Thursday, January 6, 2011
Day 154: R.I.P.
Conger to Tonopah. 20.5 miles/2962.4 total
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
9:30 a.m. I’m leaving from Baseline Road and Wilson Road in Conger, heading down Baseline to Salome Highway, through Wintersburg and up to Tonopah, a distance of 20.5miles.
The clouds are high and thin today. Morning mist clings to the mountain foothills all around. It’s about 55 degrees and will get into the low 60s, just like yesterday.
Off in the distance the plumes of steam I saw all day yesterday are getting closer. I think it’s a nuclear plant. I’m walking next to a V-shaped concrete irrigation ditch about three feet deep, and a plowed cotton field. I’ve left the suburbs of Phoenix for good and today’s walk will be strictly in the country.
On down two-lane Baseline I walk, as it becomes covered on both sides by thick tumbleweeds and other vegetation—cottonwoods, willows, spruces, mesquites, palo verdes naked of their leaves but with vivid green branches that make them look almost filled out even in the off-season. There's quite a bit of water around here to create such relatively verdant surroundings. Maybe it's been diverted for the irrigation of the fields.
I come upon a white corrugated cardboard box about two feet by three feet, from which protrudes a couple of bones. When I push back the top of the box with my toe, the cardboard softened by recent rains, I find the skeletal remains of a small dog next to an empty Alpo dog food bag. The bag looks almost as if it had been put in there as a grave offering like the Egyptians used to do, but I don’t think there was any food in it, or other animals probably would have gnawed into it by now. More likely it was simply thrown away along with the dead dog. But the bones of the dog’s foreleg and foot are on the bag as if it's trying to get it open. I have a tendency to call all dead dogs I find on the roadside Arfie the Wonder Dog, and all domestic cats Fluffy, as in "Fluffy won't be coming home tonight." I put the cardboard back over the dog and his food. R.I.P. Arfie.
I reach the intersection of Baseline and 331st Avenue, which when you think about it is a hell of a lot of avenues, considering that they started with 1st Avenue just west of Central in downtown Phoenix. Shortly after this intersection Baseline ends at Salome Highway and I turn right, heading west by northwest up past the Palo Verde Hills.
I think they might plant two crops of cotton a year here, and they’re just bringing in the fall and winter crop now. Trucks carrying modules ply the road regularly. The place I thought was a gin yesterday, near where I began today’s walk, was not. I think it might be a fertilizer factory. Something around here smells very bad. I don’t know if they’re processing manure, or maybe they’ve spread it on the fields between cotton crops, but the smell of animal fertilizer is very heavy along Baseline here. However, there is a gin back there somewhere, because the module trucks are all headed that way.
I’m walking along a desert meadow of blue-green bushes with dried brown flowers. A mile or so to the south the plumes of steam from the nine cooling stacks of what I now know is the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant are heading straight into the windless air like elongated tepees. This plant is one of the few to be located in a desert, away from a plentiful source of flowing fresh water. Palo Verde uses water from waste water treatment plants in the area to cool the reactors. And, get this, it is the largest nuclear power generating facility in the United States, producing power for over four million people. It doesn't look that big from the road, but what do I know?
At 11.9 miles I come to Wintersburg. It’s a community that spreads out thinly from the intersection of Salome Highway and 371st Avenue, and the next intersection down, about a mile past this one, where there’s a small bit of commerce. Nearing the traffic light in Wintersburg—the only one I’ll see today—I spot a Shell station and a general store about two hundred yards south of the intersection. Rather than go down to the light and walk south I strike out across a desert field to walk the hypotenuse of the right triangle formed by Salome Highway and South Wintersburg Road.
There’s not a whole lot of information available about Wintersburg, except that it’s where the nuclear plant is, and the plant employs several thousand people. Wintersburg's population in 2000 was about 3,000. At the Shell station there’s the Wintersburg General Store, a well-stocked grocery and convenience store, next to which is a feed store. Beside that is another little flat-fronted place with the name Wintersburg on it. The buildings are all painted red, like in that Clint Eastwood movie High Plains Drifter. Down at the corner of Salome Highway there’s the Tin Top Bar and Grill, the largest establishment in the town.
After buying refreshments at the general store I start back on the walk with renewed vigor and enthusiasm, having just been informed by my son-in-law Erik via text that the University of Michigan has fired Rich Rodriguez. That’s very good news. So long Rich. Anybody they hire is bound to do better with the talent Michigan is (or was) capable of recruiting.
Every once in awhile along Baseline and Salome Highway there’s been a dip in the road accompanied by a sign that reads, “Do Not Cross When Flooded.” That makes a lot of sense, of course, but it’s the only time I can recall seeing such signs. I imagine the powers that be get tired of towing stranded vehicles of people who think they can make it across and get swamped. You can sort of imagine that there was a sign like that on the west side of the Red Sea when the Israelites were fleeing from the Egyptians, but they chose to ignore it. And so did the Egyptians, but with a different result.
Typically I see many crosses by the side of the road at the spots where people have perished in car accidents. I see so many of these that I barely notice them anymore. Probably at least one a day. But here’s a spot where there appears to be not one but eight such crosses, lined up in a row. Like a little cemetery almost, except that there are no bodies buried here. Could it be that a family of eight lost their lives in a single accident? That would be a serious bummer.
On closer inspection I see that five of the crosses are from one accident and another is from a separate one, and two of the crosses aren’t for individuals at all. The crosses are set in concrete, with coffee cans sunk into the cement to hold artificial flowers. Quite elaborate. Richard Warner's cross stands down at one end, with a different date of death from the others, and next to his is a little cross that says “Happy 43rd birthday,” so that one doesn’t count. And next to the gratuitous birthday cross is one that says, “Jesus Died 2000 Years Ago So You Could Live,” a sneaky attempt to proselytize in the midst of all this misery. Finally there are the five men or boys who died together here--two named Ramirez, two named Arroyo Navarro, and one named Guzman. Five isn't eight, but it's bummer enough. R.I.P.
In the near distance are the Palo Verde Hills, which here are black rocks covered thinly with light green vegetation. Three quarters of the way up one of the hills there’s a very handsome house with a nice northeastern prospect, but an improbably steep driveway. I wonder if there’s a back road that I can’t see. This driveway makes me marvel at how they got the materials and trucks and all up the hill to build the house in the first place.
I come to the intersection of Salome Highway and Van Buren Road, and a quiet little ghost of its former self is this end of Van Buren. Here it’s a dirt road through the brush that isn’t even open—it’s blocked off by a couple of large tree trunks, probably having been recently washed out.
At about 17.5 miles I come to a little ghost village consisting of half a dozen completely gutted buildings, stripped of windows and doors and plumbing and and anything usable and filled with bird guano and insects. One of the buildings might once have been a day care center, because cartoon figures are drawn on the walls—Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, members of the Simpson family, Disney and Sesame Street characters. A hundred feet from there is what was probably a small gas station and car wash, and past that several more small houses, all gutted and sprayed with graffiti. Wonder what the name of this place was?
Past the ghost village I come to the intersection of Salome Highway and 411th Avenue, where I head north on the avenue up to the village of Tonopah. Tonopah’s name comes from an Apache term meaning “Hot Water Under a Bush,” which refers to an extensive aquifer that keeps all the wells around here supplied with water. Maybe hot water, at one time anyway. There are only a few thousand people in Tonopah, and in 2009 it wanted to incorporate a very large area—about 100 square miles--into a city. But the effort was opposed by what would have been the neighboring municipality of Buckeye, under a provision that allows cities to have veto power over the incorporation of adjacent municipalities. Oh well, I guess it's just water under the bush now.
At 19.4 miles I cross a cattle guard and enter the confines of Tonopah. I now have about one mile to go. On this second day of walking in the new year my legs are doing fine but the bottoms of my feet remain sore, leaving me once again limping in the last minutes.
I pass the Saddle Mountain RV park, surrounded by a wall and filled with palm trees. It’s past 5:30 and nearly dark as I finally trundle into the village, passing a motel and a couple of abandoned buildings. The motor home comes into view, tucked into a vacant lot next to the Tonopah post office.