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  • Writer's picturekaydee777

The Road To Gila Bend: getting to Arizona’s West Coast.

Updated: Mar 7

Made Nogales over night

Through the desert in the yellow light

Missing everything I left behind

Will they see me coming?

Do they know I'm running?

Got to Tucson in the dark

Keeping an eye out for the law

Five hundred miles or more from a broken heart

Can they see me coming?

Do they know I'm running?

It's a long, long way to Gila Bend

One silver dollar in my hand

Road twists and turns is there no end

When I get there I can lay my head

In Gila Bend

Saw a church along the way

A place to hide, to kneel and pray

Help me make it maybe one more day

Can they see me coming?

Do they know I'm running?

It's a long, long way to Gila Bend

One silver dollar in my hand

Road twists and turns is there no end

When I get there I can lay my head

In Gila Bend*

In January of this year I planned to go to Costa Rica then an airplane door flew off mid flight, a whole lot of airplanes in the USA were grounded, and I was offered a full refund cancellation of my flight. I took the refund and booked a campsite at Lake Havasu State Park on the Colorado River in Arizona. The official website shows beaches and palm trees.

Then an unusually Severe Winter Weather System (intentional caps) brought, amongst other disruptions, snow to areas in central and southern Arizona which seldom see snow, and devastating floods in California, even to the extent of making a lake of Death Valley. To avoid snow and ice on my planned road trip route, I moved my camping reservation on Arizona's west coast to late February. Note to self: don't plan January travel. If winter weather doesnt disrupt it, the end game of the capitalist experiment will.

I hadn't realized it when making plans, but the morning of my 4am departure, a beautiful full moon (sometimes called the Snow Moon) accompanied the first few hours of my westward journey. The sun rose blindingly into my rear view mirror. Traffic increased. Wheels rolled on the Interstate 10.

I chose a southerly route following the interstates 10, then 8 west, then AZ Hwy 95 north, to get to my campsite at River Island State Park (Lake Havasu was fully booked) on the Colorado river. My choice of route was partly because I wanted to see the geography of that part of the map, and partly to avoid big cities. Phoenix oh! you heat cursed sprawl of concrete in the most arid of places, I'm looking at you. Getting through Tucson was bad enough, what with the roads works deviations and fiendishly impatient, tailgating, speeding Arizonians in lifted, exhaust roaring black trucks sporting gun love bumper stickers. Compensation much? Cue Rasta beat and Bob Marley in my contrarian junk attic head.

I also wanted get to my first bivouac fairly quickly, in daylight at least.

Once I had put Tucson's roadworks mess behind me, and probably in the vicinity of Gila Bend, January's precipitation had left a legacy of colour. It was miles of delight with vivid greens, punctuated by blue lupine, yellow somethings (let's call them daisies but they might be Brittlebush - Encelia farinosa) and peachy scarlet globemallow. I had not expected to see blooming wildflowers so early in the season. This section of the Sonoran desert surprised pleasantly.

Ocotillos were decked out in a finery of fresh green leaf. Saguaro and Organ Pipe cactus dotted the landscape. That's how I knew I had left the Chihuahuan desert for the Sonoran.

Closer to Quartzite, however, the wildflowers gave way to the decrepit vehicles and campers of USA's new nomads: those who have given up on the American dream of home ownership and live permanently on the road. I had read about the sprawling opportunities for boondocking (not staying in developed campsites but dispersed on public land, fee free of course) around Quartzite in the 2017 book by Jessica Bruder Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty First Century This excellent work of investigative journalism was also the inspiration for Chloé Zhao's 2020 Oscar lauded movie Nomadland. The book and the film are quite different but equally impactful ways of presenting the same topic. I recommend reading the book before watching the film.

I might have been spoiled by the Gila Bend wildflowers, but the desert landscape littered with the shabby campers for miles around Quartzite exhuded out-of-options desperation. Unlike the author and the movie maker, I did not stop to engage with the survivors for whom this lifestyle is home, so I might be wrong or biased or prejudiced or something bad for thinking this isn't a good look on a landscape. I've seen slums and informal settlements in many countries. Quartzite qualifies, fluttering, faded and ragged Stars 'n Stripes, with the occasional Confederate flag notwithstanding.

I drove for miles pondering this odd desert slum phenomenon which also went on for miles. For as long as I can remember, I have been engaged with concepts of nomadism, the meaning of home and alternatives to western materialistic paradigms.

This specific American rootlessness does not seem (looking from the outside) at all like the deliberate Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out kind of alternative lifestyle choices of the Sixties and Seventies back to the land hippie movements.

It feels darker, sadder, tinged sometimes with something more sinister: Charles Manson and his dune buggy attack gang. I didn't want to stop. I ignored photo opp after photo opp. I didn't want to engage.

Bob Marley's One Love gave way to TS Eliot's Wasteland

"...What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning, striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust..."

I got to my campsite at River Island State Park under overcast skies but before dark. I had been up since 3am, was tired deep in my bones, and glad to stop driving. What I thought, from the park maps consulted online, was going to be the Colorado river bank where I had planned to put my tent, turned out to be manicured gravel. In this sunless place, I found that I cast no shadow.

I had seen fear in a handful of dust.

*The Road To Gila Bend (2006) is a song by the East Los Angeles rock group Los Lobos. They played on the lawn at the Fiesta Latina music festival hosted by the White House in October 2009.

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