Dec. 2, Arizona 86 east – We slow down to the mandated 15 mph approaching the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint south of Ajo on Arizona 85.
A coyote emerges from the darkness and briefly stares into the glare of our headlights before vanishing in the desert.
We get pulled over, likely because I lean over from the passenger seat and offer too much information. It is a specialty of mine.
Wait, what’s that you say? You’re stopping off in southern Arizona on your way from Washington to Pennsylvania? Is that right? That’s interesting.
A young agent named Shephard asks me to open the camper door. He peers inside, says hi to Max and then waves us on our way.
“You’d be surprised,” he says. “We seize tons and tons of pot here. A lot of the time they come through in vehicles like yours.”
Did I say the area is crawling with federales?
We’ll pass three more lurking at roadside junctions in our first few miles on 86 east to Tucson. We’ll hit another checkpoint west of Tucson. After that, four border trucks will pass us on the two-lane highway. Then the lot of us will get caught up in a wreck 15 miles west of Tucson. We’ll stand still for an hour, federales in front of us, federales behind us.
We’ll never feel so safe.
Before getting on 86, though, we have a stop to make. We get some gas at the Why-Not Travel Center in Why, Arizona, at the confluence of State Routes 85 and 86.
We had to stop here.
It’s all in the name.
Why, Arizona, of course.
It’s an Abbott and Costello routine waiting to happen.
I pump the gas, then walk in to get some answers.
What’s up with Why? I ask the man behind the counter.
His name is Albert John Manuel, and he’s a big bear of a man.
“Why not?” he says, with mock disgust.
His face breaks into a broad grin.
The locals used to call this crossroads, lodged between the old mining town of Ajo 10 miles to the north and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument 17 miles to the south, as “The Y.”
“When there got to be enough people around here to have a post office, they needed a name with at least three letters,” he says. “So they just changed it to Why.”
Albert’s 32, and he’s about to become a father for the first time. Of course, he’s had on-the-job-training. His girlfriend has three kids of her own.
They’re going to call her Anesa Jean Manuel, so she’ll share his initials.
“I’m a little freaked out about it,” he says.
I tell him he’ll be fine. He’s got a reassuring countenance. He seems the gentle giant type, and he looks like a loving father if I’ve ever seen one.
He’s a member of the local Tohono O’odham Nation. He worked construction in El Paso, and Cleburne, Texas, as well as Tucson, When he ran out of work in Tucson, 120 miles east of here, the owner of the travel center told him he had a job here.
So he came back. And why not?
“It’s quiet, and we take care of each other,” he said. “The population is probably less than 100, then in the winter with the snowbirds it’s up to about 300.”
Most of the permanent residents are retired, he says, though some work on the reservation as teachers, among other jobs.
Another thing I need to ask Albert about. Everywhere you go in the border country, you encounter signs advertising “Mexican insurance.”
What’s up with that?
Who’d go to Mexico at all if it’s prudent to by life insurance before crossing the border.
“If you get in an accident down there, they’ll throw you in jail,” Albert says. “So basically it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
I wonder about this, but it checks out. Mexico doesn’t recognize U.S. or Canadian auto insurance. You may well end up in jail. Better be safe than sorry.
I ask Albert if he’d mind getting his picture taken, and he says why not. I stage him out front, next to the agave and saguaro and ocotillo. He’s so agreeable, he’d probably get up on the roof if I asked.
I thank Albert for being so nice and wish him good luck with fatherhood.
We’re on our way again, plunging into the darkness of Arizona 86, which runs 120 miles from Why to Tucson. It’s a lonely road by any definition.Two days ago, there’s no way in the world we would’ve chanced this road after darkness, if at all.
Shadows of drug smugglers and cartel assassins stalked our weak minds.
Now they’ve gone and left us to the darkness.
It’s a strange place, flush with haunting beauty of the lush Sonora, yet undeniably scarred by the drug question. With coyotes and federales on the prowl, you wonder if you’re on the road to some kind of twilight zone. We listen to some old-time radio suspense to amplify the mood of uneasiness.
Stars illuminate the eastern sky, but the big, fat southwestern moon has yet to rise to prominence. It’s dark out here.
“Run devil, run,” Jenny Lewis sings as we traverse the foreboding reservation road. The sign says: Watch out for animals, next 54 miles.
That’s awfully specific, Becky says.
We see nothing. No animals, no people save the occasional border cop.
Lester occupies my lap. He perches right on my wrists as I type.
Creosote, creosote everywhere. Brittlebush and pediddle.
There’s a cat on my wrists.
I guess it’s a universal feline trait. Some ancient instinct. They see you involved in some project or other, and they’re suddenly in love with you.
And so I try to type with Lester on my forearms. He seems offended by my effort.
It ain’t easy.
I give up.
There’s always tomorrow.
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