Wheezing in Wickenburg
The Yuma area was getting a bit toasty already, and although a cooler front was predicted to move in after a uncomfortably hot week, duty called – I’m hoping to intercept a good friend who doesn’t RV, but who travels out west more than I do! Time to head for Wickenburg Arizona, one of my all-time favorite towns.
At an elevation of 2,100′, it drops Yuma’s 90-degree sweatymans existence to nicer levels. Quartzsite would have been acceptable these days, but once I overnighted there yet again on the way here, I realized that the magnificent Imperial Dam LTVA had ruined me for anything else. In comparison, Quartzsite is simply a baked-out stopover for other places having considerably more charm.
Wickenburg is one of those places. Named as one of the top True West towns in the country, Wickenburg pumps its past pretty hard. It has to, because it depends quite a bit on tourism – which is a bit of a thin soup these days. But, it’s still a fact that the area is still peppered with small working ranches despite large pockets of wealthier folks trying to associate with something close to authentic by building megabuck homes here. A cruise through the local grocery will reveal far more nondescript, fluffy suburbanites like myself than hatted and booted ranch hands, but anywhere else, you won’t find any of the latter at all. The bottom line is that although Wickenburg is clearly gentrified, it’s also retained a perceptible core of the just-trying-to-make-a livin’ folks that wandered in over a century ago.
An aside: I once read some young Western woman’s comment on discerning the difference between real cowboys and the horde of pretenders suiting up for fun and social mayhem. Like, if I throw on some jeans, a cowboy hat and boots, who’s to tell I’m not workin’ on a ranch somewheres, li’l filly? I assume she was speaking in terms of cohabiting some dingy bar. Her ultimate gauge – and I bow to her experience as a True Western Gal, is that if the jean legs are not obviously too long, she’s looking at a poser. With half a dozen legit readers, I don’t think I’m letting anything out of the bag here.
Now, before you guys start heading out to The Gap to replace your jeans, I’ll share the meager and wobbly interpretations I’ve developed, outside the high-pressure context of a bar at night. I don’t claim accuracy – I’m just saying how I see it so far, ‘kay? Younger guys, caucasian or hispanic, wear their hats down low, as if there’s only one position for it that must work regardless of calm or gale. If you ever have to readjust, it means you made a mistake in the first place. Their Western hats are chosen for function. There are no deformed, warpy, “on-stage”, I’m-a Western-singer hat caricatures here. The brim is wide and intact enough to keep the relentless sun off, but the crown is screwed down tight enough to never let it be blown off. Long-sleeved, patterned thin cotton “dress” shirt. The purpose is to keep the sun off without causing unbearable overheating. Jeans. Lean physique. Boots. The boots can be Western, or they may be work boots. Kinda depends what you expect to be stepping on or in. No fancy accoutrements, no silver baubles, no feathers, everything plain. On a trip to town on Sunday, clean, pressed, shined, and plain.
Put indelicately, there are no pudgy cowboys. Or females of that persuasion, for that matter. Not working ones. Sweat it off or work it off, it can’t stay unless some metabolism gland fell out and got kicked into a ditch along the way.
Geezers like myself are easier for me to spot. Owners look a lot like posers, or guys with beer guts packed into a theme uniform. They look sedentary, know what I mean? The real thing ranges from the lean and fit older gentleman, to a lean but bent figure who obviously blew out his back or knees some time ago. Doesn’t seem to slow him down much, though. All wear the de rigueur dress shirt and so on, but the hat is no longer bolted down – he no longer needs to or can handle the kinds of things that require that. That’s for the young toms to prove themselves with. The older ones appear not to have changed their personal dress style since they were young, they look slightly less current and more traditional, and they wear what they wear with unthinking confidence.
Young or old, not a one is in the least self-conscious or seemingly aware that they are dressed any differently than anyone else in the area. Your average cop, bristling with hardware and authority, is aware, and so are military people in uniform on the road. Not these guys. The “do I fit in” myopia of the average citizen exists, if at all, only in some parallel dimension. They are where they are, this is a highly functional tradition that still works just fine today, and they are silently proud of their heritage. You want to get out there to work in a T-shirt, shorts, baseball cap or an old pair of Air Jordans, that’s your business, and good luck with that. Not every way of life has been electronified, mechanized to pushbutton, or homogenized. Just yours and mine. A few people still have to do some errands in town before they get the stock in the trailer and get going. There are bills to pay. End of aside.
Most short-term places I stay are on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, where you can stay for a couple of weeks before moving 25 miles to another BLM area. Wickenburg is most closely surrounded by State Land, also called State Trust land. Unlike BLM land, it’s not public land existing for public access. It’s largely leased for grazing, mining, or other business that will generate income. What’s left is often open to very limited camping. A permit is required which costs $15 a year, but that permit is only good for 14 days of camping per year, grand total.
Why bother with it? Good question. There are two reasons, the lesser of which is that State Land can’t be beat for a mix of beauty and proximity to the most useful parts of Wickenburg. I stayed at Box Wash (BLM) last year, and despite glowing reviews from those much more versed than I, found it to be objectionably dusty and noisy from a consistent parade of ATV users. It’s main virtue was poor enforcement of the two-week limit by BLM Rangers, probably since it is a very confined camping area. Due to trail conditions, only vans and small van conversions were able to continue on up into a much nicer and more secluded hilltop area a mile away. Running solo, the Mighty Furd required 4WD to get there, so there was no hope for adding the Defiant. Way too heavy, and way, way too little clearance. My current location this year is exactly four miles from town over glass-smooth paved roadway.
The second reason to bother with a State Land permit is that the borders to it are unmarked. If you wander about and find a nice campsite, you need to be able to guess accurately who owns or administrates the land. Guess wrong, and you’re dealing with the County Sheriff about technical trespassing or actual tresspassing, which is a bit different than dealing with a BLM Ranger about having overstayed your welcome. Having somewhat limited means, I don’t have a good way to determine where I am. Oh, I have the GPS, which can give me exact coordinates. What I lack is a reference to State Land borders.
There’s an interactive map online, but as far as I can tell you can’t feed your coordinates in to see where you are. You can only tap where you think you might be on the murky and vague map, read the coordinates that pop up, and compare them to your own. Then tap somewhere else to see if those coordinates are any closer. Tedious and time-consuming, as well as requiring a working cellular internet connection. The Sheriff of course has the equipment to determine that status instantly, but you’ll only see him when you’d really rather not. With the $15 permit, you can mess up your location and still come out clean.
The four-mile trip to town on a bicycle is entirely feasible, especially given the 500′-plus altitude change. The way to town is largely downhill with about a third of it in top gear, taking about 15 minutes. I can do this! The way back is the gut-buster, at least for someone of my not-so-tender years. That took me a bit less than an hour, most of it spent in the very lowest gear (which is about as fast as walking). Let’s say, three miles of pathetically slow chugging in low-low on a mild grade that would have once inspired a “stand-up and pump for it” challenge in a mid-range gear, is a fairly effective reminder of the traditional caution of Roman servants to their generals upon returning home in triumph: “Remember thou art mortal”.
Handy tip: carry two water bottles, maintain a sense of just how listlessly your heart is wheezing along under the unrelenting stress, forget how great the same climb would have been many decades ago, and don’t dwell on how stringy your leg muscles insist on staying these days merely because they seem about to fall off.
There’s no need to consciously “remember thou art mortal” as you struggle uphill, since the saying rolls out in front of you unbidden, like a vast, illustrated tapestry of the senses. It’s a little like reaching a higher plane of enlightenment, except that this particular enlightenment plane has an engine on fire and is losing altitude over water. You might win this battle today, but the war, no way – your lines of supply are relentlessly being cut over time. They don’t call ’em the declining years for nothing, but the most effective way to slow the process down is to keep moving one’s posterior. Perhaps I can learn to “embrace the wheezing” in my future trips, as a process of personal growth. That sounds positive.
Since town is north of here, the perfect trip is to have a north wind. That way, you’re coasting downhill into the wind, and have a tailwind on the way back when every ounce of pedal pressure counts. Nirvana. That hasn’t actually happened yet. The wind seems to shift at the wrong time. I keep thinking that the trip back will never end, but it does, after much too long. I’m very thankful when I reach the trailer again, which doesn’t explain why I’m looking for reasons to bike to town again the next day.