Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, but you can if you manage it properly. Growing up an Army Brat, I lived all over the US and in Europe. But one of my favorite places was Tucson Arizona. We moved there just at the point before I outgrew my fascination with the Wild West. In the late Sixties, you could still gorge on a steady diet of cowboy TV — everything from Gunsmoke to Bat Masterson, Bonanza, and Have Gun Will Travel. Although television was turning more toward outer space themes, even Star Trek had an episode where the crew fought the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The Wonderful World of Disney was still rerunning the Davey Crockett miniseries and every self-respecting kid had a toy holster and pair of cowboy boots. I was wild for the Wild West, and when we hit Tucson, the town wasn’t that far removed from its origin as a cowtown and stagecoach stop that once played second fiddle to the more exciting Tombstone.
Several of the kids I went to school with bragged that their grandfathers and great grandfathers had been deputies or rustlers (and were equally proud of relatives on both sides of the law.) It was still not uncommon to see someone riding down the street on a horse, and men tended to wear cowboy hats and bolo ties while greeting women with “Howdy, Ma’am.” The kids at my school were a wonderful mix of Tucson’s heritage. There were Latino kids, Tohono O’odham kids from the reservation, ranchers’ kids, even a few Mormon kids from a polygamist compound that had been raided. (Although I didn’t learn until years later why we suddenly had an influx of girls in prairie dresses and long braids in our school.) Everyone got along. Of course, now Arizona’s politics are much different and darker. But, at the time, having come from a segregated-in-all-but-name Southern school, I thought Tucson was wonderfully exotic. I traded my peanut butter sandwiches for the Tamales my friend’s abuela made and learned to love Native fry bread. And I went to places like Tombstone, the Old Tucson movie village, and Wild West forts and homesteads that were still standing.
Tucson even had the modern day equivalent of a bordello district. It was called Miracle Mile and was developed in the late 40s as a strip of neon bedecked motels and restaurants to entice the cross-country traveler into entering Tucson to spend a few bucks. By the time I showed up, it had degenerated into a boulevard of strip clubs, liquor stores, honky tonks, and dive bars. Some intrepid parents would drive us kids down Miracle Mile at night to see the neon, but nobody ever stopped. In fact, none of us kids knew of anyone who had ever gotten out of the car on Miracle Mile, but we surmised that anyone who did was a thoroughly dangerous type. I’d heard that the city fathers were so embarrassed by this blight that they’d cleaned it up and renamed it Oracle Drive. I saw the turnoff to it as I drove into Tucson, but wisely chose not to explore. I wanted to remember it as the dangerous place, I’d never really seen.
Another place I wisely left unvisited was our old apartment complex. My brother, who has a trove of letters my Dad wrote from Viet Nam, found our old address. I decided to keep my memories of a great faux Adobe complex with a huge courtyard where we all rode our bikes. I also remember being fascinated that the main road was slightly U-shaped. My Tucson friends told me that was to channel the waters of the summer monsoons. Someone’s much older brother had once, during a particularly massive storm, rowed a boat down the center of the road.
I do have a vivid memory of how we ended up at those particular apartments. My mother, even to this day, believes that the correct price for anything is what one would have paid back in 1938. She’d figured out her price and was driving the real estate agent crazy demanding a safe neighborhood with nearby elementary schools, parks, good shopping, all with a pre-WWII price tag. In frustration, the real estate agent finally took us to Tucson’s worst Barrio — a patch of adobe huts with no glass in the windows and chickens and goats running loose. She told my mother, this is what she could get in that price range. Which is how we ended up on Country Club drive in the tony Catalina foothills. Presumably for contemporary prices.
Anyway, in my quest for revisiting a favorite part of my youth, but not being too disappointed, I headed for places I was pretty sure would still impress.
First and foremost was the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, an innovative outside living museum covering the biospheres, plants and animals of the area. It’s clearly been expanded and was much better than I even remembered. It was also conveniently located in the extensive Tucson Mountain Park, a huge swath of preserved landscape of Saguaro, Ocotillo and Sagebrush. The park is on the other side of the mountains from the city of Tucson, so it gave me dark skies for stars and the lunar eclipse.
The Old Tucson movie set, which is also in the park, was closed, but I probably would have skipped it anyway, as I did Tombstone later. I walked the OK Corral as an Elementary School kid. Doing it today wouldn’t have compared. However, I did want a taste of kitschy cowboy experience. So I headed to dinner at our favorite restaurant back in the day. Tucson is not exactly a foodie Mecca. Even the Mexican food — unless you know where to go (which I didn’t) is pretty Anglicized and covered with yellow cheese (which real Mexican food never is). Your best bet is always a steakhouse. When I was a kid, that was Pinnacle Peaks, where every family ate. It was set in a kitschy Old West town, complete with a real miniature train, staged gunfights on weekends, and sometimes actors wandering around dressed as gunslingers and saloon gals. For my brother and me, one of the best things about Pinnacle Peaks is that they didn’t allow neckties. If you wore one, the staff would come out banging pots and pans, cut it off, and hang it on the wall. While ties were common wear back when I was a kid, I bet it’s been decades since Pinnacle Peak’s staff has cut off a tie. But there they all were lining the walls.
The other cool thing about Pinnacle Peaks was that all the wait staff dressed as cowboys and had famous cowboy names. The kitchen would call out: “Belle Starr, your dessert order for #4 is up. Billy the Kid, entrees for table # 12 are up.” My young waiter was Josey Wales and even bore a passing resemblance. And the food? Surprisingly good. The mesquite grilled steaks were excellent and the Charro Beans (from a 60 year old family recipe) were fantastic.
However, my trip through memory lane was not completed even as I left Tucson the next morning. Anyone who’s ever traveled the I-10 between Tucson and New Mexico probably knows of the roadside attraction known as The Thing. For at least 50 miles in each direction, large yellow billboards every mile tell you that The Thing is just up at Exit 366 and can’t be missed. My father was a big proponent of “making good time” on a roadtrip, but my brother and I begging to see The Thing for dozens of miles must have worn him down. We stopped and viewed the exhibit that was heavy on morbid things like Hitler’s staff car and the Bonnie and Clyde death car. Then, you were ushered into a darkened room where you saw The Thing and were sworn to secrecy.
Once I saw the billboards, I knew I had to go. In the extensive gift shop, I chatted with the two elderly cashiers — one of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Leon Russell, complete with top hat. I told them I’d seen The Thing way back when I was a kid, but had only a hazy recollection of what it was. They excitedly told me that the whole exhibit had been completely upgraded and that I would love it.
They were NOT kidding. The gist of the new exhibit is a walk through the history of the Earth from dinosaurs to the present day, with the spin that most of the key historical events were the result of two tribes of visiting aliens, the benevolent Ammattria and the evil Mylzerath. First these two races battled it out causing the extinction of the dinosaurs and a changed climate. Then the Mylzerath took off, leaving the Ammattria to manipulate human development and history. That includes helping Egyptians and Aztecs build their pyramids, bringing about the rise and fall of empires, and putting their thumbs on the scales for the Allies in World War II. Throughout this time, a few human leaders have been contacted and privy to the work of the Ammattria, who spent most of their time controlling things from underground caves. But of course, leaders like the Founding Fathers and Winston Churchill covered it all up. Occasionally, the evil Mylzerath would show up again and cause some catastrophe like Krakatoa, but largely, our progress has been guided by the benevolent aliens. I don’t know the works of L. Ron Hubbard enough to say this is out of some of his sci-fi novels, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Which brings me to The Thing. I can tell the secret, because apparently now there is no secrecy oath and you can take pictures. But if you want to remain in denial, stop now.
The Thing, when I was a kid, was billed as a mysterious mummy that a prospector stumbled over in a nearby cave. I didn’t examine it too closely as I was freaked out that I was possibly looking at a dead person. Now The Thing has a decidedly alien head, although it does look kind of ape-like. It’s also holding a child, which may or may not have been there back then. I was kind of freaked out again at The Thing, but for different reasons. If the mummy is a long-dead Native American, it should be given a proper burial. But I suspect it’s a latter day Feegee Mermaid, probably a gauze-wrapped mannequin with an ape head attached. It is is certainly way too tall for an ancient Indian, looking to be well over six feet.
Well, for thrills and chills at the low price of $5.00, it was well worth the journey. I might add, that for the traveler, there are extremely clean restrooms and an excellent gift shop.
Having concluded my walk through childhood, I pressed on to the Chiricahua National Monument, where I’ll stay for two nights in the famous mountain stronghold of the Chiricahua Apaches. I won’t need to worry about Gila monsters up here, but there are bear boxes and warning signs everywhere.
And then there are possible aliens…