Into the Valley of Sun
I parked in the paved lot at the base of the hill. There was another car, but it looked abandoned. The trail from there was a clear path through an open gate and into the desert heading east. The smell of the converging rivers somewhere past the brush hung heavy in the hot air, I could sense them, but I could not see them. I made my way through the gate. Wind strewn trash left by people I’d never met gave me a pang of guilt as I left the foliage laden flat ground, and began to ascend an ever steepening bare incline towards the summit. I grabbed what of it I could, pausing about half way to shed my shirt, and to examine the bustling valley emerging behind me for the first time. I had felt it growing with each step, now it was taking physical shape. Out there beyond the slightest amount of wilderness was the city of my birth. I had never known it deeper than by name, besides a year of kindergarten I hardly remembered, and the three weeks of Arizona Real Estate Broker classes that had preceded my climb that day. In those weeks of this big desert city serving as my harbor, I had no doubt that it was very much alive, and it, for some reason, considered me its progeny. 35 years to the month that I myself had emerged from the Valley of the Sun, I struggled to place any sort of familiarity on what I saw, heard, and felt. I found it impossible to understand its embrace, yet I happily basked in it.
Onward and upward I went. Hiking in the heat was familiar to me, and it felt good to do what I knew after many consecutive days of being stuck to a classroom chair. I don’t consider myself a hiker, but after 13 years in a windowless factory, followed by three years hiking with Mohave County’s Orangest, I had to admit, if cooped up for too long, I became restless. My body had narrowly forgiven me for my lethargic former life, yet it was very forgiving in the other direction. I had found that it even perhaps preferred it. I had, at some point around this time, shed my human form in a vivid dream one night. With a slight remorse, overshadowed by an excitement for a new found liberation, my wife and I buried 100 pounds of dead weight where it lay after dragging it by the arm as far as we could for what felt like an eternity, in an eerily similar landscape to this one, as I now recall it. Upon waking, the remorse quickly faded, leaving the liberation as a conditional gift, suspended only by my unwavering intent, which was now focused up the hill.
My final Broker class had wrapped up that morning, the sun now near its apex, leaving little shade and pushing the temperature into the triple digits. My bloodlines had sprang from and returned to this soil since long before statehood, thus I was okay with dedicating my corpse to serve as a warning on the evening news…or even as an Everest-esque permanent mummified landmark beside the trail guiding future others on whatever journey or trip it is they’re on. Maybe it wouldn’t quite be going out with my boots on, but discounted Ross Vans knockoffs were close enough.
Hanging in the cadence of my steps on the rocky trail, my thoughts mulled an 1820’s massacre that I had read of the previous night, upon planning my pilgrimage. It had occurred right there below me, at the convergence of the Gila and Salt Rivers between Native people and trappers. The gunshots rang out, and the din of aguish surely had echoed off these boulders before they wore their indiscernible emblems of red graffiti. In the 200 years since, I wondered if we had really advanced as a species much beyond our innovations in warfare, leisure, and entertainment. I became transfixed on Man’s motivations, and how they all end the same, marked grave or not. In the age of diminishing pursuits, this fact was becoming obvious to even the casual observer, giving me hope that propelled my final steps up the mountain towards possible answers…and my last cigarette!
Perspiration now covered my body, yet I wasn’t tired. It wasn’t a long hike, and I had plenty of water. Now I could relax, I had reached the top. The evaporating sweat on the small of my back gave me a chill, even in the September heat. I soaked my bandanna, wrapped it around my head, and sat. I first faced the North, the direction from which I had driven. This magical place overwhelmed my senses, and I sat blissfully for a while without thought, just keen observation. I found amusement in the contrast of Nature’s strict non-conformity to precision, overlaid with man’s attempt to tame Her. I cannot dismiss however, the Civilization to which I found myself born into and tethered-an enigma on its best day, as it had led me to this very spot. Some great mystic reverberations were certainly to blame for this peculiar splendor, for I sat atop a land feature known as Monument Hill, Arizona. Gazing down upon what had ultimately arisen from its lines, was the appropriately named City of Phoenix, as had every other square inch of developed land in this state that meant so much to me. However, the significance of this land feature ran far deeper than any name we hung upon it. Here, the Earth rose 155 feet above where the Gila & Salt Rivers converge, their waters continuing west as the lone Gila, consolidating for their final leg as The Mighty Colorado at Yuma, down into Mexico and out towards the Sea of Cortez.
Even dismissing Nature Herself entirely from this very spot, one was still left in awe, you see, this was Ground Zero for the Land Survey System of Arizona. At its crest, just below a common round survey monument, stood a plaque dedicated to Arizona Land Owners having originally been placed in 1851, predating the Gadsden Purchase-meaning, at one time, my perception would have been peering over the water to view the Arizona Territory from Old Mexico, the Gila River having been the southern border of the United States until the Treaty of Mesilla was finalized in 1854. The New Settlers to the Salt River Valley had used their accurate yet primitive tools to give some sort of structure to this wild and unforgiving fertile land. In an ambitious fashion, distinctly American of the era, squares measuring one mile by one mile called Sections would be marked at each corner, extending 6 up and 6 across totaling 36 of them to comprise a Township. Sequentially numbered vertically by Township Number starting at the Baseline and horizontally as Range Number, starting at the Meridian. The squares to shrink and sometimes even grow vertical based on desirability from there, but with that system, adopted by Continental Congress in 1785 for the surveying of the Western Territory, some states requiring multiple to accomplish the job. A description for each square as unique as each square itself, making, on the recorded history of the New World, at least, the development of this land so described follow that fact first and foremost. A monumental approach to a monumental task.
To each of the four cardinal directions were cast mosaic arms of turquoise towards their respective horizons where the Earth met the sky. Looking North, Avondale Boulevard split the large green squares of farm land, the roofs and trees growing higher into the heart of Avondale, disappearing in the distance. Facing east I was presented with the unparalleled perspective of Baseline Road as it ran just south of the heart of Phoenix, below Tempe, then Mesa, and on past the mountains, reaching towards New Mexico and tomorrow’s un-promised sunrise. The road name being derived from the name of the system itself-the Gila and Salt River Baseline and Meridian. To my west were thousands of empty seats facing southward to an asphalt oval. The money to rent one for mere hours, combined with the income generated from symbols broadcast in all directions enough to pay for it all in short bursts of time. Southward unrolled the peaks of the Sierra de la Estrella mountain range, of which Monument Hill was the northernmost member, separating them, a small un-gridded and mysterious valley of green.
An early area settler by the name of Jack Swilling is credited with the modern irrigation canals feeding the new pioneers and their green squares of crops with precious water, little shacks now dotting the valley by 1867. Rooves would far outnumber any quantity of earthen structures than had ever occupied the area, and what had started as Phoenix Townsite,-determined by vote in 1870 to be laid out between what we now know as Seventh Street, Seventh Avenue, Van Buren and Harrison, with Central Avenue slicing vertically through the middle, and followed by the construction of a schoolhouse a year later, now had sprawled across that valley with four and a half million people. Just the year prior, its population growth equaled that of my home town of Kingman completely. To me, it was the Human Element amplified. In that loud mirage out there, one somehow had to manage being stronger than the prophets, smarter than the Devil, and nimbler than all the fools that weren’t. Being the only human here made existence far simpler.
Once, a young man I knew as an old man, preparing for his involuntary trip to South East Asia, had, in that Valley below me, struggled in vain to teach his father, a retired rancher, the names of the different areas of the Phoenix Valley prior to his departure. “No dad!” He would exclaim. “You have to say west of Tempe, or south of Mesa, or past Scottsdale if you want anyone to know where to take you!” He grew frustrated in his pursuit, and his dad would laugh while watching the buildings go past the car window, the importance of such a matter lost on him. Tony had served as his father’s driver since getting his driver’s license, and was about to go do the same for Uncle Sam in Deuce-and-a-Halves across Viet Nam upon his impending high school graduation. His dad was not new to the Valley, on the contrary-he only knew it by the names of the ranches and farms it had once been. A man grown obsolete in his own land. With the advent of affordable air conditioning a mere 15 years prior, the squares had shrunk beyond that kind of recognition any longer. Tony’s father would pass away prior to Tony’s homecoming, and with him, the visions of the land of his youth, and all the things that had once been. The heaves of expansion had been rapid, even in the three decade span that had been my absence, the city’s population had more than doubled. What little I did remember was not likely to be recognized.
In the classrooms of Peoria and Scottsdale of the previous weeks, we covered the sleepy topic of Legal Land Descriptions in Chapter 15 of our binders. This material had of course been taught to me by my preliminary licensing instructor some 3 years prior, but the significance of the subject had been overshadowed by my apprehension and fear for my new life ‘on the outside’ of the factory that had been my 20s. How I was faring in that new life could be a debatable point, depending on the metric measured, however, I was content, and that was enough. I then considered the first piece of land I held the reins to. When I was 21 years old, my grandmother sat me down at the kitchen table, where important decisions had been made since long before I came along. I had been working out at the airport since graduating high school and had fallen for a girl with far away eyes as hard headed as I was that lived on the street that had been, in 1962, the highway they moved to town on. Even at that time the railroad crossing was still there at Highway 66 and Louise Avenue, but traffic has since been diverted, and the desert has reclaimed a majority of the crossing. We had been trying to find our own place, both with steady jobs with potential to learn more, but were unable to find much, even with minimal expectations…anything this side of downright squalor would be just fine with us, our freedom was what mattered. 9 Townships North, and 14 East of my location, stood the little slice of dirt my grandfather had inherited upon his father’s death; my mother still a girl. My grandfather, being the youngest of 8 boys and 3 girls raised there, in a town now mapped as Young-after the sisters that had started the first Post Office, had spent the past summer clearing cactus from his 2 acres, with no stated plan beyond that. It was supposed, after so many years away, he just wanted to re-connect with his homeland, and not much was considered of his absence. He’d drive the 6 hours to the little town of around 500 residents, live in his travel trailer for a week or so, as he’d done for decades working road construction, then come home, his GMC dusty from ripping cactus out with a chain. He had only retired a few years before that, and I think we were all just as baffled as he when he found himself a retiree, as working was all the man ever knew. The main house he’d grown up in, sleeping on the screened in porch year-round, stood on a different parcel down below the hill from his, and across a large wash that ran along the base of the hill, as did houses on separate parcels of some of his siblings, only one of them habitable any longer. My grandmother said to me one day very suddenly, “The land in Pleasant Valley is yours, but it’s worth something, and you and Chanel can use that money to find something here, unless you ever think you’re going to use it.” I was in shock. Yes, I was the only grandchild, and my mother their only child with a house and acreage she had earned, but thinking of things along the lines of inheritance was a thought I found grotesque, and still do in most instances. My grandmother’s tone was that of excitement, and it confused me and threw off my mood. My grandfather had remained silent on the subject, as he often did, so one was just left to assume his stance on most things. I visited my grandparents after work often, and we finished our otherwise normal visit. She told me as I left that she had a good idea of what it would be worth, and what could be afforded here with the proceeds. I told them both that I would think about it. I didn’t really want to think about it, though.
I descended from my vantage point after my final smoke, and down to the water. The river edges bustled with greenery, and aside from the two modern bridges spanning the Gila River and what people had decided to defile them with, the area was surprisingly serene and maintained a soothing nature. I slowly wandered and would take pauses in the shade where I found it, propelled by the momentum of days sat idle, but nowhere to actually be. I finally heard people, and with that, the problems of the outside world began to once again flood in. I had indulged in Nature’s embrace long enough, the spell having been broken by voices. It was time to move along.
More people were making their way in along the trail as I left. I arrived in the parking lot to find the red car was still parked where it had been, and would probably be tomorrow. I dug out my key, started the engine, and left. It was back over the Gila River and north to my temporary home, a little brick house in a backyard in Scottsdale. My hosts had bought the house the year I was born, and had stayed in my current abode facing the alley during their extensive renovation to the then two decade old Santa Fe house. I had booked it online weeks prior, against my normal inclination to the non-bohemian due to the beckoning photos of the shade laden pool out back-‘guests free to use’, the ad had read. They hooked me. I opened the door and found Sunny still face up on the bed where I’d left her, her curves gleaming in the light from the window. I picked her up and after strumming a couple of G chords, tried in vain to nail the F chord changes in Mr. Jones and Night Moves. Nope. Not yet. Sunny was sure to let you know when you had officially ‘nailed’ something-even unplugged, as I most often played her, she is plenty loud enough to hear everything you do, good or bad. She had been my faithful companion for all of my trips to the Valley, and a couple to the soft winds of San Diego. She wore a distinctive burl in the wood right at the 5th fret, and a bit of rust on her saddles, and maybe some dings. There were, I’m sure, millions just like her, but if you piled them all up and challenged me to find Sunny without picking a note, I could do it faster with my eyes open, but blindfolded wouldn’t be impossible. Yeah
Now my nearest goalpost besides a clean F chord was passing a school test, and getting over my newly acquired fear of swimming. Just the week prior, I had swam for my first time at an apartment pool, and found the benefits of weight loss to be mostly on dry land. Whether or not the increase in stamina would be enough to compensate for the lack of buoyancy was yet to be determined. I put on my swim trunks, and walked out the door. Round pergola beams running from the porch of the main house cast striped shadows in the bright blue water. I took a couple of passes in and out of the shade, my host snoozing through the window in front of the news, his German Shepard at his side. I felt slightly more comfortable in the water after a little while. I watched the pool vacuum slowly wheel itself around under the ripples, then climbed out and dried off. I found the music produced while playing next to a desert oasis off of 56th and Shae near sunset differs from strumming loud enough to hear over the Pacific waves on Law Street Beach on a weekday morning, still no F chord today.
On the matter of my trip itself, I had taken an opportunity for a job as the Managing Broker of an office back home, and while they were busy turning a former political party HQ into a respectable establishment, I was busy turning a mechanic into a real estate broker. I had now managed rentals as a licensed agent for over 3 years, after turning in my once prized Inspector 37 stamp with an unceremonious ‘thump’ on the desk, déjà vu. Too many rules, anyway. I’d built upon what I’d learned managing our own rentals, and became enamored with the idea of vacation rentals. We had experienced some amazing places, thanks to the concept, and I eventually was able to edge towards that.
The first landlord I managed for found the security of longer term leases more appealing, and he was also kind enough to show me the trade of exterior painting. He was a very successful HVAC man that had grown his business through hard work on the jobsites of the Southwest knowing multiple trades, and these three duplexes being built were to help with his eventual retirement, although I know he had no interest in slowing down, even if work did eventually take care of itself, there were deer to chase on his ranch in Texas, and moose he’d only caught a glimpse of in Alaska, and so on. I liked the way he talked, I liked the way he looked me in the eye, I liked how he had direction. There had not been many like him in the factory, less and less over the years. Not only was I to manage these rentals for him, he’d checked around, and it was decided he and I could paint them cheaper than ‘any of these sons-a-bitches around here’, and do a better job, too. He had business elsewhere he said, as we drove one morning, he’d get me going on these, using the sprayer to get the stucco one color, and the eaves and soffits another. Two lighter units were to bookend a slightly darker one, the current addition of curbs and two parking lots were now all the commotion on what had a year ago been just an old single wide trailer under a wind gnarled shade tree. He’d be there for the two days it would take to spray them, and my job would be to touch them up by hand the rest of the week, for what I felt a very fair hourly rate. I spent the next several days working around them with my ladder laden with buckets, brushes, and rags, trying to fix more blemishes than I caused. While listening to We the Living on my earbuds, I was grateful I’d been born in a time and place where it wasn’t customary to bring a log for the fire as opposed to a fancy bottle of wine for friendly gatherings. The units were built with opposing entrances facing north and south, with the parking lot on the north. The south facing units had vacant lots behind them and were slightly elevated giving them an uninhibited view of the Hualapai Mountains that overlook Kingman from the East. The landscaping, however, wasn’t done, so ladder work for eaves and soffits could be quite tricky on the southern side of the little units, so one couldn’t stare at the mountains too long. I was proud as I pulled up on the last day, admiring them as I backed up my truck from the alley. I unloaded my gear, touched up all the little places I needed to touch up, and circled back to the truck a couple of hours later to load everything back in. As I heaved in the ladder, I caught a whiff of gas. I had parked my truck tilted with the driver side slightly downhill, and her beautiful metallic blue paint below the rear filler door now sat bubbling in the morning sun. I can’t share what my friend that had painted her over the period of 3 years as I restored her said when I sent him the picture, but I can tell you that my newly acquired confidence with a paintbrush and managing multifamily units was my biggest gain there. It took most of what I’d earned that week to fix the paint, drilling a miniscule hole in the filler neck to prevent the reoccurrence of such an event was free.
I would go on to manage several more properties over the next couple of years, some of which lending themselves quite well to short term and vacation rentals. I had also done my share of sales, and found the experience quite rewarding on some occasions, but my demeanor better suited for property management. That was my passion. The application of ‘highest and best use’ on a flexible lease case by case basis as a property manager could keep someone very busy, and could transform the way people see and experience a town. My town, in this instance. Like so many of my generation, the term home was often a fleeting term, but I knew I could narrow it to at least a zip code, if not a street address upon returning to Kingman after attending 5th and 6th grade in North Las Vegas. I had attended Kindergarten for my 3rd time in Kingman, and stayed at the same school until 3rd grade, then another Kingman school for 4th grade; 7th grade was mostly new faces after two grades elsewhere. Maintaining oneself amongst the loud halls of Swainston Middle School, and North Vegas in general had been something I’d overcome, I had lost a lot of my ‘give a shit’. It wasn’t fearlessness-I wish I could say it was…but rather an indifference that had been required and now was simply handy. I was a weird kid, but I quickly met more, and even to this day share a very strong bond with those earliest friendly faces that would represent, for me, what home might be. They would know me by a nickname I would acquire the first week of 7th grade and carry with me through high school, and I think it’s perhaps those people that knew me first. I still hear both of my names interchangeably, and only even recall the fact that I have two names if a ‘new’ person calls me by that name, or if one of the older ones attempts to conform to perceived modern standards by using my birth name. The only one who has successfully made that transition is my wife, although I don’t know when or how, and I still remember her panic and confusion upon the discovery that she had fallen head over heels for an alias. It’s an odd phenomenon that has become intertwined with this town. It also serves also as a great test for potential imposters.
My grandparents rounded the final stretch of Old Highway 93 nestled between the Hualapai and Peacock Mountains as my grandpa said, “Nobody’ll ever live in this damned desert.” The beast mobile era of his father had given way to era of the machines, and a home base was needed while building Eisenhower’s great Autobahn to effectively move them. They first lived in a little apartment downtown, and then drove out Highway 66 as the Logas family once had, and exited at the Logasville sign at Castlerock Avenue that now peeks out from the Mohave Museum’s front window. Known these days as Birdland, due to the street names, the neighborhoods to the north and the west, are now simply Butler. In those days, Elmer Butler was selling lots for $500 - $20 down, and $20 a month. The Butlers would throw holiday parties, and form lifelong bonds with the new residents of the area that now bears their name. My grandparents bought two adjoining lots, and my mother grew up riding horses and dirt bikes in the vastness of that damned desert the way my grandfather had roamed the rolling cedar hills of Pleasant Valley and the pines of the Mogollon Rim on foot, horseback and homemade jalopies. His father had been Justice of the Peace for Gila County, and would lock up the bad guys in the wire doored shed out back until the sheriff could come from Globe to retrieve them, his mother making sure they were fed, even though there wasn’t much at mealtime. He was known to be fair, and if he decided someone was going away for a while, they didn’t give him much trouble. The road just to the south of the house my great-grandfather had built with his hands, while his wife grew quite successful hunting turkey from horseback, one child strapped to her front, and the other to the rear, now bears their last name. I don’t know if the shed that little Lyman Peace and his best friend, my grandfather, called home during Lyman’s bout with Polio as school children in the 1940s still exists, but a sign stands tall before the golden hills at the corner of State Route 288 and Peace Crossing, where their school work was delivered up the road to them for the duration of the fight, my grandfather refusing to leave his side, and somehow never becoming sick himself.
After leaving home at 13 upon recovering from her father’s final beating, then lying about her age to work as a Harvey Girl on the railroad to escape a ‘tongue speaking aunt’, my grandmother wound up in Pleasant Valley living with a friend named Wilma, how and when they met, I cannot recall. The characters and perspective altering events of that Valley are forever seared into my memory, forming in my imagination long before I ever actually set eyes the town itself. The graveyard and the surrounding hills filled with casualties of The Pleasant Valley War that had broken out between cattle ranchers and sheep herders in the 1880s. Inspiring To The Last Man by Zane Gray, who frequented the area each autumn until the requirement by the state for a hunting license. My grandfather and his friends would hoot and holler their way through screeching sunbathing beauties, he atop Domino-both born the same night, as they Bueller-ed the estates of the rich and famous fair season residents for thrills. It was also, as I’d imagine, the first place my grandmother had found an existence much the beyond fear and violence that had been her home life, her only escape being books. A Girl of the Limberlost her childhood favorite, but having read any book that could be named by the time I came along, and by then, she only enjoyed true murder. She didn’t merely read them, she consumed them at a somewhat disturbing pace, especially given the subject matter and the amount of people she didn’t much care for. She was in a constant state of seeking more to read, and would often start one only to find out she had already read it, but would read it again anyway. She had been born ‘in the caul’, and was known to have premonitions in her younger days. She would sit up in bed exclaiming, “Dean’s coming!” getting dressed as her vagabond brother would be rounding the corner for one of his sporadic, unannounced, and likely inebriated midnight visits. At the table they would sit, and the house would be alive with stories. She was vague when pressed on the fact of her psychic abilities. Again, by the time I came along, it was “Oh, I don’t know. It just stopped.”
I would stay an extra day in Scottsdale to study before scheduling my test, and do my property management account reconciliations for the month. Landlords and bills must be paid. I would take my final midnight walk out of the backyard and into the alley. Occasional empty transit buses cutting through the silence of the lights flickering from green, to yellow, to red, then back to green again reflecting off of the shiny black streets. This final walk would provide me with the fuel to start filling the notebooks that would later line my dumpster. I jotted down everything in a frenzy after ducking through the salt cedars, past the sleeping houses, and back into my brick shack. Without a doubt, something more was at play here than I could comprehend. But upon the recollection of all of these events, they stand vivid, and the reference material is not needed.
As I now sit looking at the purple Hualapai Mountains from the wide windows of a little 1943 house that was our first venture as a vacation rental, the stress of vacant days soothed by kind words of a gifted guest book that slowly began to accumulate names from around the world, I remember the first time I gasped at the view of those very familiar mountains framed in oak from the living room that now houses my desk, and the Mighty Log Book that my wife now eagerly scribbles in while assisting people with often one of the most stressful yet gratifying moments of their lives. It was the first time I ever had thought, or rather, had an urge, that if I had something to write about, I could sit there and type all day while looking at that. Sure. I was okay with words, I had been, in the years since my grandmother’s passing, chipping away at all the titles I had heard her reference, and found quite a few literary bread crumbs to follow on my own into some rewarding, yet unforgiving places. I then remember the day almost 20 years ago, that I suddenly had the urge to call my grandmother. I dialed the phone with shaky hands, I hadn’t really even thought of what I was going to say, but I knew what I needed to do. She snapped up the receiver before it had even finished ringing, as she often did when I called. “Grandma…I, well… I want to sell the land on Turner Hill.” The decision had swept over me as abruptly. It was a singular inextricable action that I somehow knew I must perform at that precise moment. She excitedly hung up the phone as quickly as she had picked it up. I can’t tell you if the deluge that overtook me was that of a genius or a fool, the day I realized, sitting here, mountains over the log book, that the tone she always seemed to have when answering “Hello” on the phone, was identical to how she would often make the absurd yet somehow believable proclamation, “I’m never going to die.” She had been expecting my call.