Over the past few years, as I have been struggling to develop my relationship with the craft of writing, part of the journey has been learning to recognize my limitations as a writer. For example, two years ago I found myself incapable of summoning the words to describe the magnificent cathedral in Seville. But over time, as I developed my amity with the pen, as I read and studied authors like Peter Matthiessen and Frances Mayes, I began to learn how to highlight small details and intertwine abstract emotions…mentioning the footsteps that echoed off the stained glass, my longing to hear the bellow of the organ, became a way to convey at least a sliver of a place. Enough that even if my words couldn’t do it justice, I be might able to splatter enough paint that the reader could fill in the brushstrokes. And so I began to learn. Though there are still plenty of things for which I am completely incapable of finding any words, one being the Grand Canyon, which I visited today.
From there I move south, back through Flagstaff, for some reason avoiding the 17 to Phoenix and instead following a winding mountain road through snowy forest. I see signs for Sedona as the setting sun alights on a snow bank, and flashes of orange light flit through the tree trunks as I trace the curves of the road. I descend toward the town, through canyon walls the color of blood, blotted with green shrubbery clinging to the cliffs, the sky a pastel-stained blue and yellow and pink. I am in the midst of red rock canyons at sunset, an intense, furious beauty.
I walk into an information center to get a map, and I end up talking with the guy behind the booth for almost an hour. When I finally step out, in the twenty feet between the door and my car, I pass a woman with two children and we all chat for 15 minutes. I walk into a local coffee shop, where a girl who works at a nearby Starbucks is chatting with the barista about how much better this local café is. We all end up talking for 20 minutes before the barista asks what kind of coffee I want.
Wait. What’s the deal with this place? Is it possible that Sedona is the friendliest place in America? Everyone makes eye contact with me and the small talk isn’t just “how are you,” “good.” And the people I’ve spoken with keep saying what I’ve only heard in a handful of places, like New Orleans and Santa Fe—they tell me about how they arrived here and just never left.
Even my search for free food is surprisingly welcoming. In Domino’s, the guy at the counter feels bad for not having any extra pizzas. “Well, how much do you have?” He asks me. “I can probably make something for you…. We usually do have some messed up order, so you can try coming back on other days!”
In other venues, people are actually apologetic that they don’t have extra food. Some even offer to buy me food, though I decline these offers with gratitude. As amazing as it would feel, the purpose of what I’m doing is to try to use the resources that would have otherwise gone to waste. It would be a beautiful gift, but that’s not what I’m trying to do right now.
At the Safeway, I chat with a friendly woman at the ready-made food counter. “Do you guys ever have any late-night deals on food? Or anything that you might give away at the end of the night?” She shakes her head. “Nope,” she says. “Whatever we don’t sell gets thrown away.” She is as frustrated about this as I am. She wishes there was something, anything, some kind of late-night prices or giveaways to keep the food from going to waste. “It kills me to do it, but we have to throw it away. We aren’t allowed to do anything else.”
“But you know,” she goes on. “With the produce? If there is any bruise or anything, it also gets thrown out when we close, even though it’s still perfectly good…but they just put them in boxes and set them in the dumpster out back.”
So, three hours later. You know where I am.
I am doing this. I’m almost trembling with anticipation. I am going dumpster diving. What a harshly stigmatized activity! To be among trash, garbage. I’m having a hard time thinking of a lower thing to do. Yet I do not feel low. I feel resourceful and humble. Why is eating out of a dumpster such a repulsive idea in our collective mindset? Is it actually the perceived filth that bothers us, or is it the idea of having no other choice than being forced to eat other people’s garbage? Yet the reality of it is that this is not garbage. This is perfectly good food that has been needlessly thrown away because a bruise or a touch of staleness has rendered it unprofitable. What’s the worst that can happen—I get a little bit dirty? I know that I’ll be able to take a shower later, I have clean clothes to change into. I might as well dive in and roll around in it.
Maybe not roll around. But I’m definitely going in. I park across the street and steal through the lot behind the grocery store towards the dumpsters by the truck bay. It turns out that I don’t even have to do any climbing—all I do is lift the lid of this massive green receptacle and there it is: food. I don’t even have to search. On top of a layer of cardboard, vegetables are strewn everywhere. Cucumbers, squash, peppers, onions, sealed plastic cartons of cherry tomatoes. And to the side, plastic bags filled with a mountain of the day’s unsold donuts and pastries. There is enough food lying in front of me to feed at least a dozen people.
I grab a bread roll out of the dumpster and inspect it briefly, then bite into it. It tastes delicious.