Friday, December 3, 2010

Day 143: The Morons

Artesia to Pima. 20.6 miles/2739.6 total

Friday, December 3, 2010

9:20 a.m. I lock the car up in front of a little street called Stauffer Lane in the vicinity of Artesia. I’m still out in the country south of the urban areas, but in the midst of a dozen or so small prefabricated and dilapidated buildings with multiple vehicles parked in and around them. I’m heading through Safford and Thatcher and up to Pima, a distance of 20.6 miles.

It’s much warmer than it was the last time I walked. It’s about 60, the sky is covered with high clouds, and I think it’ll get into the low 70s.

Off to my left are the PinaleƱo Mountains and to my right is the back side of the Peloncillo Range. In front of me, to the north, are the Gila Mountains.

Somewhere up there in the PinaleƱos is Mount Graham, the 10,720 foot peak after which the county is named. It's the location of the Mount Graham International Observatory, which maintains three telescopes. One is called the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope. Another is the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. Why the Vatican needs an observatory in Arizona is beyond me, but they’re into astronomy big time. Maybe making up for not believing Galileo all those years. Perhaps they’re scanning the heavens looking for God. Or checking to make sure he’s not looking back at them. Also up there on the mountain is something called the Large Binocular Telescope.

I would like to thank everyone who responded to my plea for comments. You were there all along, it seems. I did it at the risk of sounding a bit desperate, but I want you to know that I write this as much for the readers as for myself. I was beginning to wonder if interest had slacked off due to my long hiatus, or if I had lost people because I’m running out of ways to describe the desert and the mountains and the blue skies, having pretty much reached the limits of my rhetorical skills in that regard.

I made a point of saying some things that were provocative enough to prompt people to comment, and that seems to have worked. I wish to say that I am not insensitive to the plight of the downtrodden. I'm just not into cultural flaggelation. True, my generation was raised on the assumption that we as a country and a civilization are guilty of many things—colonialism, economic imperialism, ruthless exploitation of everyone and everything. It’s a wonder we can look ourselves in the mirror. But most heinous of all seems to be how we have supposedly let technology get out of control. As we came of age the nuclear era was scaring the shit out of everybody, then the ecology movement came along and the zero population growth idea was launched, and there followed many smaller but still worrisome ideas, culminating in the global warming predictions of today. In the face of all these scary and pretty much intractable mega-problems, self-reproach, in the opinion of many, is the only proper response.

I just don’t know why we should be so filled with shame for being what we are as a species. We move, we reproduce, we progress. That’s what we do. Let’s face it, we’re a lot better off today than we were a century ago. Bigger, stronger, more resistant to diseases and even to the poisons we create as byproducts of our success. Why are we so afraid of being ourselves? If a Malthusian adjustment has to occur from time to time, so be it. There’s probably not a damn thing we can do about it. And what gets us will probably be something absolutely no one could have predicted. In the meantime, Party On, Wayne.

At about 6 miles I pass the Graham County Fairgrounds and begin to get into the ambit of the city. I pass Family Dollar and the first gas station since Bowie. Then comes the sign that says, “City of Safford. A great place to live, work, and visit. Welcome.” Just once I’d like to see the Chamber of Commerce types come up with a little twist on that whole rah-rah welcome thing. How about “City of Safford. A great place to get up, eat, and die.” Or “City of Safford. A great place to stop and take a leak.”

The first big church I pass is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. But I like to call them by their technically correct name, the Morons. This is a religion invented by a guy named Joseph Smith, who in 1827 claimed to have been given the translation of certain golden plates by the angel Moroni, out of a language called “reformed Egyptian.” The result was the Book of Mormon, a volume that reads like something you would expect to see if Moses and L. Ron Hubbard got together and smoked a couple of bowls. From that book emanated a religion filled with beliefs so bizarre they make the otherwise weird underpinnings of orthodox Christianity look positively logical in comparison.

Paradoxically, and notwithstanding the evident insanity of their founder, today's Mormons are on the whole a sober, hard-working, seemingly sane bunch, as adept at turning a buck as they can be and about as representative of the stereotypical ideals of bland Americanism as anyone, despite their funny secret underwear. Go figure.

Of course, there is the polygamy thing. For a nutbar, Joseph Smith was a pretty crafty bastard. This guy dragged the little woman through upstate New York and Ohio and down to Nauvoo, Illinois over a thirteen-year period and into middle age, then suddenly got a revelation that Jesus had commanded him to take an additional wife. A fifteen-year-old girl, no less. But hey, why not? For some reason, Mrs. Smith never did warm to this idea. Poor sport, I guess. Undeterred, Joseph kept adding wives.

Back to Safford. It was founded by three guys from Gila Bend named Joshua Bailey, Hiram Kennedy, and Edward Tuttle, in 1874. I don’t know if they were Mormons, but the Mormons soon followed with their industry and tidiness and of course their funny secret underwear. The city was named for a Territorial Governor of Arizona, Anson P.K. Safford. Its population today stands at about 10,000, but it seems bigger.

At 7 miles I come to the first traffic light I’ve seen probably since Lordsburg, New Mexico. On up US 191 I go, called 1st Street here, and when I get to Main Street I turn left and head west into the center of the city. It’s all decorated for Christmas, which is a little hard for me to wrap my brain around amid the palms and cactuses and in the 70 degree weather, but there it is. All the wreaths and snowmen you could ask for.

Main Street has the usual line of moldy old store fronts and facades you see in just about every little city in America, fighting vainly to compete with the more popular and prosperous and real business district on the nearby well-traveled highway. Why do they bother? About half the stores are occupied and the others are for rent. Little marginal boutiques, a carpet and tile place, a drapery place, a nail salon, a lawyer’s office, a bail bondsman, none of which look like they’re booming.

I pass Safford City Hall and come up to the Graham County Courthouse, built in 1916. I went inside it yesterday, and there's nothing to report. Outside it’s handsome enough, though it does have two rather stupid-looking Santa Claus heads with what look like mops for beards hanging over the main entrance, hardly evoking the majesty of the law.

At courthouse square I head north a block and turn west on U.S. 70. Burger King, McDonald’s, a Best Western hotel, a couple of Chinese buffets. Off to the north are mountains and cotton fields. Also up there somewhere is the Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold mine, the largest new mining operation in the country, according to one source. Other big contributors to the Safford economy include a state prison and a federal prison.

At 10.4 miles I pass the Walmart where I’ve been staying, and next to that is a Walgreen’s and a Home Depot. There’s even a movie theater across the street with five screens.

Just past Safeway the City of Thatcher begins. This place, a city of just under 5,000, was founded by Mormons in 1881, and was named for one of the apostles of the church. The businesses gradually thin out, and cotton fields line US 70 on both sides. To my left I see Mount Graham rising above a Ford dealership.

The cotton fields have been recently picked and modules dot the fields. Trucks are busy transporting them back toward Safford. I saw a gin on 191 just south of 70, and I’m sure there are a few more around here.

In the middle of the prosperous-looking Thatcher downtown is the new campus of Eastern Arizona College, a community college originally started by the Mormons and called the St. Joseph Stake Academy, then later donated to the state. Across from that is the equally new and prosperous-looking Thatcher Town Hall, next to which is a monument and bust of one of the fathers of Thatcher, Christopher Layton, 1821-1898. He was the first president of the St. Joseph Stake of the LDS church. He named and platted the town; donated the lot for the first schoolhouse; donated the land for the college; built the first business in town, Layton-Allred, a dry goods store; organized an irrigation canal; started the first post office; and started a stage line. He did it all. And still had time for his ten wives, all of whose names are listed on the plaque, and his 65 children. A vigorous and busy guy was old Christopher. I guess the prospect of getting laid by any one of ten different women on a given night would keep a man in fighting trim. And the beauty part, as they say, is that it’s okay with God.

Out on the west side of Thatcher there’s even more cotton. I see two different sizes of modules—what I’ll call the “standard” size, maybe 30 feet long, and some that are about two-thirds that length, all with fitted tarps over the tops.

At 14.8 miles I come to a brand new Mormon temple, just finished this year. Very spiffy, with a gold-plated statue of the angel Moroni on top. This is the Gila Valley Arizona Temple. It lies in the community of Central, between Thatcher and Pima. After the temple I’m pretty much out in the country with the cotton fields.

At 16.8 miles I enter Pima, population around 2,000. This place also was settled by the Mormons, but the name suggests that it is, or was, Indian land. Pima has a much dumpier look to it than tidy little Thatcher. At Main Street I look north at the one-block downtown, which doesn’t amount to much. Whatever else is going on around it, Pima is a rundown little city.

The prevailing architecture, if you can call it that, is the one-story square cinder block house, sometimes painted and sometimes stuccoed. But even more prevalent are trailers, placed haphazardly on lots and allowed to become permanent. Little fences around them enclose yards whose lawn ornaments consist of non-running vehicles of one sort or another, some with hoods up and some without hoods, and all with flat tires. Once in a great while a Craftsman-style gabled house from the 1920s or 30s stands apart from the rest, looking as if it might have been handsome once. These were probably ordered from the Sears catalogue.

It’s getting close to 4:30 as I leave the west end of Pima. The sky is still covered with a thin layer of high clouds, leaving the mountains visible in the distance above the thousands of acres of cotton across the irrigated Gila Valley. The motor home sits in the wide space between the road and some unused railroad tracks.


Michael Roberts said...

As you mull the relative damage of environmental change, you are passing through an area of Arizona known for its "sky islands," unique biological zones high on those surrounding mountains. Due to elevation and climate, they are narrow strips with their own unique ecology hovering above the Sonoran desert. One of the coal mine canaries for global warming is the demise of those zones, studied heavily by the folks at UA and NAU. (More:

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Interesting. In that regard I read last night that Mount Graham is the only mountain in the world with five different species of trout living in it. Wonder if those people from the Vatican telescope do any fishing up there.

Michael Roberts said...

I had to go look that up and discovered it's a Jesuit enterprise. Having met a good number at Xavier University (Cincinnati) where Phyllis taught and I did that masters, I suspect they are doing many interesting things up there.

Anonymous said...

One could only assume, that being surrounded with all that cotton, the local chatter centers around "threat count". Looking forward to seeing you back in God's country, where the weather has again, become the major topic!