Terry Tempest Williams is the guest. She is the author of several books, including the environmental literature classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Her latest book is called When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. It was published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 2012, and the paperback edition is due out from Picador on February 26, 2013.

The San Francisco Chronicle raves

Williams displays a Whitmanesque embrace of the world and its contradictions….As the pages accumulate, her voice grows in majesty and power until it become a full-fledged aria.

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We were somewhere in Colorado after driving the day through Nevada and Utah, and we had miles ahead to go. The sun had set only a few minutes before, the twilight dimming over racing lengths of the Colorado River that we raced in turn, and the blue-edged black of early night was swiftly flooding the sky; we pulled into a gas station below a ridge lined with fast-food restaurants. Their signs were electric and bright against the deepening dark of the winding hills we’d driven behind us, and the plastic yellows and reds made the clean white and green panels of the gas station look more natural, somehow.

We were the only customers until a young couple in a black SUV pulled in across the empty lot. They stood close together on the other side of their car while they filled up, and talked in low voices. They both wore jeans and dark hooded tops; he put out a hand and touched her shoulder, awkwardly.

The distance from horizon to horizon above us, above the buildings and the highways, was vast, in its size, in its overwhelming impartiality. Dust from the road blew across the concrete beneath us; it settled and then passed as the breeze picked back up, and swept out into the shadows and the emptiness of the mountains and the valleys.

*

We were somewhere in West Texas and the man with the gut overhanging his belt was smiling as he spoke. Sweat beaded at his temples and he wore expensive-looking sunglasses under the white brim of his faded baseball cap. He was looking at Zara so I assumed he was talking to her; through the thickness of his accent I had no idea what he was saying. I kept the handle down and watched the numbers on the pump gauge race higher and higher. We’d come too close to running the tank empty. We’d been driving with the fuel light on for the last few hundred miles of old derricks and faded red soil and scrub. The orange LED had become increasingly apparent with every cresting hill that revealed nothing ahead but more of the same wide flats.

The air-conditioned convenience store of the gas station was a world away from the harsh dry oven heat of the morning outside. I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from the fridges and a pack of jerky from the display hooks and walked to the counter.

I paid with card and as soon as I’d signed the receipt and handed it back the lights flickered once and shut down. With a last despairing whine, the air conditioning choked into silence. Instantly the interior fell into shadow and the air turned still.

Customers groaned. The counter staff, a trio of women between fifty and sixty, fluttered to the computer and tried helplessly to turn it on.

‘Sorry,’ one of them called. ‘No gas. The pumps have gone too.’

Another minute and we would have been stuck here until the power came back. I made my way to the backroom bathrooms using the light of my phone’s screen to light the windowless corridor. When I came back out the power was still off. We got back into the car and drove away, leaving behind us the powerless gas station and the waiting customers, waiting still.

*

We were somewhere in Mississippi and we’d just crossed over both the state line and another one of the endlessly long bridges across the water. It was afternoon and I’d texted a photo of the road ahead of us to Joe Daly in San Diego. I was writing a text to someone else when I pressed a wrong button on my phone and it deleted the three weeks’s worth of conversation we’d been having.

The sun was over the sea and behind the ragged ghosts of clouds it was in glory; Zara reached down into her bag for her camera and passed it over to me.

Soon the long green marshes and waterways gave way to concrete sidewalks and suburban buildings and we found a low-roofed gas station circled with pickup trucks, with mothers in pulled-back ponytails and busy walks, with teen basketball players and laughing men in singlets holding beer cans. As we stood by the entryway a man with a head of tangled brown hair and a thin, scratchy beard walked up to Zara with carefully deferential steps. With all politeness, in a voice like road gravel and iron filings, he said hello.

‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ he asked. ‘Do you suppose I could buy a cigarette from you?’

Zara smiled and gave him one, waving away his offer of money.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and held it up to us happily, almost as if brandishing a prize. ‘First one I’ve had since I got out of jail this afternoon.’

*

We were somewhere in New Mexico and Zara was inside the gas station, buying something to drink on the road. I was leaning against the rough stone rear wall around the corner from the automatic doors, smoking. I’d barely lit up when the big Native American standing next to his truck straightened up and walked over to me.

‘Hey man,’ he said. ‘How are you today?’

He looked like he was somewhere past forty years old. He had a battered black cowboy hat and his face was solid and scarred and round. He wore a weathered denim jacket and a t-shirt that was rumpled and old over the size of his torso, all slack with fat and slouching muscle.

‘Well, thanks, man,’ I said. ‘How about you?’

He nodded once or twice at that, looked away, looked back.

‘Pretty good,’ he said.

He looked away, looked back.

‘That’s some accent you got there,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’

His voice was slow and deep; melodic within a single register and unfettered by any trace of emotion.

‘Australia,’ I said. ‘Melbourne, Australia.’

‘An Aussie,’ he said, pronouncing the middle sibilants with hissing American esses, rather than buzzing Australian zeds. ‘Wow, you’re far from home.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling. ‘I’m on a road trip with a friend of mine.’

‘OK,’ he said, and looked away, looked back.

‘Chester Healy is my name,’ he said, and he stuck out a hand. We shook, and his grip was even in its strength.

We spoke, and I started to notice his speech fell into a pattern free of any of the flowing syntax I associated with conversation. He broke his replies apart with that curious look away, look back, wordless every time. Our talk fell into question, response, pause. Question, response, pause.  And Chester Healy casually, unthinkingly, dropped curses where they seemed out of place, further breaking the rhythm of his words.

‘So where have you been to?’ he asked, and he lit a cigarette.

‘Oh, everywhere,’ I said. ‘We started in LA, we drove out to New York across the north, then came down South through Washington and through Louisiana and Texas, and now we’re headed back to LA.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Washington,’ he said, saying the word as if it had some further importance than any other. ‘So did you get to see that fuckin’ nigger they got there, the one who keeps throwing his weight around?’

‘Of course,’ Chester Healy said, after a pause, look away, look back, ‘My wife is a black lady, so I can’t say too much. She gives me a hard time when I say fuckin’ things like that.’

Zara came around the corner then, and I introduced her. Chester Healy looked around at the cars at their petrol pumps and rubbed a hand across his chin.

‘I better be movin’ on,’ he said. ‘Things to do.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Say, do you have a spare couple bucks?’ he asked.

I only had a five in my wallet, and I handed it over. He shook my hand again. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘If you’re going near Flagstaff, watch out for smoke. I heard it fuckin’ over the radio. That whole place is fuckin’ on fire.’

His face, for the first time, split into a grin.

‘It sure was nice to meet you though,’ he said. ‘Never met a real live Aussie before.’

*

We were somewhere in Nebraska and I was drinking Red Bull. Zara had never tasted it and she sipped from the can and pulled a face.

‘Is it always that sweet?’ she asked, and shook her head. ‘I’ll stick with coffee, I think.’

I smiled and tipped the can up to swallow the last of it. The sweet, faintly chemical taste of energy drink was cold and sharp. A tingling wave ran over my scalp and I resisted the urge to run my hand through my hair.

For no apparent reason, the gas station garden beds were dotted with cheerful plastic dinosaurs. In lime green they stood watch over the roads leading into and out of the place, wet with the faint haze of rain that gently soaked the air.

*

We were somewhere in South Carolina and we’d been driving through a morning of thick, sweet-smelling warmth on our way to Charleston. The roads were overgrown and verdant at the sides, and pleasant in their dense miles of dark and leafy green. The night before we’d pulled in to the deserted parking lot of a small and modern-framed church to plot our route and the air had been awash with the scent of cinnamon.

It was sunny and the highway was lined with white honeysuckle. The plants were reaching and alive; long, long vines strung the trees further back into the woods. We drove into a gas station and when I got out of the car the sunshine was a gentle heat on my back. A flock of birds flew overhead in a long V and one of them called out a whistling arpeggio. Away in the foliage, another bird, unseen, called back.

Zara went inside while I worked the pump, and we passed each other at the doors as I walked in to get something to eat. I wandered through the aisles and the attendant kept a curious eye on me as I walked back to her with a handful of muesli bars.

‘So…’ she said slowly, in the first true Southern accent I’d heard on the road. She was pretty, in a plump, flushed way, and her sharp-collared white shirt was open two buttons at the neck. Her hair was streaked blonde and she wore golden rings. ‘Where are you all from?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m from Australia.’

‘Well,’ she said, and she smiled and leaned in towards me, ‘That lady out there in the car? I don’t know who she is to you, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.’

‘Ah,’ I said.

I returned to the car and as I was pulling my seatbelt on I told Zara what the woman inside had said.

‘Right,’ Zara said. ‘That explains why she was smiling and nodding so much.’

*

We were somewhere in Iowa and the storm had finally broken. The rain had come down in pounding torrents as we crossed the swollen Mississippi, and it had thrown hard across highways where the only guides through the blattering screens of water across the windshield were the fading red brake lights of the cars ahead, but for now, the clouds were exhausted, and holding back their recovering strength.

The turnoff to the gas station took us up a winding spiral road that wrapped around a hill in the middle of nowhere, nothing more than a place for people who need to refuel. The lot was busy with traffic, so we filled up and then moved the car to park by the embankment around to the side.

People bustled inside, talking to each other across the racks of road stop clothing, filling up cups of coffee at the dispensers, poring over the dried-out convenience foods in heating cases. Zara was fascinated by the hangers full of Jesus t-shirts emblazoned with psalm numbers and sorrowing pictures of the Saviour on the cross. She searched through them while I went to the counter to pay.

A bald man in rimless round glasses was there, talking to the clerk, and the two of us struck up a conversation. He’d been the principal of the local school for twenty years – appropriately, he looked like James Tolkan, the principal from the Back to the Future movies.

He was friendly, and we spoke a little about how long he’d lived out here, in this quiet space far away from the cities. He asked if I knew much about Iowa, and I mentioned Field of Dreams. He laughed at that, and we traded lines back and forth. He saw a lot of truth, he said, in the one about Heaven.

When I got back outside the air was cool and damp. Down below the top of the hill, soft green land stretched out, far into the distance. The sky was a rolling patchwork of light greys, and close. The breeze blew, only slightly, and I looked out to the smoky wisps of rain on the horizon, away on the edge of seeing, and then back to the peace of the place at hand.

If you ever get the chance – and yes, I am aware, chances of this nature are thin on the ground – then take the drive through Utah into Colorado.

There is a lovely Denny’s in Utah.

Driving across the country always feels like freedom. Music blasting, singing at the top of your lungs to songs you would never begin to admit you have on your iPod, and single-handedly keeping Starbucks in business as the plains of Eastern Oregon and Idaho blur together out the car window at 105 MPH. A good road trip is never hard to find. Every time I take to the open road, I realize I don’t do it enough. It’s the idea of the unknown, new beginnings, adventure, and of course, my unfounded fear of serial killers that keep my foot firmly planted on that gas pedal.

Stories and media tell us that the Pacific Northwest is the favored stomping ground of serial killers. So, were I a logical human being, it would be clear that the apex of my terror, for this road trip, should be in Oregon. The sense of impending doom lay waiting in the thick, lush ground cover and moss. The humidity aiding nature and speeding up decomposition, leading to my untimely outcome. But, no. Not me. Utah is the state that makes my skin crawl. I’ll admit it, I have an irrational fear of Utah. Moreover, I have an irrational fear of serial killers in Utah.

On my latest adventure, I had made it not only through Idaho (which smelled like a port-o-potty vulgarly punctuated by neon beer pong ads), but had also covered a solid portion of the Grand Master Flash anthology, pocket dogs resting soundly in the backseat, night falling around me… A success story in the making. So, you can imagine my horror when I see the sign, flashing its distasteful orange message at me with a sneer: I-80 closed.

This means I have to reroute myself. I can’t drive through Wyoming and continue on into Colorado. I have to drive through the state of Utah.  This wouldn’t be so incredibly bad, but I have no GPS; I also have no sense of direction. Under normal circumstances, my inability to discern my right from left is comical, something that gives everyone a good chuckle, myself included. This time however, I’m alone, in Utah; I’ve gotten off on one of those no-man’s land exits in search of a gas station with wireless internet (or a map, do they still make those paper things?).

For the record, I also have a bizarre fear of Wyoming–it has less to do with having my arms chewed off by some glass-eyed polygamists and more to do with being abducted by rodeo clowns. The latter, for some reason, feels like a much healthier, safer option; I see the result as something that would end up in the pages of Penthouse Forum as opposed to an A&E or History Channel Special titled “The Girl Used as Mulch for Community Garden to Feed Underprivileged Developmentally Disabled Inner City Youth in Mormon Sustainability Project.”

After eighteen hours on the road, I realize there is no way in hell I’m going to get out of the state of Utah before I have to sleep. It’s 1 a.m. I’m exhausted. My eyes are dry and feel like they’re bulging out of my head. My body vibrates from the road, or the coffee, I’m not sure which. I pull into a motel, check in, get the pocket dogs situated in the room and fall into bed. There, I lay awake, waiting to be hacked into tiny bits by some toothless yokel in Green River and served as scrapple to unsuspecting travelers for breakfast. I know this line of thought is getting me nowhere and instead decide to think about what I’m sure every person thinks about while trying to fall asleep under these conditions.

Midget Porn.

I’m enthralled by Midgets, I have always wanted one to live with me, in the small space underneath my stairs. I’d make him, or her, a cute little nest akin to Jeannie’s bottle with a fancy, albeit small, chandelier and furniture from the children’s section. I’m even more intrigued by Midget Porn, which is odd because, as I lay there thinking about it, I realize I have never seen any. It is, however, something that I manage to work into conversations, and I think, is always a fun dinner party topic. As I wait for the serial killers to bust down my door and slice me to death with Post-It’s, I grab my laptop and start surfing. I can see the headline now: “Woman Abducted from Green River Hotel While Surfing Midget Porn.” My mom will be so proud.

Even my sister has seen little people porn. She and her boyfriend were having a date night, the kids had been dispersed to friends houses for the evening. Apparently, some of the neighbors got wind of this, and as a gag, left a bag full of Midget Porn, or Dwarf Porn as she refers to it, on her doorstep. Rang the doorbell and just ran off. As she tells me this I laugh, never revealing my secret desire to ask her what she did with said porn.

As Doug Stanhope says, “Midget porn is the comic relief porn you look at after you’ve just jacked off to something really uncomfortable.” You have to understand: I’ve never really thought about Midget Porn as particularly arousing (and yes, I do read Playboy for the articles, thank you very much… Doesn’t everyone?), but as more of a curiosity, like Supercross or The Polyphonic Spree. I like to think of myself as worldly, in my own special way, a countercultural anthropologist, if you will.

I finally get some of what I imagine to be quality midget porn on the laptop, or as quality as you can get without relinquishing your credit card information. Much like all things in life you think you love or desire so much that it hurts, until you get them in your possession: deep fried Twinkies, a pet pony, Jake Ryan. You realize, sadly, you should have left well enough alone. That the romantic mythology is so much better.

With tired eyes I watch a man enter a hotel room, wheeling his suitcase behind him. He opens his luggage and out pops an abbreviated woman with hair the size of her person and yellow as Big Bird, rigged out in cheap lingerie. I laugh audibly at the squished little lady and worry a bit since the majority of him is of regular stature. I have to cover my eyes as he places her on the bed. Those truncated little legs in garters are way more than my highway addled mind can bear. I can’t take it. Those puffy little fuckers creep me out. There I sit, in my underwear and wife-beater, on a scratchy bedspread in a cheap motel room in Bum-fuck Utah. With my eyes pressed closed, covered by my hands, I have to wonder: did I watch The Wizard of Oz and Under the Rainbow too many times as a child? Maybe spending all those Thanksgiving Holidays watching the movie Freaks is to blame.

I snap my laptop shut, lay down under the cardboard cleverly disguising itself as sheets, and as I close my eyes I see my suitcase glaring at me from across the room. I try to drift off to sleep before a scantily clad, pint sized serial killer pops out of my suitcase of doom and takes me away.

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SACRAMENTO, CA –

My dad is pretty infamous within my family for his over-the-top hobbies and do-it-yourself home improvement projects. In the early 90’s, when my family still lived in Modesto, Calif., my father decided he was going to try his hand at woodworking. He then proceeded to purchase approximately 30 books on the subject, subscribed to Woodworking Magazine, and began researching all of the tools he would need to be an expert woodworker.

We spent a lot of time at Sears in those days, as my dad began purchasing every saw, workbench and sander known to man. He cleaned out the garage, which, by the way, was the first time I think I’d ever seen the garage floor in my lifetime, and set up his “workshop.” There was a pile of wood in the garage that took up a good third of the floorspace. For all of his efforts though, my dad only ever managed to make little tchotchkes. You know, the little “Home is where your heart is” signs and whatnot.

There were many projects that followed this one, but the one that’s been on my mind lately was his attempt to put a pond in our backyard a few years after I had moved out of my parent’s home. This was when they still lived nearby and I saw them on a weekly basis. When I heard that my dad was starting another home improvement project I just rolled my eyes and laughed with the rest of the family. I got to the house one day to see my dad surrounded by books about building a backyard pond, along with some tubing and pumps that he was busily testing. Weeks passed and I quickly forgot about my father’s plans for the pond.

Then, a few months later I arrived at my parent’s house to discover my youngest brother seated on a giant rock next to a gaping hole filled with rainwater and mud. The picturesque pond my father had envisioned had never materialized. Instead, it was more like a swamp, which suited my then 4-year-old brother just fine. My mom told me that Peter would spend every afternoon out there playing in the mud and watching the frogs and toads who were loving this new habitat my father had seemingly created especially for them.

I joined my brother out there and he told me all about the “magic” frogs that lived in the pond. At first I couldn’t see any frogs. I actually thought they were my brother’s imaginary friends. After all, he was 20 years younger than me and five years younger than the next youngest child. Unlike the rest of my brothers and sisters, he spent a lot of time on his own.

But then I flinched as I saw one of the frogs hop out of the pond. Peter thought this was hilarious, but, unlike any of my other brothers, he didn’t begin trying to catch them and taunt me with them. Instead, he showed his sensitive side and explained to me that the frogs were “really nice” and that they wouldn’t hurt me. He picked up a couple of the frogs, and petted them to show me I had nothing to fear.

Since then, my brother has formed a very complex personality. He loves to do lots of the things stereotypically reserved for little boys, like riding his bike and playing in the dirt. But he also loves putting on performances in which he sings and dances to his own songs. He’s comfortable around girls and loves to show off by doing cartwheels and walking around in my sister’s high heels. Like any big sister, I think this is the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. But the rest of the world associates his more “feminine” behaviors with him being a homosexual. While I’m totally fine with this and would absolutely love to have a gay little brother, other people have stigmatized the gay lifestyle to such a point that even at 8 years old, my little brother, who has absolutely no concept of gay or straight, cannot feel comfortable with being himself out of fear of being marked as an outsider.

See, unfortunately, my family no longer lives in California, which, until Prop. 8 passed, seemed to be a more tolerant state than others. Instead, that pond was filled in a few years back when my parents sold their home and moved away to Idaho, and later Utah. Now I rely on updates about my two youngest siblings from my other family members and I heard the saddest news last week about Peter. My sister, Jess, called to fill me in on the latest family gossip about me, while at the same time giving me the scoop on the rest of the fam. This is when she told me that my little brother is avoiding school because he’s been being harassed and beaten up for being gay. She said he asked if he could transfer to a school near her so he wouldn’t have to go back to his regular school. He also asked her if doing cartwheels would turn him gay – apparently one of the accusations of his persecutors.

It’s obvious to me that the other children in his school are getting some skewed educations at home on what it means to be gay, along with the message that it is something to be avoided at all costs. And worst of all, they are somehow coming to the understanding that it is OK to discriminate against and harass gays. Each time a state passes another law discriminating against gays – no matter how trivial the issue may seem to the larger population – this message is reinforced both in the minds of adults and in the minds of our children. My younger brother is only one of a great many children who are being harrassed at schools across the nation for not conforming to gender norms. I only hope he can make it through without adopting the same mindset as his peers.