This was the kind of tour where the operators promised to share the gossipy bits of a town’s past. Death, murder and rich vs poor were definitely topics on the agenda. (*spoiler* Rich wins. It wasn’t the first time.) So, despite the heat wave lingering over us, Glynn and I made the sixty-mile trek to the charming and picturesque former mining town where so much of Arizona’s history had occurred once upon a time.
When we arrived at the site and, almost magically, found a parking spot – the tourists were out in waves, cars were circling in droves – I thought it was a sign that things were going to work out. I was being overly optimistic. As Glynn said later, finding the parking spot was the highlight of the day. I wish I’d taken a picture of it.
If you’re wondering why I’m not mentioning the name of the town or the title of the tour, it’s because the people we met there were so lovely. Regardless of how things turned out, the tour operator tried his best to keep us happy, the tour guide tried his hardest to show us a good time. We liked them. I’m not going to rat them out.
(I love that phrase, “rat them out”, it’s so Jimmy Cagney-ish. To rat on somebody goes back to the Prohibition era, so Cagney fits. If the term had arrived a few decades earlier, I’d want to use it in one of our mail order bride stories. “I wouldn’t rat on you, Quincy,” the pockmarked man sniveled. “Not me. It must have been Malone” and, sure, I know how cheesy that sounds. It’s fun cheesy, if you ask me.
Still, I digress.)
Arriving at the tour office, we were told there would be five people on the tour. There was the two of us, happily accepting a couple of bottles of ice water, and a family of three. We’ll call that family, Fred, Ethel and Daughter. With the tour van trapped in one of the town’s parking lots, Fred and his missus went to the touristy bar next door and cooled themselves off with something that wasn’t iced water. Meanwhile, Daughter decided she’d rather do anything else than learn about the mysteries of this town’s past.
At the time, I thought Daughter was making a mistake. In hindsight, wherever she went for those 2.5 hours, I wish I’d gone there, too.
Meanwhile, the outside temperature kept rising. Taking a long look at the foursome that was accompanying him, our guide/driver decided this was a good day to abandon the walking portion of the tour and keep everyone in the van for the entire trip. Once the vehicle was freed from the parking lot, that’s exactly what happened. We climbed into the white Ford whatever-it-was and there we stayed.
The first thing the guide did was turn on the air conditioning. Because the van had been left in a parking lot, the air came out was fairly warm but that was okay. Sometimes it takes a little while for the coolant to kick in. And off we went, up into the mountains to…an unimpressive dirt lot where, if we looked through a chain-link fence, we could see some deserted-looking offices.
“Our story starts here,” the guide said, if my faulty memory serves, and he started talking about mines and mining and the growth of the town and –
I was a little distracted. The warm air stayed warm, blowing from the vents over our heads. Through the corner of one eye, I saw Fred in the seat behind me, trying to adjust his air controls. Whatever he did only made the vent blow harder. Not cooler, from what I could tell, but with significantly more force. While he struggled to return the mini-tornado back to its original setting, I sucked down what little water remained in my water bottle. Ethel was silent. As far as I could tell, she wasn’t moving at all. It was as if she’d climbed into the van and passed out from heat stroke.
Already starting to sweat as he talked, the guide turned toward us. Opening a big portfolio of photos, he showed us some ancient pictures of the town that used to be; the mine that used to be; the streets that used to be. At least, that’s what I think the photos showed. Most of them were so blurry, it was hard to tell.
Our guide acted as if these were the greatest pictures ever. Bright-eyed and apparently fascinated by the topic presented, Glynn asked some questions about mining life. I tried to adopt his attitude, asking different questions about the gold/silver/copper industry. I wanted to care, couldn’t quite manage it, but I tried.
Fred and Ethel didn’t share my false enthusiasm. Unmoving, they perched in the back seat like a pair of gargoyles in Hawaiian shirts.
Done with the parking lot, the guide raced the van into town. Despite the heat of the day, the sidewalks were packed and the streets were busy. (The people outside were crazy. I’d have been in a restaurant.) The passing traffic didn’t matter to our guide. Double-parking everywhere he went, the van inched along foot by foot as he narrated the history of every darn building we passed.
Crawl two feet. Stop, give a lecture. Crawl two feet. Stop, give a lecture. Not every location had a worthwhile story but, by gum, our guide was going to give us one, anyway. Photos flipped up, photos flipped down. Rivulets of water ran down every wrinkle in our determined guide’s face.
At long last, the van zipped out of town again and we all staggered into the terrible heat to look down a circular hole that supposedly extended into the earth. Maybe it was a mining shaft, or a water hole, I don’t remember; my mind no longer cared. This mysterious something was supposed to have been hundreds of feet deep, and maybe it was. Since the light illuminating the thing had gone out, it just looked like a black hole.
Edging up to me, Glynn whispered, “How are you doing?” Over to one side, I saw Ethel whispering to Fred. In the meantime, our guide kept chatting about the hole.
“I’m okay,” I said. It wasn’t true.
“Are you about done with this?” Glynn asked.
“I was two hours ago,” I whispered back. “I’m so done. I want to go home.”
“Another reason I love you,” Glynn said but, ever polite, we returned to the van and, being miles from our car and not wanting to interrupt whatever pleasure Fred and Ethel were getting out of this early preview of Hell, we went to our next stop without complaint. The warm air kept blowing, the pictures kept turning, the misery kept building, and not once did our gregarious guide think of mentioning an 1870s working girl struck down in her prime.
Finally, finally, we returned to the town and a few familiar streets. The van was rolling past the day’s highlight – our parking space – when Fred interrupted our guide. “When you come to a stop, let us off, would you?”
“You’re serious?” Even with sweat coating his entire head, the driver seemed surprised. “I thought I’d take you guys –”
“We think we saw our daughter,” Ethel said. “Right here would be good.”
“Please,” Fred said, in a voice that sounded a little strangled.
“We’re getting off, too,” Glynn cheerfully said. I wanted to kiss him.
Double-parking the van, the guide opened our doors. Everyone told him what a great job he did, tips are offered all around, and the four of us bounded for freedom. Striding away from us, Fred and Ethel never looked back. If they’d seen their daughter, they’d decided against joining her because they went down the street as quickly as they could, disappearing from sight within seconds.
For me, the entire experience was quite educational. I now know the price of copper in 1878, and how 19th century market fluctuations helped build an Arizona mountain town. I guess I’ll never learn the history of What’s-Her-Name or the details behind her brutal demise, but I also know this: Functioning air-conditioning is priceless.