This is not a normal library job.
The fellow who held this gig before me once stopped for a herd of tarantulas inching across Lake Mary Road. A woman who preceded him suffered a painful scorpion bite. Another predecessor quit to get married, and the next departed because of divorce.
Me? I’ve driven past a bull elk standing frozen as a tree stump along the highway shoulder, so motionless that I initially thought he was a big carved totem of some kind. One day, a bald eagle haughtily glared down from an overhanging limb, never budging as I whooshed past beneath it. On another occasion, I watched a coyote scavenge hunks of some hapless dead thing, bright red blood splattered in the snow. Every month, I skirt the buffalo herd that lives an hour or so south of Jacob Lake. These encounters are all, I imagine, surely the pages of something, shelved in a breathing Dewey Decimal System.
No, this is not a normal library job. Driving the City of Flagstaff-Coconino County Public Library Bookmobile around the second-largest county in America — through sparse deserts, blue volcanic mountains, and forests, towns and villages — is emphatically peculiar. My monthly summer route, which traces looping figure eights and wobbly ovals, would, if pulled straight, stretch from Flagstaff to Louisiana. There are around 900 bookmobiles still mobile in modern America, but I doubt that any match the geographic and imaginative range of the Flagstaff Special.
Once, as I cut through an open meadow, I glimpsed an alignment of clouds and contrails that I swear was a floating petroglyph. I’ve seen its approximate likeness in archaeology books. It hung in the sky like a balloon, a stick-figured person staring blankly down across the centuries, alive for only a minute or so before the wind returned it to ambiguous swirls.
I’m no New Age groupie or Wiccan witch or Harry Potter wizard type. Far from it; I merely drive the bookmobile. But I have no doubt that strands of magic are woven through my route. For isn’t magic the doorway, the bedrock, of any library, whether bound by firm brick walls or by swaying evergreens and dust devils?
The bookmobile visits schools, nursing homes, national parks and monuments –– including the Grand Canyon –– a Navajo “bead stop” along Highway 89, and small towns both within and without the Navajo Nation. A patron at the Bitter Springs stop claims she once saw Bigfoot lumbering in the brush along the road. A young man from Diablo Canyon declares that 15 years ago, he discovered a conquistador sword in a small cave nearby. Another regular bookmobile patron — a retired detective from a major urban center — swears he once inadvertently picked up a ghost who had been pushing a bicycle along the lonely desert road to Winslow. (“Will you swear on a stack of library books that this is true?” “I do.”)
I routinely implore all these people to pen their own volumes or articles. “Written your book yet?” is a standard greeting. I always promise to be the first in line to buy it. But no one has seized the suggestion.
One of the magnetic attractions of my job is its antiquated — almost mythic — “Andy of Mayberry” small-town character. Many people make a monthly habit of visiting the bookmobile, so I actually get to know some of them: their likes, their dislikes, their hopes, their dreams, their troubles, their pains. Indeed, the bookmobile driver wears many hats, including transient therapist, reference librarian, janitor, wheelchair assistant, fill-in hunting buddy and Dear Abby substitute.
The bookmobile anchors an unusual kind of community. Folks come to chat with neighbors they rarely see, or inquire about the euchre game tomorrow night, or complain about outrages real and imagined. (“My next door neighbor stole my ladder! I’m sure he did.” “You saw him do this?” “No, but I’m sure he did it.”) Once, at a stop on the Navajo Reservation, two ranchers introduced themselves to each other in front of me, and proceeded to make plans to sell sheep. A county supervisor once burst in to ask if the vehicle had a restroom. (It does not, thank God.)
Of course, not everyone within reach of the bookmobile cares to visit it, or even knows that it exists. Most people tumble through their lives with different priorities and, despite the vehicle’s considerable girth and odd ocean-blue color, never notice the great Culture Ferry as it roars past. Some of the people who visit me love novels or audiobooks, or have simply loved libraries since they were tots. Some are hopeless dreamers, and some live in one of many kinds of wildernesses and clutch at the bookmobile like a lifeline to the literate world. Some are bored or lonely. A few are drunk, and some are lost. Some need help taking the GED test.
For little kids in the middle of nowhere, the bookmobile can be as exciting as a circus coming to town. Like midget mountaineers, they climb the steps to stacks and layers of creativity, bound, categorized and shelved. I routinely ask one 10-year-old — a bright only child who lives with his parents at a remote forest ranger station — if he has captured any giant squid lately. Not yet, he told me one day, but he did find a very large crayfish.
The bookmobile rumbles through all seasons, including birth and death. Alexis, who lives at one of the national monuments, gave birth to a baby last month. Another regular visitor — a retired man nicknamed “Mud” for the years he spent in concrete construction — was trapped in his car when it caught fire and burned to death on a lonely dirt road outside of Valle. Yet another — Dan, a good-natured Navajo who was always waiting for me in order to check out a laptop — collapsed and died of a heart attack in front of a local school. When I pulled up to the stop, his father told me the sad news. The 50-year-old man had been struggling to save $300 — a colossal sum for a seasonal shepherd — to buy his own computer. Four bookmobile patrons have passed away during my four-and-a-half-year tenure.
I catch up on local gossip. Babs is going in for stomach surgery. Larry’s test for bone cancer was, thankfully, negative. Ally and Bob both had cataract surgery. (Ally’s results were poor, but Bob now has vision like an 18-year-old.) One of Valerie’s four ex-pound dogs is wrapped up in a blanket on her couch, still ill. A middle-aged woman, living alone in a desert trailer a half-hour south of the Grand Canyon, tells me that the bookmobile’s visit is the thing she most looks forward to each month. I hear from her neighbor that she — through no choice of her own — shares her battered trailer with a large wild snake that slithers in and out of holes in the walls.
Tourists have boarded the library bus from Colombia, Israel, Algeria, the Netherlands, France, Saudi Arabia — one woman was so heavily veiled that only her dark eyes caught any sun — Iran, Mexico, and many other places (even Florida). Four inebriated fellows once staggered aboard the bookmobile at the same time. That many drunks in small quarters can be quite an obstacle course. But rarely is anyone hostile. The bookmobile driver is like Santa Claus or the UPS guy, and usually receives a similar welcome.
One day, an older Navajo man boarded the Magic Bus in Leupp. I pulled out a box of books about his people, and on top lay Time Among the Navajo, whose cover features a black-and-white photograph of a woman standing in front of a hogan. “That’s my mother!” he exclaimed with astonishment.
I keep a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden on the shelves. Even if no one checks it out, my personal bias is that it must remain there, a guiding intellectual spirit. I’ve fulfilled requests from patrons for books ranging from the sexuality of Jesus to the Chilton’s manual for 1977 Chevy pickups. Desert anarchist Edward Abbey is almost as popular as James Patterson’s thrillers. The Vampire Diaries, Edgar Allen Poe, Walter the Farting Dog, how to tame horses, Japanese netsuke … you name it, my patrons have asked for it.
The bookmobile world is not without its problems. Black volcanic dust covers the white shelves, sometimes almost deep and rich enough to grow a plot of sweet potatoes. Though I’m active with a broom, whatever is out there occasionally makes its way in here: odd-colored dusts and bees and wasps and red mud and strange plant strings that the last boot or sneaker dragged in.
Driving the 90-mile stretch of road from the Page-Tuba City junction to Bitter Springs feels like bouncing on a cheap trampoline. The bookmobile’s 40-foot hulk catches every obscure nuance of the highway’s geography. Unsecured books become flying squirrels. Once, on the way back from Leupp, a hysterical dust devil raced across the desert so quickly that there was really no way to avoid it. Crazed winds blasted into the long flat side of the vehicle, and I felt its backbone shudder. My knuckles white, I arm-wrestled the steering wheel. But the trusty old library plowed through, bending the mini-hurricane back as if the sheer gravity of important cultural freight was enough to cower Nature’s most obstinate obstacles and arguments.
For my trouble, I’m richly rewarded. Grateful patrons have offered me homemade cookies, pastries, nut bread, iced tea, breakfast, Navajo fry bread, purple socks, a gift certificate to Denny’s, unsolicited advice and other small gifts in appreciation of the library service. One Navajo shepherd even offered me — as a Christmas present — a prehistoric ax-head, one of five or six he says that he found on his property while herding sheep. In turn, I’ve bought stone and wood sculpture from Navajo and Apache artisans, given $5 to a 6-year-old birthday girl, passed an occasional $20 to folks down on their luck, loaned gas money, and driven patrons from remote, surreal environments to and from the economic hub of Flagstaff — in my own truck, and on my own time.
Perhaps my greatest accomplishment so far as a reference librarian has been to reconnect a regular bookmobile visitor with his two children, whom he hadn’t seen in 22 years. The last time he saw his little girl, amid the tornado of a nasty divorce, she was 9 years old and he was a hopeless drinker. Today, he lives off the grid in a remote desert tourist village, has a steady job, shoots hoops against a cactus backdrop, and doesn’t drink anything harder than chocolate milk. But he doesn’t own a telephone or computer, and doesn’t know how to negotiate the internet. I offered to try and find his long-lost kids, who, he supposed, still lived on the other side of the country. He was excited about the prospect, so I did some quick online research, discovered where his son worked, phoned the young man and introduced myself. I asked him to think for a couple of days about what I was about to say, and to contact me if he’d like to reconnect with his father. A few days later, both he and his sister were peppering me with questions via speakerphone about their estranged dad. I took their contact information with me on my next visit to their father — along with a biography of Frank Zappa per an earlier request.
The bookmobile sails across its own sort of sea with an extraordinary cargo — books and movies and music, great thoughts, tiny thoughts, classics and fads. I think of the endless waterfall of truckers along America’s transcontinental arteries hauling refrigerators, spare car parts, electric toothbrushes, sheep for slaughter, and, yes, I know that I am the lucky one. Hauling dreams for public distribution: That is the best freight.
R. Kelley’s online fantasy novel, The Crack in the Ceiling, is somewhere in the cyberspace slush pile at Amazon.com under the pseudonym Cody Kelly.
The author would like to thank Heidi Holland, the director of the Flagstaff Library and the REAL heart and prime supporter of the bookmobile.