During the last week of October, I had an opportunity to roam southern Arizona by myself for three days. This post is about the second day. The first can be read here.
I’m awakened at 7:30 a.m. by the sound of someone power-washing the sidewalk below my hotel room window. A city is its own alarm clock.
I get dressed and head out for a run through the historic district. I’m eager to finally see downtown Tucson in the light of day, but it would seem for the locals plodding to work that I’m the thing to be seen. I feel eyes on me everywhere I go. Heads turn in curiosity as I pass by. At first I try to ignore the stares, then start meeting them. Has no one in Tucson ever seen a person running?
To be fair, I’m making it hard to be ignored. I keep breaking my stride to stand frozen in the middle of the street, grasping my cell phone in both hands, arms stretched out in front of me like a prayer. I step forwards and backwards across the sidewalk, trying to frame each shot just so through the viewfinder on my screen.
Maybe the good citizens of Tucson have simply never before seen anyone taking so many damn pictures.
30 minutes into my meander, I start feeling like every molecule of water has been wrung from my body. The temperature is only in the 70s, and the sun isn’t that bright, but the air is so dry it crackles. My lips are stuck to my teeth. But still I press on, determined to reach the campus of the University of Arizona, just to see what it looks like.
Spoiler alert: It looks like a lot of extraordinarily youthful people wandering amongst large buildings. One other person here is also running, which is cold comfort in light of the fact that I am suddenly, irrevocably, old.
I head back. Down wide avenues lined with strips of lawn made of cacti and stones, behind which low, earth-brown houses crouch. Through a student shopping district sprinkled liberally with bars and Mexican folk gift shops. Under an overpass and across the train tracks.
An hour and a half after I first left, I arrive at the front desk of the hotel, panting, and politely ask for eight bottles of water and a late check-out.
The ancient, temperamental pipes of the Hotel Congress cannot decide whether I deserve to be teeth-chatteringly cold or skin-searingly hot. As I grumpily towel off, I wistfully fantasize about staying in a bland corporate chain hotel, where what lacks in personality is made up for in a consistently warm shower.
I pack my bag and tug the door across the worn threshold for the last time, leaving behind two trash cans overflowing with empty water bottles and my contact lens case.
Down the street is a mod little coffee shop. I set up a makeshift work station in front of a large plate glass window, but I end up spending more time looking at the clouds roll in over downtown Tucson than looking at my computer screen.
It feels like it might rain.
A couple of billable hours and two lattes later, I toss my bag into the car and head back out one more time. Yelp reviews direct me to a shabby joint with chipped plywood tables and a blackened ceiling. I grab a corner stool and order a grilled sandwich and a bourbon and soda. I watch the kids across the bar and imagine their lives. Do they have another class to go to today? A party to go to this weekend?
The sandwich is greasy, but the music is superlative. Mos Def’s “Speed Law” bleeds into Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” and I motion to the bartender for the check. That’s my cue to get out of town.
I shoot south from Tucson on the 19, making a beeline toward Mexico. My goal is to see the ruins of three Spanish colonial missions known as Tumacácori.
I do a triple take at a road sign: did I really read that there was 4 kilometers to the next exit? I did, and in fact, all of the signs on this road are in kilometers. Except for the speed limit signs, I hope, or I’m doing 45 km over.
Every car with a Sonoran license plate, on the other hand, is doing at least ten under the speed limit. As I roar past a giant U.S. Border Patrol roadblock spanning the northbound lanes, I find myself slowing down, too.
I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
I pull into Tumacácori at 4:50 p.m. A pair of middle-aged women wearing fanny packs are making their way out of the gift shop as I push my way through the heavy carved wooden door. Shit, I hadn’t thought of it closing.
“Is there time to see the ruins?” I ask. The park ranger rolls her eyes toward the hands of a giant clock made from a tree stump. “Well, you have ten minutes,” she says. I rush out through a courtyard with exhibits and through another set of doors. The ruins are spread across a wide, open area dotted with dry grass and picnic tables, and completely surrounded on all sides by an adobe wall.
I’m in such a hurry to get pictures that I don’t notice the anthills until I’m standing on them.
Presently a gangly teenager in a red shirt appears from inside one of the church ruins, a ring of keys dangling from his fingers. It would appear that the park ranger has her son helping her lock up. “I know, I know, it’s time to go!” I say preemptively, with an agreeable smile. We walk back toward the museum, a few paces apart, as big fat drops of rain begin to fall.
As we approach the first set of doors I turn to him one last time. “Where’s the restroom?” I ask. “Over there,” he says, waving to a corner of the walled courtyard with one arm.
I haven’t peed since Tucson, so the miracle of finding a toilet is akin to a religious experience. As I wash my hands I’m tempted to high-five my reflection in the mirror.
I leave the restroom and head for the exit, press down on the door latch, and pull. It won’t budge. I try all of the other doors in the courtyard, then go back to the main exit and knock. No one answers. I try again. Nothing.
I am locked inside a national park.
A bench near a fountain makes an excellent stepping stool. I scramble up on the wall and look over. On the other side is a driveway that’s blocked by a gate, but the courtyard wall extends just past it. I walk along the top, arms extended for balance, until I reach the end and peer down. It’s about an eight foot drop, and my thin plastic flip-flops don’t do much to cushion the landing.
I wander the strip of grass in front of the park, gazing around. The only other buildings in sight are an antique shop, a tiny grocery store, and a bar, all closed. I cross the road to take some more pictures.
I’m standing outside the abandoned bar with my camera in hand when I notice a man in a cowboy hat slowly driving an old white pickup truck through the gravel lot. He and his small son, face pressed to the window, are watching me. The truck turns and circles back. Having come from a small town, I understand how strangers can be viewed with curiosity and suspicion. I cast a few glances over my shoulder and resume taking pictures.
The light and the weather are causing technical difficulties. I adjust the settings on my camera and take a new round of photos. Another truck — red this time — circles behind me, its tires squeaking and popping on the gravel.
A child is throwing a tantrum in the shacks behind the empty storefronts. I glance to my right and suddenly notice a person sitting in what I previously assumed was an empty car, all the windows rolled up.
This is getting weird.
It’s the third pickup truck slowing down for a look, though, that finally breaks me. I dash across the road and climb into the Kia, throw it in reverse, and nearly lay rubber on my way back to the 19.
I’ve had just about enough of Tumacácori, thanks.
The city of Nogales crouches along the border of Mexico. My highway meanders aimlessly through the heart of it before looping into the next highway and veering east. At stoplights I peer through the windows of laundromats; gaze at a police cruiser parked outside a taqueria. I pass endless Spanish-language billboards for domestic violence hotlines and Chelada advertisements.
Deep into my tour of downtown Nogales, I’m alarmed to find my lane abruptly curving towards a sign for the border crossing into Mexico. I merge as quickly as I can, then pull over to consult the map on my phone. I clearly missed the turn for the 82 a few miles ago, so I slowly wend my way back, cursing my lack of attention.
That was a close one.
Once I’m back on the right road, Nogales quickly fades into open desert. The colors run from the sky as black settles in. I check the odometer, watch the mirrors, count the miles, turn up the volume. I pass one car, then another, until I am the only person on this road. I may as well be the only person in the entire world. There are no headlights behind me, and no taillights in front of me.
I flick on the high beams and lean forward in my seat, scanning the empty space in front of the car. Lightning flashes on the horizon.
I chase thunderstorms all the way to Bisbee.
Even in pitch dark the Copper Queen Hotel is a stately thing, rising from a narrow lane carved into a hillside with all the solemnity of a library or prison. I’m given a metal key and tag with a worn 310 etched in one side, and directed to a rickety elevator. My room is small and grandmotherly. The pink floral bedspread bleeds into the maroon carpet. I’m disappointed to find a standing shower in the bath, but least there’s a TV.
Only a handful of restaurants are open at this hour. I choose a Mexican joint just a few doors down from the hotel, and pick a seat at a corner table in the bar section. I scan the list of margaritas, but they all seem needlessly complicated. “Do you have any drinks without the sweet and sour?” I ask the bartender. “You know, something really simple?”
Wrinkles form in her forehead. “I can make you this,” she offers, thrusting a painted nail toward a menu item, “But with orange juice instead of sweet and sour.”
“Sure,” I say, shrugging. “Sounds great.”
As soon as she leaves my phone vibrates; I’ve gotten a text. I pick it up and proceed to get lost in the warm, familiar glow of my screen. A man at the table next to me speaks up loudly and deliberately. “You’re on your phone,” he says, looking straight at me. “She’s on her phone,” he continues, thumbing at a woman sitting at the bar. “You guys are making me feel insecure, like I need to get out my phone.”
I smile, but not with my eyes. I’m not in the mood to play psychologist with a stranger.
“What are you looking at on your phone?” he inquires of the woman at the bar. “I’m waiting to pick up my baby,” she says, by way of nonanswer. He swings his eyes back toward me. “What are you looking at?”
“Honey, stop,” his wife says, patting his arm nervously. “Are you here visiting?” she asks me, politely smoothing over her husband’s ragged edges. She’s a kind-looking woman with overbleached hair and tired eyes. We volley small talk at one another: where are you from, what do you do. She’s from Tucson, where she and her husband run a couple of restaurants.
“Are you staying at the Copper Queen for the ghosts?” she asks.
No, I’m not.
“We come down here and do séances,” she informs me, unblinking. “We just had one where we managed to contact a spirit and she was able to tell us how she died.”
The margarita comes, and it is a horrid mess of dark pink syrup. I manage to choke a few sips down before giving up and ordering a straight shot of tequila. The food doesn’t fare much better, either. I’ve never before had black beans that were chewy.
I pay the bill, pocket my phone, and bid my new friends a very good evening.
The bar at the Copper Queen Hotel is supposed to be open for another hour, but it’s currently devoid of any sign of life. I stand next to a red vinyl stool, reading the words and names bar patrons have carved into an old wooden post. A silent jukebox blinks forlornly in the corner.
Just when I’m thinking of serving myself, a woman pokes her head in from a side door and lifts her eyebrows in surprise. “Sorry about that,” she says, hustling behind the counter. “Been getting ready to close since we’ve been so dead around here.”
I order a tall vodka. She dumps a shot of liquor in a pint glass then tops it off with soda.
I tip well anyway.
Back in my room, the lights outside my window cast a red glow across the bed and up the wall. I watch shadows until nearly 2:00 a.m., when I finally fall into a shallow, restless sleep.