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Setting Out for the Tool Fan Ethnography Project, Phoenix: Part 1

In this post, Julia tells us about her first day and night on the road, hitting MJK’s Merkin Osteria en route to the Phoenix show.

We left off in the last post at the moment I committed to the decision to follow Tool for a short stint on their Fear Inoculum tour, doing an ethnographic and personally-meaningful project that I hadn’t (haven’t) totally figured out yet. If this is your first time reading, check out the explanation of what this interdisciplinary project is here and here. We are currently awaiting word as to whether small portions of the scholarly reflections the project is yielding will be accepted for brief presentations at one of my field’s national-level conferences.

The idea [for this project] came to me in a round of prayers and meditation and I jumped. … I made the decision, submitted for vacation-time from work, and began planning my route.

After attending Tool’s January 11th Tacoma show under a set of delightfully synchronistic circumstances that I will delve into in another post: “The idea [for this project] came to me in a round of prayers and meditation and I jumped. I would not only get to see this kick-ass rock band a few more times, but I would turn the journey into something creative, without the traditional confines of a limiting academic-project sponsorship. I could study whatever I want about this community, however I want, and leave some of it up to brutal and gentle chance along the way.

I made the decision, submitted for vacation-time from work, and began planning my route.”

I would drive to Phoenix, splitting the drive up over two days, hit the Footprint Arena show Friday night, leave open the possibility of a Vegas show on Saturday (if I felt up to the festering neon distraction), then on up to Salt Lake City for a Tuesday show, back over to Colorado for the Springs show at the Broadmoor, then onto Tulsa that following weekend. That was the plan, anyway. Spoiler alert if you aren’t following me on IG already: I didn’t make it Tulsa; but, that was for very positive reasons.

It can stir up an empowering if not addictive feeling of wanting to fight for one’s own life when we meet something gently capable of taking it

After work on a Thursday, just eight days after the Tacoma show, and just five days after making the decision to set out, I packed up my winter-ready cargo, my coolest little dude dog friend, my Flower of Life mandala—which is a staple travel talisman on my road voyages—and began the journey.

Travel talisman

Yes, friends, I did—I blasted some FI for the kickoff of this trip.

As I set out southward into the increasingly rural swaths of Colorado/New Mexico terrain, my Earth-bound being couldn’t quite wrap its socially-structured head around what I was (we were?) doing; my spirit-body was abuzz with purpose and anticipation, but my well-programmed responsible laboring brain shouted very well-reasoned doubts into the chasm between. All I was clear about was that my brain had ripped open in Tacoma, that it was still open, and that I needed to feed it with more live Tool performances.

Oh yeah, and, something something ethnography something something. (OK, but really, and I will be able to share much more with you about these angles once I find out if my public proposals have been accepted or not!).

According to my calculations, I would land somewhere around Cortez, Colorado for the night, where the forecast was calling for 17-degree overnight temps. The brisk cold and totally manageable threat of discomfort excited me: It can stir up an empowering if not addictive feeling of wanting to fight for one’s own life when we meet something gently capable of taking it.

My destination was an undeveloped set of campsites half a mile off the highway with a purportedly, literally/literally stellar view. Even though I’d still be in the modern techno-cocoon of my car, I was excited to fall asleep and wake up away from a city and instead more immersed in nature.

But, this did not go quite as planned.

Around 6 o’clock as I got hungry I pulled into a tiny desert town and jet-boiled up the first night’s grub — Mike’s Mighty Ramen. I don’t mess around; there’s bone broth in this stuff, and they don’t pay me to say that (but if they want to, that would be acceptable).

The first thing that struck me as I set out on this multi-day journey, jet-boiling my first round of hot water in several months and having limited—though carefully curated—supplies, was, “Damn, I really miss being on the road.” It is immediately clear I made the right decision to take on this absurd project, even though I did not know how it would turn out.

Chillin’ for dinner under the Old Fort Market sign

By the time I made it to the campgrounds, it was fully dark, and though the ridiculously-meager-for-this-time-of-year snow had been scraped and melted off most of the roads, this specific road may as well have been where they scraped it all off to. Although I am equipped with a modicum of safe off-road snow-driving skills, my car is less equipped with verticality: it is a stock-height, non-aggressive, run-of-the-mill passenger SUV, and though we have arguably the greatest consumer-level snow tires out there slapped onto that baby, no amount of brilliant fluid dynamics and materials engineering can make up for its lack-of-lift. It wanted to; I wanted to; but I more wanted not to be calling the local 4×4 militia to haul me off a random hill at 11 o’clock at night on a school night.

After blowing through my alternate and contingency plans–“because you are ignorant and your first plan sucks…”–I finally found a residential RV park to hide my snow-mud car in. It wasn’t very quiet, and it wasn’t very rural, but it was safe, and it was time to sleep.

Me and my furball friend tucked in for the night, into our temperature-appropriate sleeping bag atop the sweet bedding setup I still had memorized from my previous days of much longer stints on the road. It was indeed 17 degrees when we fell asleep.

The excitement of seeing Tool live again, and this time doing it with some kind of purpose not wholly about myself and my own singular experiences, made it very hard to sleep normally. I was easily up at 5am and still abuzz to hit the road and get to Phoenix.

En route, I decided to make a slight detour for “the pilgrimage to Jerome,” as authors of countless “Signs You’re a Tool Fan” articles like to call it. Actually, I went to Cottonwood, Arizona, not quite Jerome, where there is a wine-tasting room and grub-house called Merkin Osteria, run in part by Tool’s lyricist Maynard James Keenan, whose name is frequently abbreviated to MJK in fangirl write-ups, present company included.

In this episode of a tell-all, I am admitting right here, I am a total foodie, because while it was my curiosity about MJK’s forays into food that initiated consideration of the detour, it is my faithfulness to culinary exploration that prompted real action to actually go try it out. On the flights to and from Tacoma, it just so happened (I’m looking at you, clever marketing team) that United Airlines’ Hemispheres Magazine had a write-up on Maynard’s vintner voyages. Transformation excites me, and the write-up revealed concisely and clearly that the man has worked inside of, and giving back to, his communities in ways that are worth reading about—and potentially going to see. Before the idea for this project was born, I had decided to check out his food-works on my next trip to visit family who live in the Verde Valley region transformed by these labor-of-love projects.

Here I was several days later, already en route!

The question burned inside me: Is the food really that great, or are people just enamored with who they think MJK is?

This mural greets you as you head into downtown Cottonwood

As I pulled up in downtown Cottonwood, being a just a touch of motorhead, I had already seen several well-kept classic cars and trucks enough to know I’d like to come back and hang out here some time. Parking at the restaurant, a sparkly blue late-80’s Ford with—yes, I’m serious now—OG, clean, red plastic centers on it, greeted me. I was enjoying myself already. Even if the comestibles weren’t good, I was going to enjoy the free car show. I sat outside and brought my furry friend, keeping an eye on the four-wheeled beauties that to my delight did not stop rolling through.

As the server came out to greet me and introduce me to the Osteria, I watched and listened in slow-motion horror as the words came gushing out of my mouth with unbridled excitement, “Yes! I love Tool!” and, “Yes! That’s how I heard about this place! I am on my way to the concert right now!”

‘Oh crud,’ I thought, ‘he is probably hitting the button under the counter that alerts staff that one of the Tool crazies is in the house.’

In one of my favorite articles about the perception of time, cognitive scientist Bud Craig theorizes that time appears to slow down during more intense incidents because our brain records more details about the scene within the same time frame–so rather than 100MB of data recorded in 2 nanoseconds, we have 800MB of data recorded in the same amount of time, making it seem eight times longer. Since one of the body’s internal time-keeping mechanisms relates time to the quantity of data inputs, we get the sense that time has slowed down, based on how much data is coming in.

‘Oh crud,’ I thought, ‘he is probably hitting the button under the counter that alerts staff that one of the Tool crazies is in the house.’

He smiled uncomfortably as I tried to recover by insisting I was here for the food, but it was too late, I’d been outed.

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(Part 2 continues here! With Love, The Anthropologist)

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Sneak preview of tomorrow’s post:

Sitting at Merkin Osteria, outed for my fangirl status, and with my true foodie nature under total disguise, I realized this was actually sort of a blessing. Knowing from experience that once wait-staff figure out or come to suspect you are there to critique their food or the restaurant, the ambience changes and their interactions become stiflingly structured. As a frequent solo diner, this is a change in behavior I have become particularly sensitive to.

But now that my server relaxed into his perception that I was “only there” as a Tool fan, I embraced the welcome change from the solo-diner uncertainty and awkwardness that sometimes plague wait-staff at humble, self-conscious restaurants who have much to be proud of, like this one.

Filed under: Adventure, Camping

About the Author:

Julia McClenon is an award-winning anthropologist and writer trained in a diverse set of field methods and interview techniques. She has a Master of Arts in Religious Studies with a focus on cognitive science. Everywhere she travels she observes the humans around her with the aim of facilitating understanding across deep divides. Once in a while, she can be found riding a motorcycle in the backcountry. has written 5 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Steven March 8, 2022, 8:49 pm

    Look forward to reading your Journey. I remember commenting to you a while ago, that the first song on every tool album is the beginning of the journey, it sets the tempo and mood of the journey to follow.

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    • VBJ April 7, 2022, 8:27 am

      Friends Worlders unite!

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