Snake Bites and Dirt Devils

by Scott B. Laughlin

© Copyright 2011 by Scott B. Laughlin

Late afternoon is upon us as we approach Ajo, Arizona.  We’ve crossed the Berry M. Goldwater Bombing Range.  It’s the final leg of a hot day.  Without a speck of shade or a single place at which we can buy soda, Barb and I have become a pair of Crispy Critters on a motorcycle.

Ajo is a sweltering community supporting two-stark white churches and an elegant plaza with a Spanish theme.  The town suggests there should be more in the offing but we don’t see it.  Perhaps we’ve arrived a few years too late and we’re viewing the decline of an isolated desert community that is waiting for something to happen.

Walking around the plaza, we inspect an adobe railway station that has served some grand purpose, but today it is vacant and secured.  A quarter-way further around is a movie theater that has become an ice cream parlor.  While we enjoy our milkshakes, Jose, a friendly old man with a leathery face and sad eyes appoints himself as our guide.

“There was a time when Ajo was a busy place,” he says.  “When our copper mine and smelter were both running we sent two ore trains to Gila Bend every day.  The mine is closed now, but we hope that when the price of copper goes up the mine will reopen.  A few people still work there, you know, maintaining the buildings and such.”

Jose is running short on conversation, and he excuses himself.  “I am expecting a letter from my sister.  She lives in Santa Ana, Mexico” he says.  He smiles and limps toward the post office.

We climb on our Suzuki and head further south.  Soon we spot the overburden.  We can’t guess how many millions of cubic yards of rock and dirt lay piled here.  It was a mountain in the beginning, they say, but a hundred years later it is a pit a quarter-mile deep and twice that distance across.

In the distance we spot Why’s water tower.  But it soon vanishes behind a series of dips and rises.  Arizona’s secondary highways are a collection of paved undulations.  One wonders if the highway crews simply set out across the desert with a paving machine.

Organ Pipe National Monument was our destination when we left Prescott this morning.  But the Suzuki failed us again, leaving us defenseless along this deserted road.  How many times has this happened?  Barb isn’t sure.  I lost count after nine.  Each time it’s a different problem.

We first lost trust in our machine in California, near Honey Lake.  The battery went dead during the night.  A clatter in the engine seems to grow more audible with each passing hour.  By the time we reach Kingman, Arizona I am convinced it has chosen this day to self-destruct.

We find a Suzuki dealer and ask the service manager to give a listen.  After starting it he revved the motor a time or two, and then brings it to a steady three thousand revolutions.  He turned one ear toward it, then the other.  “I don’t hear anything,” he shouts.

“Don’t you hear that clattering noise?” I bark.

He releases the throttle grip and lets the engine slow to an idle.  “It sounds like a GS-650 to me.  Ride it like you stole it.  It’ll be fine,” he says.

Our luck is running thin.  Spending the night at the monument might strand us twenty miles from a telephone.  So, we elect to stay the night in the hamlet of Why, where there’s a place called Coyote Howls Park.  Jose has recommended it as affordable.

Like a jack-in-a-box in slow motion, a dirt devil rises from the desert floor.  I watch it approach through the mesquite and barrel cactus.  This churning funnel of sand and trash is certain to intersect our path.  I chop the throttle so it can cross the highway ahead of us.  But it’s pacing us.  I accelerate.  Not to be outdone, it makes a right face and catches us broadside.  Barb says nothing, but I know from the way she shifts her weight she, too, has grit in her teeth and sand in her eyes.  It’s good that our day is nearly finished.

We follow a long, sweeping turn.  As the road straightens Why’s water tower again comes into view.  We pass the Border Patrol Station with its stubby antenna tower and helicopter-pad.  A speed limit sign reads fifty-five, then another indicating forty-five.

As we roll into Why I cut the throttle.   On our right is a Laundromat built of Mexican sun-baked bricks.  They are ocher-colored, matching the source from which they came.  Above the door hangs a sign reading: WHY WASH.  The town is a wind-blown scar on the desert floor and I wonder what holds people here.

We coast to a stop at the Why Not Travel Store.  While we fuel and wash down the grit with cold sodas, the clerk issues directions for reaching Coyote Howls Park, as well as the only place in town to find a hot meal, the Y Cafe.

“If you’re looking for action, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Snake bites and dirt devils are the biggest things that happen around here,” he warns with his New Jersey accent.

“Exactly where are we?” I ask.

“Well, you’re smack dab in the middle of nowhere.  It’s better’n a hundred miles to Yuma and a shade farther to Tucson.  You’re just thirty miles shy of Sonoyta, Mexico.”

“Our motorcycle isn’t running very good.  Is there any other way of getting out of here?” I ask.

“You could wait for the morning stage.”

“Stage?” I echo, and visualize an Overland Stagecoach with six galloping horses.

He smiles.  And I realize he’s seen my expression on other faces.  “It’s our bus system, the Ajo Stage.  It will take you to Tucson, Yuma, Gila Bend, and even Phoenix.”

We make our way to Coyote Howls.  As we dismount at the office four young Indians hoof it across the park and climb the parameter fence.

“They’re headed for Joe’s Chevron Service,” explains Mona, the park manager, a woman from Michigan in short pants, cowboy boots and hoop earrings and speaking with a Mississippi drawl.   “It’s a popular spot for whiskey.  See that notch in that ridge?”  We turn and follow her finger eastward to what she calls the Poso Redondo Mountains.

“I don’t know if it has a real name,” she says, “but we call it Whiskey Pass.  That’s the shortcut they use when they need another jug,”

We pitch our tent, shower, and then follow the footpath to the Y Café.  It’s a small place with a concrete floor and dimly illuminated by a single fluorescent tube.  The Indians we’d seen crossing the park are gathered at a corner table.  They’re drunk and talking loud in their native Papago tongue.  While we wait, the cook emerges from the kitchen with four platters of fried chicken.  She’s a short, busty woman wearing a tee-shirt bearing the phrase, Why Phyre Department, and a two-way radio hangs from her leather belt.  Her name tag states that her name is Myrtle.  We order the special—fried chicken.

The group at the corner table is now silent.  As they finish pieces of chicken they toss the bones over their shoulders.  Obviously, Myrtle has dwelt with them before.  With a loud hoot she charges from the kitchen, swinging a straw broom.

“GIT OUT!” she screeches, “you might throw you bones on the floor at home, but you’re sure not gonna do that here.  Git your chicken and your whiskey and git outta here before I call the sheriff.”

Weaving and dodging, they ward off her broom and flee for the door.

Once she’s out of ear shot Barb leans across the table and whispers, “The fellow at the Why Not Travel Store should follow those Indians down here if he wants to see more action than snake bites and dirt devils.”