From the funky (Jerome) to the metaphysical (Sedona) to the majestic (Verde Valley), central Arizona rocked our world. For more on our stay in central Arizona, check out PART I of this post.
We left Dead Horse Ranch State Park feeling spoiled and a bit nervous that it would be all downhill from here. How could any other park be as clean? Where else would the campground hostess drop by with a freshly baked apple pie to send us on our way? Where else would we wake up to the goofy and exotic calls of the Gambel’s quail?
Nevertheless, it was time to go. Before we left Nebraska, I’d spent two frantic weeks trying to line up interviews with two of Arizona’s finest writers: the famed novelist and poet Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall, Dalva, Wolf, etc.), and Philip Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, most recently, of The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, From Key West to the Arctic Ocean. Oddly enough, both Harrison and Caputo have winter homes in Patagonia, AZ, a town of just 900 people near the Mexican border. I figured both were a longshot, but I reached out anyway. By the time we landed at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, both writers had agreed to interviews in Patagonia, four hours due south, thus prompting us to immediately reserve a site at Patagonia Lake State Park.
The drive to Patagonia from Dead Horse was cold and snowy and – in parts – fairly hairy. Driving south on I-17, we passed semis flashing their hazard lights on the shoulder and cars that had lost control and spun out into the median. We kicked on the 4-wheel drive and drove 35 mph for a good hour, the traffic lining up behind us. Sorry, Arizona, but our trailer is worth more than your time. Putting Elsie in danger was, in our minds, beyond reproach. And then, I guess, there was our personal safety and blah blah blah. Anyway, we drove slow, and Elsie made it Patagona Lake unscathed.
Due to the snow and uncommonly cold weather, Patagona Lake State Park was even emptier than Dead Horse. Elsie was one of just four or five other vehicles in the entire park on the day we arrived. For the entirety of our three-day stay, that meant another big and spotless bathhouse to ourselves. No crowds. No noise. In a word: perfect.
There wasn’t much time to admire our surroundings on the evening we arrived. My interview with Philip was scheduled for the same night. Leaving Mel and the dog at the campground, I drove into Patagonia, to the address Philip sent me earlier in the week—not that it was necessary. Anyone in town could have pointed me toward his house, and if not, the process of elimination would have taken less than two hours. Patagonia consists of the highway, one main street just off the highway, and two or three side streets bordering on wilderness.
After introducing me to his wife Leslie and two dogs, Philip suggested we grab a drink and talk at the Wagon Wheel Saloon, a ramshackle bar on the highway that, if transplanted to Brooklyn, would have been quickly gentrified by hipsters. But in Patagonia, nay. The Wagon Wheel Saloon is the local haunt, free of irony. Philip and I ordered a shot of tequila each and grabbed a booth in the corner. For the next hour, we talked shop – writing, traveling, reporting, life in Patagonia – interrupted now and again by locals excited to see Philip back in town for the winter. I’d just picked up a copy of The Longest Road, and though I hadn’t quite finished, I already felt a kinship with Philip and his wife Leslie, who’d rented a classic Airstream and hit the road in 2011. I felt acutely the problems Philip narrated so well in his book (parking, turning, issues with the holding tank, quarrels with the significant other, etc.). My first scheduled interview of the trip felt perfectly in tune: a young (ish) reporter just starting his road trip, drinking tequila with a veteran reporter who had just finished his own.
I drove Philip back to his house (a mere three or four blocks), spoke briefly with Leslie about Audubon Magazine (with whom we have both worked), and headed back to Patagonia Lake. Mel met me at the door of the camper, glad to see me, but a bit irked that I’d spent three more hours in town than either of us had planned.
Still on somewhat of a high from the night before (a good interview leaves me feeling good for at least a few days), Mel and I drove in the next day to work at the only coffee shop in town, a cozy little place called the Gathering Grounds Café. Around 3:00, I left Mel at the shop and drove a few miles out of town to Jim Harrison’s adobe ranch house. His daughter Jamie - a published novelist herself - met me at the door and led me to his office in the back. I don’t remember exchanging any pleasantries. What I do remember was finding Jim sitting shirtless at his desk, two packs of American Spirits stacked like playing cards beside him, a greasy ointment smeared across his back to help ease his shingles. I’d read enough profiles of Jim in recent years to know he’s not in the best physical shape. I knew his left eye wandered and sometimes glued itself shut. But I wasn’t prepared for the shingles, or the long scar running down his lower back from a recent spinal surgery. Nevermind all that, I told myself, the interview must go on.
And so it did, for nearly an hour and a half. We talked about his career as a writer, and briefly as a screenwriter, and about his distaste for creative writing programs. And for a good chunk of time we talked Nebraska, particularly the Nebraska Sandhills, which Jim has written about in many of his books and which, in a recent New York Times travel essay, he called “without a doubt the most mysterious landscape in the United States.” I’ve quoted that line for years now, never imagining that one day I’d inhale his secondhand smoke and ask him about it in person. He’d been to my hometown of Broken Bow. He loves the Nebraska Capitol building as much as I do. In short, it was a thrilling interview for me. I thought that was it, and I was more than happy about it, when he insisted that we head back to town for a drink at – you guessed it – the Wagon Wheel Saloon. It would be my second drink at the Saloon in the last 24 hours. He told me to call up Mel and have her meet us there.
Twenty minutes later Mel and I were sitting outside the Wagon Wheel Saloon, drinking beer with the author of Legends of the Fall and a group of hunters from Patagonia. If he wasn’t already, Jim was now completely relaxed, allowing himself a lewd comment or two, more expletives. As if the whole scene weren’t strange enough, one of the hunters who stopped by to drink with our table was from Northeast Nebraska, where Mel was born and raised. They knew people in common—lots of them. After another hour of drinking, Jim kissed Mel’s gloved hand, bid us both farewell and drove home.
[Note: I’m leaving out many of the specific details of my encounters with Jim and Philip. I’d love to use the material for a magazine piece, and don’t want to use up too much of that material here. Obviously, you’ll be the first to know when that article is up!]
After dinner, we siphoned some internet from a local business to download a few more Homeland episodes (we’re junkies, okay?!), and landed back at Patagonia Lake with Elsie and Costello, still a bit confused about how this night all came together.
We spent our last day in Patagonia catching up on more work. In the afternoon, the three of us (Mel, Costello and I) jogged through the nearby Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, sandwiched between the Patagonia and Santa Rita moutnains. The ups and downs kicked my ass, but as usual Mel and Costello flew right through it all, no problems.
We headed out early the next morning, our sights set on southern New Mexico’s Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. On the way, we made a brief detour to walk the streets of Bisbee, Arizona, a supremely cool and cozy mountain town, like Jerome’s polished younger brother. The streets were lined with galleries and breweries and churches of all denominations. We couldn’t stay for long, but we vowed to someday return.
So long, Arizona. We'll miss you.