peaches, pecans—and from our perspective lived an idyll.

Louise Ruddick Hartman: “For two years we worked and played. “We lived outdoors under a big cedar tree and moved into the tent only when it rained. . . . Around every corner adventure was waiting for us, and opportunity kept banging at the door. We tried not to miss anything, nor did we.”

Clovis and Cochise, Hohokam, Papago, Sobaipuri, Apache: Gone. Dead and gone before Louise Hartman came along. Dead and gone so that she could come along. Camp Grant stood just down the river, site of a slaughter so perfidious that even the invaders’ own people cried atrocity.

Starlit clouds pale as spirits lick the canyon rim. I hope it doesn’t rain. But at last sleep comes for a time, brief oblivion.

A brilliant half-moon has begun to rise when I wake; through the branches it casts spectral blotches on our packs and the huge downed log Tom converted into a kitchen.

Again the problem of the story presents itself.

Why do I still follow this line of work? One old friend would have an answer. But even as the moon glows down on us here, it shines through the window of the hospital room where he lies ill, at this moment dying.

He represents a school of elegance and precision that, moderns tell us, has no place in our time, this time of dwindling literacy and growing apathy. When he is gone, something more than a friend will be lost. A part of America’s cultural and intellectual prime will die with him.

Moonlight ghosts over the cliffs. The trees whisper.

What is wrong with the story is that it is swamping in a tide of grief—not just for him, but for my people and all that we have forfeited.

When next I wake the moon is straight overhead near the constellation of Cassiopeia. The space boxed in by the stark, pinnacled walls is filled with silver light. Mesquite leaves silhouetted against the shining sky look like black filigree.


The evening’s conversation replays in my head. Somehow it had turned from the grandeur of the universe to Sedona’s New-Age vortexes to our kids’ education to the times of our lives, and we agreed that now, in middle age, is the best.

Neither Tom nor Virgil said much that was profound, nor did they mean to. As we gathered in the circle of light cast by our candle, an old friendship was cemented and a new one begun.

While the candle held back the night, we shared an unspoken sense of human continuity, with each other and with those who came before.

* * *

Dawn seeps pearlescent down the reaches of Horse Camp Canyon, past the bouldered grottoes of Virgus Canyon, up the gurgling course of Aravaipa Creek and into our refuge.

A canyon wren’s melodic tremolo descends kamikaze-style as though the bird were diving off a cliff:

CHEE-weewee wee-wee-wee

Eighteen turkey vultures ride the clear eddies over the rim; only half that many watched as Virgil and I trudged into camp yesterday evening. In a few minutes, Tom will brew us fresh coffee and sweeten it with cocoa and our human day will begin.

There is much to say.