Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Can't go home again

Today was the second of the planned road trips. If the first one was for Kate (which, in my own slightly slanted way of thinking it was), then this one was purely for me. In that light, it is worth noting that the "Kate" road trip was definitely on the schedule, while this on, the "Andy" trip, took a secondary place. I wonder if this ties in with the whole "Tired Thing" set of observations? The course I had outlined offered a number of attractions, but for me it all boiled down to one thing: St. David and the old family homestead where my father grew up. SO – to that end, we set off.

This time we got out of town without messing with all of the city traffic. My first observations were that Phoenix was growing as viciously to the south as to the north, and that I never remembered the air in the valley looking so dirty. Kate's observation, oddly enough, was that she had no idea there was so much agriculture in the valley. Later, on the way up through Thatcher, she expressed surprise at all of the cotton farming.

We stopped at a rest area about an hour south of town. In the parking lot was a woman seated on a folding chair at the back of her car. The trunk was open, she had a few small cases open, a mirror set up and was applying her makeup and doing her hair. She really didn't look like a lot lizard or like she was living out of her car. But she did have Florida license plates. The only theory I could formulate, only half joking, was that this was her version of evacuating for the hurricane season.

A few miles further we stopped at the Truckstops of America where Kate's friend Mike worked for a while. Breakfast in the diner did NOT impress me. Too pricey, too slow, no atmosphere. Yech. According to Kate, it used to be better. It was the only place I ate at the entire trip that I wouldn't go back to. Kate mentioned something about calling Mike and telling him the place had started to slide downhill.

Tucson we skipped, at least as much as we could – we stayed on the freeway and pretended it wasn't there. That made the rest of the ride a straight shot to St. David. I got us off the freeway and into town without any problem, which I only mention as a mirror of a few comments by Kate: Softened versions of the "Are you sure you know how to get there?" sort of thing. I'm scratching my head a little at that. Where does the doubt and questioning come from? When she's driving, I take something of a "That's why God invented the U-turn" sort of attitude. It won't kill you to miss a turn then have to backtrack to it.

But then we actually got there, and that's when failing instincts and the passage of time combined to foil me. I slowed down as we got close, then pulled off the road where I thought the place should be. As I later discovered, my instincts served me well and I was dead on in front of the place. But the brush just off the road had grown thick and high, not only at the old homestead but also at the adjoining properties, and I couldn't see anything more than 10 feet off the shoulder of the road. So I pulled back out and made it as far as the Golden Bell (now called the Twin Lakes RV park) before turning around and going back.

So I parked across the road from where I had been before, staring down a road crew in the process, and walked down the drive far enough to confirm that we had found the place. Then I trotted back to the car and we drove cautiously down the drive. I'll have to admit to being shocked that the place was still standing at all, and had changed little enough that I could still recognize it. More shocking still was that it had taken on even more of a Ma and Pa Kettle look and feel than it ever had when Gramps and Nanna were living there. It had become some sort of a white trash paradise. Then I knocked on the door.

Keith answered. Maybe it would be closer to truth to say that Keith's gut answered, large and hairy and uncovered, dragging Keith to the front door along with it. I introduced myself, explained why I was there and asked permission to wander around the grounds and take some photos. That was fine with him. In that first conversation I learned that he purchased the place only a few years after the family sold it, and that the name McGuire was familiar with him – that during the first few years he lived there, a few people had referred to it as "The McGuire Place". After getting the quick history of the place, Keith went inside while I started taking pictures. He was back out in a few minutes. This time he was in charge and his tummy was safely tucked away in a

The first I noticed, as already mentioned, was the growth up by the road. This extended to the neighboring properties and may have been a concerted effort to block out the noise from the highway. The next thing I noticed, and the saddest, was that the pond was bone dry. The pond had been fed by an artesian well with the outlet being a small pipe that poured water into on end. A cottonwood tree had grown near this outlet and gradually its roots had broken the pipe somewhere underground and shut off the flow. Keith claimed to have tried to correct it, but based on my observations of him and the property, I'm assuming that when it didn't magically come back to life after turning a few spades of earth, he walked away from it. This really was too bad, because the pond was one of the defining features of the place and many memories were tied up in it, both my own and those related by my father (many having to do with catching dinner in the form of frog legs).

The entire yard was unkempt and ignored. There had been some attempt at landscaping, making a waterway and related cutsie shit going from the pond and past the house, but it had long since fallen into disrepair. The old water pressurizing system was gone, replaced with city water. The garden area had a number of small trees growing in it. This was something that Keith was quite proud of, stating that the trees were growing so well and were so healthy. They were Chinese Elm. I could feel generations of ancestors, mainly on my mother's side, cry out in anguish.

The house itself was changed but could still be recognized. Keith had closed in the porch and turned it into the living room slash office (or so I assumed, seeing a computer monitor through the window). The back of the house appeared to be squared off where it had a few corners and protrusions the way I remember it. I could swear it the change was from having been added onto, but Keith didn't know what I was talking about when I mentioned the dining room floor and how it sloped from one end of the room being slowly lifted by the cottonwood root growing beneath it. One explanation for the state of the house that I found both fitting and amusing was this: The city required you to bring it up to code before making any changes that required a building permit (or similar improvements). This would have cost so much money that it was beyond the realm of reason. So Keith was pretty much stuck between the extremes of keeping hands off and allowing it to slowly decay or razing it and starting over. I never ask for, or was offered, a tour of the inside of the place. I figured it wasn't worth it for me and would have been too much intrusion for Keith.

The root cellar was still there, along with the remnants of the old tool shed. But there was an entirely new structure out where the rabbit hutches had been. It was mainly roof and screening, and I could see power tools and workbenches inside. I asked Keith about it, and that's where things started getting interesting. He dragged us inside and started showing us around. He was an "Artisan". His specialty is copper. He cuts out a shape in a wafer thin piece of wood, then cuts two or more pieces from sheet copper that will combine to cover the wood. Some of the copper is left alone, some of it is treated with acid to get the corrosion and green coloring. Then all is applied to the wood for a two tone piece. His works ranged from 2 dollar refrigerator magnets up to $100 pieces that were fairly impressive. All of his stuff was packed away in his van (he had recently returned from a show) so the only thing out for us to look at was a tray of the $2 magnets. Kate and I scooped up enough to dispose of a twenty dollar bill with plans to distribute them among family and friends.

By this time I was ready to go, but Keith was acting like he wad warmed up to the company and wanted us to stay a while. So after a few trial attempts I succeeded in getting into the car and getting back on the road. Turning back onto the highway I noticed the place across the street. It was a junk, antique and sundries shop. It came back to me that the same business had been there last time I visited, well over 20 years before. It was odd to see something so ephemeral have such staying power.

On the way into town I noticed a couple of roadside stands selling pecans and other local produce. In all the years I had traveled here as I child, and for all the stories from my father, I had no idea that this was a big area for pecans. I stopped at the most promising of these places. It was pretty darned cool. The selection was varied and impressive, all of it home grown (or from similar small places within a county or two). In the corner was an ancient machine with a hopper on top, wheels and gears in the guts, and a chute out the bottom. It was running steadily and slowly, cracking the shells of pecans. Cool. We got 10 pounds of nuts and some other stuff (I can't remember what, but I think it was for the old man).

The woman who ran the place was an interesting study. About my age, in good shape but you could tell she had gone some hard miles. She also seemed to be almost manic in flitting around the place, arranging and dusting and making sure everything was Just So. It was really odd, like she was trying to hide from us. There was sticker in her car window, the text reading "You know you want me." The car was old enough that the sticker may have dated back to her twenties. If Kate hadn't been there I might just have given it a try. So...more stuff in the car, and less money in my pocket, and back on the road we went. Next stop – THE THING?!!!!!!!!

Anyone who has driven I-10 across southern Arizona has seen them – the billboards with the yellow lettering, skewed a bit from side to side, and the extra curly question mark at the end, advertising The Thing?. Somewhere just less than 10 years ago Kate and Barry had driven this road on the way either to or from Austin. Being the kitsch junkies that they were, the stopped to check it out. We saw the first sign on between Phoenix and Tucson. After Tucson they became more frequent, then nearly a barrage after getting back on the main road at Benson. From the beginning of the trip we had been camping it up, acting as if THE THING? was the be-all and end-all of all destinations. It was the very cosmic reason for existence, if our mood and actions were to be trusted. Of course it was all camp, but as we approached our play acting took on life of its own and some genuine anticipation began to grow.

Finally we arrived. As tourist traps go, this one was a bit more useful than usual. There was a gas station and a Dairy Queen, with nothing much on the freeway for miles in either direction, so it was a good spot to stop even for the most jaded of travelers. Then there was a gift shop, an explosion of useless stuff like Meteor City, but on a slightly higher level. There were also some THE THING? branded items, winking at us and begging to be remembered after we were done and enraptured by the grand tour. Ah…the grand tour. There was a door opposite the entrance, of heavy oak and framed in iron. There was a sign near the cash register announcing "No Refunds". The price of admission was a dollar. (Who the hell would ask for a refund after putting down a whole buck?) So we paid our admission and took the plunge through the door.

For some reason I was expecting THE THING? to be waiting right on the other side. It wasn't. The door lead out the back of the building to a sidewalk. Painted on the sidewalk, a bit faded from the sun, were big yellow footprints showing us the path. These lead to the open entrance of a metal outbuilding with a sign and arrow above the door, hinting that THE THING? lay beyond. We followed it.

This was the first of three similar buildings, metal prefab barns arranged to form a circuit back to a side entrance of the gift shop. Together they formed an odd sort of museum – there was no common theme to the displays, but it had more the appearance of a number found items combined with the artwork of someone who, years ago, had some paint, some power tools and WAY TOO MUCH TIME ON HIS HANDS. The first of these works of art was a full size diorama of a torture chamber from the Spanish Inquisition. The "art" itself wasn't too shocking, but the idea of what it was portraying really bothered me. From there the art got stranger, but much more to my liking. It mainly consisted of pieces of what resembled driftwood, but most likely culled from the desert, shaped and joined and painted to look like animals from another dimension. I think the way I phased it was "Dr. Seuss meets Salvador Dali" (or was it …meets H. R. Giger?) About the time I was grooving on the surreal artwork the realization slowly dawned on me that I had been here before.

We finally made it to the third and final building. THE THING? was just inside the entrance. I nearly missed it, thinking that the suspense would be drawn to the last possible moment and it would be the final stop before returning to the gift shop. But here it was. THE THING? is supposed to be a mummy, or rather a pair of them (an adult holding a child). The implication is that they were found somewhere in the expanse of the desert and brought here for display. There is a sign mounted on the case posing the question, "Is it Real?" The whole thing is dried out and constructed in such a way as to hint of the odd bit of exposed dried flesh or even bone. But I think it is just one of the better works of the same artist who produced the other oddities on the grand tour. It was convincing to an extent, but the dimensions weren't right (especially the head being too small on the baby) and the supposed skull had something supporting the lips, but they weren't teeth. I can't help but wonder if maybe it wasn't a High School art of history project of some sort that grew beyond its mandate and took on a life of its own (so to speak).
Regardless of the authenticity, once we returned to the gift shop it wasn't a matter of "if" we were going to purchase a memento or two of THE THING?, but "what" those mementos would be. I was expecting there to be more THE THING? items among the usual junk, but it turned out there were only a few items to choose from. So we left with matching THE THING? T-shirts and bumper stickers, a THE THING? shot glass for me (I almost got a beer mug, but figured it was better to stay with the shot glass theme of the week) and matching black leather vests to wear over our THE THING? T's. Then a goodie from the Dairy Queen and we were of for Safford, Thatcher and points north.

I had told Kate about the trip my dad and I had made along this route years ago, and how he was retracing the steps of his long lost first love. But that was very early in the trip and she appeared to have forgotten about it. So after we left the freeway, and as we drove north, I kept an eye out for the bridge where the young lady's car had left the road and she had died. We crossed one stream or wash, and I wondered if that was it, but then dismissed it, sure that we would pass a dozen such places. As it turns out, this was the only place we passed that could have matched the spot. If I had known it was the place, I probably would have just driven on without comment. As a side note, one of the nights I was at Kate's there was a movie on that had Bruce Willis playing the part of Tom Mix. I later read that Tom Mix was an actual cowboy who made it into Hollywood, and that he died in a similar accident to the one that claimed my dad's fiancé. His car left the road and hit a bridge abutment, etc. about 100 miles to the west of where we were and about 20 years before my father's tragedy.

The next bit of the drive northward, through Safford and Thatcher, was unremarkable. Kate was surprised at all of the cotton farming. Other than that, it was just white lines and buzzing tires.

The mountains then crept up on us. We found ourselves climbing into territory that became rugged but by small enough degrees that it wasn't noticed. Somewhere in this we hit one of Arizona's Indian reservations and, by extension, one of the ubiquitous Casinos. This one was called Apache Gold. It was a simple one building mirror of the whole zeitgeist behind Las Vegas: Out in the middle of nowhere, with no reason to be, and sucking up money anyway, graced only by the partnership of greed and legal inequities. Stupid. Getting to the part of the rez where the natives live, we got stuck behind the cotton, behind The School Bus From Hell. Slow and stopping every 10 yards or so. There was no passing lane and no such thing as pulling over. Finally, after what seemed like forever but was only a few minutes, it turned to a side street, revealing in front of it…another bus. Isn't that just how life works?

After finally losing the last of the buses (there were three, and only the first was a real problem), we started hitting the rugged country in earnest on our way up to Globe and Miami. Globe was once described to me as a "Three M" town: Mining, Mexicans and Mormons. The last two of the M's I'm not sure about, but the first one is the very definition of the town. Mining built this town and still sustains it. It is an open pit copper mine nestled between the peaks and in the valleys near the top of a small mountain range. Going through town is interesting enough. Mining towns drip a unique sort of history, with old grand building erected when the fortunes were being made and couldn't be spent fast enough, rail lines that were built with equal largess and that wound where they please, allowing homes and businesses to nestle only after its thirst for right of way had been slaked. And best of all, this great history and display is all still used and preserved – not as museum pieces, but as vital parts of the current community and commerce. I love it.

The mine itself came after passing through town. It is a sort of "Oh My God" experience. It takes a second to realize that this is a mining operation that rivals Kennecott in size and revenue, only it is right there off the main road, not flung to the far side of a broad valley.

Miami was next. It was less grand and more quaint – more the type of place to find a good cafĂ© or used book shop. Then came the canyon.

The canyon was impressive and by itself almost worth the entire drive. Combining it with the previous 50 miles, it's like a jump ramp for a titan sized Evel Keneval – something of a steady drive up, then the mountains dropping off leaving a series of steep and deep cut canyons leading down to the lowlands. Near the top of the whole thing was a spot where a cable was strung from one end of the canyon to the other, with a car slung beneath it. I don't know if it was for use by the mining company, ADOT or what, but the terrain was impressive enough that I'm sure this was by far the easiest way for miles to traverse the gorge. A few miles after that was the tunnel. I'm sure it wasn't even a half mile ling, but just the fact of there being a tunnel was impressive. Better yet was the view when you emerged from the tunnel, looking almost directly into the canyon, then above it (yet below you) to the bridge you would soon be crossing. It was a steel arch, looking like a 1930's "Age of Streamline" design. It was just breathtaking.

* Sigh*

From there the trip was anticlimactic. We passed the grounds where the Renaissance Fair is held, and got disgusted at how far the city is growing, out to (and past ) Apache Junction. Even so, it wasn't a straight trip home. Nestled in the back of the car was a family heirloom that was on its way to the proper family member. Many years ago, Gene brought an old 30.40 Craig rifle up to Provo and left it with my father. The plan was that my dad would take it to a gun smith and have it looked at. Then, based on what he learned, the rifle would be repaired and/or returned to Gene. It got past the evaluation but no further when my father died. It was forgotten, then a few years later Gene died. If he ever mentioned the rifle to anyone, they either forgot or didn't care. So it ended up in my hands.

I never really wanted the thing, and had no plans for it. I just didn't want it to pass from the family. It seemed logical to me that it should go to one of Genes children, and Patrick was the only one who seemed stable and available enough to take possession. I had intended to take it down on previous trips and finally I put it on my packing list so it wouldn't be forgotten. I also gave Patrick a call in order to get his address and tell him what I was thinking. So, armed with address, we got off the freeway in Mesa with plans to pick up a phone and call for directions. Yeah. Right.

As it turns out, no one answered the phone. So I bought a map. Much to my surprise, I found that, of the 10 exits from Highway 60 into Mesa, I got off the exit that was closest to where we wanted to go. Better still, in the process of chasing down a phone and map, I turned the right direction and stopped for directions at the exact intersection where I would have turned to cross the freeway and get to Patrick's house. Such luck as this makes me pause and scratch me head, wondering if The Universe is trying to yank my chain a bit. But when we arrived, Patrick wasn't there. We delivered the rifle, talked for a while with Mary (the wife) then extricated ourselves. I use that phrasing because Mary tried to invite us for dinner or another visit or something, and for some reason I just didn't feel right with it. Don't know why. Just being The Andy, I guess. But they did have a nice house, which they can afford because both Mom and Dad work for the Salt River Project (one of the two major power companies in the area). The few family members I saw looked like typical surly McGuires.

And after that…home and bed and ready for another day of recovery.

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