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It's Official: Arizona Is Hell

I live in a state where the official bird, the cactus wren, refuses to live in half the landscape.

The official tree, the paloverde, appears leafless.
The official necktie, the string bola, is so goofy most wives won't let their husbands appear in one.

Of the 400 richest people in America, not one chooses to live in Arizona. Dusty New Mexico, by contrast, has managed to attract one example of the super-rich, while barren Nevada has attracted five.

The town I live in, Tucson, is decorated by two grand statues to shady historical characters--one, a killer and a bigamist and the only general ever to invade U.S. territory (Pancho Villa), and the other, a Jesuit S&M freak (Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, who, while colonizing the desert for Spain, did penance by whipping himself).

So perhaps it's only fitting that, of all the fifty states, Arizona contains the most hells.

This official word comes from the U.S. Geological Survey, which has painstakingly compiled a voluminous gazetteer listing the names of every geographical feature in the country.

In case anyone asks, Arizona contains 55 hells of wide variety.
We nudge out our closest competitors in this regard, Utah (46 hells) and California (which has enough Death Valley-style territory to come in at 45 hells).

Our Arizona hells go all the way from Hell Hole Valley to Helldive Spring to Hellgate Mountain.

We've got four Hell Canyons, two Hell's Gates, no less than five Hell's Half Acres and a Hell's Half Acre Canyon.

Not to mention the valley in Maricopa County known fondly as Hell's Hip Pocket.

It seems like everywhere you step there's a Hell's Hole--the total is seven--spaced around in Greenlee, Apache, Yavapai, Mohave, and Gila Counties.

We can also boast of a pair of Hell's Hole Canyons, a Hell's Hole Creek and--in a geographical inversion I'd like to see--a Hell's Hole Peak.

Now that I've brought this up, no doubt people will be zipping around Arizona, visiting all the hells. The type A's will be fired up for a new all-consuming recreation. In other states like Colorado, they have peak-baggers, who climb to the top of all the highest mountains for glory and scenery. Down here, it's more like hell-bagging.

I can imagine the panorama up in Yavapai County from Hell Point at sunset--or perhaps a pounding high noon in late June would be the time to check out Hell Point. Summer before the cooling rains would be the high season for true hell-baggers.

In the dead of next summer, maybe I'll mosey over to Gila County to hike up Hell's Neck Ridge, and stop in Coconino County to sip the nectar at Hell's Uncle Tank.

I'd like to lie down on the banks of Hellzapoppin Creek--though, come to think of it, the banks might be rocky and choked with thorny bushes and aslither with lizards and poisonous serpents.

Once I ticked off all the hells in Arizona, I could start on the devils. Devil's Bathtub in Pima County, Devil's Bridge in Yavapai, and in Santa Cruz County, I'd keep my eyes open for any glitter while climbing the ridge known as the Devil's Cash Box.

Devil's Hump, Devil's Chair, Devil's Chasm, Devil's Windpipe, Devil's Slide Rapids--I'd be busy, all right.

Then we get into the Diablo Canyons and Diablito Mountains.
It's a question of where you draw the line.

We've got four Hell Canyons, two Hell's Gates, no less than five Hell's Half Acres and a Hell's Half Acre Canyon.

TURK THE TURD IN THE TOWN TOO TOUGH TO DIE
Gayle Bell is trying to maneuver his stagecoach out of the way of the approaching monster tour bus from Las Vegas.

Bell snaps his frayed packaging-twine whip and commands, "Get on! Get on!" to the bored-looking team in the traces--the chestnut horse named Comet and the big, black mule he calls Turk the Turd.

Roaring down on the stagecoach, the tour bus hogs most of narrow and allegedly historic Allen Street in Tombstone. At the last instant, shaking the reins and cursing, Bell coaxes Comet and Turk the Turd between the bus and the shiny sedans lining the curb by the frozen yogurt shop.

Comet lifts her tail and drops a pungent load on the pavement. Bell motions for one of his boys to clean it up.

"You wandering bastards," Bell yells a while later, yanking the team to a halt as the street is blocked by a backing-up station wagon, South Carolina plates. "They back right into you, you give 'em a chance," he mutters.

It's a headache, operating a stagecoach in modern Arizona--even in Tombstone, the quintessential tourist town that's desperately fixated on a flash of frontier history.

 

The real Tombstone, the booms from silver mining and the shoot-out between the gangs led by Ike Clanton and the sainted Wyatt Earp, lasted only a couple of years and ended more than a century ago. Since then, everything in the town has been a faint echo.

Bell is thumbing his little Radio Shack mike, giving his canned spiel over the stagecoach's P.A. system, in a curiously flat, sing-song drawl: " . . . On our right is the OK Corral, site of the famous gunfight, go in and see where they walked and where they fell . . . A whiskey barrel exploded and the town burned down in 1881 . . . Doc Holliday wasn't much of a dentist, he pulled more triggers than he did teeth . . . "

Just to lug tourists around a one-mile circuit in the worn plywood and dimension-lumber coach he built, Bell's got to take out liability insurance worth $1 million.

He's got to make sure all the horse and mule droppings are whisked off the streets before they become a little too authentic for the tourists.

He's got to deal with Turk the Turd (named for his personality) and a chronic shortage of customers willing to pay three bucks to travel anywhere by homemade stagecoach.

He's got to compete against the rows of beckoning tee shirt and gewgaw shops and the hyped OK Corral, where tourists can slap leather against a life-size robot gunfighter and snap photos of the mean-eyed, fiber-glass statues of the Earps et al.

"Oh, shit, some days I make a little money and some days I go backwards," Bell drawls. This much is real: the drawl, the wide-brimmed black Stetson, his face and thick hands resembling the cracking leather reins. Bell was raised on ranches, working horses one way or another all his life. When he turned fifty last fall, he swung onto a bucking bronc and rode it down. To prove he could still do it.

But at fifty, options are disappearing, and just as Tombstone is a tourist trap, Bell seems trapped atop his stagecoach, where he's been averaging 8,000 miles a year for eight years without getting anywhere, doing the same circuit, the same spiel, over and over and over again.

Sometimes there are excitements that hark back to the old days. Once a cement truck spooked the horses into a runaway, and the coach careened through town and rumbled along the shop boardwalks, bumping Bell off while crashing into cars, a pickup truck and a power pole. Bell's still paying on that one, and had to get the insurance to stay in business.

Of course, the tourist couple from Powanda, Pennsylvania, who were aboard for the wild ride later wrote to say it had been the highlight of their trip west.

Then there was the time a competing stagecoach company from El Paso wanted to horn in and go head-to-head against Bell. The Texas company had an uptown image, with turn signals on its stagecoach and diapers on the horses, and after some heated town meetings, the citizens of Tombstone rallied behind Bell.

Most days are slow, the same-old same-old.
"I got nothing to do," Bell says softly, hiding the words with a hand to his mouth, "but sit here and grind out the miles."

This morning Bell sits in his stagecoach parking place between the bright streamers of little plastic flags in front of Johnny Ringo's Saloon, with the somnambulistic Comet and Turk the Turd for company, for two hours before anyone asks for a ride.

As the day wears on, business picks up some, mostly women and kids and oldsters, but the cowboy boot nailed to the coach, scrawled with the pitch for tips for the driver, remains empty.

"This week we've had a lot of ten- and twenty-dollar days," Bell says. "Can't pay your insurance and feed your horses on that. If a guy could hit a steady roll, he'd be all right."

Hurling orders and expletives and cracking his jokelike whip behind the plodding team, for the umpteenth time Bell rolls past the old courthouse, past the retired boarding houses and the tin-roofed residence once occupied by Texas John Slaughter, where the yard has been renovated with a trickling fountain, and floating prominently on it, a bright yellow toy duck.

"One of the toughest marshals to ever hit the Southwest," Bell recites into the mike on each pass by Texas John's place and the in-your-face toy duck.

Bell stops at the corner so Comet can hose the pavement for a loud 30, 45, 60 seconds. "That mule needs to take a leak, too. But he won't," Bell confides. He gets the team going again. "Goddamnit! Get on! Get on!"

 

A pip-squeak dog darts out of a yard, barking loudly, snapping at Comet and Turk the Turd, all bluff. Strolling strangers aim their cameras up and snap Bell riding atop his coach. Local kids press against their fences and screen doors to watch him go by.

After five or six circuits and the relaxing sound of the clopping horseshoes, somehow, it turns into a dream.

But at fifty, options are disappearing, and just as Tombstone is a tourist trap, Bell seems trapped atop his stagecoach.

A PLAYGROUND FOR OLD HIPPIES AND RIVER RATS Bill Elwanger the river rat is rowing us down the Colorado River, deep inside the Grand Canyon.

His bare feet, darkly tanned, stick out below his baggy jeans, and he's topped off with a satirical office-worker shirt, untucked and unbuttoned to his belly.

His hair looks hung over. His beard pokes out raggedly. He's embellished with a little gold hoop earring. His nose and his grin are as crooked as his toes and his gaze is half-lidded.

"Nancy," he says to the woman riding in the rowboat's front seat. "Hand me another river map, would you please?"

Nancy hesitates, sighs, reaches into a net bag slung on the bow and fishes out another can of beer. She hands it back to Elwanger. He crumples his empty and trades it for the full one.

"Thank you, Nancy." He leans on the idle oars and pops the beer and begins to swig it.

It is nine in the morning and we're going down one of the world's megarivers guided by this polite combination of Huck Finn and Spuds MacKenzie and the infamous antislavery radical John Brown.

"This river is a playground for old hippies," Elwanger says. "One of the last frontiers where we're still allowed to exist and multiply."

Close around us the rock walls rise. We're in the Marble Canyon stretch, where the rock is the red of a sunburn and smoothly elegant. "I'm just a 37-year-old kid," Elwanger says. He downs the beer, crumples the can, pulls a few strokes on the oars, finding the current so it can do the work. Then he says, "Nancy? Another river map, please."

She sighs and gets busy.
In three inflatable rafts and a dory (the rowboat), a small crowd of us passengers and guides row and drift the length of the canyon, 220 miles, fifty-plus rapids--two weeks with no news, no phone, no deadlines, no TV, no floors, no walls, no ceiling except the sky, no reality except the rock and the water.

Some of the passengers worry about the hazards, but I never do. We wear life jackets. The worriers are people who rarely get out into what's left of the wilderness. The river and the canyon seem beautiful but hostile to them.

Our guides average more than ten years on the river. They make the rapids seem tame, rehearsed, like amusement-park rides. Only rarely do we get a hint of the forces of rushing water and submerged rock they are dealing with.

It fascinates me, how this late in the twentieth century, a person can actually make a living rowing down a river all day long.

There's a demand for it, because every year 20,000 tourists pay between $500 and $2,000 to be taken by oar or motorboat through the canyon.

Experienced guides make $50 to $100 or more a day for their river and baby-sitting skills. Think of it. A job where you're out on the river for two weeks straight. Then home for a short break to read the mail and catch up on everything irrelevant that's happened around the world, then back to the river.

Just as Elwanger says, the river is a last hide-out where redneck hippies, burned-out Vietnam vets and anyone else who doesn't want anything to do with civilization can survive and earn a paycheck.

As Elwanger puts it, "Not too many laws down here, not too many rules."
But by definition, no life is truly easy.
For two groups just behind us on the river, there is trouble. A big raft full of tourists flips in Crystal Rapid and their guide gets pinned underneath the raft, and he drowns. Then, on a private trip, a tourist from West Germany falls into the river and drowns.

Elwanger never speaks of the dangers as he consults four or five of his so-called "river maps" by noon and stands up to relieve himself skillfully over the side.

Despite the glances from Nancy, the beers don't seem to affect his competency with the oars. Of course, we are on relatively calm water this day. And double of course, he's been working the river twelve years now.

 

Rapids aren't all the river rats have to worry about. Even down in the canyon, times are changing.

When Elwanger first ran the river, the National Park Service had amassed two pages of regulations on river rats. Now the regulations go 28 pages and every river rat must pass a written test and be photographed for a river-driving license.

Looming is the possibility the Park Service will impose drug testing on river rats--after all, like train engineers and airline pilots, they handle passengers in a federally regulated environment.

"I tell you what," Elwanger told us. "When it comes to pissing in a bottle, I quit."

It fascinates me, how this late in the twentieth century, a person can actually make a living rowing down a river all day long.

"Not too many laws down here, not too many rules."

Strolling under the grand tree canopies at the Orme School, I wonder what it's like to attend high school at such a place.

There was the student from Texas who flew to the rural, live-in campus by helicopter, trailed by a second helicopter bearing her luggage, including her Persian rug.

It was a bit difficult last year holding the students to the school's policy of no more than $15 a week spending money. Through inheritance, two students who turned eighteen became millionaires.

One girl who liked to chat with her friends back home was scolded by her daddy for running up $1,000 a month in long-distance charges.

The rich and the merely affluent from around the world send their kids off to boarding school here. Four years of tuition run $55,000 and many Orme parents chip in another $5,000 or more each year to keep the school running.

Isolated on a gentle roll of mesquite and grassland in central Arizona, the school seems protected by its distance from everything.

The only road in is dusty dirt and badly washboarded. It bumps over a cattle grate and crosses a concrete dip over Ash Creek--a crossing that floods out in heavy rains.

Students and parents, however, can commute via the school's airstrip. A while back, a guy from California who had two daughters enrolled wanted to make sure he could land his twin-engine turbo-prop. He shelled out $100,000 to have the strip lengthened to a mile.

The school keeps a low profile while attracting high flyers such as actor Jimmy Stewart (who served on its board of directors and his stepson attended), ex-actor and ex-president Ronald Reagan (delivered a commencement speech and his daughter Patty Davis attended), as well as literati member and pulp writer William F. Buckley (commencement speaker, his nephew attended). Among the students have been the offspring of notables Lauren Bacall, Charles Lindbergh, and Dick Van Dyke.

But things don't always go smoothly, even at Orme.
Two years ago, a seventeen-year-old student from California, Jarrett Huskey, ran wild. He broke into a house where guns for a firearms course were stored, MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.10 I9.14 shot a teacher who'd reprimanded him, shot another teacher and then ran around firing at whatever, until a deputy gunned him down. The teachers survived, the boy didn't. The firearms course was canceled.

"I don't even want to think about it," says Buck Hart, the school's graying, mustachioed headmaster who's giving me a tour of the oasis-like campus. "This is a very safe and comfortable environment."

Buck, who insists on the nickname and its implied familiarity, bears little resemblance to the typical prep-school headmaster. He goes around in cowboy boots and Western jeans cinched by a rodeo-style, silver belt buckle.

He mentions that one of his duties as headmaster is to free the loudly bleating goat that snags its head in the fence beside his house each morning.

Such is the Orme ambiance. For decades the school was an extension of the working cattle ranch that surrounds it. Buck, in his 33rd year at Orme, used to take the students out on spring and fall roundups. Bull- and bronc-riding, cow- and turkey-tending were on the curriculum. But no more.

"It was a sad, sad day when we closed the milk barn," Buck says.
Mounting students atop bucking bulls led to liability problems, and it was hard enough to make a ranch operation profitable without kids hanging around. But the school still provides horses for the students, and of the 23 instructors, two teach riding and one offers classes in rodeo.

"We'd like to get back to some of the things that made us unique," Buck says.

Lately it seems like the world is rudely intruding on Orme. The school is having difficulty competing with Andover and Exeter and other hoity-toity prep schools back East and in California. Today's yuppies, Buck says, tend to be "very goal-oriented," and send their kids to schools that feed the Ivy League colleges.

 

Once ranked by the authoritative Town and Country magazine as one of the nation's top-ten prep schools, Orme has taken an enrollment drop from a high of 200 students to, this semester, 115.

"We're still fighting the stigma of being a Western school," Buck says. "You fight it every minute . . . What's the currently nauseating word? `Marketing.' Or, in our world, a new term has just come in: `Enrollment management.'"

Perhaps predictably, for salvation Col 3, Depth P54.07 I9.10 loves smoking pot, and I get the idea, after his probation expires, he might well start toking up again.

On the other hand, on his own terms, he's a standup guy. His wife left him for another man, but he's taking responsibility for all four kids, even though only the youngest, three-year- old Delbert Clinton, is his by blood.The others, including Chucky--the oldest and the snitch--are Linda's from an earlier marriage and another relationship.

"Cockeyed as hell, ain't it?" Siddle tells me.
He picks a fast-chicken joint for our meet. On break from his new job as a plumber, he appears with cement dust on his arms, a pipe scrape across his forehead and a little red earring pinned through his left ear lobe.

The earring makes me see Siddle as sort of a beached river rat. I get him talking about the bust.

"I felt real betrayed, and hurt," he says. His voice is raspy, old for 31. "I just couldn't believe my own boy done that to me."

"My own boy"--it becomes clear, Siddle cares for Chucky, no matter what's happened. He's bitter about the sixth-grade teacher at Oracle Elementary School who persuaded the boy to search his own home to fetch a plastic bag of pot that quickly resulted in his mom and dad being taken away in handcuffs.

"They had a big push at school, `Say No to Drugs.' They were coaching Chucky on it, said they needed evidence before they could `help' me--that's how they put it, `help' me. If he was concerned, he could'a told me. I guess I just took it real personal."

It turns out Siddle is a born storyteller, and despite everything he has this irrepressible little grin.

Before I know it, he's telling me about the time he dated the farmer's daughter back in Comanche, Oklahoma.

"She called me up one night at 3 a.m. and said, `Look out your window in five minutes, off toward downtown.' When I did, a two-story building was going up in flames. Come to find out, she was a professional arsonist, makin' three to five thousand a night--when she was workin'." Cue the grin.

Then he's giving me the details on his pot farming. To set up his high-tech, pH-balanced, ionized-nutrient hydroponic patch, he consulted with experts from the California-based pot-farming almanac, Old Homegrown Quarterly. Grin.

Col 2, Depth P50.02 I8.36 Maybe I shouldn't be surprised at how the betrayal has thrown Chucky and his dad together. They don't have many alternatives. But it certainly isn't what the Just Say No people expected, either.

Dad and Chucky start jiving together, telling tales about great fights, various weirdos and the whereabouts of foxy chicks--even the slang seems late.

Siddle can't lose his little grin. It seems to say: "Man, can you believe it?"

Ray Ring is a novelist and free-lance journalist living in Tucson.


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