Sunday, January 15, 2017

Our Arizona Highways

I apologize.
I apologize for every time I've complained about the bumps, the construction, or the congestion of I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis. Why? Because I've driven I-10 southbound out of Phoenix, where our rented Elantra bounces between the ruts like a pinball and there are only two speeds....headwind RV, grind your teeth, can't-get-around-to-pass-speed and white knuckled, bumper to bumper, left lane, blurred landscape, blow-past-the-exit-I-want-speed.
We fly by oh so many exits before I can search out a spot for the lunch we seek. Our 5 am bowl of Cinnamon Chex is naught more than memory. Fortunately, the traffic thins about the time we are nearly fainting with hunger after bypassing the malls of ubiquitous eateries like Texas Roadhouse or Olive Garden, Subway or....well, you get the picture. We pull off at Casa Grande and follow the long strip into downtown, miss our turn, until finally I tell Blake to slow down at a corner where two dozen parked cars face a pink adobe wall. "Are you sure this is a restaurant?" he asks, eyeing the spires of cactus visible over the wall. But indeed it is and we walk through the portal into BeDillon's Restaurant and Cactus Garden.

It's a happenin' place. The host sports a thin gray ponytail, a bejeweled belt buckle and a booming baritone made for the stage. He's the lead in a role of his own choosing, calling back to the kitchen, "Hey, how about these tables?" The tables in question are set with bouquets of roses and marked "reserved". He turns back to us, "My inlaws are coming to eat: they don't like me." And he promptly sweeps one "Reserved" sign away with a flourish and seats us at that table.

Well, I don't know if the margaritas lived up to their billing, and while the decor might be classified as 'museum quality', BeDillon's is certainly not the only restaurant chock full of artifacts. On the other hand, one of the joys of travel is stepping into, and not just stopping by. At BeDillon's most folks don't need the menu.  In the banter of the businessmen talking land prices, the gossip about the guy with a Lamborghini and the universal bass line of all small town conversation...(genealogy, genealogy, genealogy), I feel a kinship with this Arizona town and local diner.  Fellow traveler? Reckon so.
The desert changes in subtle ways between Phoenix and Tucson: purplish peaks appear in the distance and the first spikes of saguaro cacti are harbingers of the garden like abundance of the Sonoran Desert.  But there is nothing subtle about the acres of airplane carcasses lined up glinting like a misplaced aeronautical mirage. We can't drive as close to the Pinal Air Park as we'd like, but a slow cruise reinforces the surreal atmosphere surrounding the landscape of mismatched airliners, forgotten airlines, and seeming random dismembering of the abandoned machines. Alien? As exotic and fantastical to Midwestern eyes as the desert itself.

What do I see in my desert dreams?  The pale green leaves of creosote, like a haze on the slopes in the low January light.  The backlit pads of prickly pear wearing a halo of golden needles.  Not one, not two, but an army of saguaro marching down the slopes, like the brooms in the Sorcerer's Apprentice, single, long string beans of cactus, arms up, arms akimbo, and others leaning or with black holes like eyes or mouths.  These are  not mere plants; we project our emotions onto their humanoid forms.

Finally, the indescribable hues of the far away mountains are indeed the stuff dreams are made of. Blue? Violet? They look pointillist peak fronting the next, like a stage set in a Technicolor Western.

There have been plenty of Westerns filmed around here and Old Tucson provided backdrop for many  winter weekend favorites like McLintock, Rio Lobo, Maverick, Tom Horn, the Sacketts, and El Dorado.  Sure, it's kinda kitschy; the Sweets Shop sells Prickly Pear fudge and there's a place to "Pan for Gold" (silver requiring so much more infrastructure), but Old Tucson is entertainment history, not  "just the facts, ma'am", celebrating the myth and spectacle of a genre that is as faded as the movie posters in the museum. In this spirit, we gather along the railing of Main Street as the shootout plays out.  One little boy hurries across to our side as the actors set the stage, asking breathlessly,"Have I missed anything?" No worries, son, just the preamble....not the fireworks.  It's a pretty satisfactory shootout, by the way, lots of dust and smoke and noise and stunts, with the long shadows and chiaroscuro lighting provided by Mother Nature herself.  We leave Old Tucson both satisfied and nostalgic.

All the beauty and romance and magic of sky and stars, rock and shadow, desert and adobe, mount and valley are married in the Hacienda del Sol.  

We arrive after an hour of Tucson traffic, climbing the twisting drive into the foothills of the Santa Catalinas on the east side.  Festive farolitos illuminate our way through the flowered and fountained courtyard; the staff is courteous in what would be described as Old World manners, if I were writing a travelogue.  Our room is paved with terracotta, roofed with rough beams; we wash our hands and brush our teeth in a basin of colorful Talavera tiles.  There is a real fireplace, an orange tree near the front door and a big blue agave where the patio looks up to the mountains. When we go to dinner we are momentarily disappointed when we pass through the Terraza's enclosed patio and hear the jazz trio serenading the diners, but that evaporates when we are escorted to our table in the Grill to the tinkling ivories of a particularly inventive version of Angel Eyes. 

 The diminutive host sports a bleached blond hairdo and strongly resembles either Hans (or Fritz) of the Katzenjammer kids.  His name, however, is Bing, and, he tells us, he will be there all weekend and HE WILL REMEMBER US!  Threat or promise, we cannot ascertain, but, alas, our stay here is a one night stand and we will scarce stir a neuron in Bing's memory.

The Hacienda del Sol will linger long in ours.  The former girls' school for debutantes, the former guest ranch, the former getaway for the likes of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn wears its age gracefully, the new and old blending seamlessly. We look down across the valley at sunset during our supper and the lights of Tucson are blinking like Christmas lights. We look up, early to rise on Midwest time, and the mountains are wearing clouds while we drink coffee in the predawn hour. 

So many many years ago, I used to look at the Arizona Highways magazines my folks got in the mail.  Every sky was technicolor; every silhouette die-cut; every vista extraterrestrial, fantastical, Disney, like CGI a generation before CGI was an acronym.  Reality...well, it's leaning away from a windblown semi in the left lane of I-10.  Road-wise, no romance.  But our Arizona Highway is the magazine spread, a dreamtime of purple mountains, Western shootouts, and saguaro silhouettes. 

No apology necessary....

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