“Standin’ on the Corner”

Everyone’s heard the lyrics – this monster hit song co-written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey and released on The Eagles’ debut album in 1973. It put  the whistle-stop town of Winslow Arizona on the map and has created huge business for merchandise with T-shirts, keychains, posters and hats bearing “Take it Easy”, “Standin’ on the Corner” and “Route 66” imprints.

The backstory of this song is intriguing. Jackson Browne’s car broke down in Winslow and as he was waiting to get back on the road, he noticed a number of attractive young women driving pick-up trucks – a Western phenomenon he found “damn sexy.”  It inspired a song, but he wrestled with the lyrics and just couldn’t find what he was trying to say. His friend Glenn Frey took a run at it and added the critical lines,” it’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me. ”  Bingo. Browne loved the lyrics and “Take it Easy” was born.

Forty-six years later, tourists line up to pose for photos beside the statue commemorating Jackson Browne’s fortuitous stop in Winslow. It would appear from the second-floor mural that the girl in the flat-bed truck did more than slow down.

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The main street of Winslow is the old Route 66 – The Mother Road.

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Like many American Main Streets – there is a look, and definitely worth slowing down for.

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For some reason, this sign just struck me as being absurd – “The Good Job” award.  Not “Great“, not “Best of”  – just “Good.” Is this the Winslow Historic Preservation Commission’s  version of a kindergarten participation award? (“They coloured within the lines”.)

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There are Remembrance Gardens all over the United States – pieces of metal beams from the wreckage of the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 have been donated to create permanent memorials. The one in Winslow is especially poignant as it also flies the flag that was at the Pentagon before the attacks.

We all remember where we were that day and it is wrenching to touch these beams and wonder what part of what tower they came from.

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It is also wrenching to read the hopeful words “we will  not fear terrorism” and understand how far away the United States is from realizing that hopeful goal.  Rising white supremacy, racism, hate crimes, anti-Muslim rhetoric, ramped-up border tensions – they all point to a country who is more fearful than ever – it is still looking over its shoulder.

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Winslow is a major railway centre – we have heard that up to 100 trains go through in a day; Amtrak still runs two passenger trains a day. The train whistle is such an evocative sound; we enjoyed listening to the rumble of the trains from our campground just a few miles away.

The Santa Fe Railway was the cornerstone of travel in the Southwest until 1996, when they ceased operation.

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During those years, a number of fine hotels sprang up on the route – the brainchild of Fred Harvey – who wanted to provide travellers with decent food and accommodation.

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Renowned American architect Mary Colter designed both the Winslow train station and   the signature Fred Harvey hotel – the famed La Posada – the finest hotel on Route 66. Everyone from John Wayne to Dorothy Lamour to Albert Einstein stayed there.

Fred Harvey was fussy about keeping high standards for his hotels and when he became exasperated with the male waitstaff, who often brawled and boozed and came to work hung-over, he fired them all and decided to hire women – unheard of at that time. He put out ads for “women of high character“, and offered room, board, a decent wage and “liberal tips.” This was a clarion call for adventurous (yet respectable) young women and Fred Harvey’s staffing challenges were over. The “Harvey Girls“, as they were affectionately known, were well trained and disciplined. Fred Harvey and his “Harvey Girls” were credited with civilizing the West.

Winslow was on the map for bigger and better things until Route 66 was bypassed and the town abandoned.  La Posada sat empty for years and then became offices until the railway decided to tear the building down. Entrepreneurs Allan Affeldt and his wife Tina Mion rescued the building in 1997 and took years to restore it and bring it well beyond its former glory.

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Tina Mion is an internationally-acclaimed artist. She painted this image of her dear friends, Ruby McHood, (on the left offering tea and wearing the Harvey Girls uniform), and Dorothy Hunt on the right. They are two of the original Harvey Girls.  Wouldn’t you love to have tea with them and listen to their stories?

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La Posada is a delight to visit – we planned to drop by for 15 minutes and stayed for two hours. The hotel halls are hung with Tina’s paintings – most of them portraits of such depth of feeling that you can’t look away. I love paintings that  create ambiguity and confusion and are open to interpretation.  We actually bumped into Tina as she was walking her poodle up the stairs of the hotel. She stopped to talk and was quite modest about her incredible talent.

Here are just a few of her paintings:

This one, entitled “My Mother’s Wedding”.

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Tina calls this painting “Two Stars“. I see two women who are angry at one another. They may be friends or sisters, but there is intimacy and rivalry and long-standing feuds.

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Tina did a series on First Ladies (she got as far as Hillary Clinton). Each portrait was  brilliant – capturing Rosalynn Carter’s watchful side-eye to Jimmy’s open grin; Nancy Reagan’s openly adoring gaze to her Ronnie, and this ( showcased at the Smithsonian): Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s assassination. Such an eloquent expression of shock in those eyes, it takes your breath away.

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In 2000, Tina  painted Hillary Clinton in a fishbowl, circled by sharks. She felt Hillary was unfairly attacked for everything from her hair to her pantsuits to her ambitions. “It seemed to me the story of this woman, who lived her life in a fishbowl, was far from over.”

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We didn’t head to Winslow so we could “stand on the corner” – it was a strategic location to allow us to camp for a few days and use the area as a base for a couple of day trips.  Winslow ended up being a pleasant surprise – lots of history and stories we hadn’t known anything about before our arrival.

At our last campground in Cornville we were plagued with Spring Break families. Most of them were okay – excited, kids tearing around on their bikes – good happy vacation noises. On our last night, we had three or four couples get together two doors over and yell – for hours. I put in ear plugs but kept waking up and finally at close to midnight, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I went out and asked them to please keep it down. They dialled it down a touch, but only enough to prove to themselves they weren’t total jerks and yet still loud enough to prove they weren’t going to be told.

In Winslow, we camped at Homolovi State Park, which is also the site of 14th century ruins of the Anasazi people (known today as the Hopi Indians).  Homolovi was the opposite of that campground in Cornville – people who love nature, who walk their dogs and stop to chat and are respectful of others. Homolovi is the campground we are always so happy to find – beautiful sunsets, train whistles, fragrant air through our open windows and even a good chance of seeing a rattlesnake.

We didn’t see a rattlesnake, but we did see remnants of the ancient village. It seems the rangers have been having a rough time with miscreant tourists for a long time.

We came upon this sign:

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The evidence of holes where treasure-seekers had been digging  before concentrated efforts were made to stop it.

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Signs are also posted asking visitors not to remove anything from the ground – pottery shards, petrified wood, etc. We came upon dozens of collections like this one – large rocks covered with pottery shards – horizontal inukshuks.

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I asked the ranger about these collections and he sighed, “Visitors are not supposed to do that – I have to go out every week and disperse the pottery.”

Petrified Forest National Park ( with Painted Desert within the park) was just an hour’s drive from our campground.  I was never that excited about the Petrified Forest – great hunks of very dense, colourful logs strewn about a desert landscape – not something I would have gone out of my way to see.

But here we were – armed with a map that guided us through the 28-mile drive from north to south, with umpteen stops long the way and numerous lookouts and short hikes to enhance the experience.

Our very first Painted Desert Overlook – multi layers of basalt and sandstone and limestone that is between 207 and 225 million years old.

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We hiked down this rather vertiginous path to the bottom of the canyon.

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Like walking on Mars – no signs of life at all.

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And we reached the Petrified Forest at the southern end of the park. After walking among the giant colourful quartz logs at a number of different stops, we had both a sense of wonder at the transformative process of millions of years, and a sense of “seen one, seen them all.” I have the same reaction to fossils and arrowheads after a while – my eyes glaze over.

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This piece of petrified wood is about a foot in diameter.

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This is the largest log in the park – Old Faithful.

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On our way out of the park, we drove by this old Studebaker – commemorating the days when Route 66 helped to shape this part of the country. It is in alignment with the telephone poles that roughly mark the grand old highway.  Just to the left is a ramp to Hwy. 40 – the new highway that bypassed so many small towns, like Winslow and left them to either wither away or find ways to revitalize.
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We’ve left Arizona for a bit – we’re up in Bluff, Utah now to hike a couple of their famous parks.  See you again in a few days.

Searching for the Vortexes in Sedona

We have heard about Sedona for years – otherworldly red rock formations, unparalleled hiking and perhaps most intriguing – the opportunity to tap into our spiritual power through the vortexes that are supposed to be found here.

I would love to say that I’m as skeptical as the next person, but that would not be true.  If you have swampland to sell, I’m your gal. I believe in unexplained phenomena, intuitive powers and chakra alignment. I might be a little more easily swayed than say… Stephen, and I came to Sedona with an open mind and more than a little excitement about being transformed by an energy field.

We have been camping for the past week in the Verde Valley area in northern Arizona; a perfect base to see our friends Bob and Jeannie and to explore the many attractions in the area.

The view from our campsite – overlooking a creek and a grove of cottonwood trees.

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This area is so rich and varied – within just a few miles there are several state parks and national monuments, a number of historic towns, Sedona, and Bob and Jeannie’s winter home in Cornville, home of the late Senator John McCain.  We packed a lot in, but a week in this area is just not enough – we missed as much as we saw.

Bob and Jeannie tried to warn us that the town of Sedona might not be what we were expecting. They showed us a shopping area called Tlaquepaque that is designed to resemble a Mexican village, presumably the one by the same name near Guadalajara.

It’s a thoughtfully laid-out plaza, with sculptures, fountains and shops filled with Navajo rugs, fine art and jewellery.

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We arrived before the crowds and enjoyed poking around the stores and admiring beautiful things.

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Sedona’s town centre was a different story. Since we have never been here before we have nothing to compare, but as we crawled along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, we wondered at the sameness of it all. We saw one identical block after another of generically-designed tasteful homes, with wine boîtes, art galleries and gift stores. Sedona kindly provides free parking and after we found a place to park and began walking, we began to assume the “tourist shuffle.” In one store and out the other – most of them offering cheap jewellery, crystals, rocks, T-shirts and metaphysical books.

The backdrop to all of this is a ring of red rock mountains that could take your breath away, but the view is distracted by signs for psychic readings, aura readings, UFO excursions ( UFO sightings guaranteed!) and a host of vortex-inspired experiences promoted by photos of women who appear to have moved to Sedona years ago to find themselves and are now barking mad.

Bob and Jeannie, you were right! There is nothing more annoying than visiting a place with high expectations and then discovering the marketing folks got in there ahead of you and you’re just another dumb tourist. Vortexes are big business.

Okay, let’s move on to what is beautiful about Sedona and why you should still go. There may well be vortexes in Sedona; we did not experience any energy connection there other than the spiritual lift we usually get when we’re outdoors surrounded by beauty. But…that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The next day we returned to hike the Baldwin Trail, one of dozens of trails that wind their way around the iconic sandstone rock formations. Clear blue skies, nice warm temperatures and not too many other hikers on the path.

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About fifteen minutes into the hike, the land opened up and showcased the stunning formations that attract visitors from all over the world.

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Depending on the light, the rocks appear to glow.

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How could we not feel spiritually connected being part of this environment? This famous and much-photographed formation, Cathedral Rock, is one of four recognized vortexes.

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More rocks – different shades of red.

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Hikers aren’t the only ones out enjoying the scenery and terrain. We came across a number of mountain bikers along the way. This one was the last of a group of young men who had just surfaced from a black diamond area.

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For part of our hike, we climbed along the rocks beside the creek.

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And that is why you want to come to Sedona. Perhaps if you choose a time (not Spring Break) when the crowds are a little thinner and you devote yourself to just being out in the surrounding area, you will experience the side of Sedona that made it famous.

There are lots of other things to see and do in the area. Two powerful sites are Montezuma Well and Montezuma Castle. Montezuma Well is quite extraordinary – an oasis in a desert.

This deep green pond contains over 15 million gallons of water, despite having very little annual rainfall. Water flows into the Well every day, and since it contains arsenic and high amounts of carbon dioxide, no fish survive, although five species survive here that exist nowhere else on earth.

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A path circles the Well – Bob, Jeannie, Stephen and Ginny on our way back up.

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Not far from the Well, we stopped to visit Montezuma Castle – a cliffside pueblo  which were built between the early 1100’s and 1300s. The Sinagua farmers, who were hunters and gatherers built these complex masonry structures.

The structure at Montezuma Castle is a five-storey, 20-room dwelling that is set into the cliff about 100 feet above the valley floor.

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The setting around Montezuma Castle is so beautiful right now; after the heavy rain and snow melt, this area is enjoying an unusually green landscape.

This is a sycamore tree – common in Arizona – they are massive trees with mottled white bark – just gorgeous.

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Nearby Tuzigoot (Apache for “crooked water”) is the remnant of a Sinagua village that was originally two stories high with 87 ground-floor rooms. We could not visit the summit of the village the day we visited as there was restoration work being done.

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In the valley below, we saw an excellent example of a riparian forest – willows and cottonwoods, growing in abundance because of their proximity to the creek.

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Finally, we had to check out Jerome, billed as a former “ghost town”, which according to one gallery owner, is not entirely accurate. In its heyday as a copper mining boom town, the population swelled to 15,000 souls. When the mine closed in 1953, much of the population left in search of work. The town was never abandoned, and within a few years, word about this funky mountain town started to spread among the counter culture who were all heading west at the time.  Artists began to reclaim buildings and homes and soon the word was out. As is so often the case,  artists take on risky neighbourhoods or towns and once they are transformed, the developers and real estate speculators move in. It is a town in transition, perhaps a victim of its own success.

This old apartment building has been condemned and slated for redevelopment; artist renderings are posted in the front windows. Although this building does not look fit for habitation, there does appear to be a couple of apartments still occupied. The worry of course is that, bit by bit, affordable housing will become less and less available to those who put Jerome back on the map.

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Prostitution flourished in Jerome during the mining years, and  a number of businesses are playing off that bawdy image.
This former bordello is now called House of Joy,  but houses a gift shop.

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The Husbands’ Alley. The locals gave major pushback to the reformers who attempted to restrict brothel location.

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Jerome’s oldest bar.

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A refurbished brick building, now housing a beautiful art gallery.

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The old Grand Hotel, originally a general hospital.

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Lots of building facades and open spaces; just waiting for reclamation perhaps. There are many stores and restaurants in Jerome, but it is not totally gussied up yet. It still has plenty of evidence of its earlier days.

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And finally, this bit of oddness. Three toilets sitting in an empty space, surrounded by coins. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of encouraging tourists to toss coins from between the fence railings on the street above. A coin landing in a toilet is good luck!

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As we drove away from Jerome, we passed this sad-looking building. So far, no takers to bring this 24-hour shop back to life.

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And so, it is time to move on – tomorrow we head to Winslow Arizona (standing’ on the corner). Beginning our slow trek north.

Quartzsite: Boondocking bonanza or land of broken dreams?

We first heard about Quartzsite from a couple of brothers we met while traveling through British Columbia last year. They spend their summers working for one of the provincial parks and their winters boondocking in southern Arizona. They appeared to be in their 60’s, in good health and good spirits; far from destitute or desperate.  Reading between the lines, it seemed that although they did not have a robust revenue stream, they had options and their ability to live and work outdoors was a healthy and desirable one.

We read a little more about Quartzsite and were curious to check it out for ourselves.  In and around Quartzsite there are thousands of acres of land belonging to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that have been designated as Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTV).

Boondocking on BLM lands is common in the United States – there are no facilities and there is no charge.  To make the distinction, boondocking on LTV lands is set up in Quartzsite to allow for the demand. It requires a permit, charges a fee and offers minimal facilities such as a dump station, water fill-up, trash dumpsters and a few toilets.

Fees are ridiculously inexpensive; one can camp for seven months for $180; the land is open from September 15 to April 15.  Since we were there for just four nights, we paid the minimum charge of $40 (for a max. 2-week stay). It is a democratic system; there are no assigned spaces – you drive into the desert and pick a spot. As someone told us, “If you don’t like your  neighbour, you just move.”

Here, our cozy space, tucked in beside a dry creek.

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We arrived at Quartzite last week, just as the winter season was drawing to a close. At the height of the season (November, December, January, February), there are hundreds of thousands of RVs staked out in the desert. Estimates have reached as high as 500,000.  By mid-March, the desert clears out considerably, as normally the day-time temps would be getting uncomfortably hot. This year, with much of Arizona being colder and wetter than usual, we just experienced mid-80s, but such an intense sun.

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Cyclists, hikers and dog walkers are here to take advantage of the trails that circle the area. Off-roading is hugely popular – dozens of ATVs ride up into the mountains and are gone for hours. Surprisingly, we found it extremely quiet – the only noise was one generator in our area; and it ran for just two hours every afternoon. I’m sure it is a different scene in mid-January.

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So, while we enjoyed our space and privacy, we also did not get a true picture of the community of Quartzsite during its peak.

Tens of thousands of people are drawn to the area to attend numerous events such as the Gem and Mineral Show, the RV Show and the ongoing swap meet.  The swap meet is famous – vendors come from all over to sell everything from jewellery to socks to RV parts to antiques. It’s a five-month garage sale.  By the time we arrived in mid-March, many of the stalls had packed up; all that was left was the junk that nobody wanted. We could have picked up cookies for 50 cents, but their best-before date was September 2018.

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Buying things is a major pastime here, but if shopping is not your thing, every day offers activities from Spanish lessons to line dance to pickle ball. Although it is most definitely not our scene, we could see the attraction for snowbirds. Quartzite is affordable, warmer than wherever you live up north and has a built-in community.

This is also the place to find spare parts of your RV, or tend to those pesky housekeeping issues you’ve been putting off.

We were struck by this sign (a multi-generational business, no less), and wondered what essential maintenance we may be neglecting with our own rig.

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Quartzsite is not pretty; the entrance sign is the most attractive part of the town.

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Camels? Why yes. Back in 1855, Jefferson Davis (later president of the Confederacy) hatched the idea of importing and dispatching camels to build a wagon road through the Southwest. After 77 camels were brought to Texas, they needed actual camel drivers. Philip Tedro, (who was born a Greek in Syria, and later converted to Islam and took the name Hadji Ali) was their main man. He became known as Hi Jolly since no-one could pronounce his name. By all accounts the camels were a great success. Unfortunately, when the Civil War broke out, the camel project was abandoned and some were sold, but the rest escaped into the wild.

This colourful tale is related on a plaque in the Hi Jolly cemetery, named in honour of the famed camel driver.

Hi Jolly’s tomb

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There is very little to do in town – a scattering of fast-food restaurants, some dollar stores,  and a little library. Off-season, it becomes a sleepy, dusty town.

Since there is not so much as a creek within many miles of town, we wondered about this restaurant (which now appears to be closed.)

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Back in the late ’70s, a local businessman decided that a little humour and business savvy was needed and revived an old bar, renaming it the Quartzsite Yacht Club. His motto was “long time, no sea.”  He worked around the obvious water challenges by offering a one-time membership fee of $49.99 (which would be reciprocal at other yacht clubs in the world), and it took off. Memberships sold like hot cakes (over 10,000 memberships), and his restaurant was a success.

After driving around town for a bit, the inspiration for this ice cream parlour became a bit clearer.

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We wandered around some of the outdoor stalls. Rumour had it there is a naked bookseller in Quartzite, but we didn’t run across him.

We did see piles and piles of T-shirts. There are clever, funny and thought-provoking message T-shirts on the market, but there are just as many that are crude, vulgar and cretinous and they always makes me wonder: Who makes these shirts? Who buys these shirts? Who wears these shirts?

You remember the popularity of T-shirts with messages like, “Gas Tank for a Sex Machine” (to be stretched over a bulging male belly, with an arrow pointing southward, in case the meaning was lost). Another shirt that made the rounds was, “I’m with Stupid” (again with an arrow pointing sideways, which would require a little thoughtfulness –  “Stupid” would need to be walking on the appropriate side).

Well, in these  dark days when thoughtlessness is celebrated – even “The Stupids” have packed it in.

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We wished we had come to Quartzsite a month earlier to experience it properly. As it was, our time there was conflicted and nothing as we had imagined it to be.

We were not surprised to see Trump flags – this one flew on a jewellery store.

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But we were very surprised to see Trump flags flying on RVs, camped out in the desert.  As Canadians, it is not always easy to understand the American obsession with flying flags of any stripe – we don’t tend to be flag-wavers. But somehow flying a Trump flag at a campground feels like an aggressive act, ” He’s my Man. Make America Great Again. Build the Wall. YEAH!!!”  Stephen thinks I’m over-reacting.

But I was not over-reacting to seeing a Confederate flag flying. Now, it was only one flag, but it is such a controversial statement to make that it was hard to ignore.

And possibly, because the crowds had thinned out so much, we really noticed the poverty.  An older man had pitched a tent in the gully just down from us. He spent a lot of time sitting in his small car, and from time to time would make the slow shuffle down the road to the toilet. It was cold at night, he was alone and we wondered what he ate. We saw what his life looked like now – what would become of him in a few years, or when his health gave out? Would someone find him in his tent one day?

There were a number of old RVs that were barely road-worthy; someone’s home until the mold or the mechanics claimed them and left their owners homeless. We saw people sleeping in their cars, with makeshift shelters.

I had romanticized Quartzsite before we arrived. I appreciated the idea that a low-income person could live a life of greater choice and dignity here than in a room up north. To a point that may be true, but a 60-year-old travelling in an old camper is still just one health crisis away from being in a very dire situation.

There are tens of thousands of people who come to Quartzsite, enjoy the activities and the community and take the best of it away with them. At the height of the season, we can appreciate that attraction to the area.  That side of Quartzsite – people with mobility, financial comfort and choice –  is every bit as valid as the fact that there are nonetheless a good number of people who live here as a refuge. That disparity may have been more obvious to us at this time of year, with so many of the snowbirds gone.

Driving one of the world’s “dangerous roads.”

Driving the Apache Trail was high on our list of  must-do Arizona activities.  This twisty hairpin road, billed as “best scenic drive in Arizona” was originally a stagecoach route called the Tonto Wagon Trail.  You tend to think of things like stagecoaches when you’re in southern Arizona; it is a state that straddles the past and the present. I’m trying to imagine the fortitude required to be on a stagecoach under any circumstances, but bumping along over a narrow rutted mountain road, roasting in my muslin dress and bonnet, hanging on to a child or two and hoping those spindly wooden wagon wheels are up to the task is beyond my scope.

We were lucky to find a campsite at the very popular Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction; a last-minute cancellation of 4 nights that we gratefully snapped up. Our preferred method of travel – poke along as we like, with detours along the way – does not work well in most parts of the United States and probably not in Canada, either. Campsites in state and national parks are booked months in advance and unless you are willing to play the last-minute game, hoping for cancellations – you are out of luck.

We scored a beautiful spot, with a view of Superstition Mountain.

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Lost Dutchman State Park is filled with hiking trails, but unfortunately for us, weather was not on our side. We had a day and a half of significant rainfall and high winds, so we fit in short walks between rain and dug in with our books.

One night there was a forecast of thunderstorms, but aside from a few half-hearted claps, that never materialized. I LOVE a good thunderstorm; something that is quite rare on the west coast.

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Apache Junction has a number of  wild west tourist attractions, including a reconstructed ghost town, which did not appeal to us.

We saw this sign on a restaurant called The Hitching Post, not far from our campground. At first I thought it was a cheeky anti-Wall statement, but now I’m not so sure – it’s up to interpretation.

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So, back to our reason for being here – The Apache Trail. On our last day, the rain had finally stopped and it dawned clear and bright. Since we were warned there were a number of washes and dips on the road that were subject to flash floods, we wondered if we might encounter difficulties. The ranger seemed concerned; with  a scrunched-up face and a worried comment about cars floating if there was more than four inches of water on the tires, we weren’t reassured. She also wondered about the state of the dirt road after so much rain, which “tends to turn to muck, and you might need a 4WD. It is up to your discretion.”

It hadn’t helped that in my research, I came upon a reference to The Apache Trail on dangerous roads.org  that described the road  as being: “a true test of your vehicle as the road abounds in twists and turns with wheels sometimes hanging above the precipice.”

What??? Wheels hanging over the precipice? Car floating away in four inches of water?

No, we chose to listen to this lofty description, written in Literary Digest, Nov. 18, 1916:

“No traveler to or from California should miss the marvellous trip over the Apache Trail. This magic pathway, which up to a few years ago could be explored only by the hardiest adventurer, now lies open to the casual visitor….

The beginning of The Apache Trail, also known as Hwy. 88. So far, so good.

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A little further along and we reach the first stop – Tortilla Flat. The manager of the restaurant (“we’re not open yet“) was also unhelpful about the state of the road after the rain. “I don’t know, I never go that way. ” 

Well, we were still on pavement and that water was no more than a couple of inches deep, so we carried on. If we had to turn around at some point, we would do that.

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A gorgeous day, hardly a soul on the road and once the dirt road began, we knew we had 22 miles before we hit pavement again. We decided to take it nice and slow – about 10mph and just enjoy the views.

The dirt road was hard-pack and easy to drive and the colours were so vivid because of the rain. There was grass everywhere in the desert; normally unheard of this time of year.

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This road really does live up to its reputation as one of Arizona’s most scenic rides. The mountain ranges unfold and we  pulled over frequently for photos and a better view.

There are three lakes on the Trail, Canyon Lake, Apache Lake and Roosevelt Lake.  We stopped first at Canyon Lake.

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One section of the road, called Fish Creek Hill, is probably the part that gives Apache Trail its reputation. The road is a narrow one-way, which might make for interesting maneuvering if you meet someone on the way up ( we didn’t.) The hard-pack on this stretch had more of a rutted and potholed surface, which required a very slow and careful descent.

If you notice the guardrail, it appears to made out of plastic and would be entirely ineffective in preventing a plunge to the valley floor below. You wouldn’t even find this in Mexico.

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Still descending to the lower level. The shiny patch on the rocks is a waterfall during the rainy season. We met up with two women who live in the area and had pulled over to the side at the bottom of the hill. We stopped to ask them if they were okay and they looked so surprised by our question. They drive this trail all the time and were disappointed that there was no waterfall to speak of. A little rain was no deterrent for them.

I’m not going to lie to you – I was not entirely comfortable on this stretch of the trail. But “not entirely comfortable” is not even close to being frightened or nervous. Although this road had plenty of hairpin turns, none of them came close to causing our wheels to  “hang above the precipice”.

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We talked to someone about the Apache Trail, and he seemed incredulous. “That road is not dangerous unless you’re an idiot. You’ve got to go slow.” Not being an idiot really does count as a notable life lesson, not just on twisty mountain roads.

There were a number of single-lane bridges, and this was the only place on the Trail where we encountered mucky conditions.

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The creek below:

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For quite a while we drove alongside the river, fairly flat and so pretty.

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And finally, we ended at Theodore Roosevelt Dam. This dam was started in 1903 and finished in 1911. It was the largest stone dam in the world at the time.

Between 1989 and 1996, the dam was raised by 77 feet to accommodate increased demand and prevent flooding.

Interesting fact – a family of four uses 325, 851 gallons of water in just one year.

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While we were there, we had the added excitement of watching a helicopter take off from the base of the dam.

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I’m adding this photo for no good reason other than I used to love seeing Smokey the Bear on TV when I was a kid. Steve was curious about my interest (and yours) in this hard-working bare-chested ranger, but all these decades later, this friendly mascot is still warning us that  “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”

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We did not have the chance to drive over Roosevelt Lake Bridge, but it is notable for being the longest 2-lane, single-span steel arch bridge in North America. Plus, they painted it light blue to blend better with its background.

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We had the option of turning around here and driving back from whence we came, or  driving a loop on a divided paved highway back to Apache Junction. We chose the latter.

All in all, a memorable drive and a good lesson not to believe everything you read.

Now, we’re in Quartzite and this is an entirely different experience. So much to tell you in a few days.

Defending the border in southern Arizona

Sometimes certain realities take longer to sink in than others. With the exception of distinct regional accents, I never thought of Americans and Canadians as being that different from one another. Most Americans comment on the fact that we don’t sound “Canadian”, so I guess we blend in.

We’ve been to the U.S countless times but this was the first time it really struck us that America is a military nation. While the role of the United States as “the world’s police” does not come as a surprise, seeing it in action is new to us.

Southern Arizona is home to a number of military installations, including the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range and eight border security stations. In our first week here, we have heard the roar of fighter jets, seen planes fly in formation over the desert and heard bombs drop (not on citizens, there is a practice area not far from here) .

The 262-mile Arizona border has become increasingly militarized, with over 4200 agents covering eight stations. The white and green Border Patrol trucks are ubiquitous and this morning a helicopter flew low over the desert in front of our campground.

We are currently 10 miles from the Mexican/U.S. border and this is a common sight:

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While truck patrol is the first line of defence, the region is also covered by agents who ride out into the desert on ATV’s.

Signs like this one are posted throughout the desert.

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Seriously, if you managed to flee your country, travel hundreds or thousands of miles and cross the border, only to have to cross a mountain range like this one, you should be given automatic entry. Your perseverance, bravery and strength of character could only be considered assets to the country.

There are hundreds of migrants who die each year in the desert, from exposure and dehydration; in 2017 there were 294 recorded deaths, but actual numbers are much higher. There had been a lot of controversy in the past couple of years over the treatment of humanitarian workers who had been leaving water in the desert, to try and prevent more deaths.

There was huge outrage after a video showed border patrol agents deliberately kicking over gallon jugs of water left behind by aid workers and harassing them about leaving “garbage” in a pristine area.  A number of workers were arrested and posters like this one began popping up:

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Interestingly, in Republican Arizona there appears to be a shift in mood in some quarters. People mention “the wall” with an eye-roll and a shrug – apparently many border patrol agents believe the money could be better spent in improved technology. We can’t know the behind-the-scenes machinations of border security, but this was a heartening sight. There are several of these bright blue water stations, marked with a flag. The border officers know about them and they have remained in place.

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We ran into a couple from B.C. who were boondocking in the desert.  They work actively in the desert – picking up garbage and clothing left behind by migrants and helping migrants with food and water if they see them. They told us that there are boxes of unclaimed human remains in Tucson; heartbreaking in that their journey ended with such suffering and their families have no way of identifying them.

In the context of Trump’s government shutdown, this manufactured fear of desperate migrants seems pitiful. We have to assume the real criminals have easier channels to the U.S. than having to crawl through the desert.

Also in the context of the shutdown, we spoke to a number of National Park rangers who were discreet but clear in their views about this administration. I have learned (I think) to allow others to lead the conversation if it takes a political turn. When the talk turns to Trump, we smile ruefully and nod in agreement and say little and that seems to work.

And so…on to the beauty of the Sonoran desert. We began our time in Arizona in the small town of Ajo (Ah-jo). a sweet little place that became prosperous with the copper mine that operated from the 1890s to its closure in 1985.

We were able to see the vast open-pit mine from a fenced-off viewing area. There is a greenish lake at the bottom, about 100 feet in depth.

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With the mine closure came a reversal in fortune; the town has seen better days.  The central plaza is beautifully preserved though and the buildings around the downtown are worth a look.

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One of the churches:

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This old school has been converted to an artist’s community, with thirty low-income apartments. There was a quilt show on while we were there; the organizer told me the artists take turns setting up events.

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These homes are typical of the miner’s cottages that line the streets of Ajo.

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As we headed south from Ajo, we passed through the tiny crossroads called Why, pop.2. The name came about because it is situated at a Y-intersection. Since places are required to have a proper name (not a letter) and no-one appeared to be too inspired,  Why was born.

We stopped for gas at the Why Not:

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We camped for four nights at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, at the Twin Peaks Campground. The Park is named for the Organ Pipe Cactus, (which resembles the pipes of an organ) and is found in Mexico, but only in this area in Arizona.

These cacti are about 6-10 feet tall.

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The campground is set high on a hill, with gorgeous views of the mountain ranges. We have not witnessed one of those technicolour Arizona sunsets yet as the weather has been a little unsettled. Our first night here was lovely – the sunset cast a pink glow over the mountains.
The view from our trailer:

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There are a number of hikes and scenic drives from the park; here are some images of this landscape.

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The desert flowers are not quite out yet in their full splendour, but we walked past many poppies – the first of the season.

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We go to sleep at night listening to the owls and wake up in the morning to a wild chorus of birdsong. This little cactus wren has the most beautiful voice.

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Tomorrow we drive three hours to Tucson, where we will camp at a county campground about 20 minutes outside the city. We have a few things to take care of – oil change for the truck, haircuts, repair a broken latch for the trailer, etc. We plan on being in the Tucson area for about a week – so much to see in Old Tucson as well as the surrounding areas.

La Mordida – the Bribe

Well, sooner or later, it had to happen. We have driven throughout Mexico three different times, for a total of nine months and for more than 25,000 km. We have been pulled over for speeding and waved off with a warning. We have had a police officer in Michoacan (a cartel state) shake our hands and thank us for visiting Mexico – this during a time when tourism had dropped drastically due to cartel violence. We have had police officers help us when we were hopelessly lost. And in spite of our positive encounters with the law, we were both very conscious of widespread police corruption and of the infamous mordida – the “bite” put on tourists for bogus traffic violations. We didn’t think the police were our friends, but we somehow felt immune to them. Still, when every Mexican blew through stop signs and red lights, we dutifully came to complete stops.

Before I tell you our sad story, let me assure you we were well aware of the crooked practice and thought we were prepared for being pulled over. We had read the forums and knew the drill. Don’t hand over your licence, just deny the charge, stay calm and polite and insist on going to the station to pay the “fine” directly. Since the cop has no intention of going to the station, invariably he gets fed up and waves you on. But…other circumstances prevailed.

We were using Google maps on our phone to lead us out of Tecate and to the U.S. border. Unfortunately that map had not been updated since the road changed to “pedestrian only” three years ago and we found ourselves in a narrow area with virtually no space to turn around. Thankfully a kind man stopped to direct Stephen how to back up with almost no wiggle room. He proudly banged on his chest, “truck driver” and within minutes we were on our way again. We had to drive several blocks before we could make a U-turn and then head back for another try for the border. We took the turn and then the road split into three, with absolutely no signage directing us. We took a chance and made the wrong turn. By now we were both in a state.  I spotted a cop car coming in our direction, flagged him down and sure enough, he wheeled around, put his siren on and pulled in behind us. By some mystery of magical thinking, I believed this man was wanting to help us, so I hopped out of the car and walked back toward him.

That was my mistake. He became very agitated and aggressive and ordered me back to the car. He then proceeded to tell us that we had driven through a stop sign, past an emergency building and I had also broken the law by getting out of the car. All of those infractions carried a heavy price – 2400 pesos (about CA $170.00). We had two choices – we could go to the judge and plead our case and that might take a couple of days, or he could pay the  fine in the office on our behalf.  He also informed me he wanted to speak to the driver only (Stephen) as I was flapping indignantly in front of him. Stephen told him he wanted to do the most efficient thing, as we just wanted to get out of the country.

We both had plenty of money in various hiding places, but I had US$100 freshly cashed in from our remaining pesos and stashed in my pocket. Stephen helpfully pointed out that we had that sum at our disposal and that was his mistake.

These guys usually score about $10 or $20, if they score anything at all. This cop lit up like a Christmas tree and thought that sum might just help us out of our difficulties.  We followed him down around the corner and pulled in behind him. He produced a “violation book” and pointed out where our transgressions were listed. Since it was written in Spanish and we had already established our knowledge of the language was slight, it could have been a washing machine repair manual for all we knew. He instructed me to put the “fine” in the book,  he closed it up and stuck it in his jacket – as if it had never happened. He made his way back to his car, then instructed us to follow him to the border.

Then came the “If only’s.” If only we had gone straight instead of left.  If only I hadn’t flagged the cop down. If only Stephen hadn’t mentioned a sum of money. If only we had remembered to stay cool. If only we had remembered we were in the right and the cop was in the wrong.  We were caught out when we were vulnerable and frustrated and lost and we paid for it. It took us a while to get over our fury (at the cop and at ourselves) and embarrassment and self-flagellation, but as the late, great Nora Ephron would say, “everything is copy.

If it can become a story, it can become a lesson, and suffice to say, lesson learned.

This has not turned us off Mexico one little bit, but it is a good reminder – as much as we feel comfortable and familiar in Mexico, it is a foreign country and they play by a different rulebook.

Thankfully, our previous day and night in Baja was so delightful that those sweet memories far outweigh the sour taste left from the crooked cop.

Our friends Cindy and Bob are members of Harvest Hosts – https://harvesthosts.com – an organization that allows people to camp on farms and in wineries at no charge, usually for one night. The hope is that you will buy wine or produce from the hosts – an agreeable arrangement for all.

They were staying at L.A. Cetto, Mexico’s largest winery for their last night in Baja and suggested we do the same. We arrived and pulled in to this dreamy spot.

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We set up and went into the winery for a tasting of their reserve wines – three white and three red. This young man Adrian, gave an excellent tasting and was knowledgable and passionate. He is 27 years old and working toward his dream of having his own vineyard one day. He discovered wine while earning his culinary papers and has switched fields. He and his girlfriend (a biologist) want to travel to the Okanagan in Canada and to New Zealand to learn as much as they can about wine production in other parts of the world. We bought two bottles of wine, a Nebbiolo and a Terra ( made from four grape varietals in the area).

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We then went for a walk around the vineyard – it was about 3:30 in the afternoon and the light was pure magic.

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Our very last night in Baja was idyllic. We have managed to have a few laughs over our border mishap, or as Stephen chooses to call it, “our special escort out of Mexico.”

We are now in Arizona, in the small town of Ajo and enroute to our first National Park (trying to fit as many in as we can while they are still open) – Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  We’re having fun, but after our contact with all the young’uns in Baja with their old camper vans and surfboards and rescue dogs, this is a serious change of pace.

We are in Snowbird Country, or as we like to say, “No Country for Young Men.” Lots to report – see you again in a few days.