Sunday January 23, 2011
Last night we pulled into Yuma. We were exhausted and went against our better judgement (read: intuition) and stayed at a Motel 8 instead of doubling back to the more promising Yuma Cabana Motel. The 8 was fine, but devoid of character. The “blankets” were made from something unnatural and had more a texture of fiberglass insulation than plant or animal based fabric. They were blue-grey. No. Grey-blue. The lighting made us look like sallow brain-eating zombies. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
As we tried to find the ‘heart’ of town we passed one RV park after another. Separating these vast expanses were other types of vast expanses like train yards and fenced off areas with high-voltage structures. It was all kind of mysterious.
The USMC Air Station, the Yuma Proving Ground, and the Federal Border Patrol employ as many people as all other large employers (medical, schools, gov’t, farmers, etc) combined. That might account for why Yuma seems at once to be both sprawling and deserted. We wondered; what, exactly, is a Proving Ground? It turns out that it’s where we prove that we have bad-ass military equipment. 90 percent of the activity at the YPG is to test weapon systems. They also provide Army units a realistic environment for desert military training before they deploy to the real thing. Yuma is well situated because it simulates so precisely the physical environments in which we find ourselves in conflict–it’s hot, arid, blindingly bright and susceptible to sandstorms. Of course it does not (and perhaps cannot) simulate the subtleties and eccentricities of Arab culture which might be just as helpful as testing ‘smart weapons.’
They are busy:
“…Realistic villages and road networks representing urban areas in Southwest Asia have been constructed and are used for testing counter-measures to the threat of roadside bombs…In a typical year, over 500,000 artillery, mortar and missile rounds are fired, 36,000 parachute drops take place, 200,000 miles (320,000 km) are driven on military vehicles, and over 4000 air sorties are flown from the proving ground’s Laguna Army Airfield…”
Divide by 260 working days and that’s a lot of bang per day. BpD. Yuma is no shrinking violet in the ‘get your war on’ arena.
We ventured downtown to a main street that looked like so many others we have seen on this trip. Excellent buildings partly boarded up and mostly struggling to hang on. We were, of course, looking for a coffeeshop. BA had wisely stopped for a Starbucks out near the highway. We asked around and were told that there was one place (and one only) that we could find coffee downtown on a Sunday morning: the Happy Chef. We walked a few blocks and indeed, the lot was full, but the name had changed:
What had happened?! Was it the economy? Had someone backed into this sign one too many times? Should this be read in the British sense– that the Chef had gone crazy? We decided to find out. He couldn’t be mad for lack of business, the place was hopping.
Once again, we were in a restaurant with a re-purposed train car addition.
Judging from the style of the coffee cup, the gargantuan cinnamon roll, and the fact that they left the coffee carafe on the table we figured the Mad Chef must be Greek. We asked our waitress why the Chef had gone from happy to mad and while she thought it might have something to do with the economy, she didn’t know for sure. She pointed him out; he was sitting in the next room holding court at a table full of regulars. We ate the rest of our breakfast and worked up our courage to approach this angry man.
This is John. He’s definitely Greek and he had the craziest laugh we’d heard in a while. We recorded him just to remember his excellent accent. He explained that he was mad because he had been in a car wreck (hence, the cane) the previous year and he couldn’t cook anymore. Ahh. The ravages of time and limitations of the body. On the whole, though, he admitted to actually being pretty happy (it was obvious) and grateful for the customers that continued to stream in and address him by name. There was a sign above the cash register that read, “Here you are a stranger only one time.” We talked for a while and he gave us a hug and wished us safe travels. The entrance had filled up with people waiting for tables. Since we are keeping track of the best of everything we’ve experienced on the trip, Chele asked this guy for a picture. He gets an A+ in the category of ’Best Beard in 1,500 Miles’:
Yuma isn’t quite on the border, but it’s close. Besides the cinnamon roll and the Happy/Mad chef, Yuma seemed like a downer so we dug out our passports and pointed the Subie due south towards San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, MX. We had gotten an e-mail from Wendy suggesting that we cross over and get tacos. We also decided to try and score some Advair for Chele’s mother. This idea was based on a tip we’d received back at a shoe store in McPherson, KS. The clerk there was from Yuma and she told us that snowbirds who wintered in town would often cross into Mexico and stock up on cheap drugs. We love being on a mission.
All around Yuma, if land isn’t held down by the weight of irrigation, it just blows:
Right at the checkpoint there is a green-space euphemistically named ‘Friendship Park.’
We love that it is Main Street that takes you to the checkpoint.
Though admittedly immature, it has become sport for us to try and sneak pictures of the Border Patrol. It seemed like any other checkpoint, so we were mystified when the agent motioned for us to get out of the line and pointed to an area where they were searching vehicles. Wha?
And then it dawned on us: these were Mexican agents working for Mexico. It was kind of a relief. We were finally being treated like two people in a car visibly packed with who knows what. Being Mexican agents in Mexico, they were asking us questions in rapid fire Spanish. We floundered. Then they called in a colleague. In better English than either of us command, he asked us why we had come to Mexico. Suddenly, the idea of tacos seemed dubious. They asked about the photo equipment and when we explained that we were artists en route from Madison, WI the agent had more questions about the merits of a Canon versus Nikon than whether we were there to fence electronics. For a minute we thought they might actually dig through the car but they seemed amused by what a curious wreck our ride was–still filthy from the Jornada del Muerto with a pile of confusion topped by 60′s Mexican telenovella posters from the junk store in Ajo– they smiled and waved us on.
San Luis Rio Colorado was named for the Red River. Until the twentieth century, the Colorado flowed through here on its way to the Gulf of California. Now it does not. By the time it gets to Yuma, it has been picked off by numerous diversions and dams so that little if any water flows in the river bed here. San Luis is a dry, dusty, jumbled mix of US fast food chains, independent electronics stores, bustling tiendas, taco stands, etc. Neon colored banners drape the crowded storefronts and announce great deals; cars pack the wide streets and faded stop signs seem to provide some order. We inadvertently ran a few of them and had second thoughts about the Mexican Insurance we’d passed up in Why, AZ. If there was a central plaza or quaint historic district, we missed it. About two miles from the border, San Luis quieted down and was actually kind of pleasant.
The side-streets were oddly spacious:
The best part of any Mexican town is the color sense.
It was already 11am and we had dinner plans with Wendy and Bill in San Diego. We decided to get down to business. We thought that maybe we could work up an appetite by tracking down asthma drugs. Chele saw a guy sitting in a doorway and jumped out to ask questions:
He was very sweet, asked where we were from, and directed us up the street to a pharmacy. The Advair haul was a bust. They had other types of inhalers,
but nothing we wanted to take a chance on…”Daughter Kills Mother with Discount Asthma Meds from Mexican Border Town” Umm. No. We do not want to be responsible for this headline. Besides, we figured we’d have another shot in San Diego and could do some research in the meantime. Both the guy who gave us directions and some other guys up the street (we were inquiring about a good place for tacos. The answer? “Everywhere.”) had warned us that the line to get back across the border could get pretty bad; especially because it was a weekend. Without a real plan, and still full from the ample breakfast at the Mad Chef, we headed back to the border. To find the end of the line, we traveled east on a parallel street and looked north through the cross streets. After more than a mile, we finally saw a clearing.
As we sat and guessed at how long we would sit we considered whether this diversion was the first decision (besides not staying at the Yuma Cabana Motel) we’d made that we regretted. No tacos. No Advair. And now what would surely be two hours of sitting in line… But there is a strange micro-culture in the border back-up. A whole industry of entrepreneurs selling ice cream, fried things (we don’t know what), tchotchkes, piñatas, jewellry…FURNITURE!
People were performing to raise money…in this case, a martial arts team was trying to get to a tournament:
The wall reminded Chele of the Berlin Wall except that there it was covered with art and protest; here, it is covered with ads. In Berlin, it divided two distinctly different economic ideologies; here, well…it advertises a conforming view that offers little to substantiate the kind of gulf this wall actually signifies.
We sat. And sat. We played a game in which Chele quizzed BA about the all-American quotes printed on each page of her new passport. (BA will not be on Jeopardy anytime soon, btw) We were frequently visited by the entrepreneurs. “Gracias, no.” and “Muy gracias, no.” And “Muy bonita, pero no.” And then, as if drawn by some spectral aura…wait…it IS a spectral aura…we simultaneously saw the rooster guy:
Nothing was working! Where was our resistance?! Even our haggling instincts were thrown off. Before we knew it,
that rooster was out of his arms and our cash was out the window. The paint was still off-gassing. Amazing. Wasted trip to Mexico? No way!
We finally made it back to the customs gate.
This time US agents asked the perfunctory questions and though our answer hadn’t changed (‘tacos’), we sailed on through. Even though BA’s tattoo was showing, it’s clear we just don’t fit the profile of people who might stuff a plaster rooster with weed…say now…
Onward! Back to Yuma and west on Interstate 8. It was becoming inevitable that our trip was reaching a conclusion.
But a few miles into California there were more border agents to cheer us up:
Most people coming from the mid-west would take I-10 (Albuquerque, Gallup, Flagstaff, Phoenix, Riverside, San Diego) unless something (like tacos or plaster roosters) drew them south. We’ve both taken that route in the past. The downside is that by sticking to I-10, you have no idea that this exists:
Holy Ben Hur! The change in landscape was sudden; one minute we’re at another checkpoint and the next we’re in Egypt. The Algodones dunes stretched on for miles along Interstate 8, and extended 45 miles north up to Calipatria. They were so beautiful that we were shrieking just a little. At some point, we noticed this canal.
After a little bit of jack-ass research (ie: wikipedia) this is what we learned:
The canal is called “The All-American Canal.” As you might guess, the All-American is the biggest irrigation canal in the world. It was authorized at the same time as the Hoover Dam (circa 1928). It was supervised and designed by a guy named John Savage (this is a lob ball to all the environmentalists out there). Indeed, it took some savagery to tame the Colorado into traveling hundreds of miles from its banks to irrigate the Imperial Valley which provides a huge percentage (we heard over 50%, but we need a fact check here) of the green vegetables consumed in the US during the winter months. If it weren’t for the All-American, the valley would be a desert. Well actually, with an annual rainfall of 3 inches it is a desert. The canal feeds smaller diversions that find the agricultural fields and indirectly the AAC supplies water (via field run-off) to the Salton sink. Because the sink is now full of water (since a 1905 engineering screw-up), it is referred to as The Salton Sea. We will make a trip back to this inland sea while we are in San Diego.
Here is a chilling factoid about the canal. The current can be wicked and apparently hundreds of illegal immigrants (550 to date) have died trying to cross it. There is an active proposal to stretch safety ropes across to prevent such tragic mishaps. So far the oversight board for the canal has denied the rope idea because they think it will encourage illegal immigration. Last time we checked, though, it was opportunity and the pressures of poverty (the exact same forces that drove the Joads from Oklahoma to California) that encouraged immigration. C’mon. Ropes, please.
The landscape of the southwest is legendary for a reason. It cannot be contained by words or pictures– moving or still. It is a view contingent upon the degree of openness in one’s heart. Maybe this is why every trip west can seem like the first. Just when you think you cannot frame a more ideal vista, you round a bend and are stunned by a more impossible composition, color field, or cultural intervention.
We pulled into San Diego and turned north at the College Street exit. SDSU was in view to our left– the art school overlooks I-8. The enormity of navigating from Madison to San Diego instantly shrunk to navigating from the art department to our apartment three and a half miles up the hill.
It seems like an apt metaphor. After two weeks– starting in St. Louis with hermit crabs named after the fab four evangelists and ending with a persuasive rooster salesman in Mexico– all we can say is, “What just happened?” Shrinking/expanding/little/big…we have seen (or, more accurately, we have started to see) this country from an Alice-like perspective; tumbling down rabbit holes and drinking from little vials simply because they say, “Drink me.”
We are both from a generation when encyclopedia salesmen (yes. they were likely all men) went door to door and convinced young parents that it was their civic duty to have these (up to date) books of knowledge available to their growing children. These were books that “[brought] the world right to your livingroom.” Perhaps this trip would be analogous to the very best section which was in the first volume. The lengthy Anatomy section included acetate overlays that looked beautifully abstract when viewed singly with a white sheet of paper inserted underneath; and they were intelligible –nerves, arteries, veins, bones, organs, (sex parts!)– only when all the pages were stacked neatly. For a five year old, these pages were endlessly intriguing and vaguely terrifying because stacking them neatly was never the most interesting thing to do. Finding new forms by offsetting (and eventually removing and re-orienting) the leaves rendered the body–the map–contingent.
The next few weeks will be about re-drawing the map, condensing and collapsing events and stories to see which overlays reflect the hybrid absurdity and beauty that nuanced the entire experience. Writing this journal has given us a lens with which to inspect our own thoughts and feelings as we have gone along; and it has also given us the opportunity to think further and research a bit about the things we encountered. Knowing that we have had virtual travelers along with us has been such a gift. Thank you for your comments, encouragement, fact-checking, and energy.
At this point, we will continue to write about our experiences and the side trips to the desert that we have planned. Stay tuned!
So. We picked up our key and our landlord accompanied us to the apartment. In an effort to document “The Arrival!” Chele took this uninspiring photo of the back of the building:
and for the first time, her camera flashed the message “CF Card Full!”
Hmm. Just right.