SCOURING THE DESERT FOR MISS KITTY

The desert does not care if you live or die. It is a brutal, unforgiving place where Mother Nature plays hardened Bitch Goddess to the hilt and the only law is survival. And when the sun is busy redefining "broil"--which is all the time--that's a law enforced in terms so basic that it borders on the obscene.

Everything in this hellish wasteland is calculated to bring about pain and horror, from the loathsome, poison-dripping predators that inhabit the place to the plants covered with razor-sharp spines that jump out at a man's legs as if shot from some primitive dart gun.

But my wife likes it out there, so that's where we went last Sunday for a relaxing afternoon getaway. She had it all planned out. We were going to see some ghost towns. We brought a gallon of water, beef jerky and the new Vogue. Out on Highway 89 we drove, past the relative civilization of Wickenburg, through a dot named Congress and onto a dirt road. On the map, this stretch looked like Rand McNally must have had the shakes when he drew it. But, no, Rand was actually quite accurate. He only left out a few large stones, some gaping potholes and a 20-foot-wide mud puddle. Luckily, my '86 Camry took to the terrain like one of those green, sticky toy things you throw at the wall and it sort of walks/rolls down in an awkward but steady fashion.

So, finally, we came to what used to be a bustling, lawless gold-mining town of 3,000 named Antelope Station, but is now a handful of trailers named Stanton. It costs 50 cents per night to park your rig there. I kept going. Down another dirt road to another ghost town, named Octave, and that other dirt road made the first one look like the autobahn. The Camry was rejecting it like a child's body rejects a baboon heart. We stopped and got out to take in the compelling desert scenery. I stood there gazing out at the mountains and the broad strokes of sand and sun; the only sound was the wind whistling in my ears. Get back in your little car and drive away while you still can, it whistled. Go to a video store and rent a movie, get a nice bottle of red and go home and play with your cats, for you do not belong in this brutal, unforgiving place where the only law is survival. . . .

I looked for my wife, but she was off examining the rusted, bullet-ridden hulk of what had been a fine automobile when Eisenhower was in the Oval Office. People probably had good times in it, listened to happy music as they tooled down great American highways. Then they drove it into the desert and left it to turn into another skeleton.

So, again, back down that dirt road we went, past Stanton and the holes and rocks, through the mud puddle, getting closer to actual trees with actual shade with every spine-crunching bump. And then we were in Congress again--pulled over in front of one of those "trading post" places you see with boxes of rocks, green-glass telephone-pole insulators and old copies of Arizona Highways out front flapping in the breeze.

The owner was dressed like Theodore Roosevelt. Waxed mustache, khaki shorts and shirt, pith helmet, little round glasses. He ran into a back room and came out with some false buck teeth to complete the effect. He told us that this was his day to "run around like Theodore Roosevelt." On other days, he said, he dressed up like an old-time railroad conductor and waved a lantern at the train as it passed.

Then, in the corner, underneath a table, I spied a stack of records. Thank you, Jesus! All I needed to do was find one even mildly interesting album and this whole trip would not be in vain; I could somehow squeeze an entire column out of this fairly mundane train of events.

And let me tell you--payday is more than a candy bar. It's making the ultimate score in the middle of nowhere. It's going from a worthless day in the sun to A Night at Kitty's!

My jaw dropped, and the bleak, pointless landscape of the Arizona desert melted away as I dug the cover of this album: There was Kitty--it had to be her--a feline jewel in a skintight red dress and a torpedo bra, sitting at her very own bar enjoying a cocktail. With a bottle of Black Label at her elbow! Meanwhile, Herbie Fields' Sextet was onstage laying down the blue notes; there was even some guy taping the jam off to the side. Probably the very guy who taped the album--think of that. Then I was giving a buck to Teddy Roosevelt. Then I was burning up blacktop. Then I was home with the needle descending on A Night at Kitty's. And then I was there, at Kitty's Show Bar in Columbus, Ohio, as Herbie and the boys swung into a particularly hot session. The kind of heat that has nothing to do with the desert.

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