freelance, history, nonfiction, research, travel, Uncategorized, writing

The Worst Trip Ever: Francisco Vázquez de Coronado

Like most fiction writers, I have a day job. Mine happens to be as a writer. Of nonfiction for kids. What can be better than to research, write, and edit nonfiction for kids? Especially when my writing projects are historical. Let me tell you, it beats my past jobs with a stick: project manager, administrative analyst, administrative coordinator, accounts payable clerk, and some others that have faded into the past like a rancid odor.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the ability to support myself and my family at past jobs, but they’ve all been stepping stones to where I am today. Which is in my home office with my dogs all around me, my hair in disarray, dressed in yoga pants and sweatshirts, and wearing away at the paint on my computer keyboard.

It’s glamorous, all right.

I’m a freelancer and happy with the independence it brings me. Sure, there are downsides, too, but I can’t see myself headed back into an office environment any time soon. Or any time at all.

Last year I wrote a fun historical book on Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (2017 publication date). He’s that failure of a 16th century explorer who set off to find the Seven Cities of Gold. That didn’t exist. But at least he had fun along the way, leading a motley crew of soldiers and missionaries across the broiling hot deserts of northern Mexico and southern Arizona. They stumped across rocky defiles and cactus-choked deer paths in their heavy plate metal armor (which they evidently scattered here and there, to the delight of archaeologists), and abused American Indians at every opportunity. You see, if Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro could overtake gold-rich Central and South American civilizations, then certainly Coronado could too. When he heard the “credible” tales of the Seven Cities of Gold that lay north of Mexico from a wily and perhaps demented friar, Marcos de Niza, he seized upon them.

Francisco Vazquez de Coronado conquistador explorer 16the century

Perhaps Coronado should have fact-checked de Niza’s reports a little closer. Because he and his men traveled hundreds of miles north, then east, then north again, following rumors and pipe dreams. They crossed from Arizona to New Mexico, into Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and finally central Kansas. Poor Indian villages were all they found, no wealth other than the clear air and endless grasslands.

The revelation that de Niza lied about these gold and jewel-bedecked cities deterred the group only temporarily. The hints and lies of another man, an Indian slave nicknamed The Turk, kept them traveling on into Kansas. The Turk hoped that a local tribe would slaughter them. Alas, The Turk ended up being the one slaughtered when his deception was uncovered. At last, Coronado determined to turn back, but he would have gone on if his men and the Spanish government would have given him more support. He and his men slunk back to Mexico in disgrace. He did not receive the riches and fame he sought, but he did penetrate a previously unknown land and pave the way for later explorers and settlers.

Coronado Expedition Conquistador Explorer
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=146759

The Spanish left behind horses, which the Indians bred and used to legendary utility. Before the coming of the Spanish, Indians only had dogs as pack animals. They also left behind diseases that the biologically separate Americans had no natural immunity to. Such began the Indian’s long decline and eventual near-extinction.

You can still hear echoes of long-ago drumbeats and see the crumbled remains of Indian dwelling places on the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, a stretch of narrow, winding highway in eastern Arizona. This section of US Route 191 is said to have 460 curves, which make it “exciting” or “terrifying” depending on your perspective. Perhaps you, like me, find yourself drawn to remote historical adventures, though, and if so you may enjoy the 120-mile drive.

I just hope that my own life’s adventures do not end in infamy like Coronado’s.

travel

I’ll Be High for Christmas; Adventures in Globe, Arizona

Recently, I went home for Christmas, as I do almost every year. It’s where I met my husband and best friend, and where I graduated from high school. AZMap-doton-GlobeLike most young people, I fled immediately after graduation because there just isn’t much to the town. Globe, Arizona is a small copper and silver mining town in Eastern Arizona. Founded as a mining camp in 1875, the population is around 7,500. Nearby town Miami and unincorporated areas known as Claypool and Central Heights are so close that the area is often known as Globe-Miami. It sports a combined population of around 15,000.Glbaz

Globe is not a particularly beautiful place – it’s rocky and hilly, filled with scrub brush and the occasional mesquite tree, just about all that will naturally grow in the blasting summer sun, save for the poplars clustered around Shit Creek, which meanders around the arroyos north of town. I never did learn the proper name of the creek, which smelled like … you guessed it: shit.

A group of Italian stonemasons hired to build the nearby Roosevelt Dam constructed a number of the town’s biggest buildings, their signature appearance a result of their expertise. Overall, though, the downtown area is largely empty these days.

Globe, AZ Broad St S of Yuma StThe copper mines are traditionally the largest employer in the area, but the price of copper goes up and down, and at times the mines have been shut down completely, putting lots of people out of work and further depressing an already poor area. The city has tried to become a haven for antiques lovers – helped along by the conversion of many a crumbling Victorian era house into antique shops – and it also benefits (at least by the building of fast food restaurants) by lying at the convergence of a couple of state highways that lead to lakes, forests, and other recreational areas. But it’s kind of a crappy place, to be honest: run down and rather stark, sleepy and generally quiet. The giant mounds of slag are pretty ugly, and the downtown is limping along with the aid of some bars and a recently built 4-screen movie theater.

Hot slag runs from the Inspiration Copper Mine in Globe, AZ. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration

The main claim to fame of Globe in my eyes is absolutely delicious Mexican food – the best I’ve had, hands down. Globe is a haven for Sonoran-style Mexican food in general, with strong contenders being El Rey Cafe, Irene’s Restaurant, and La Casita, but one place I never miss visiting is Chalo’s Casa Reynoso.  Fresh, delicious, and dirt cheap, you can’t beat it. The service is pretty good and the ambience is typical down home Mexican – stuffed bear with a sombrero, black velvet pictures of matadors, and so on.

Globe is sort of unremarkable except for the rate of substance abuse and meth addiction, a scourge in many small towns.

And then there’s the pot.

I was amused to discover – from my devout, law-abiding, former city council member mother-in-law, that Arizona’s recently passed medical marijuana bill has transformed Globe into a mecca for weed.

“The law says if there isn’t a marijuana source within 25 miles then regular citizens can grow their own,” she said. “The city council didn’t want regular Joes growing their own. So they set up an official pot collective.”

Say whuh?

Cannabis leaf 2The Globe Farmacy,  located smack in the middle of downtown Globe, boasts that its tasty pot cakes and candies will “have you coming back for more.” It is, apparently, the first officially sanctioned medical marijuana collective in the state. You will be happy to know that they dutifully joined the Chamber of Commerce as well.

I, of course, had to ask my mother what she thought of this.

“I can’t believe they did that!” my mother exclaimed, scandalized by the thought of the City of Globe’s new economic endeavor. “What kind of place is this?”

We didn’t discuss the moral implications of marijuana legalization, or the considerable palliative effect of marijuana upon certain diseases (heck, probably all diseases), but her outraged response brought to mind my brother’s high school rebelliousness, when he attempted to grow his own pot. It didn’t work out too well, especially since my mother discovered the straggly, drooping little plant hiding out in the attic and quickly disposed of it, chiding my brother all the while.

Lucky for my brother, though, that he can now trot down to the “Farmacy” and claim one of the rather loosely defined medical conditions and get his own stash of ganja. After all, the pain of living in a small town is chronic.

And who knows? Maybe the City of Globe has found an economic bonanza by embracing this newly legal pharmaceutical.

humor, travel memories

Deserts, Forests, and Memory: Arizona and Pennsylvania in the 70s

If this is a travel blog why are you blathering about kittens, ziggurats, and palm trees?

This being my first post, I feel I should declare my intentions with this blog. If you choose to spend your precious life’s moments with me, what can you expect to find here?

Travel stuff, definitely, but perhaps not in the way you are used to reading it. Photos, notes about destinations, impressions, memories, histories, various place-related details, all these are fair game.

But here’s the thing. I love to travel and I’ve been blessed enough to do a fair amount of it in my life, so this blog will consist of what I hope will turn out to be interesting tidbits about the places I’ve seen and those that yet remain on my bucket list. But I’m also a writer, a thinker of sorts, and an idea factory. Because of that, I will at random times post about creativity, ancient history, cats, dogs, birds, rhinoceri, Tasmanian devils, my latest writing project, mosaics, sci fi television shows, bunions, pepperoni pizza, the zombie apocalypse, and ebola.

So, basically anything.

For the time being, however, I will try to restrain my wandering mind to the experience of travel.

Cowansville, Pennsylvania
Go East, Young Man? A home in Cowansville, Pennsylvania.

Back in the Day

Once upon a time, in the 1960s, a recently discharged Army veteran in his late twenties named Leon fled the frigid, economically depressed hamlet of his youth – Cowansville, Pennsylvania. He drove a Rambler across the country to  the sprawling desert metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona, where he promptly set up residence in a small apartment owned by an entrepreneurial Chinese man. Not only did he settle here because he wished to escape the brutal Pennsylvania winters, but he also because he desired to escape the eligible bachelorettes that would appear regularly on the sofa at precisely the time he returned from work, courtesy of his mother. Phoenix seemed a paradise to young Leon, who was welcomed by the clear, hot breeze, wide Western sky, and comely beer joints off 16th street.

“The summer heat didn’t bother me,” Leon proclaims, remembering.  “I would come home from work and cool down by taking a cold bath.” He then whiled away his evenings in the local bar, further cooling down with the aid of cheap beer.

One day Leon’s landlord stopped by his place and, wiping a glistening trail of sweat off the end of his nose, proclaimed, “Why don’t you turn the cooler on?”

“It is on! This is as cold as it gets in here,” Leon told him.

Whereupon the kindly Chinese landlord rushed off, looking embarrassed. Soon, the evaporated cooler was repaired and the thermostat dipped beneath triple digits for the first time since he had arrived in town.

“I just thought that’s how it was here,” he says. “I didn’t know any different.”

Aerial shot of the downtown Phoenix area in the 1960s.
Phoenix, Arizona in the 1960s.
Credit: Arizona100

Roma Avenue

Fast forward to the late 70s, when Leon’s family – wife, daughter (me!), and son – now lived in a brick ranch-style home off Roma avenue in central Phoenix. Here we children whiled away bucolic summer afternoons picking cholla cactus spears from our arms, lying limp with heat prostration in front of the television set, and splashing away in the cold, chlorine soaked waters of the neighborhood swimming pool. For some reason, my brother and I occasionally walked the three blocks to the pool without wearing shoes. This inevitably became a sort of exercise in agony as we skittered across sizzling hot asphalt streets and leaped upon whatever scraggly bit of grass was tough enough to survive the blast oven heat. There we would pause as the pain from our burning feet subsided and we steeled ourselves for the dash to the next tiny urban oasis until at last we reached the sparkling crystal waters of the city pool. It was those same sparkling crystal waters where I got my first look at an adult male penis. Granted, it was underwater, and for some bizarre reason the owner of said appendage had it wrapped up in an ace bandage, but still. One should mark such momentous occasions.

Now, where was I?

Saguaro in Sonoran desert of Arizona
Stately saguaro cacti in Arizona’s Sonoran desert.

Yes, life in Phoenix. It is very hot, and dry, and few green plants grow there. Scraggly bushes are called trees (manzanita). When you open the car door you are met with an explosion of face-singeing air. People who exercise at midday are routinely given psychiatric referrals. Adults terrorize children by reading histories of the time before air conditioning, when people sprayed down adobe walls and slept on the rooftops to cool off.  It is a place of fire ants and German cockroaches and water bugs, that most horrid of all creatures because they not only appear, in their three inch long dull brown glory, but they fly around at night like those demonic monkey men from the Wizard of Oz, only worse. The buzz of cicadas is a loud, ceaseless drone, and in July and August the oppressiveness of the heat splits apart under the onslaught of dust-laden monsoon winds. Temperatures drop, lightning splits the sky, and a torrent of hard rain dumps onto bare desert earth, filling arroyos with rushing brown water.

Exodus

Summertime also brought an event of a different kind to our family. We put aside our popsicles, flip flops, and short shorts (it was the 70s, people), piled into our cab-over camper/Datsun pickup and rumbled across the country on that most American of activities – a road trip. I will rhapsodize about the joys of eating nothing but bologna sandwiches and drinking nothing but Carnation instant milk and staying in off the beaten path KOAs, and in some other post. Suffice it to say that after many miles, just when the camper smelled as ripe as a soccer player’s Dr. Scholl’s insert, we arrived in Cowansville, Pennsylvania, that most glorious abode of my father’s side of the family.

Flickr - Nicholas T - Coniferous
A rushing stream in the lush Pennsylvania countryside.

Here, I beheld a green-cloaked paradise unlike any I’d ever experienced. Plant life choked the forests – ferns and vines and leafy deciduous trees dozens of feet tall. Cool creek water tasted free of harsh-tasting minerals. Creaking wooden floors and the smell of mildew. Lightning bugs and deer bounding proud but frightened across grassy fields. Weenie roasts and distinctive eastern accents and wide steel gray rivers spanned by rusted, arched bridges. One lane country roads and sweet summer corn sold in carts. The sky peeked out through dappled leaves, and the air heavy and wet, clung to your skin like warm lotion. The houses here were multistory, with dark damp basements and bat-cluttered attics.

My cousins laughed at me for wearing a jacket in the evening cool, but that was all right, that was fine, because it was beautiful here, and our arrival was an event, and no one knew it, no one really understood it, but this became the definition of travel for me. Newness and wonder and sensory overload. Delight and open-heartedness, and the mountains in the distance, purple at the horizon but craggy, regal, and piercing the sky itself. Calling for elemental forces and creation, and me.