Yuma, Arizona, Nov. 29 – Somehow I got behind without even slacking off too egregiously. I’m going to try to catch up in a whirlwind of superfluous verbiage.
After the great Full Moon Powerball Expedition of Nov. 28 (I’ll get to that sometime, hopefully soon), we drove 18 miles from Ehrenberg to Quartzsite. It was dark when we arrived, and nothing seemed open save for the McDonald’s and adjacent Pilot truck stop. (I had a hazy recollection of Lauri Lebo visiting Quartzsite once, but nothing specific.)
Quartzsite appears to be the RV capital of the known universe. While there was a scarcity of humans, RV parks were here there and everywhere on the darkened landscape.
Where did all the people go?
Turns out we arrived to the party early, for once.
Lamont, the genial guy manning the Subway counter inside Pilot, explained Quartzsite is a desert mecca for rockheads. More than a million gem and mineral enthusiasts flock to this desert wasteland every year for a two-month swap meet that opens in January and runs through February. But nothing was happening in Quartzsite on this lonely Wednesday night.
We planned to head south to Yuma, because we’ve never been that way before. We did the due-diligence Google search for border-country dangers. The first thing that came up was GOVERNMENT WARNING Do Not Travel Highway 8 in AZ TOO DANGEROUS.
Well, what the hell? That’s a little off-putting. The only way to get east from Yuma is to travel Interstate 8. Much as I’d like to visit Yuma, I’d also like to get the hell out of Yuma at some point in the not-too-distant future. Preferably without getting my wife and son murdered by cartel gunmen.
The website sharing this dire warning is called “Active Rain,” and it belongs to a guy name Bill Travis, who alternately bills himself as “Captain Bill” and “Rainmaker.” He’s a real estate agent in the East Valley near Phoenix.
Captain Bill reports the reason for the government warning is the drug cartels using the highway make it too dangerous for Americans to travel.
Now the internet’s still a pretty accessible place. Search as you might, you won’t find any official government communique warning unsuspecting travelers to stay off I-8 in Arizona. I have yet to turn up one incidence of drug-cartel violence befalling an American traveler. Perhaps the Obama administration’s keeping it all hush-hush.
You can find several reports, all of them appearing to have their provenance in right-wing crackpot paranoia, that baleful signs have been posted along I-8, warning the road is “unsafe” due to the presence of “armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed.”
Apparently the signs exist, and I’ll grant you that’s alarming in and of itself. But they pertain to public lands south of the interstate. Nowhere will you find an admonition to stay off I-8 due to cartel violence.
Right-wing crackpots are one thing. The mainstream media’s another story. Right? We found a 2008 story from the Yuma Sun under the headline “Yuma makes national list of dangerous cities.”
“As close to the border as we are, it doesn’t come as a surprise,” Mayor Larry Nelson said.
And worse yet, it’s all true.
As of December 2008, Yuma ranked 169th among the 385 most dangerous U.S. cities.
Oh, the humanity.
That’s it, I figured. Yuma cracked the top 170 four years ago? We should swallow our pride, tuck our metaphorical tail between our collective legs and head for the safety of Phoenix.
Except that … it turns out …
Phoenix is 65th on the list, 104 places more perilous than Yuma.
*(Yuma, it turns out, ranked only fifth among Arizona metropolises on the list. Tucson, Glendale and Tempe were also judged more dangerous than Yuma).
When the list was published, I was working as a copy editor at The News Tribune of … Tacoma, Wash. Holy guacamole! Tacoma was 39th. How did I survive to see the sprawling adobe retail wonderland of Yuma?
It’s getting so it’s just not safe to go outdoors anymore. We’re headed to Philadelphia, which came in at No. 22 on the top 385.
Will we be killed by cartel hitmen if we traverse I-8? We will find out tomorrow. Skeptical as I am, no way we’re traveling that road at night.
So we headed south on U.S. 95 this morning. The saguaro is everywhere. We are in the desert proper now.
No more high desert, just lowdown barely livable dryland. The forbidding teeth of the Gila Mountains loom ahead.
About halfway, I notice danger signs posted off the road about every 100 yards. I ask Becky to pull over, and I tiptoe gingerly out into the desert scrub to see if the cartel boys are running wild here, too.
Cringing at the prospect of bullet fire, I discover the danger here is not from armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed. The danger here is us.
As in U.S.
We are astride the famed Yuma Proving Ground, described by Wikipedia as “one of the largest military installations in the world.” Which is pretty impressive, considering that the deserts of Old Mexico are overrun by military installations. The southwestern deserts are the workshop where the world’s ranking military juggernaut tinkers over its unrivaled killing machine.
The sign warns the desert here is rife with unexploded ammunition. Not surprising, since, also per Wikipedia, Yuma Proving Ground conducts tests on “nearly every weapon system” in our state-of-the-art combat arsenal.
Helicopters and Strykers, smart weapons and dumb, they all get test runs out here in the deserts of Old Mexico.
We move on, and as we hit the outskirts of Yuma, a funny thing happens. The saguaro disappears, replaced by acres and acres of lush farmland. Rows and rows of leafy vegetables are on the grow. Produce stands dot the roadside.
Where did the inhospitable desert go?
It’s not a mirage, either. Yuma County ranks third in the U.S. in vegetable production, and 90 percent of all the leafy vegetables grown in the U.S. between November and March are grown hereabouts.
How the hell do they grow all this life-sustaining stuff in a desert? They don’t call Yuma “America’s sunniest city” for nothing. But where does the water come from?
Well, Yuma County diverts more than a million acre feet of water from the Colorado River annually. For the past 100 years, southwestern states have jousted for access to the Colorado’s precious water. The 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the water among seven thirsty U.S. states. Mexico was eventually allotted 9 percent of the total.
From Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Phoenix, upwards of 40 million people are dependent upon the Colorado for domestic and agricultural needs. More than 70 percent of its flow is diverted to irrigate 3.5 million acres of desert cropland.
And now the “American Nile” is dying a slow death. Population growth and climate change are exacerbating the river’s already perilous condition. Water levels are dropping.
It is just one more flashing sign indicating the worrisome future of the human race.
But that’s a problem for another day.
Today, we need fuel. We enter Yuma proper and get swallowed in a threatening noose of adobe that includes Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dollar Tree, JoAnne, Best Buy, Olive Garden, Sam’s Club and more. Much more.
You name it, they got it here in Arizona’s fifth-most dangerous city. I’ll opt for Starbucks, while Becky will divert Max’s aggression to Chuck E. Cheese.
First we stop at the Arco on 95, or East 16th Street as its called in town, because gas was going for $3.26, the cheapest we’ve seen yet. We’re accosted by desert denizen Randall Joseph Riley.
Randall says he’ll wash our windshield for a dollar. I like Randall instantly, but I have a previously stated fondness for itinerants of all types and window washers in particular.
But I’m a cheapskate. I tell Randall I don’t have any cash in my pocket.
He says he’ll wash our windshield anyway. I direct Becky to find a dollar.
And … what a face!
Randall’s from Sturgis, in the Badlands of South Dakota. Sturgis is famous for its annual motorcycle rally, which dates to 1938. Randall says his grandfather ran a group of bikers off his property, after Randall taught his grandpappy what an upward-thrust middle finger indicated in not-so-polite society.
“I’ve been thinking about flying a sign, and I’ve never flown a sign before, that says ‘Thanks Obama.’ But I’ve never voted, so what do I have to complain about?”
I ask him why he blames Obama, and he shrugs.
“I don’t blame anyone,” Randall says. “I’m just trying to make a dollar. I figure at least 50- percent of the people will appreciate it and help me out.
“I don’t know what will happen to me. I’ll either be in jail or helping people.”
He says he came hereabouts in ’89 to work on some energy project or other.
“I’ve been 19,000 feet underground punching wells so you can fill this thing with gas,” Randall says, pointing at the behemoth. “I’m an oil fucker.”
I’m not sure what warped Randall. He looks like he spent too much time in the desert. But he’s nice as can be.
He’s been around. He talks about being up in the Alaska bush, in a titty bar, when some dude laid $10,000 on the bar and invited Randall to go out crabbing with him the next day.
He didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask.
I am tempted to invite Randall inside for a longer chat, because I’ve gone far too long on this trip without communing with a true crazy man. I go inside to get a receipt, and he’s nowhere to be found when I came back out.
Maybe tomorrow. If we’re still alive.