When I wrote The Gila Project, I started with only a few objectives: a twisted love triangle, that takes place in Tucson, and talks about cocktails. The love triangle quickly lost its Isosceles shape, resembling more of a line than a triangle. The cocktails were tempered considerably, based on initial feedback from early readers of the novel, but the Tucson setting kept hold and even expanded as I worked my way through the initial 50,000 word goal in 30 days. At some point in the writing process, I knew that Adam, my main character, had to seek water. It was, of course, the antidote to the harshness of the desert. While I spent nearly six months in Tucson before writing the novel, I quickly came to regret that I hadn’t strayed far outside of the city limits while there.
Upon seeing my shortsightedness, it was necessary to turn to technology to finish the story. I used Bing maps (and eventually Google) to seek out all the rivers within one hundred miles of Tucson, favoring the Gila, upon initial discovery. In all my time spent in Arizona, I’d never visited nor seen the Gila River. Everything I used to write the story was based on street-side views from Bing and Google. In the discovery process, I came across two landmarks that were particularly intriguing to me: the Gillespie Dam and its associated Old Highway 80 bridge. I spent hours looking up photos, videos, and street-side views of these side-by-side landmarks, located a few miles outside of Gila Bend. I built a connection with them that was mystical and “real.” I was determined that something important in my novel would happen at this improbable location.
While I can’t give away what did happen at this location, I can talk about what it was like to visit a place you’ve studied so thoroughly for the first time. The Gillespie Dam is not exactly a national treasure in the world of pop culture. Of my ten or so friends in Phoenix and Tucson, exactly none of them had ever been there. In fact, a few of them were surprised to learn that it was even on my agenda to spend nearly four additional hours visiting this place that was out in the middle of nowhere (lotsa drive time for a one day tour).
But last week, I had the first opportunity in a year my job afforded to revisit the desert where my book is based. I wish I could capture in words the exact feelings I felt when I turned the corner of the road, around the dead, rocky hills, and first laid eyes on the Highway 80 Gila River Bridge. It was surreal to me. As much as it looked like every picture and street-side image from Google Earth, it was nothing like what I expected it to be. I wasn’t the least bit disappointed in what I found, despite it not quite living up to my interpretations taken from the small screen experience. I didn’t regret for an instant my choice in making this place a pivotal point in my novel.
I spent an hour at the park since dedicated to the bridge and dam, and maybe three other vehicles crossed the same bridge. Two of them were utility vehicles associated with the dam; one was a truck with no decided agenda. I took video footage of whatever I could capture and plenty of still shots like this one of the bridge and breached dam.
In all my recent travels, I can’t think of any place so boring on the surface that has consumed so much of my mental (and physical) energy as the Gillespie Dam and Bridge. Every detail interested me: every noise, every defect, even the merciless heat of the mid-morning sun beating down on me as I did my work. To anyone else, this location is a minor point of interest on a road trip to somewhere more interesting. To me, this was a location that consumed my mental energies for months as I tried to perfect a storyline that directly linked to this latitude and longitude without ever having visited it outside of the virtual world.
While this was an awkward experience (three kinds of cameras shooting every angle of an otherwise boring place) for me, it was one I would recommend for anyone else who writes. The obsessions with far-and-away places, studied in virtual reality, for the sake of telling a story that might have minor technical inconsistencies, is an obsession worth fulfilling. While this is nothing but a bridge and dam to most Arizona residents, and perhaps even a nuisance for its narrow lanes, it was like living in my own world for one hour. It was an experience I will never forget and one that is hard to replicate. There is value in making up a story about a place before you visit it.
In contrast, I didn’t feel the same romantic appeal when I revisited the Tucson bar where most of my story takes place. Perhaps this is because I knew it so well already. In a sense, I actually felt disconnected from the bar, despite the staff remembering and welcoming me more than a year later. I’d written about it fantastically and the truth was, the people could never live up to what I’d written about. I suppose that’s fiction’s curse.
Dams, bridges, rivers and sun, however, are far less personable; I could make them whatever I wanted and the only thing that could have destroyed my vision for this special place would’ve been to find that Old Highway 80 was a massive thoroughfare with t-shirts for sale along the way. Fortunately, I didn’t find that, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that an interpretive center was erected from the location where I took the above photo. The interpretive center was established in 2012, the same year I published my book. That was cool, to me. But I don’t know what to make of it.