Day 14. NM/AZ: straw houses, ghost towns, gun-fights, slabs of meat

by Kevin May

Breakfast in the morning was a tidy affair and probably the first healthy meal that I’d had in the States. I was unfamiliar with much of what was set before me on the table: all manner of unrecognizable fruit, a vat of plain yoghurt and a sack of muesli that looked as if it had been made from twigs and berries collected from the garden. On offer to dilute it was translucent soya milk but this did little to take the sawdust sensation away from the mouth. I regretted opting for wheatgerm waffles, especially when I discovered that the maple syrup was sugar free and tasted like battery acid.

I had been awake since five when the dawn cacophony from the hen-house had started. My mood might have been improved by the sight of some chicken on the table, but they clearly didn’t eat enough of the stuff around here.

It was the beginning of a gloriously sunny day and Catherine was outside, chatting to a couple of visitors to whom she introduced me. One of them said that he’d passed a week in London once and had stayed in “Bel-grar-via”. He’d spent the whole time Christmas shopping in Harrod’s, which he’d found terribly expensive. His other memory was the darkness when he got up and the fact that the sun had gone down again by 4.30 in the afternoon. He’d been glad to get back to where the days weren’t so short.

Pete was already busy at work somewhere in the grounds and was soon gambolling into view, keen to take me on a tour. The summer-house up on the hill had been built using an eco-friendly method of straw bales packed both sides with mud, instead of bricks. They’d already talked about it and I was expecting some ramshackle old hut but, to all intents and purposes, it looked like any modern building. They had left one glass panel on the inside that looked through to the straw core of the wall; it was called a “truth window”, and was there for the doubting Thomases like me.

He then took me to the lodge, an outbuilding bigger than most B&Bs in its own right. It too was built along the same lines and also looked perfectly normal. It wasn’t just the basic building materials that were eco-friendly. These buildings had been painted with natural pigments and specially designed to maximize the benefit of sunlight and minimize the loss of heat. They ran workshops on how to live and build in the most environmentally friendly fashion. They used a lot of bamboo in their building work, and we had a look around the bamboo grove before putting our heads in to see my friends the chickens. They kept a few small farm animals and Pete was working on a device that could use the manure to generate electricity for the house. These people were a real life Tom and Barbara Good, only they did it successfully.

I needed to settle up and get going, but Pete wanted to call his sister in North Dakota before I left. He had mentioned her during the conversation on the subject of his state and told me that she was “crazy” on account of her travelling all over the country to visit craft fairs and the like. He thrust the phone into my hand and told me that she’d be delighted for me to stay with her when I passed through and that I should make arrangements with her now. He had suggested this the previous evening but I didn’t think he was serious. I spoke to her and agreed to call again from South Dakota the day before I was due to arrive.

Catherine wanted me to have some literature about what they were doing. She pressed the latest copies of Natural Building, the Builders without Borders Bulletin and the International Journal of Straw Bale and Natural Building into my hands. They all definitely belonged in my “read later” category. She was glad that I was going to Tucson and not Phoenix, because it was a lot more sympathetic to the environment. She explained that she edited these newsletters because 23% of Americans said that they cared enough about the environment to want to change the way they lived, but they were scattered across the country and there was no focus or organization to let their voice be heard. I was surprised. If her figures were correct, that amounted to a number that exceeded the entire population of the UK by several millions.

We had time for hugs and firm handshakes before I left. As a last delaying tactic, Pete asked me if I wanted to have a quick few throws of the Frisbee but I declined. It was 10.15 and I was keen to make Tuscon in good time, as I had friends there whom I’d not seen for a while and wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

In the southwest corner of New Mexico, the area known as the heel of the state, there were a number of ghost towns that I  wanted to see. Shakespeare could only be visited by appointment according to Pete, and Steins was more of a museum than a real town, so I decided to head straight for Rodeo right on the border with Arizona. By the time I got there it was very hot, and the place delivered what the book promised. It was deserted.

I wanted to have lunch in the Tavern, which was reportedly run by a woman “so eccentric that she doesn’t even print a menu, she just talks to you”. It seemed far more eccentric that the place only opened on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 4 pm. I wasn’t prepared to wait three days for lunch so I went back to the car. I noticed a thermometer in the shade on the side of one of the buildings. It showed 104°F. The sky was crystal blue and cloudless.

Two miles down the road, I was over the state line into Arizona and heading down towards the Mexican border. The road led past a monument to Geronimo, commemorating a spot close to where he had fallen but that was about all there was to see. The outside temperature was becoming unbearable and so I was thankful not to have reason to leave the air-conditioned sanctuary of the car. I was even more thankful that the air-conditioning appeared to have started working again.

I noticed a speck on the horizon and as I drew closer, it was clear that it was some maniac walking along the side of the road. A white vehicle reached the man shortly before I did and stopped. As I passed them, I saw Border Patrol written on the side of the vehicle and an officer inviting the man (who was evidently of Mexican descent) to get in. It seemed strange that the Mexican, having made it over the border, had been following the sun back south to whence he’d just escaped. You would have thought that he’d at least have walked north when he came to the highway.

It was 2 pm according to my watch as I arrived in Douglas and there was nowhere appealing to stop for lunch, so I had a burger at a gas station and rang Adam, an old friend from university who now lived in Tucson with his wife Rebecca. I commented that it was bloody hot and he asked me what I had “bloody expected coming to the bloody desert in the bloody summer”. I told him that I expected to be with him around six, and set off for Tombstone.

It was a fun town. They’d preserved the Wild-West look very well with the raised wooden walkways and slatted shop-fronts. I paid my money to go into the OK Corral and the site of the notorious gunfight. On the patch of ground where the fight took place, waxwork models of the main protagonists were drawn up in lines facing each other. The sound of playground caps being fired rang out sporadically from some nearby speakers. In front of each waxwork was a wooden stake with the character’s name. I have to say I’ve seen scarier episodes of Blue Peter.

I found the Boot Hill Cemetery just up the hill on the way out of town. The entrance was via a gift shop, where a notice reminded you that you were about to step onto hallowed ground and that you should behave appropriately. I’m sure that it was a genuine burial ground and that the remains of the bodies were down there somewhere, but the white wooden “headstones” were slightly too freshly painted for authenticity. Still, willing suspension of disbelief was happily conceded at the sight of an epitaph reading “He was right, we was wrong, so we strung him up, and now he’s gone.”

From Tombstone, it was an easy drive up to Benson and on to the Interstate for about an hour to Tucson. This was still Interstate 10, the road I had first picked up south of Okefenokee at Macclenny FL and which stretched all the way to Los Angeles. The clock read 5.30 as I pulled into Adam’s driveway. He looked surprised to see me and said that Rebecca was going to be annoyed with him now, as he’d not done the vacuuming before I’d arrived.

It didn’t matter. They had one of the most exquisite homes that I’d seen. The main living room was a whitewashed atrium with huge windows overlooking the mountains and outside was a sizeable yard that was graveled over and planted with all sorts of exotic flora, including some cacti in full bloom. Adam cracked open a couple of beers and welcomed me to the desert. Earlier in the day it had reached 115°F, but it had now settled down to a balmy hundred.

With degrees from Oxford and Harvard already under his belt, Adam was now back at college training to be a lawyer. He came originally from Connecticut, but was delighted to have escaped the “pretentious wank of the east coast”. We went out to take the dogs for a walk and toss them some tennis balls on the dried out riverbed of the Rillito. The heat was still oppressive for me and, by the looks of things, for the dogs as well. Within ten minutes they were pooped, much to my relief, and so we made our way back home. Rebecca was at a meeting until about seven and would join us later, but Adam thought that we should go to this place he knew where we could get a good drink and watch the sun set. It seemed a bit desperate not to wait the fifteen minutes for her to get back, but I was more than happy to fall in with the plan.

Back at the house, I had a quick shower and changed out of my sweat-drenched clothes. As I was getting dressed, I heard a time check on the radio. It was an hour earlier than I thought it was. I called out to Adam, who confirmed that it was about ten to six. Arizona never changed its time, he explained, and so was synched in with California and not New Mexico during the months of daylight saving. Evidently I had arrived at their place at 4.30 pm.

We drove out to a very posh restaurant and soon were sipping prickly pear margaritas on the terrace. They were bright purple, and slipped down effortlessly. They were so good that we had to have a second one each. We might well have had a third, but Rebecca arrived looking rather stressed from the day. The place that Adam had in mind for dinner was called L’il Abner’s and way out of town in the country, but he promised the best steaks that I’d ever had. They were cooked on an open pit barbecue fuelled by mesquite, a wood that gave the meat a unique flavor. And they never cleaned the grill over the fire, which was supposed to add a taste all of its own. We arrived at the place and as soon as we stepped out of the car, the aroma from the fire swept deliciously through our nostrils.

The menu ran to four items: a cowgirl steak (1lb), a cowboy steak (2lb), a 12 oz fillet or half a rib-cage. I like steak a lot and have eaten a fair amount of it in my time but, despite becoming inured to the omnipresent American claims of superlative, I had to admit that Adam’s promise wasn’t far wide of the mark. They were keen for me to visit the restrooms and look inside the restaurant. It wasn’t at all like I would have imagined. While middle-class punters basked outside in the gentle glow of the fire, inside it was like a roughneck bar that was a temple to graffiti. When I returned outside, they told me that the joint reputedly had mafia connections. The story went that it was once taken over by the mob and then given to some lawyers in lieu of astronomical bills that could not be paid. The rumor continued that some counterfeit printing plates were supposed to be concealed somewhere within.

We must have been some distance from Tucson because we came back via the Interstate and turned off down the Miracle Mile, the aptly named drag around which the red light district was centred. We were back in the house by 10.15 and I was slightly surprised when Adam said fifteen minutes later that he needed to go to bed because it “was about the latest I’ve ever stayed up”. I assumed that he was talking about since living in Arizona, or I knew him to be a barefaced liar at that point.

I had a last cigarette outside and took in the silence of the city. A couple of joggers bobbled past on the track the other side of the wall at the bottom of the yard. I crept upstairs and joined the cat whose room I was sharing for the night. It purred contentedly as I gently shoved it aside and climbed beneath the sheets.