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.