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The Sunset Set

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.

"One guy was drunk and drove off the cliff here, not too far away from where the house is here. We had DPS, we had a medi-vac helicopter here, the sheriff's department, fire department. It was too dangerous to climb down the cliff to where he was. The guy was highly intoxicated and he survived. It must have been at least a few hundred feet drop."

Complaints by gun enthusiasts led to the removal of a "Fire Arms Must Remain in Vehicles" sign; it's okay to carry guns around the rest area now.

"Up to then, sometimes I would get somebody who would walk into the rest area with a gun, and I would tell them they would have to put it in their vehicle. They would get real belligerent. I didn't like doing that because you never know, they may pull the damn thing out and shoot ya."

Behind the parking area, tables and rest rooms, the cliff's spectacular view of the dark, chiseled landscape offers a heady sense of solitude. And tonight, when the ground smells of wet earth and the cold wind blows through skeletal trees, the scene takes on a somber and eerie mood.

A large granite sundial sits at the rim and is inscribed with the names of 30 or so Arizona Department of Transportation employees who have died while on the job.

Does Terry Duncan ever get lonely, does he ever long for what a city can offer?

"If we get lonely, we can just go up to the rest area. . . . I don't get lonely. There is always something to do.

"We have accidents, motor homes and stuff, that come up the hill and catch on fire. We had a guy who had a heart attack in the bathroom. We've had people trip over the concrete bumpers. We had a lady from Michigan trip over one of the concrete bumpers you park against. She fell on her face, broke her nose, busted her lip open. We've had people pass out from heat exhaustion. If somebody's really, really hurt seriously bad, then the choppers come in.

"You wouldn't believe the amount of beer cans we pick up out of this place every morning. People come in here and drink and then go out and get back on the highway. You work this job for about a month and you swear 90 percent of the people out on the highway are half-lit. I'm not kiddin' ya."

What does he like most about his work here?
"Where we live, the view. Peace and tranquility when we want it.
"It's a hard job," he adds, laughing. "'Cause if you and your wife don't get along, you're in trouble. A lot of people can't do that with their wives.

"Maybe if you write about the vandalism and stuff like that that goes on here, maybe people will quit doing so much of it."

In diagonal rows, sleeping semis sit in pools of light, their engines humming slowly, their occupants sleeping off yet another taxing round of hard-line road commute. The dark asphalt parking lot is host to cars coming and going in rote: A man sleeps like a pile of laundry in the back seat of a Mercedes that's missing hubcaps; an old brown pickup with two speed-addled, Offspring-blaring occupants; shiny, inconsequential American and Japanese autos roll through and fan the overhead lights on their polished surfaces.

Another night in myriad nights at Sunset Point.


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