Show Low is the name

of the town, and I have no idea why. It's not far from a place called Fool Hollow. Founded in 1871, it sits on Route 60 in the mountains of eastern Arizona at an elevation of 6331 feet. Brutal winters, cool summer nights. This used to be Apache country -- their reservation is just to the south. Show Low goes its unnoticed way surrounded by some of the wildest geography anywhere. Thirty miles north is the Petrified Forest, a lush, dense wood turned to desert stone. The Hopi Mesas are 110 miles northwest, vistas of surreal formations, where the eyes of a Salvador Dali or a Georgia O'Keefe would be at home -- hardly a tree anywhere, and the arid ground catches the light so delicately that colors appear and disappear on its surface at the slightest change in the sky.

Draw a fan from Show Low west to east for 200 miles, and you map dozens of extinct volcanoes, lava fields, ice caves, ruins of ancient cities, and a crater where a rock came burning from space and left a hole thousands of feet deep and a mile wide. Its impact killed every living thing around. Less than a two-hour drive east from Show Low is the Great Divide -- near which, on a cliff-face, is a message carved in an ancient dialect of Phoenician about 2,000 years ago. A sailor too exhausted to run anymore wanted it known that he was the only man left of his crew, and that Indians would kill him soon.

In a land of so many wonders, I didn't think to ask why that little town was named Show Low. But at the Chevron I did ask where you could get a good hamburger. One guy had just moved from Iowa City, and he didn't know. I asked why he'd come. He didn't know that either. He had a scared face. Whatever he was running from, Show Low wasn't comforting him any. The others had lived there all their lives. They recommended the McDonald's. When they saw my credit card they said something I hear a lot in such gas stations these days: "Any relation to Ace Ventura?"

"He's my son."

Used to be, I'd stop in a little town, ask where to eat, and the gas station guys would point me toward So-and-So's Cafe. Greasy food, but you could strike up a conversation at the counter. Once you got the locals talking, the suspicion in their eyes would usually soften. The younger ones would be thin and almost anyone over 30 would be fleshy, except for a certain kind of waitress who would always be skinny, as though eaten from within by something that wanted to get out of town and never would.

There aren't many of those cafes left. Lately the locals point me to the Denny's or the McDonald's. Even the young are chubby now; and for some reason people in fast-food joints don't talk to strangers. Maybe it has something to do with how the money spent at So-and-So's Cafe would stay in town; the place belonged to them, there was a strength in that, so they had their pride. The same folks work and eat at the McDonald's now, but they don't know the names of the owners far away, and their money leaves town just like the strangers. Their sense of strength, their sense that their little town is unique and their own, is gone -- and with it, a capacity for hospitality. Now The Wall Street Journal reports that, along with the Christian cross and the Moslem crescent, McDonald's golden arches are the most recognized symbol in the world. Is it possible to measure how many fewer conversations there are between strangers?

And let's remember that when the McDonald's opened, nobody put a gun to anybody's head to go there instead of So-and-So's Cafe. Choices were made, a way of life was betrayed, and nothing was ever the same.

It was dinner time, the McDonald's was hopping. Orders flew for "10 Chicken McNuggets," "6 Big Macs." Route 60 is not a major road; Show Low isn't a tourist town. These were local families out for supper. But there were odd touches. The joint served Bigelow teas: Earl Grey and all the herbals, just like big-city coffee-shops. And jazz on the speakers! A sound you never used to hear on any road between L.A. and Austin. I wondered about the manager. What longing for a world beyond Show Low had selected tony teas and jazz to gentle the degradation, the sameness, the greasy odor, of 60-hour weeks (a manager's lot) in a McDonald's?

There was something else new in Show Low, and all over the Southwest, this trip: Many women over 30 wore the severe, close-cropped haircuts that in big cities you usually see on butch lesbians. I'm not going to touch that one, except to say that something is changing out there.

The place was crowded with fat folk of all ages. Their pastiness was a uniform that said, "I am of these people." And it was a camouflage that said, "You must get past this look to know me." Just like the muscular thinness of white L.A., or the black garb of bohemians everywhere. Only two weren't fat, weren't saying, "I am of these": a dark-haired boy and a blonde girl, both about 14.

They were ahead of me in line. He said to her, "I pled not-guilty to two charges and guilty to one."

"They'll send you to AA," she said.

"I won't go."

"If a judge orders you to AA, you'll go."

I didn't catch what came next, but then he said, "I have a six-pack. It's ugly when a girl has a six-pack."

"You owe me so much alcohol!" she laughed. "You owe me four beers."

They got their Big Macs and went to a booth. I got my McChicken and sat one small round table away from them. The boy was telling her what had happened:

"`What are you doing?' the guy says. `Are you gonna hurt me?' He says that to five guys with knives!"

I liked his face. Hers, too. He was intense, intelligent, quick. She was savvy, and had an easy, I-can-handle-you way with him. I doubt they were lovers. Teens aren't that loose with each other when they're lovers. They seemed blessed with that lovely boy-girl bond that can happen at that stage, two kids gentle and confident and reckless with each other, able to say anything and everything, an intimacy fueled by dammed-up sex. They spend months skirting the dangers while relishing the feelings (usually the first real closeness they've known), then lose it all when they finally kiss.

These two were "bad" in their town. Tough. And, from his story and the way she relished it: dangerous. Yet they shined. It would be a mistake to minimize the danger they put us in (in return for the danger we've put them in), and a mistake to minimize their glow. With four of his home-boys he'd pulled a knife on some guy. He didn't say why, or if he'd cut the guy; but he'd gotten caught. I suppose in his mug-shot he looked as cold and dead-eyed as all the pictures of kid-thugs you see in the papers. But here he was fresh and alive, lost but not yet ruined. And here she was, loving the danger of him in a land that tried to teach her that to be safe was to be good -- when she could see, right there in her Show Low McDonald's, that to be safe was to be fat and smell of fries.

They spoke too softly for me to hear for a while, and then she said, mocking, "Don't talk about Dylan, Bob Dylan!"

"You ever heard `Knockin' on Heaven's Door' by Bob Dylan?" He said it quietly, almost desperately.

Come put my guns in the ground, I can't use them anymore... It's gettin' dark, too dark to see. I feel I'm knockin' on Heaven's door.

Extinct volcanoes. Meteor craters. Apache ruins, and ruined Apaches. The words of an ancient Phoenician way off course. Forests turned to stone. A kid telling his friend that his life is over, he's knocking on Heaven's door.

I finished my coffee and left that town. Eight hundred miles down the road, near the Llano River in Texas, the son of a dear friend -- Vincent, age 13 -- said to me: "Our soul is the only key to the gate." He had gotten that sentence from his solitude and his deepening integrity. I said to him: "You haven't wasted your time. On that foundation, you can build anything." His eyes looked far beyond me, far beyond himself, and deep into the enchanting and frightening mystery of the world. With the same audacity that one reaches for a knife, another reaches for the truth.

What separates them? The luck of good parents? Fate? The thought that it's all arbitrary is crushing and probably true. All the more reason to recognize the possibility that the reach for the knife began as a grasp for some kind of truth, however mistaken, however terrible. How else can we save them, or even speak to them, if we do not honor the root of their impulse?

I thought of that boy knocking on Heaven's door, and that girl on a dangerous journey all her own. ("You owe me four beers!") And Vincent's eyes and words. I remembered words of a Boris Pasternak poem: "The root of beauty is audacity, and that is what draws us to each other."

Vistas so sensitive to light that they change color all day. Murderous rocks falling from the sky. The soul is the only key. n

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