Wednesday, June 7, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Dispatches From the Road:|Sonoran Desert, Arizona

(CN) — We had set out from Augusta, Maine, more than a week before — two restless kids determined to find a better future in the West, my Geo Prizm filled to the brim with all our belongings.

I remember the snowbanks lining the street I grew up on receding in the distance, some of my mother's final words to us — an admonition that my latest hand-me-down car wouldn't make it out of Maine — still boiling my blood in a way that only a parent of a know-it-all child can.

After stopping in Portland for one last view of the big city, we drove to Virginia. In my memory the hills there were a lush green and everything was somehow also a bright purple.

The "Virginia is for Lovers" stickers reminded me of my doting grandmother, who shared the first name of that beautiful state. She had passed away only a few years back, the first time I could remember the death of someone I loved; two of my other grandparents left this lonely rock when I was very young.

Virginia's widower lived another decade, in turns delighting our family with his detailed stories and at others tormenting us — mostly my sister, the only one he thought understood technology — with his endless computer problems.

After spending two days sweating out bad hurricanes and even worse Abita beers while traipsing around pre-Katrina New Orleans, we struck West in earnest, blowing through Texas as quickly as possible without running the risk of being pulled over.

When we reached the orchards, mountains and deserts of New Mexico, I wanted to slow down and remain for a while, but what little money we'd had we'd frittered away letting les bon temps roule, and besides, we had beaches to get to and a new life to start at the end of the rainbow that was Interstate 8.

Alternating four-hour shifts behind the wheel, we made good headway through the increasingly hot and barren Southwest. We reached our normal 12-hours-per-day limit near Tucson, Arizona.

In my aggressive moderation and eternal but hopeless desire to stick to itineraries I lobbied to stop, but my companion — forever stretching the limits — declared that he could keep going till morning. I just shrugged, mumbled something only I could possibly hear, put in a new CD, turned up the volume and leaned my head against the passenger window.

His fire extinguished past midnight close to the California border, as we approached a place called Yuma. I consulted the AAA travel book for Arizona, part of a set that my forever loving if skeptical parents had given me for the journey. I quickly found a recommended hotel, possibly a Holiday Inn, which I called and booked.

We soon pulled in, another anonymous crew at another cookie-cutter hotel that, in the dark, could have been anywhere in the country if it weren't for the still-intense heat.

Not long after arriving we passed out in our separate beds, exhausted but thrilled to be only a few hours away from our new home at the other end of the country.

The phone rang in my dream. I picked it up, but it kept ringing.


I opened my eyes. The clock said 4:31. I reached out my arm for the phone, then heard my friend's voice.

"Is there anything left?!"

"Oh shit. We'll be right out."

"Dude, get up, they stole everything in your car!"

I threw on shorts and ran out to the parking lot, well behind my friend. I could barely make out the police cruiser in the distance.

When we got to the rusty car I saw the broken glass on the driver's side, reached my hand in, unlocked and opened the back door, lifted back the blanket covering our belongings, put my hands on the top of the car and sighed.

The tiny TV was still there. My stereo, still there. My friend's guitar, his prized possession, still there. All our belongings in the back, still right where we left them.

"What did they take?" Ben asked.

"The stereo," the cop replied. Sure enough, where the car stereo should be was just a hole.

The cop chided us for not removing the detachable front to the stereo, especially in a place like Yuma, known for petty theft as it was, but I didn't care. They didn't get anything else, and the lack of a stereo only added to the character of a car that would soon become a legend in my small social circle.

That car lived another nine years before the state of California in its infinite wisdom paid me $1,000 dollars to retire it, even though it was worth only $250, in mint condition, according to the Kelley Blue Book Index. And lacking a stereo (yet another one was stolen years later in Oakland before I gave up the stereo ghost) and cup holders (also pilfered in Oakland — seriously, who steals cup holders?!), with two front doors that would only open from the outside, no knobs on any of the window cranks, one donut tire and three other bald ones, faulty brakes, multiple food and dog stains in the back, rusted on the bottom from years in Maine and faded almost to white on the top from being parked outside in the California sun, that car was about as far from mint as it could get.

But that's another story for another time.

I slept fitfully the rest of the night after taping up the window with a trash bag provided by the front desk clerk, wondering if our belongings would still be in the car at daylight.

They were. It seems thieves in Yuma had little use for obsolete second-hand electronics equipment or used books.

While driving through the Coyote Mountains the next day I wondered out loud, after down-shifting to second gear, if a car could be so laden down with belongings, its aerodynamics compromised by a smashed window (the shards of which I more than once pulled from my thighs while driving and threw at my friend), that it would stop or, even worse, roll down the hill back into El Centro, California.


In what should be obvious to every reader by now, I'm no physicist, but my little Geo-that-could made it to the end of the freeway and into Ocean Beach, where I lived for a few years in apartments with varying numbers of vermin before moving north for grad school, even more in debt than before, but more determined than ever to make my home on the left coast.

My friend lasted only nine months before heading back to the warmth of his extended family in Maine. Though we go years without seeing each other, when we do it's like no time has passed. He still apologizes for leaving me in San Diego, and I still tell him to stop apologizing for doing what we all knew he needed to do.

Besides, I had planned to go alone at first until he volunteered to join on a whim, and I was going to make it work, no matter what.

Thirteen years later I found myself once again on the highway to Yuma, this time a planned destination at the end of a hiring-and-training trip that started in Tucson before continuing to the beautiful and tripped-out hippie enclave of Bisbee, where I bought a bumper sticker that I would stick on one of my many fridges where I ferment and chill homebrew. The sticker marketed Bisbee as "Like Mayberry on Acid."

After driving through a monsoon outside Tucson that slowed traffic to a crawl I noticed my gas tank was reading only a quarter full. I searched for "gas stations near me" on the trusty Google Maps app on my cellphone, which assured me the nearest station was only 30 miles away on Interstate 8.

A short while later, while troubleshooting technical problems with reporters over the phone, I noticed the little gas tank light had come on.

But I worried not because I was approximately ten miles from the gas station.

My confidence didn't wane when, after pulling off the road, I noticed the station sign was missing part of its bottom half, and the red text of the prices had faded to pink. After all, Google Maps had assured me the station was open, and the signs on the freeway confirmed as much.

One set of tanks to the left appeared abandoned, but a separate set to the right looked slightly more promising. As I pulled up I noticed they were all green: diesel. And empty in any case.

Certainly I was missing something. Perhaps the long drive through the desert after two long days of doing interviews had rendered me more clueless than usual.

As I pulled up to the open store, a man standing outside his car shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.

I parked and got out of the car.

"Let me guess," I said.

"No gas," he answered. "I just called AAA. I should have stopped at the Shell just down the road. Now I'm almost all the way through my reserve tank. I don't know if I'll make it to the closest station, and I don't want to get stuck in the mountains without cell reception. And hey, what's the point of having AAA if you don't use it, right?"

"How far was the Shell?" I asked.

"Oh, about 10 miles to the west."

"Cool, I think I can make it there. I'm going to ask the guy if there is a closer place, though, just in case."

I stuck my head in the almost-empty store, and asked the clerk sweeping the dusty floor with a broom made for driveways and patios how far the Shell was.

"You mean the one to the west? 34 miles."

The waiting driver heard the answer and laughed. "I guess the heat messed up my brain. Sorry, man."

"Where is the closest one?" I asked the clerk.


"Which way you heading?"

"To Yuma.... Um, west."

"If you go back east on the 8 it's about 30 miles, but if you go that way it's 10 miles to the Triple K in Stanfield." He pointed away from the 8, into what looked like abandoned desert with mountains in the distance.

"Ten miles on the 84 east, right?"


I checked Google Maps again, which promised me the Triple K in Standfield was open, but now I was skeptical.

"Good luck, man," I said as the AAA truck pulled into the lot.

"You too. I hope you make it," he said.

I contemplated asking the AAA driver if he had a portable tank on board with just enough gas in it to get me to the Shell to the west, but I wasn't sure he did. Besides, he wasn't there to help me, and I'd let my membership lapse years before, and my lack of gas was my problem, not his.

While I believed I had plenty of gas to make it the 10 miles, I turned off the AC, despite the 110 -degree heat, determined not to waste a single drop.

As I drove down the desert highway that meandered past a dreary and pungent dairy farm, I intermittently checked my Google Maps, with the niggling feeling that I might have pushed my luck too far this time.

Once again, the Mainer in me (technically Maniac, as noted in a previous column) railed against my lack of preparedness. Bah. I never was a very good Mainer anyway.

When the app told me I was only two miles from the gas station I began to relax, thinking that I hadn't got in my exercise today anyway, and I was well within my range to run to the store, buy a portable tank and some gas, and run back to the car. I decided to ignore the realities of the searing heat, my already high level of dehydration, my earlier doubts that the station even existed, and even if it did, that it still had gas, and portable tanks, not to mention whether I could even run with a portable gas tank in hand.

I pulled up to the Triple K, and almost shouted with joy when I saw the two tiny old tanks, with a battered but functioning sign showing what was certainly an exorbitant price for gas. I didn't care. I'd made it.

When I finished fueling the tank I realized I was only 0.3 gallons away from an empty tank. Almost like I planned it.

Inside I bought a large water and a small cup of lukewarm, rancid coffee, made a bad joke to the cashier about the new chip cards and how technology was making our lives easier, and then headed once more for Yuma, determined this time to not leave a single valuable in my car for thieves to take.


I even checked to make sure the front of the stereo wasn't detachable before going into the hotel to check in, only to realize that — once again — I'd gone to the wrong Marriott.

But that too is another story for another time.

About our coverage of Arizona

Courthouse News Service has provided daily coverage of Maricopa and Pima counties and the United States District Court for Arizona for more than a decade. CNS began regular in-person coverage of Yavapai County in 2009, Pinal County in 2015, and Mohave, Yuma and Cochise counties earlier this year. In the near future, CNS will begin regular in-person coverage in Coconino County.

Maricopa County Facts

County Seat: Phoenix

Population: 3.9 million

Named After: Maricopa Native American Tribe

Interesting tidbit: Phoenix is home to South Mountain Park, the nation's largest city park. Coming in at more than 16,000 acres, the park features nearly 60 trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.

Read more CNS coverage of Maricopa County news

Judge finds Sheriff Joe Arpaio in civil contempt in racial profiling class action

Voting delays in Arizona's presidential primary leads to DOJ investigation

9th Circuit OKs tribe's casino 160 miles north of headquarters

Gov. Doug Ducey wants Arizona out of the 9th Circuit

Pima County Facts

County Seat: Tucson

Population: 990,000

Named After: Pima Native American Tribe

Interesting tidbit: Tucson is home to the University of Arizona. Founded in 1885, the land-grant university was the first in what was then the Arizona Territory. In the fall of 2015 total enrollment eclipsed 42,000 students.

Read more CNS coverage of Pima County news

Humanitarian Crisis on U.S.-Mexico Border

Famous Hendrix Guitar Allegedly Found in Tucson Store

Tucson Transit Strike Talks Grind On

Arizona Gay Marriage Ban Struck Down

Arizona E-Bench Projects Lauded

Pinal County Facts

County Seat: Florence

Population: 387,000

Named After: Pinal Peak, in what is now neighboring Gila County. A Spanish word, Pinal means pine grove.

Yavapai County Facts

County Seat: Prescott

Population: 212,000

Named After: Yavapai Native American Tribe, the principal inhabitants when Arizona was annexed by the United States

Interesting tidbit: The world-famous town of Sedona, with its distinctive red rocks and multiple vortices, straddles both Yavapai and Coconino counties.

Mohave County Facts

County Seat: Kingman

Population: 203,000

Named After: The Mohave Native American people

Interesting tidbit: Part of the Grand Canyon is in Mohave County.

Yuma County Facts

County Seat: Yuma

Population: 201,000

Named After: A former name for the Quechan Native American Tribe

Coconino County Facts

County Seat: Flagstaff

Population: 135,000

Named After: A former name applied to Native American groups including the Havusapai and Hualapai

Interesting tidbits: Part of the Grand Canyon is in Coconino County, which is the second largest county in the United States behind San Bernardino County in California.

Cochise County Facts

County Seat: Bisbee

Population: 131,000

Named After: An Apache chief and leader of an 1861 uprising against the American government

Interesting tidbit: In 1917, Bisbee was the site of a mass kidnapping and deportation of 1,300 striking mine workers, spearheaded by mining company Phelps Dodge. The workers were forced to board cattle cars by a gun-wielding posse, where they were shipped out to New Mexico. Twenty-one Phelps Dodge executives were arrested by the Justice Department for their involvement, but were later released after a judge found they did not violate federal law.

Read more CNS coverage of Pinal, Yavapai, Mohave, Yuma, Coconino and Cochise counties

Fundamentalist Towns Hit with $2.2 Million Verdict

Cop v. Cop at Pinal County 'Titties & Beer' Party

Detectives claim they were fired after reporting a lieutenant returned evidence to suspects

Ninth Circuit doubts Prescott's authority to impose fluoride limit

Prescott Valley officials allegedly allowed toxic dumping

Photos: Chris Marshall/CNS


Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.