I took a small road trip last weekend, a bit of a mental vacation. I planned a rough outline in my head about what I wanted to do, but left the details vague. Too much structure can be a bad thing sometimes, especially when you are taking a journey to find yourself in an unfamiliar world. I let go of all of my responsibilities and tried to let go of all of my worries, a true weekend with "no reservations".
My trip wound it's way through a good portion of southern Arizona, through Tucson and Bisbee, then over through Patagonia, on to Nogales, and finally back home to Phoenix. Along the way, I think I learned some new things, or at least some different ways of looking at things. It may have only been two days, but I think they will be two days I remember for a long time to come. I was joined on my trip by my friend Joanne. We stopped along the way and caught up with Jack in Tucson. We made some new friends, and possible enemies, in Bisbee. We saw and felt the circularity of time in Patagonia, and felt the frustration and struggle of the world at the wall in Nogales.
The trip south down I-10 from Phoenix to Tucson is a quick and largely unscenic one. The stretch between about Casa Grande and Picacho Peak is, I think, my least favorite part of this state. It's just unfortunately gross and confused. Ultra-rightwing billboards share space with space for adult book stores. The landscape is dotted with beautiful vistas marred by rotted out mobile homes, tourist traps, and can someone please tell me what the f*** this was supposed to be?
Coming into Tucson, Joanne and I had a conversation about why people from Tucson feel so fiercely protective about it. Having not ever lived there, and having viewed it largely through the Arizona State - University of Arizona Territorial Cup rivalry, I didn't have a really good answer. Up until maybe this past October I've always viewed Tucson with an unfair skepticism, alternating between calling it a smaller Albuquerque or the equivalent of Philly to Phoenix's "New York" in that one-sided rivalry (and yes, I understand the absurdity of that statement).
But here's the thing, with the exception of attending a few shows down there while I was in college, I don't think I've ever spent any actual time in downtown Tucson. With this on my mind, we made the stop to meet my friend Jack for lunch down near Hotel Congress. My planned hour-long stop quickly turned into a four-hour session in catching up, wandering, and generally enjoying time with a longtime, and criminally under-appreciated, friend.
I am currently reading The Book of Joy, which is a study of the life philosophies of the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (thanks Jill & Chuck!). In it someone asks the Dalai Lama about the pain of being exiled from Tibet, and how he has been able to find peace being apart from his home. His response is that home is wherever you find yourself surrounded by love and friends. So in that sense, while I may not be able to claim Tucson as "home", being around Jack on Saturday afternoon reminded me that I will always have a home there; the way I will have a home wherever I can claim a deep and lasting connection with the people that have made me, well, me.
On our way out of town, headed south, on the same road that will eventually take you to the Chiracauhua's, I made stop to illustrate a point. Davis-Monthan AFB sits on the southeast end of Tucson, the last exit out of town. The base is home to the Air Force Material Command's 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, better known as "the boneyard". It is where the government sends it's aerospace surplus when it is maybe, perhaps, no longer useful, but maybe, perhaps, will be needed when we get into another pointless war because someone, and I'm not naming names, can't log out of his twitter account.
The reason I wanted to stop was to remind myself just how big the boneyard is; and to prove that talk of "needing a larger military" is mostly bluster and the worst kind of fear mongering. For you see, if you took the largely still functional ~4,400 aircraft in the maintenance and salvage yard and made them into their own, separate, air force, the "boneyard air force" would be the 2nd largest air force on Earth. Second only to the current, combined, active duty US military forces.
Now I'm not saying that the boneyard should not exist, far from it in fact. It serves an incredibly valuable purpose in salvaging some of the most expensive military hardware on Earth. It is a necessary beast given the unfathomable size of our current armed forces. What I am saying is that when you hear the inevitable political bluster about how the US military is getting weak and needs more attention, it is important to remember that there are about 11 square kilometers of land in southern Arizona packed wingtip to wingtip, nose to tail, with surplus F-16s, B-52s, KC-135s, A-10s, and C-5 Galaxies, among many, many other types. Billions of dollars of technology, enough destructive power to end the world several times over, fading out in the desert sun, perhaps never to fly again. As the old bumper sticker says: "It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber."
The further south we drove the more relaxed I began to feel. Each mile helped me shed one more weight, from the stress of the office, to the frustration of the Facebook feedback loop, to the sense that all I do these days is feed dogs and cats. I love all my animals, but sometimes I just need a break.
We drove through Tombstone on a rainy and cold Saturday afternoon. For as large a myth as Tombstone holds in our American psyche, it is anticlimactic to see that it is just like any other small town that is holding on to a gimmick to survive. For all of the things it may have once been, it is now a place with a self-storage facility on one edge of town and a trailer park on the other.
On and on, further south down highway 80. We crossed through the Mule Pass Tunnel, and down below us sat Bisbee. Bisbee, like Tombstone, is an old mining town. Where Tombstone tries to make up for the decline in mining with cowboy swagger, Bisbee attempts to make up for it through a mixture of 'end of miles' hippie philosophy and a healthy supply of kitschy antiques.
Bisbee contains at least two distinct crowds of people, those doing pub crawls on a Saturday night and those in the market for TV cabinet trinkets on a Sunday morning. The crowds are not mutually exclusive and I do not mean to show them any disrespect. The truth is that town is (generally) incredibly friendly and entertaining.
Our Saturday evening started at the bar inside of the Copper Queen hotel, an establishment once frequented by John Wayne and in operation since 1898. Being that old, and it being Bisbee, they of course claim several hauntings and offer a ghost tour for a nominal fee. Seeing as how those were not the spirits I was interested in, the local band playing ragtime hits on the "old-timey-piany" in the bar looked more entertaining. It helped that the bartender looked like John Cusack, a detail that Joanne seemed to find important.
We moved on next to Santiago's for some mexican food, where we met John, our 20-something waiter and true local. After a few years in the 'big city', John moved back to Bisbee to be close to family and a part of the local art scene. In his words, he spent six years working for AT&T, got tired of it and came home. In my words, which I thought were funny at the time, he woke up one day and said "screw it, I want to be a waiter". He seemed to think this was funny when I said it, but God I hope he didn't spit in my quesadilla.
On John's advice we worked our way up Bisbee's version of Whiskey Row, from the Stock Exchange, which he cautioned us has having the possibility of being "either right on or way off", then on the Bisbee Brewery, and finally St. Elmo.
At The Stock Exchange, Joanne almost got beat up when we made the mistake of assuming that the pool table was available because no one had been playing on it for 15 minutes. Within seconds of racking the table an angry local was in our faces claiming we had stolen her table. This diminutive woman was ready to throw down, brandishing a pool cue and refusing to accept any of our multiple apologies. When it became evident to us that crazy beats big every day of the week we quickly backed down, ceded control of the table back to her and got the hell out of there. Heeding our waiter, John's, advice. the Stock Exchange was "way off".
Our next stop was the The Bisbee Brewery. The only think I remember clearly about it was that it was surprisingly, disconcertingly, humid. We walked into the building and my glasses immediately fogged up due to all the fermenting tanks in operation. The vanilla porter was great, but the feel was too corporate and the lights too bright. So across the street we went, over to St. Elmo.
Elmo was everything that the Brewery and Stockyard weren't. Packed to the gills with a nice mix of locals and wanderers, the local biker club, the "Sons of Hell", had stopped in for a quick visit. Really, they seemed like a delightful group of people.
We ran into John again at St. Elmo. He was there with his brother, who also moved back to Bisbee to be close to home and to work as a chef in town's emerging 'foodie' scene. They were proud of their hometown and what it is becoming. Hanging out with them near the bar, replete with all the colorful characters, bikers, locals, and tourists alike, reminded me of what Sal Paradise's adventures in Denver must have been like in On the Road. Unfortunately, after a couple of beers the long day caught up with me and it was time to call it a night.
I stayed at the Oliver House in old town Bisbee, a boarding house built in before Arizona statehood. True to it's pioneer history, the inn maintained the feel of an old west, cowboy hostile. The closest that I can relate it to is the Eagle Pass Hotel used to film the gunfight scene between Llewelyn Moss and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Every time I heard someone walking down the hall outside my room I kept expecting a pneumatic bolt gun to blow the lock out of the door. I don't say this as a bad thing, actually. It was actually part of the fun of the place, that and hear stories about its supposed resident ghosts.
In the morning we walked through old town Bisbee, checking out the old antique shops. We found one with several tupperware containers full of old postcards. We spent the better part of 40 minutes going through them, finding old gems, thinking about who wrote them and why. What was going on in their lives, and where are they, or their kids, or grandkids, now?
When we are all dead and gone, how will future generations share such moments? What happens when the written word is electronic? Who will read this blog in 70 years, when my hard drive becomes long since obsolete?
As the morning gave way to the afternoon we continued further south, headed generally west towards Interstate 19, eventually reconnect with I-10 to and home. Along the way we detoured at Sierra Vista through Sonoita, Elgin, Patagonia. A quick stop at Lake Patagonia took me back in time 30 years, to the day that I learned how to ride a bike.
I've long had a memory of learning to ride my red and white Schwin Stingray on a rough asphalt driveway between a campground and a lake. I was six or seven years old, and generally couldn't tell you much about where that memory took place, or the details around it, other than to say that it was my first solo ride and I had caught a horned toad lizard earlier that day that unfortunately died during its brief time in my care.
As we pulled into narrow parking lot in front of the Lake Patagonia visitor's center a wave of nostalgia hit me. This place, this small parking lot, off the rough driveway, between the campground and the lake, this is the place where I learned how to ride a bike. I'm certain of it.
I later asked my Mom if she remembered a camping trip there. It would have been in our old, orange, Volkswagen Vanagon with the pop up tent in the roof. She said she didn't remember it specifically, but they had long talked about taking a trip there. She didn't think we had been, but couldn't be certain. All I know for sure is that visiting last Sunday made me feel like I had definitely been there before. Right down to the smell of the lake and the way the birds were flocking to the trees along the banks of the river feeding the lake.
On and on, further south. 19 miles to Nogales. We came into the border town in the late afternoon. Something was compelling me to get of the car and walk to the border, to see the wall for myself. I did see it. I can tell you that it is a big and rusty scar through the heart of two cities that grew up together as sisters in culture and spirit.
There is "no big, beautiful, door". There is instead an armed checkpoint, not unlike what you expect to see if you had to enter a prison. I did not cross the border. My passport expired last fall. I had meant to renew it, but like a lot of things that didn't get done last year, larger forces were conspired against me.
I iwalked the narrow streets running parallel and perpendicular from the wall for a short while. Nogales, like a lot of places along the border, is doing its best to cope with he fervor and rhetoric surrounding immigration. It is difficult to tell what is fact from fiction. Most of what we chose to believe seems to come down to our individual perceptions. What I can say, from my perspective, is that the border feels like an incredibly sad place. The wind blowing through the fence makes a mournful tone, all minor keys, not unlike the cry of a hurt or lonely animal.
The shops that line the streets leading away from the processing gate are full of poorly made but highly marked up equipment necessary to start a long, uncertain, and perilous journey.
Work boots and carpentry tools. Children's backpacks, stuffed animals, and coloring books. Blankets and water jugs. Calling cards. Cheap lingerie. Blue jeans.
The popular refrain during this past campaign was that Donald Trump was going to build and wall and Mexico is going pay for it. Having seen the wall that already exists, and the look of loneliness and uncertainty in the eyes of the people along Morley Avenue running away from the wall, I can say that both sides are all already paying for the wall.
We are paying for it in the loss of cooperation and compassion felt between similar cultures, in the loss of dignity that this vitriolic political rhetoric has produced, and in the gradual undoing of integration of all peoples within our society. They are paying for it with the loss of opportunity and the separation of families. We are all paying for it and will be for a long time to come.
Walking away from the border and back to the car I was reminded of the parables of the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the eventual rise of Al Qaeda, and the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In those cases, the US intervened to help free captive peoples from tyranny or invasion and instill democracy. When the heavy military work was done, or more accurately when it became politically and economically distasteful for us to continue, we scaled back our missions, leaving torn factions alone to try to rebuild a peaceful and lasting societies by themselves. Then we are shocked at the brutality and 'ungratefulness' when the results don't go our way.
In those cases we have paid or are currently paying a price. In the case of a southern wall, we are sending the same type of mixed message. We are saying that we are land of opportunity with ideals worth pursuing and possibly dying for; that we are country built and for immigrants - but only if you look and act like those in power.
So, when the question comes up again on who is going to pay for the wall, remember the words of John Darnielle: "If you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don't expect him to thank and forgive you. "
Heading north, back home, we talked about what we had seen that weekend and how it fit into our lives. I have spent a lot of time this week trying to reconcile the harder parts of these past seven and half months with having been generally lucky in my life. Lucky to have been born on the northern side of the border; into a family and with friends that love and care for me; with access to an education and a good job. Yes, this is an incredibly trying time that will affect me for the rest of my days. The ability to step way from it all for a few days, to see things from other points of view can makes all the difference between living a life in honor of those who you will always love, and one cowering in fear for the unknown.