What’s in your normal daily routine?
My day started out with my head under a water spigot at a campsite in southern Arizona.
Some forty years ago, the winter had pushed me south. South from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Idaho to drier and warmer skies.
This journey began haphazardly. Starting, with all things, a visit to the local prosecutor’s office.
I was politely informed that all charges would be dropped against me “without prejudice,” meaning they could be refiled anytime within the statute of limitations period. In no uncertain terms, I was strongly encouraged to avoid even a traffic violation for the next three years. That would allow me to dodge four to fifty years in the state penitentiary. Not a place I was wanting to visit, much less inhabit.
While the words weren’t ever spoken, the meaning was clear – “get out of town.”
So, I loaded all of my possessions into the trunk of my car, said my goodbyes, and headed down to Houston on the promise of a job. 750 more miles under my belt. While that job never panned out, I did learn several tricks of living on the road.
I had made the mistake of closing out my home bank account and having the funds all placed in the form of a cashier’s check. I mean, any bank would accept a cashier’s check from another bank, right? Wrong.
Turns out, you can’t open a bank account without a local address. Regardless of what type of funds you have. Thus, the “Catch-22.” With no local address the bank wouldn’t cash my check or accept my check to open an account so I had no available cash. And without the cash, I couldn’t rent a place to get an address.
I was a neophyte to this road dog life. Time to get creative. What to do?
I drove down the road and mentally recorded some street names and numbers and drove up to bank number two. This time armed with a fictitious address (where an empty lot sat), a tiny bit of confidence, and a big Texas smile, I was able to open an account and deposit the money. I told them I’d be temporarily staying with relatives and would update them with a permanent address soon. No problem. I had money now. Not a lot, but enough to hold me over until a paycheck came rolling in.
But that didn’t exactly happen either.
That job promise from my friend never materialized. I did find another job, but pay was low and I had a Nazi for a boss. I lasted two days before I quit and told them where they could put their money.
Now I didn’t mind leaving this town. Houston was one of the most hellish cities one could possibly imagine, with a thousand new residents arriving daily, and construction and pollution every direction you’d direct your eyes. A ten-percent chance of rain meant it would rain at least ten-percent of the day, and the streets would all flood since the city sat, at best, fifty feet above sea level. Everything in my trunk got saturated and the salt-water rain coming in from the coast was rusting out my car’s body and underbelly. A drive on the freeway across town, only some 15 miles, would take an hour-and-a-half. Baking in your car. Stranded in a sea of exhaust fumes.
I swore you could make a living walking down the 610 Loop at rush-hour selling cold drinks and sandwiches. With traffic at a crawl, a person walking at a speed of three miles an hour would easily outpace the cars. But that, of course, would have been illegal.
And I didn’t want to be on anyone’s radar. 😊
Leaving now, I had to learn how to get my money back out of that bank account. And I was taking it out as cash this time.
Now, banks don’t like to give you all your money just in case you have an outstanding check floating around out there somewhere. Even though I produced my checkbook and showed them the unused checks. They let me take all but $100 that they would forward to me when a couple of weeks had passed. A hundred bucks was a lot to me back then, but this arrangement had to do.
I learned another trick later about this situation that would only cost me a buck. Stayed tuned.
So, I left the August heat of Texas and pointed my compass north. To Idaho. Another promise from another friend. “Come build me a buck and rail fence, and you’ll have a place to stay.” That “place” turned out to be an elevated log platform where I could pitch a tent. Right on the border of the National Forest.
Beautiful. The Tetons in the distance. And who could have better neighbors than the Elk, Bear, and Sage Grouse.
That worked great until the cold weather moved in. I wasn’t outfitted for that, so it was time to head south. Through Utah, looking for the Escalante River (Open Range – Revisited), then a stop at the Canyon (Torrent), on to Flagstaff (The Club 66 and Buds . . . At the Down-and-Outer), the Coconino National Forest (When Mountains Dance on Tiny Feet), and finally a push through to Tucson. Completing some 3500 miles. The return to K.C. later would bring this total up to 4700 miles forming sort of an infinity sign pattern on the map. The Mobius.
A lot of wear and tear on the old “recreational vehicle.”
By this point in time, I had acquired three sets of license plates and three valid driver’s licenses – Missouri, Texas, and Arizona. In those days, you didn’t have turn in the old ones when you established a new residence. (I still have the licenses – mementos).
Each day I got up and decided who I wanted to be and where from. 😊
Another survival-on-the-road trick. In Texas, you were able to take the driving test on a computer. This was a newfangled invention then. If you failed, you had to wait a certain number of days to re-take the exam. But their computer systems weren’t really able to track your attempts back then. I logged on one terminal not knowing anything about Texas driving laws, failed, but learned the correct answers. Then I just walked around the room, changed to a different terminal, retook the test – passed – driver’s license issued on the spot. Then I picked up a set of state plates for the car once I had the license and a state inspection in hand. 😊
But back to Az . . .
After a tour of Tucson, I drifted about 40 miles south and about the same distance north of the Mexican border. Beautiful country, and the perfect place to camp.
Sky Islands. Madera Canyon.
There is an incredible diversity of flora and fauna as you rise up out of the hot, arid desert floor, to the grassy high-desert chaparral, to the oak-pine woodland, and finally into the spruce-fir-aspen forests in the mountain peaks. Isolated biomes for the land-based critters, but also way stations for the migratory birds as they skip from peak to peak on their path back and forth across the Madrean Archipelago to their summer or winter roosts.
I settled into my own way station here at the base of Mount Wrightson. There was one designated campsite area that had water, and you could gather up dead wood for a cooking fire. It was sheltered, remote, and hardly anyone was around. Especially on the weekdays.
My days were filled with hiking the Old Baldy Trail, watching the Ravens, Scrub Jays, and a multitude of Hummingbirds, as well as cloud viewing (daydreaming) between the peaks. The nights shook you awake again with an incredible stellar display from that desert elevation. The Milky Way in all its glory.
I was sleeping comfortably in the back seat of the old Plymouth one night when there came a loud rapping on the window. As my foggy brain peered out into the darkness, I could clearly make out the shiny badge almost pressed to the glass. The Maricopa County Sheriff had wandered down into Santa Cruz County looking for a couple of missing hikers from the Phoenix area.
It was 2:00 a.m.
After the banging on the window, a voice blurted out, “Who are yeh?” I handed over the driver’s license that matched the license plates de jour. “Well you ain’t who I’m looking for!,” the rather robust man bellowed. And off he went. It looked like his huge stomach pulled him forward with each step he took.
That was a welcome response given the situation I had driven away from. I didn’t want anyone looking for me.
Each stop brings with it the chance to regroup. Check gear. Clean up. Calculate the days before you need more food and supplies. Figure out if you had anything left to pawn. And Madera was no exception. But this stop brought on a different sort of urgency.
It seems I’d gotten a bad batch of tires before I started this journey and I was driving on the steel belts of all four. I didn’t have many more miles to go on those. Worse yet, the gas tank had sprung a leak. But it was positional. If I parked with the front of the car pointed downhill, it leaked. If the front of the car was pointed uphill it was fine.
Time to get a job and get the necessary repairs.
So here I was, under that water spigot.
I awoke that fine morning in January determined to find work. The high temp was going to be in upper 50s or low 60s making the cold water from that spigot even more frigid, but this would be the closest I would get for a shower. And it was a heck of lot warmer close to the border than the frozen wonderland of Flagstaff.
I put on my cleanest set of dirty clothes and drove to town. Bought a newspaper and discovered there was a job opening at the local blood plasma donor center. I had worked at one in Kansas City as a phlebotomist before I left Missouri. Dark places these were.
I walked in and applied, was given an instant interview, and the manger asked me when I could start.
“Well, when would you like for me start?” “Today,” she replied.
“Well, I just drove into town. Don’t have a place to stay. Can I sleep out back in my car while I wait for my first paycheck?”
She agreed, and even offered that I could use the shower in the building to clean up. Two weeks later, paycheck in hand, I went to the bank. I used the plasma center’s address to open the account and then found a run-down hotel, The Hotel Glenwood. Amazingly this building is still intact, renovated, and now houses the offices of the Arizona Theater Company.
Back then, it was a rat-infested place. Paint peeling from the walls, floor boards rotting, a communal bathroom that was in total disrepair. Only one in three showers worked and there was but a single functioning light bulb in there at night. Going to the bathroom required carrying my .38 S&W. Just in case.
I had a grand view of the newest skyscraper in town – a bank. But in the distance sat the Catalina Mountains and Mount Lemmon, and what a beautiful backdrop that was.
The hotel wasn’t much of a shelter, but the manager was pretty lax about what you did there. Prostitutes mingled out front. Drugs deals went down out back. For me, what was important was that you could have a hot plate in the room to cook.
And I knew this would be temporary. As every destination was.
Plasma centers were reaping huge profits back then. The companies involved would pool the plasma to produce products like Factors VIII ad IX for hemophiliacs. We were told that each truck load of frozen plasma was worth a quarter of million, and that was 1970s dollars.
All of the drunks and addicts would show up to donate, and while there were screening protocols, they were easily thwarted and not strictly enforced. This would prove devastating to the hemophiliac community in just a few short years when HIV began contaminating these pooled blood products. But it was all about Big Pharma making the all mighty dollar.
I did my best to screen out the “undesirables.” Even so, you couldn’t help but empathize with the many sad tales from those having to sell their blood to survive.
I never reached that point in my wanderings, fortunately.
I stayed in Tucson through May. Daytime temps climbed ten degrees each month and were hitting over 100 degrees then. I had earned enough to buy a set of tires, fix the gas tank, eat well, and put a little more in the bank. And I only needed just enough to cover a final paycheck for my next trick.
I had $251 in my checking account on the day I was planning on leaving. My bi-weekly paycheck of $250 was just doled out, and I had given my notice. So, my first stop was at the teller’s window inside the bank. I cashed my paycheck, which they allowed, since there was enough money in the account to cover the check. I then got back in my Plymouth and went to the drive-through. A different teller allowed me to take $250 out of my account, leaving only a dollar behind. It had to be in the right sequence. 😊
Time to leave Tucson Blood and that dollar bill behind . . .
Postscript: The next time I saw Tucson, forty years had passed. The town had completely cycled from its tall, new, shiny high-rise, corporate center through total urban decay and then rebirth with inner-city revitalization. The population in the area had grown from some thirty or forty thousand to a million people! But the surrounding mountains and the desert remain largely unscarred. It was a joy returning with a whole different perspective. 🙂
Photos: The feature photo is one of mine from Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson. The second pic is obviously of a buck and rail fence that I found on the Internet in the public domain on Pinterest. I’m not sure of its exact location but that’s not the Tetons in the background. I like this pick because it shows clearly how they are constructed. The third pic, another of mine, is on the Old Badly Trail in Madera Canyon. I snapped this one just a couple of years ago when I revisited the area. The fourth is the old Glenwood Hotel – in much better condition than when I stayed there. I found this image on the Internet in the public domain on a website call the Tucson Daily Photo.