The Desert Redux
It has been a constant complaint, driving across the desert to get anywhere east of where I live. My trip last fall to the Indian ruins has cured some of that. This trip seems to be having the same effect. There are places here that are interesting and historic I see through a different prism than I did in the past. I am going through here either early enough or the weather is cool enough to allow pleasant passage through these usually unfriendly climes.
I thought enough to stop at Dateland, Arizona, a small town full of date palm trees and not much else. There is a gas station there, which bills itself as the only 24/7 gas stop between Gila Bend and Tucson. There is also a restaurant and gift shop. The big news at the highway interchange is that they have built all new buildings for the store, gift shop, and resturaunt in the past two years. There is an RV park south of town. It seems almost inviting in the shade of the date palms until one sees the train pass within a hundred yards of it, then one is not so sure. It is too early to stop for more than fuel or lunch, so the interchange is what I got. The town to the north has been left to explore another time. When I get to it, it won’t take very long.
It is a pleasant place in good weather, which the Chamber of Commerce claims is most of the time, but I am sure it is just as awful as the rest of the desert when the wind blows dust or it is cold as only the desert can get on a winter’s night. The Gas Station, Store, and Gift Shop (the signs bear only those names) have been here since Dateland was established on U.S. 80 in the early 1920’s as a water stop for steam engines.
Its “growth” to the north came only after I-8 was built and when the town “moved” a block north. The old buildings here were finally replaced in 1997 and again two years ago. Two camps housed general Patton’s famed Tank Corps for training here in World War II before they were shipped to North Africa. Three airstrips were eventually built only to be abandoned three months later in an example of the oxymoronic nature of "Military Intelligence." The barracks at those bases served as a Prisoner of War Camp for Italian soldiers for the rest of World War II. Dateland, in its way, at this spot near the Mexican border, is a remarkably friendly place where snowbirds come in the winter to enjoy the solitude and the hardy year ‘rounders suffer 120 degree heat for at least a month during the monsoon season. It is hard to imagine how anyone would have found training here a pleasant experience in the days before air conditioning.
There are two monuments outside the restaurant. One is in memory of the training bases here during WW II. It was erected to thank the 50-65,000 men who passed through it for ending the war in Europe and Japan and especially for “stopping the Holocaust.” It is a well-written and poignant thing as monuments go. It was placed there by the schoolchildren many years ago. Another notes the explosion of a B-51 bomber north of town while on a training mission. There were two survivors among a crew of nine. Dateland obviously thought it should be remembered. It is interesting to find such things in a place passed a dozen times before. I will stop again I am sure, if only for the Date milkshakes which are nearly as good as they claim.
I gave up driving for the night at a State Park at Picacho Peak, some 400 miles from home. The literature tells you that early Native Americans came here in the heat of the summer to take advantage of both the elevation and the shade the mesas provided. It was also, on April 15, 1862 the site of the most “significant” Civil War battle in Arizona. An advanced detachment of Union troops from California attacked a Confederate scouting party. It lasted 1 ½ hours and three Union Soldiers were killed. So much is thought of this “battle” that it is re-enacted every year. Sorry I missed it. Must be something they get out of the way before noon. What they all were doing all the way out in this forsaken place is hard to imagine. They must have been looking for Texas. Perhaps complaining about driving it is now in better perspective. After all, those folks all walked here.
It is a pleasant place where one sits quietly and watches the desert rabbits, birds and what looks like a chipmunk forage in the evening among the various cactus species and the sun sink in the west over the band of lights that is the constant stream of traffic some miles off. It is stark and still, the sky bright with stars and a quarter-moon. There are but three campers here tonight. The campsites this time of year are one-nighters like us looking for a 30-amp power plug and a quiet place to sleep and a cool place to do it. I have always enjoyed it here and have never left the air conditioning on after dark. There are hiking trails and group camps but they are vacant now on this week day night on the edge of summer.
The next night, another 400 miles on, the surprise of the desert is City of Rocks State Park. Outside of Deming, NM, where the rolling dessert seems as endless as always, one suddenly climbs a hill and when it is crested, there is a long valley below that looks like Stonehenge. There are massive wind-carved rocks standing as sentinels out here quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Not one or a dozen, but hundreds of them. I was astonished enough to stop in the road. It is so out of place as to seem a movie set. It is lava rock now well washed by the wind, sand, and water. The boulders were pushed here thousands of years ago. They were left to cool after all was done and the place is enchanting, particularly on a 75 degree evening. It invites you to park between the huge rocks and spend the night. I find a space near the rocks and shelter from the wind. It is so dark here, the state has a telescope site in the visitor’s center. Astronomers from all over come to take advantage of the night sky nearly free of artificial light.
The desert has been good this year. Tomorrow I will stop at the White Sands Monument and then climb into the New Mexico’s mountains. After that it will be into Colorado and on to Kansas. For now the trip is about getting somewhere else and putting as many miles under the van as I can in a day and staying ahead of the rain to come soon. That will not change I leave the sand and the dry heat behind and climb to 7,000 feet since the goal is Virginia in a little more than a week. The desert has been fun, but I will be glad to know it will be three months before I see as much of it as I have now.
And so it goes.