The Sunset Set

Tending an interstate rest area has its perks -- people usually aren't among them

Tonight, Interstate 17's passenger destinations emerge as scattered and random as the star-crammed sky. At any moment, car license plates lit by tiny bulbs reveal such far off lands as Washington, British Columbia and Mexico.

Melancholy drivers trying to escape the only life they are ever going to have sit inertly behind wheels, their blank faces sporadically illuminated by headlights moving in the opposite direction.

Happy-headed others follow their own headlights to big, full-of-promise changes that happen only once or twice in a lifetime--promises as big as the lumbering, red-and-yellow spangled trucks they speed around on the inclines.

Some take their romantic, lost-love cues from a maudlin country tune on Lubbock radio as the West stretches in front of them, as full of possibility as a new lover.

Ones who are drunk and forgotten are heading for yet another lost weekend somewhere down the road, the white and yellow strips of lines rushing beneath their cars like crazy Morse code.

Near ghost towns Crown King and Bumble Bee, the Sunset Point Rest Area sits along I-17 atop a lovely bluff, cresting a climb 10 miles north of Black Canyon City. It is here where this interstate's perpetual cross section of travelers intersects to eat vended food, sleep, piss or whatever.

Sunset Point is a place where only the exterior of slate-stoned rest rooms stays the same--a footnote to unceasing movement, a restive memory on some long-winded journey.

A man scolds a young girl for taking too long to get out of the back seat; an older woman exits the rest room and moves quickly to the side of her husband as if danger lurks everywhere; drowsy mothers with shocked-looking children hurry toward the toilets.

An intermittent moon and a massive star collection glitter between slow-moving clouds. The charcoal of the Bradshaw mountains meets the darkness of the sky and forms a thin, immaculate dark line of the horizon.

To the south, Phoenix glows in some indistinct distance; even from 50 miles, its shimmering presence sours the horizon. One hundred miles north, on top of this thick, ominous blackness, Flagstaff sits at Interstate 17's end, 6,900 feet in elevation--Arizona's nearest city to heaven.

Terry and Laura Duncan are Sunset Point's on-site caretakers, one set of a handful of such employees who tend some of the state's highway rest stops. They live on the premises, in a two-bedroom house off to the side. The couple maintains the property and takes on the daily remedial chores, cleaning up after the inconsiderate and tactless who pass through.

"When people come in and tear things up, I am the one who has to fix it," Terry Duncan, 50, says. "I mean, the things people do in bathrooms, you wouldn't believe. I mean, people will take their poop and graffiti the walls with it. And they'll poop all over the floors. Oh, yeah, people do crazy things. They've even pooped in the urinals. It gets disgusting."

Duncan's shaggy voice, medium build and thick, silvery coiffure conjures an approachable Waylon Jennings.

"It's disgusting, really. They'll go in and beat the urinal off the wall and smash it to pieces. And smash the toilet. They destroy the hand dryers. They steal the men's room signs off the door."

A broken hand dryer sends a $450 bill to the taxpayer. A urinal soaks up less, around $350.

"One time, my wife went in to clean the women's bathroom and she said, 'Honey, you are gonna have to come in here and clean this up. I can't clean this up, I'll throw up.'"

Before the nation's interstates, these denizens of Sunset Point might have crossed paths on a train. Dining- and lounge-car conversations would have sparked friendships and lifelong relationships. Now, in cars, introductions aren't made; words are seldom exchanged; people avoid each other.

At Sunset Point, strangers exist as brief, silent glimpses, before they ease their self-contained lives into a stream of traffic, bound north and south.

Others' personal shortcomings are manifest in odd, irrational ways.
"I mean, they come and drill holes in the men's room partitions with cordless drills so they can peek from one stall to the next," Duncan says. "We just spent $900 replacing all the partitions in the men's room 'cause we had holes that were probably three inches around. They'll drill the holes and they'll bring tools in and work at a hole and keep making it bigger and bigger. They drill the holes so they can sit on one toilet and peek at the other guy on the other toilet. Or whatever else."

During his three-and-one-half-year stint as Sunset Point caretaker Duncan has regrettably dealt with fires born of careless cigarette tosses, a suicide, a suicide attempt, and, of course, a murder victim.

"We are in the middle of nowhere, and you never know what is going to happen. The winter before last we found a woman's body buried under some rocks. Nowadays people are getting wackier and wackier. And a rest area gets every walk of life.

"One truck driver, a big guy, maybe six-five, six-six, just a monster, smashed in a vending machine for 80 cents worth of candy. He tore up a $3,000 machine for a little candy. He told me, 'F you,' and he gets in his 18-wheeler and drives off. So I let him go; he was big dude, nothin' I could do. I wrote down the company name from his truck and its license number and called the sheriff. They arrested him in Camp Verde. They impounded his truck and threw him in jail for an 80-cent candy bar! So I doubt very much the man had a job anymore.

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