duck-shaped pain


13 November 2001
Out Where The Senior Citizens Roam

Wednesday, 31 October 2001 to Sunday, 4 November 2001

When I arrived in Albuquerque on Tuesday, my original plan for the next few days was as follows: follow I-25 south, down to Las Cruces. Get on to I-10 and drive into Arizona, through Tucson. Then, and only after then, head over to the very small town in the middle of the desert where my grandparents reside.

Which didn't happen, for various reasons. There are only three hostels on the above route -- one in Truth or Consequences (which happens to be right on a hot spring, and so includes many free soaks in the hot spring as part of a night's stay, but is also rumored to be very, very dank) and two in Tucson (both supposed to be pretty nice). But they were both booked up for Wednesday night, something about it being Halloween and all (which I never thought was a big traveling holiday, but what do I know). Also, after my fun stay at the Santa Fe hostel, the mere thought of staying in a dorm room and sleeping on a twin bed just made my bones hurt.

Which is how I ended up in Salome sooner than I thought.

I called my grandparents to see if it was okay if I came sooner than expected, and it was fine with them. They didn't have any real plans other than holding their yard sale, so anytime I wanted to show up was acceptable.

It's a seven-hour drive from Albuquerque to where they live. If this seems like a long time, consider that that's about three hours shorter than I thought it would be. Which explains my panic during the first portion of the drive, trying to get to Flagstaff at a reasonable hour.

For the drive is basically divided into two portions -- pre-Flagstaff and post-Flagstaff. The latter is a cinch -- short interstate drive and a slightly longer drive on two-lane highways, but there's enough towns and changes of road to make it moderately interesting. The former is unbelievably tedious. Flagstaff is a nice place, but is it ever far from any place to the east, north or west of it.

Albuquerque to Flagstaff: five hours. On I-40, which is nice enough through New Mexico, which has rest areas and decent road maintenance on its stretch. Once you get into Arizona, though, things get worse. There is not a rest area until 140 miles into the state. Between the state line and said rest area, there are very few towns. You have to drive a long time before you get to Holbrook, the first town, and even then you don't want to stop. Not much to lure the weary traveler in.

Parts of northwestern Arizona are gorgeous. The interstate, however, goes through the dullest part they could find. It's windy, too -- from the time I crossed the state line to when I got to Flagstaff, I was driving directly into a strong wind. I have a tiny car, which does not handle well in wind. So it was one unpleasant drive: nothing to look at, and the wind was making my car difficult to drive, as well as reducing gas mileage.

But I managed to make it to Flagstaff. Which is a nice place, and does not look at all like one expects Arizona to look like. It's in a forest, and is high in elevation, so they get regular weather like snow and other precipitation. It's surrounded by many opportunities for recreation and is a college town to boot, so there's plenty of people milling about in hiking boots and fleece. Everyone in this town got a big REI dividend last year.

By this time, I was sick of driving on the interstate, so I took a detour. I got on state highway 89A, which goes from Flagstaff down to Sedona. Say what you will about the latter (flaky, rich new-agey people, Santa Fe without all the class), but the drive down to there is really nice. It's a steep drive down through thick pine forests, and then follows a nice stream though groves of aspen trees (all in the middle of turning color that day), winds through flocks of vacation cabins, and your mind adjusts to the idea of being around all this green, and then all of a sudden, that ends, and you're surrounded by this:

I made two stops in Sedona. The first was at this odd shopping center called Tlaquepaque, which is designed to look like an old Spanish village, complete with plazas and fountains and the like. It was oddly relaxing after being on the road for so long, but I didn't stay long. The stores all sold jewelry and Southwestern clothes and home décor. But I saw the type section for all these stores back in Santa Fe, and two, this stuff all sort of looks alike after a while. The Southwest produces cheese and kitsch like no other region in the nation: howling coyotes, wrinkly retired ladies in broomstick skirts and big turquoise rings, kokopellis, and the ick goes on.

I also stopped at the factory outlets on the way out of town, only because they have a book outlet there. So I looked at discounted books for a while, but didn't buy anything. Then it was back to the interstate.

South I drove, trying to avoid the two plagues of the Arizona road: big trucks and snowbirds. The former are better than the latter -- trucks are at least driven by people who had some training and have a bunch of regulations about their behavior. No one tells the snowbirds what to do, though.

Those of you fortunate to live in the cold don't have to deal with snowbirds. It's a mass migration that takes place twice a year. In the late fall to early winter, hoards of old people drive down to Arizona and other warm places, driving massive RVs and towing big vehicles. In late spring, they go back to wherever it is that they came from (a lot of them seem to be from Canada), and then the cycle repeats itself.

I was driving during high migration season, so the interstates were full of RVs, all going about 35 miles per hour. The trucks hate them, people in regular vehicles hate them, other snowbirds hate the snowbirds that are going even slower. What is fun to watch is when one big RV tries to pass another RV which is going just a bit slower than the first RV. This is a process that can take a long time, so all other traffic is forced to sit back and occasionally honk while these two behemoths of the American road try to work it out.

The drive down I-17 to Phoenix was like this the entire way: short bursts of going fast followed by excruciating waits while the slow passed the slower. But about 20 miles from the city limits, drivers and other visitors get a treat to distract them: the appearance of the saguaros.

This happens all of a sudden. One moment, you're looking at a brown mountain covered in scrub, and then, a brown mountain covered in scrub and a forest of cacti. They grow everywhere, it seems, with a bunch growing right on the side of the road, so as to greet people. Welcome to the Sonoran desert, the megaflora say. [1]

After a while, I got off the interstate and headed west, on a series of small highways. I drove though the desert floor, passing more cacti as I went. I stopped in Wickenburg, the largest town in the area, to buy groceries. Good coffee, toothpaste and half and half -- my grandparents are non-dairy creamer people, so I had to supply my own creamer of choice.

When I finally got to their place, it was dark. I had some trouble finding it, as there isn't much to navigate by out where they live. And there I stayed, for four days.

Not much goes on out there. The town they live in is populated mostly by older people, a lot of them snowbirds. Since my grandparents live there year-round, braving it through the over-100-degree summer afternoons, they get a measure of respect from those who hightail it back to Canada in March. But there's a lot of people out there with a lot of free time and not a lot of things to fill it with.

My grandparents were getting stuff ready to have a yard sale when I arrived. They have one house, which holds a lot of stuff, and had just bought another, smaller house, that they planned to move into. This required them to get rid of a lot of the things in the first house. Like all my family, my grandparents are compulsive yard sale and thrift store shoppers. Which allows one to simultaneously buy a lot of things and brag to your neighbors about how little you spent for this stuff. And allows one to have large, much-anticipated yard sales.

Their event was the only thing going on in Salome that day, maybe even the only thing going on for miles and miles beyond town, judging by the number of people who showed up. People were swarming around the house and the backyard, picking up anything that looked good and trying to buy it. My grandmother and I were in the kitchen trying to make pancakes one morning, and one woman out on the porch kept banging on the window, holding stuff up, and asking how much the price was for these treasures. My grandmother held up fingers to indicate the price, which seemed to satisfy this woman. I asked my grandma if she wasn't sure that she accidentally gave this women the finger, which is what I felt like doing.

The big problem was that people would come to the yard sale and then, lacking anything else to do that day, stayed for hours and hours. One morning, I kept waking up to the sounds of some lady cackling out in the garage. This sound belonged to this one woman who stayed and stayed and stayed at the yard sale, for no good reason. I didn't go out to look, but apparently she kept picking stuff up and messing with it. At one point, she turned on some radio and began dancing, right there in the middle of the junk. Then she started complaining about how hungry she was. My grandmother, being a nicer person than I am (I would have asked her, "Well, don't you have a home?"), gave her a piece of week-old pecan torte and thought that might make her go away.

Not much else went on while I was there. My activities during this time can be broken down into a list:

  • Napping

  • Reading

  • Writing in the journal

  • Napping

  • Checking email

  • Napping

  • Eating

While I was there, my grandmother tried to fatten me up. Food constantly appeared, whether it was sourdough biscuits and gravy, sour cream pancakes, chicken and dumplings or hot n' spicy chicharrones. Food after food after food. All good, but so much of it. We went out one night, for ribs, which were good. Apparently, though, this was the only decent restaurant food for miles and miles.

The big highlight was going down to Mexico on Sunday, to fill some prescriptions. The little town we went into, Algodones, seems to exist entirely to fulfill the medical needs of Arizona's senior citizens. Imagine a town entirely of dentists, opticians and pharmacies, and that's pretty much Algodones. With a few belt, jewelry, and blanket vendors thrown in for good measure.

My grandfather planned on getting some new glasses, but all the opticians were closed on Sunday. So we wandered around a while, checked out some of the vendors, and then went to the pharmacy. He bought a bunch of medication, for about 25 percent of what it would cost back in Arizona.

Each pharmacy has someone stationed out on the sidewalk, attempting to persuade passerby to come in by yelling out the name of whatever desirable medication it is that they sell. So the streets were a chorus of people proclaiming, "Cipro! Cipro! CIPRO!"

Prescriptions were filled, and we headed back over the border. I bought a blanket and some hand cream, and my grandmother bought some vanilla. The border patrolman looked pretty bored -- how many times a day can you ask people if they bought medication or not?

On the other side of Algodones, about ten miles away, is the bustling town of Yuma, Arizona. Which is a shithole, I have to say. When a town's entire economy is based on people driving to Mexico and then stopping at Wal-Mart on the way back home, there's not a lot of money for civic improvements. It was just sort of depressing.

On Monday morning, I left. I had had enough food, and was ready to be somewhere where there was something to do…

I'm leaving for NYC tomorrow, which means I have to drive to Denver today. What that means for you is that the final installment of Thrift Stores of the Southwest Tour 2001 is going to have to wait until I get back, unfortunately. But then you have something to look forward to: reading about my exciting adventures in Tucson, Arizona….

[1] Which is because the Sonoran desert, in southern Arizona and parts of northern Mexico, is the only place on Earth saguaro cacti grow.

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