Sunday, August 6, 2017

Diners, Dangers, and Deserts (Part One)

Those early days, the survival plan was all about diners and tourist traps. A pretty girl and a skilled line cook could land anywhere and have money in their pockets. Mrs. Weaver and I fit the bill. Where possible, I waited tables as well. I hate the grease. Unfortunately, many establishments had an ovarian requirement of their wait staff, so it was a good thing I had other talents.

Before corporatism took over the restaurant business, the family diner dominated the landscape of a country that traveled on it's stomach. Anywhere there was an exit ramp, this gastronomic icon of Americana thrived. Diners were both home and hearth to the fellowship of the road. Customers drift in, Employees drift through, nobody asks many questions beyond “Can you work weekends?” or “Can you cook eggs?”.

Watching all those episodes of “Alice” back in the 70's and 80's paid off. We had a real sitcom theme going for a while. Even our names, our earliest pseudonyms: Rob and Laura, were borrowed from The Dick Van Dyke Show.

We fit right in. Actually we were a bit clean cut and naïve in comparison. It all worked in our favor. We played the part of the hard working young couple, seeking their fortune in the big wide world. Our employers ate that shit up.

Mrs. Weaver (Laura) grew to hate it. Waitresses can get ugly, especially when you pocket more than they do. Real ugly. Its also very hard work with little reward. The upside is, wherever you land, there was a diner job waiting, and cash in your pocket that night. You never went hungry.

Casteneda said Don Juan taught him the lesson of losing his self importance by sending him to work at a diner under the guise of Jose Cordoba: Illegal Alien Dishwasher (and wife). Don Juan claimed that the most difficult adversary a man could encounter is that of the “Petty Tyrant”. I located what I believed to be Jose Cordoba's diner, and engaged his petty tyrant.

It was one of those periods when Laura had enough of the situation, and split to the Keys for a few months Her latest gig was waitressing at a diner called “The South Forty”. It was situated outside of Tucson, on the other side of the mountains, right at the base of Big Cat Mountain. I made pizza a half mile further out.

Before she left, we were living at a run down trailer park on the Benson Highway. A strip of 1950's Asphalt Americana dotted with motor lodges. It had seen better days. The kitsch was still visible beneath the dust. The motels had names like “The Lariat”, “The Desert Edge”, and “Sunbeam”. There was a ubiquitous “Wagon Wheel Tavern” where membership in the Sunday Bloody Mary Club earned you dollar drinks and a punch card for the tenth one free.

Our trailer was behind “The Acadia”. It was tucked into the corner of the lot behind the motel. Our nearest neighbors were a biker couple. He was rarely there, and she wore perpetual bikini and a dog collar with a leash that was just long enough to reach the clothesline that connected our trailers. I never knew her name. She wasn't allowed to speak.

They filmed some scenes for “Tin Cup” at a closed motel up the street, but it was a much more David Lynch-like atmosphere.

I had to sell the Plymouth to get Laura to the tropics and that meant I had to find a place to live closer to work. Her boss owned an empty four room motor court next to the restaurant that had never opened. Laura persuaded him to rent me a room, based on her promise to return and work for him. The place had no air conditioning, heat, or ventilation of any kind. The windows would not even open.

Did I mention it was early June in the Desert? And this was my first summer. As the temperature climbed over 110, I needed some respite. The box fan I put in the doorway helped little. I purchased a wading pool and moved the bed against the wall to make room.

I worked the dinner shift at the Italian joint. It was a half mile walk north through some of the most beautiful desert there is. Tucson was east, on the other side of the Mountains. A half mile south was the old Ajo highway and a small market. To the west lay open desert, nearly to California. North was Saguaro National Monument, Old Tucson Movie Studios, and the Sonoran Desert Museum. All three were easily reached by foot or bicycle. I passed my days climbing the mountains, wandering the desert, exploring old mine sites and visiting with the wildlife.

I saw my first mountain lion and my first bobcat. The lion did not worry me, but the bobcat stalked me. (I've posted those stories earlier). The scariest hike I had occurred on a well traveled highway. It was late at night, after work, and I walked down to the all night market on Ajo for a soda. There was no moon, just the light from the stars. I passed dozens of dead juvenile snakes, squashed in the road. Some were partially mashed on the blacktop and writhing. I was in the middle of them before I noticed the extent. Bending down with my lighter as my only illumination, I saw they were baby Diamondbacks. I had wandered into a minefield of poisonous reptiles. I was lucky to not have cut off trail through the desert as I usually did when the moon was out.

I climbed all the peaks from Big Cat Mountain to Star Pass. The northernmost, and one of the highest, is Called San Francisco mountain, not to be confused with San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff. It would turn out to be my last stupid scary free climb.

I approached from the southeast, and had an easy hike up the lower talus to the shelves and ledges that would take me near the top. There was a higher talus slope, made up of gravel the size you would see in a driveway, that I had to cross before making the final ascent of a hundred yards or so. From the desert below, I had misjudged the angle of the incline making up this bed of stone, and when I reached it, it appeared uncrossable. It was only a couple of dozen yards across, but at nearly a vertical pitch. Even crawling across it created enough force to slide me down several yards in a small avalanche. I lay sprawled, arms and legs wide, clinging to the loose rock. Even lifting my head caused a shift in pressure that threatened to take me down and over the edge.

I stayed there, motionless for a long time. It could have been minutes or it could have been hours. I was clean in the middle of the gravel and about twenty feet from skidding down and over a five hundred foot drop. I slithered, ever so slowly, like a GI Joe action figure. With each movement, I dropped a few inches. I was shaking and slick with sweat and thinking I finally met my match and not so surprised at all.

I made it across to solid ground, but wasn't out of the woods yet. There really wasn't anywhere to go. I had cliffs dropping off on three sides and the gravel to my rear. I sat and caught my breath and smoked a few one hits to gather my wits and figure out how to get down. The weed helped me realize that there was no way down, my only hope was to go up and over and find another way.

Up was a hundred yards vertical, with crevices, but no steps or ledges. Over was a mystery, I didn't know what the back of the mountain looked like. Mentally, I picked out a route where, wedging my arms in the cracks, I should theoretically be able to walk up the face of the rock. I learned that trick years before, and used it once or twice, but my confidence was shaken and that's not a good way to go into a free climb.

I smoked the rest of my weed and ate my lunch. I drank as much of my water as I could and poured the rest out to lighten my pack and reconcile my center of gravity. Up and over I went. My forearms were bloody and abraded. The view was completely spectacular. I am sure that damn few people have been stupid enough to see it. The backside proved as difficult as the front. There were two places where I had to hang and drop a few feet onto unproven ledges. In the end, I was faced with another talus slope, but this one was slightly larger stone and ended not in a cliff but on the glorious, flat, safety of the desert floor.

I knew how to handle this. A friend and I developed a technique up in Colorado, and sought out such slopes for the thrill. I leaped into the scree, causing a small avalanche that began carrying down the side of the mountain. After a few feet, the sliding rock threatened to overwhelm so I jumped up and to the side, out of the path of the slide I created and beginning another one. By repeating this move, its possible to “ski” down a dry desert mountain. It's both important not to let your feet get covered by the stones, and to jump wide enough from the slide so as to not increase it to something too large to control. It's all in the timing.

I made it down, with just minor scrapes, and stuck to the lowlands for a while.