GILA BENT HAS SUFFEREDLIKE JOB BUT WITH MORE COMPLAINING
Gila Bend is a stock-in-trade joke in Arizona. It is the kind of town summarized by dismissive epithets like Armpit, Bumfuck or Toilet Seat, as in, "I spent a week there one night." That rude description about where you would put the enema also applies.
Gila Bend is one of those places whose reputation not only precedes it, but overshadows it.
John Laird knows all this. He's heard all the jokes about Gila Bend because he is the human being who corresponds to the blue sign on the town's main street that reads "Arizona Tourist Information." Located in the city hall building, his enterprise is actually a combination museum, chamber of commerce and convenient public bathroom.
He knows that most of the people who turn up in Gila Bend are on their way to someplace more interesting. For Phoenix residents, that is usually San Diego. He knows that most of these people will know only one thing about his town. John Laird still manages to be pleasant even though he hears that same one thing many times every day: "We remembered that Gila Bend was the hottest spot in the nation and so we had to stop and see it."
Once satisfied that Gila Bend is indeed that hot place of their memories, visitors to the Tourist Information Center usually move on to more important topics: directions to Organ Pipe National Monument, Rocky Point or lunch. A few straggle into the adjacent Gila Bend Museum, a cool and quiet place in which to refresh the mind after the boredom of the road.
The small-town museum is the joy of the traveler whose tastes run to blue highways. Mobil Travel Guides list such places, usually noting collections of local specialties like Caddo pottery, antique farm equipment or a reconstructed sod house. The displays at such museums can be amazingly quirky, since they depend almost entirely on local folks donating their treasures, and so you'll find cases full of china elephants, or dolls, or just old junk acquired during someone's Army days in the Orient.
The Gila Bend Museum is a fine member of that genre. For people who have lived in Arizona for any length of time, it is also eye-opening and, in its own way, reproachful.
The museum is an expression of John Laird's love for Gila Bend, a love nurtured over rough years and fueled by a deep knowledge of his beloved. In his head, and in the old photos and news clippings he has accumulated, is gathered the history of the town he was born in and to which he has sworn an unswerving allegiance.
As a kid, John Laird would never bother to come home after school. He'd be out in the desert, looking for arrowheads or pottery shards.
As an adult, it was the same way. He and a buddy walked every mile of the Arizona stretch of the old Mormon Battalion Trail, which used to wind from St. Louis to San Diego after it was built in 1847. When the Paloma Ranch put into agriculture what had been raw desert in the late 1950s, John Laird personally located and explored a dozen Hohokam sites, finding old bone awls, projectile points and even unbroken pots amid the rubble of the walls.
He has had this enthusiasm all his life. Now in his 50s, Laird still has the vaguely Elvis-inspired pompadour of his youth, when he worked for the railroad. By early spring, his skin has turned mahogany brown from hours in the sun.
Every pottery shard, every stray 19th-century nail John Laird has kicked up from the desert sand cemented his bond to that land, and convinced him of the superiority of his town to all others on Earth, until now he is quite unreasonable on the subject.
He knows that newspapers used to dispatch reporters to Gila Bend on sweltering summer days to write about how hot it was. He knows that Gila Bend was called the Fan Belt Capital of the World, in tribute to the lively local custom of gouging motorists through unnecessary repairs.
But when fan-belt jokes are brought up, John Laird explains them away by saying, "I think it's jealousy." He does this without a trace of sarcasm in his voice.
John Laird probably would have grown to love anywhere he was born, because his personality would have led him to poke around the place to discover its history, and his affability would have led him to see the best in its characters.
But Gila Bend it was, and John Laird's love for his hometown is made manifest in the museum he oversees, and whose collection he owns most of. After a few minutes in the museum, a thoughtful visitor will begin to take an interest in Gila Bend, will begin to feel somewhat ashamed at the unkind remarks he or she may have passed about the town. A visitor might even begin to form plans to revisit the place.
@body:John Laird knows everything about Gila Bend, so of course he can tell you how you get to the site of the Oatman Massacre. Although it didn't take place in Gila Bend, the massacre site is very close. And the account of what happened to Olive Oatman is possibly the most interesting museum display, at least for people whose tastes incline to the childish and bloodthirsty.
In the wall display, Olive is wearing a very warm-looking 19th-century dress with a full skirt, a serious 19th-century expression and some extraordinary tattoos on her chin. The tattoos were acquired during Olive's captivity among the Mohave Indians, who considered them beautiful, and did not prevent her marriage to a gentleman named John B. Fairchild after regaining her freedom.
John Laird can also suggest that Ruben Conde, who runs the gas station down the road in Sentinel, can be prevailed upon for a lift to the Oatman site.
Ruben, who calls himself a desert rat, is happy for the opportunity to get out.
Ten miles over dirt roads from Sentinel with Ruben will bring you to a bluff overlooking the Gila River. Along the way, Ruben has checked for deer tracks, spotted a red-tailed hawk's nest and expounded upon why environmentalists are stupid. Ruben has the soul of a farmer; his grandfather came up from Mexico to homestead in the area, and so when he looks at the floodwaters in the Gila, he sees what could be irrigation water going to waste.
The road the Oatmans took in 1851 winds down from the top of the bluff, across the river flood plain now planted in cotton, and winds back up the bluff on the other side. Travelers had to unload their wagons going up, or the oxen couldn't pull them.
"See the grooves here from the wagons," Ruben says, and indeed the ruts worn by the wheels of 19th-century travelers are visible in the soft volcanic rock.
The Oatman family had just made the top of the bluff when it was accosted by Indians. "They threw him off here," says Ruben, pointing to the spot where young Lorenzo Oatman was tossed after being beaten. His parents and several siblings were killed, and his two sisters, Olive and Mary Ann, taken into captivity.
Mary Ann died, Lorenzo survived to free his sister, but what happened to Olive Oatman during her five years with two Indian tribes is one of those historical mysteries Old West buffs like to puzzle over. An account published by a rather strait-laced minister friend of Olive's insisted that the Indians had offered her no "unchaste abuse."
Rumors flourished, however, of a marriage to the chief's son and two half-breed children, and it was said that Olive's adopted Indian mother wept even as the tribe swapped her back to civilization for some beads and blankets. After regaining her freedom, Olive seems to have led a rather normal life--except for the tattoos--until she died in Texas in 1903.
One account, though, hints at some lingering difficulties. Her husband is said to have destroyed all the books relating to her captivity. Was it jealousy, as John Laird would say? Who knows what happy memories Olive Oatman hid from her husband, the people and the places she must have missed?
@body:Like Job, but with more complaining, Gila Bend has suffered.
The town started out as a camp for the Mormon Battalion building the trail, then became a stage stop along the Butterfield Line, then a terminal on the Southern Pacific Railroad. The town grew slowly as settlers drifted in, turning their attention first to cattle ranching and then to cotton farming. Its high point was probably in the early 1960s, when Gila Benders actually worried about growth.
Those were the days, old-timers will tell you--five all-night cafes, 24 gas stations, prosperity not around the corner but in your pocket.
Then the blows began to hit. I-8 was completed, so travelers from Tucson could zoom straight through the town without having the opportunity to have their fan belts checked. I-10 was completed between Blythe and Phoenix, so travelers from the east to California could finally bypass Gila Bend entirely.
The town began to wither, as Walled Lake Door cut back, Southern Pacific closed its switching yard, the feedlot shut down and Paloma Ranch laid off workers. Gila Bend seemed poised to fall from the vine entirely.
Duke Fox is still angry about this, although it took place a decade ago, and he still insists there was hanky-panky somewhere.
Gila Bend is a great place for conspiracy theories, because so much bad has happened to it. The proposed toll road that would replace the present hair-raising stretch of State Route 85 with a pay-per-drive four-lane has given rise to its own share of conspiracy theories, these fingering Casa Grande.
The thermometer conspiracy, however, involved Bullhead City. It all started in 1983, according to Irv Haynes, who's in charge of the Arizona and southern Nevada stations of the National Weather Service. That's when his predecessor discovered that the thermometer in Bullhead City was sitting on a cool patch of grass in front of the fire station. He told the firefighters to move the thermometer around to the back, so it could have natural desert vegetation beneath it.
Then Haynes came on the scene. His contribution to the controversy lay in replacing the old bulb thermometer Duke Fox had been using in Gila Bend at the Space Age Lodge with a new electronic one. If you sit in the lobby at the Space Age Lodge, you can read the temperatures on a scientific-looking digital apparatus much like the ones on exercise bicycles.
But the thermometer, as Duke will be only too happy to show you, is out around the back of the motel, amid a jumble of junk that includes an old Best Western sign and a couple of broken swamp coolers. Duke's theory is that the temperature becomes cooler as it travels all the way from the thermometer in the backyard to the digital display in the lobby, traveling as it does under the cool, overhanging eaves of the Space Age Lodge.
Irv Haynes very patiently explains that electrical impulses do not cool as they travel. They are not like water, he explains. He also explains that Bullhead City is hotter than Gila Bend because it is 200 feet lower in altitude. If Gila Bend were at a lower altitude, it, too, might be hotter. He suggests that Gila Bend might like to dig a big hole and put its thermometer at the bottom of it.
@body:If you're coming from San Diego, you arrive in Gila Bend after driving through the dullest stretch of highway ever built on the planet, I-8 east of Yuma. If you're coming from Phoenix, you arrive on State Route 85, after having endured 35 miles of tailgaters during the daytime, people who refuse to dim their goddamned brights at night, and merciless semitrucks no matter what time it is.
Almost everyone who has passed through Gila Bend has eaten at Duke Fox's Space Age Lodge, because the Fifties funkiness of the place has given it a certain reverse-snobbery cachet. There is, in fact, another restaurant in town, one that specializes in soul food. An elderly eyewitness recalls a visiting Southerner jumping up in joy after biting into the Green Tree Cafe's fried chicken, something that has probably never happened at the Space Age Lodge.
The Green Tree Cafe is run by Rebecca Williams, who is 77 years old, which explains why the restaurant is only open between 2 and 10 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, except if it's July or August, when it is closed altogether. Rebecca Williams needs her rest.
Her restaurant is located in what is generally known as "Mexican town," that part of Gila Bend located on the south side of the railroad tracks. From the outside, it looks like a shack. There aren't any windows. Inside are six stools at a counter, eight tables with oilcloth covers and five sweet-potato pies sitting on a counter, tempting you.
Rebecca sits behind the counter talking, because she's not officially open yet.
Her parents were agricultural workers who homesteaded land south of Gila Bend in 1929. They'd been working for an outfit in Bakersfield, and wanted a place they could call their own. They raised vegetables and chickens on their property, and after it was taken over for the Air Force base, her mother opened the Green Tree in 1944. "Black people couldn't eat downtown," Rebecca says. "They didn't used to let blacks stay on the north side after dark."
Rebecca got a wine-and-beer license for the same reason. She got tired of black men having to go around to the back door of the bar.
Before she discovered her true calling--feeding people--Rebecca picked cotton, and, rather than looking at that activity as a sign of the indignities her race had suffered, she sees it as a task that can be done well or sloppily.
"You should start from the bottom and work toward the top," she explains. "Get your hands just as full as you can get them before you go to your bag so you don't lose time. You should get at least a half a pound in two hands." She moves her hands, demonstrating the easy, skillful swing up through the white bolls and into the bag, free of wasted motion.
Even after she went to work as a cook, Rebecca would take a little time off from the kitchen and go out to the fields to pick. She loves the sight of those cotton bolls, white against the green, waiting for her.
If she could find someone with her energy, she might be able to slow down, but her standards for cooking are as exacting as her standards for cotton picking. You learn how to do it right, then do it that way. Rebecca remembers one young helper who complained it was too hot in the kitchen. "That's because there's a stove in here," she explained with some asperity.
Rebecca remembers who's been good to her, in a town where people will still drop the term "nigger" into casual conversation. Bud Posey, the car dealer. He was the first man to sell her a new car, and she's been buying new cars ever since.
And John Laird, who gives people directions to the Green Tree Cafe when they stop at the museum and ask about a place to eat. Turn south on Martin Street, drive a few blocks and keep a sharp eye on your left. It's diagonally across from Ben's Bar.
John Laird is allowed to call the owner of the Green Tree Cafe Aunt Rebecca. This all began a few years ago when John got into a wreck driving his ATV out on the desert and was put in the hospital in Phoenix. Rebecca came to see him. She had her niece with her. Somehow, things got all mixed up and the nurse on duty thought Rebecca was John's aunt, and let her in, even though only family members were to be admitted.
When John regained consciousness, the nurse said with some puzzlement, "I didn't know you had black people in your family."
@body:For its size, Gila Bend is an oddly complete little town. It has Anglo, Mexican and African-American cultures represented. It has a weekly newspaper, which prints the temperatures for the week on the front page. It has an auxiliary Air Force base. It has an Indian reservation, although only 400 people live at San Lucy Village north of town. It even has an Indian bar, according to a business directory and street guide distributed at the Tourist Information Center.
"Shelby's Pass Time Bar, Native American Bar," it reads with a forthrightness unusual in tourist literature. Chicken-scratch music is played there on the weekends.
San Lucy Village in an outpost of a larger whole, the Tohono O'odham Nation, and has a life parallel to Gila Bend's. There are points of intersection, however, such as occasional lunch-plus-bingo get-togethers at the Senior Citizens center.
Other Tohono O'odham Indians live in town, Gila Bend looking bigger and more promising of opportunity than many spots on the reservation.
Annie Antone's family, for instance, is from a place with the unlikely name of Charco 27. Annie's picture is featured prominently on the color brochure handed out at the Tourist Information Center John Laird oversees. She is shown with one of her baskets, which are outstanding. The baskets have won prizes at the Santa Fe Indian Market, and attracted the attention of a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, who invited Annie to be a guest artist there last November.
Annie learned basket-making from her mother, and the two of them still go out together to gather the yucca leaves and the bear grass from which they will fashion their wares. Annie only turns out half a dozen baskets a year, which immediately find buyers, even at prices up to $1,200.
She is inspired by almost anything. She'll put faces on the basket, or butterflies or flowers. She laughs when she shows you one design--it's copied after a Norwegian ski sweater! Others mimic ancient pottery designs. When she was in Washington, D.C., she spent hours in the National Gallery, staring at the sculptures by Rodin. "I kept thinking, 'I wonder if I could do this on a basket.'"
Annie Antone is a large woman with long, dark hair and an open manner. Her phone seems to ring constantly, so she weaves her baskets at night after she's packed her niece off to bed and it's quiet. "I'm labeled as a contemporary artist," she says, enunciating the term carefully although it clearly means nothing to her. Annie Antone shrugs off labels and doesn't have any great statements to make about the meaning of the Native American artist in today's society.
She admits, even, that she was starting to get bored with basket-making before she went to the Smithsonian. Then all those Rodins energized her.
"Johnny knew I was going to the Smithsonian," she says, "but very few people knew I was going. I didn't want to jinx myself."
On weekends, Annie Antone works at the museum when John Laird is off. If she wants to, she can go look at the collection of old Papago baskets that John Laird's great-grandmother received as gifts from the Indian women who helped her clean her house.
@body:With all the businesses cutting back and closing in the 1970s and 1980s, town leaders in Gila Bend cast around for something that would pull their town out of a slump. They settled, as so many towns do, on tourism.
It was an odd choice. Visitors are invariably disappointed at how small Gila Bend is--1,750 people--how little seems to be going on, how little even seems to be there. Gila Bend appears to be a town without a center or focus. Most of downtown, for instance, is devoted to five lanes of asphalt highway without either parking spaces or a stoplight. It's designed to roll people through, so you never see pedestrians or shoppers or clumps of people just chatting.
But from his wanderings out in the desert, John Laird knew that there were more than a dozen archaeological sites nearby, ruins left by the Hohokam. One, in fact, the Gatlin site, is named for his uncle.
This is proof that if things are happening in Gila Bend, John Laird can be counted on to be in the middle of them. He knows where seemingly everyone is at any moment, whether the person you're looking for is working at the gas station today or is on vacation in Texas. A surprising number of people seems to turn up at the Senior Citizens center, which supplies lunch to a great many people of note.
John Laird has also been on the city council. And, by the way, he's the man who fried the egg on the sidewalk. He did it for a National Enquirer story a number of years ago, when that sort of thing was still news. It takes about half an hour.
And when Gila Bend had its moment in the national sun in 1973 when Sarah Miles' manager committed suicide during the filming of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and Burt Reynolds was questioned by the police, John Laird was there. He'd been eating dinner every night with Burt Reynolds, to whom he refers as a "good friend." He even got to look at the dead body.
So John Laird has been in the thick of promoting tourism in Gila Bend, since the tourism campaign was largely designed to encourage people to go look at sites he discovered. Over the years, Laird and other town promoters commissioned a variety of economic projections on the tourism potential of the sites.
The projections showed there wasn't any.
This is not something that John Laird can easily understand, or that can be neatly incorporated into his sunny philosophy about the importance of his hometown.
His museum, however, is one concrete result of the tourism campaign. A vigorous town manager in the 1980s, Dick McComb, got the museum started.
McComb, now the town manager of Surprise, loves Gila Bend, and still shakes his head about the sad state of its economy. "If it had a golf course, I'd probably still be there," he says.
For some peculiar reason, a great many conversations in Gila Bend eventually work their way around to the need for a golf course. It is almost uncanny. Duke Fox talks about the golf course. John Laird has a wonderful story about a man who wanted to develop a golf course and ended up disappearing into Mexico instead, a couple of steps ahead of the law. Check into the Yucca Lodge, and the young East Indian woman who manages the place will tell you, "This town is going down and down. The retirees don't come here because there's no golf course."
Even people at the Air Force base talk about the lack of a golf course.
@body:Jim Keck is the kind of military commander who will invite you to sit in on his staff meeting if you happen to arrive early for an appointment. He can do this because, contrary to one's expectations, military secrets are not being discussed. An Air Force staff meeting is as boring as the ones you are forced to attend in your own place of business.
Jim Keck has been the squadron commander of Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field for about a year now. He loves it, but then Jim Keck is kind of like John Laird, in that he probably would love anyplace the Air Force sent him, because he would discover the good in it.
With the help of slides, Keck explains exactly what happens at his Air Force base. Things get blown up. Planes come down there to practice shooting at targets, either big bull's-eye targets suspended from a frame or simulations of enemy tanks and convoys fashioned from wood.
Keck and a whole collection of people, including the new head of security, the base chaplain and a visiting colonel, pile into trucks and go have a look at some F-16s shooting at bull's-eye targets. Along the way, the convoy passes the base's somewhat scruffy driving range, which is when the subject of the golf course is raised by the new head of security.
At the test area, the planes come zooming in at 600 miles per hour, shoot at the targets from an altitude of about 100 feet and then zoom away. It is all highly satisfying. The planes are a good deal less noisy than you would think, although the sound their guns make is an awful lot like the rude noises your mother told you not to make in public.
The "Auxiliary" in its name means that Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field is actually the offspring of Luke Air Force Base, an outpost of a larger whole much like San Lucy Village is an outpost of the Tohono O'odham Nation. It is a complete base, in miniature. Only 130 military people and 98 civilians work there, so it has the feel of a small town, existing in some universe parallel to Gila Bend.
After lunch at the dining facility, a postprandial stroll will bring you to the weather station, where Frank Fox and Bill Simons are standing around outside, looking like they're waiting for the weather to change. With the help of some maps, they can explain why Gila Bend gets so hot in the summer: It appears to have to do with the North Pacific Ridge, ocean currents and a thermal low that sits over the Colorado River.
More to the point, Frank and Bill have some information that might be encouraging to Duke Fox in his campaign against Bullhead City. They say they've measured temperatures at the base that are hotter than the ones in town. By a degree or two. Frank and Bill say they report these temperatures to the Air Force, and assume the Air Force reports them to the National Weather Service. They don't know why these higher temperatures have never been registered.
Possibly the Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field temperatures are cooling down on their way from the Air Force to the National Weather Service.
@body:John Laird owns most of what's in the museum he oversees, and that's nothing to sniff at, since the collection ranges from scorpions and Chinese opium boxes to Hohokam pottery and Papago baskets.
If John Laird doesn't own it, he can tell you who does. Bud Conrad lent those big Papago pots. He and John Laird used to go out to abandoned Papago villages and find them just hanging in the trees. The beaded Apache vest and the bow and arrow belong to Jack Carpenter. Someone else found that rifle and sword in an old line shack on the railroad.
One day after he closed the museum for the day at 4 p.m., Laird got his dog and went up to the site of the old stage stop, three miles north on the banks of the Gila River. He had his metal detector with him, and found an 1863 dime.
He talks about what it was like, the slanting rays of the sun going down, the quiet, the water, the mountains in the distance. "I've never seen the Gila River look so beautiful as it did yesterday," he says of a spot he's spent years visiting, and that he will never tire of.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.