Ken Lamberton chases the chimichanga that is Arizona in his latest book.
Lamberton, with Karen, his wife of 34 years, packed up their Kia Rio and headed out for a 52-places-in-52 weeks, 20,000-mile adventure through Arizona’s 15 counties during the state’s 2012 centennial.
The result was a packed-with-facts series of lyrical, multi-layered essays that render a new understanding of the state.
“In the end, I decide in the book that the chimichanga, with its rolled-up layers of history and culture, is Arizona,” says Lamberton, 56. A chimi, not his Kia Rio, is depicted on the book’s cover. Oh yes, in addition to places in Arizona, he chases the best chimichanga throughout the book.
The book launch party for “Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Obsession with the Grand Canyon State” is Saturday at Tucson’s Historic Y. Lamberton also will be among the authors offering a sense-of-place perspective at the Tucson Festival of Books, March 14-15 on the University of Arizona campus.
Lamberton, who has a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in creative writing from the UA, is the solo author of four previous books and has written and co-authored several other books and countless articles and essays about the natural history of the Southwest. He and Karen live in a 1890s stone cottage near Bisbee.
Lamberton’s publisher originally wanted a guidebook. But Lamberton had another idea and wrote what he calls an adventure, mixing facts with his descriptive prose.
When he decided to write “Chasing Arizona” as a yearlong adventure story rather than a guidebook, he says, “My personal observations, descriptions, and emotional impressions became just as essential to the writing as the facts and information, even more so.
“I wanted the reader at my side, riding in the passenger seat or hiking the trails or listening to my conversations with people. I wanted to put the reader in the story, experiencing it along with me.
“Facts and information only ‘tell’ people where to go or what to eat. I wanted the reader to hear wolves howling, laugh with the Dutchman hunter’s jokes, taste the layers of green chile in the chimichanga,” he said in an email interview.
Complementing Lamberton’s prose are his richly detailed pencil sketches of critters and vegetation.
“What I try to do in both words and images is capture the emotion of the subject,” he says.
“Chasing Arizona” is dedicated to Richard and Lois Shelton.
Writer, poet and emeritus Regents Professor of English at the UA, Richard Shelton, ran a writer’s workshop at the Arizona State Prison in which Lamberton participated while incarcerated for 12 years for having a relationship with an underage girl when he was 28. Lamberton’s first book, “Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist’s Observations from Prison,” won the 2002 John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing.
“I wouldn’t be a writer today without Dick and Lois Shelton,” Lamberton says.
“Dick for his mentorship and friendship … Dick taught me the language of poetry instead of the language of despair,” he says. “And Lois because she typed and edited my first three books, patiently dealing with all the many revisions I kept sending her.
“They both reached out to me when I was in a very dark place, and I owe the fantastic life I live today to them, as well as to my wife and children and quite possibly the dozens of gracious people in the community who connected with me though my writing.
“Dedicating the book to the Sheltons is the very, very least I could do — there wouldn’t be any ‘Chasing Arizona’ without them.”
For newbies, Lamberton says, “I hope those new to Arizona will see in my book that, despite all the politics you hear about the place, Arizona is wonderful place to experience and live.
“The lines are only on the maps. In terms of our food, music, dance, clothes, jewelry — you name it — we are connected to Mexico and more. Our Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos says our borders are where we are joined, not separated. This is the way I think of Arizona.”
He says he hopes his book inspires longtime Arizonans “to revisit the places they love, whether it’s hanging your legs over the abyss of the Grand Canyon on a starry night or canoeing the Colorado River at Yuma in summer.
“Read my adventure story, and then have your own adventure,” he says.
One of the aspects of the Tucson Festival of books that sets it apart is its commitment to authors and presentations that help define Southern Arizona’s sense of place. Among the authors at this year’s festival:
Denise Chávez, a writer, novelist, playwright, teacher and cultural activist based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the author of new novel “The King and Queen of Comezón,” a border mystery/ love story. She will be speaking in the Nuestras Raíces area.
Jane Eppinga, author of “They Made Their Mark: An Illustrated History of The Society of Women Geographers,” “Tombstone: Images of America” and “Arizona Sheriffs: Badges and Bad Men.”
Gayle Harrison Hartmann, editor of Kiva: The Journal of Southwestern Anthropology and History and a co-author of “Last Water on the Devil’s Highway: A Cultural and Natural History of Tinajas Altas.”
Gregory McNamee, author and historian who edited “The Only One Living to Tell: The Autobiography of a Yavapai Indian” has written 36 books.
Matthew J. Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association.
Edwin R. Sweeney, one of the pre-eminent historians of the Apache peoples and the author of “Cochise: Firsthand Accounts of the Chiricahua Apache Chief.”