Friday, February 18, 2011

Maricopa Memories

The Airstream trailer I lived in is gone but Headquarters is still there. The low tan building used to look out on the pickup trucks of cotton farmers and feed lot managers and the sagging cars of their employees. Now, a parade of SUVs heading to and from jobs in Phoenix shakes the building.

I can see where the trailer sat as I drive through the parking lot on the north side of Headquarters to park on the other side. The north side is the bar. From my trailer I had seen people lurch out the bar, fumble with their car keys, struggle to find the ignition, and drive away. More sedate drinkers parked on the other side, near the restaurant.

Inside the restaurant the tongue and groove paneling is preserved by a patina of refried bean, enchilada, and hamburger vapors. The wood is exposed where tables bump against it as patrons heave themselves out of the booths after the day's special. The day I visit it's a taco and a ground beef enchilada with rice and beans.

Framed Rotary Club presidents jostle each other on the back wall. Early presidents are black and white; later ones are in color and wear heavy rimmed-glasses. Decades of dust drape across the crowns of three velvet dress sombreros hanging nearby.

The housing boom of the early 2000s is preserved in the amber of polyurethaned ads in the table: realtors, excavators, and yard care services. The ads surround photos of four generations of the Ferrel and Mitchell families: the 1987 Maid of Cotton smiles, the first appointed mayor of Maricopa looks capable, and family members resemble each other.

After lunch my waitress gives me a ziplock bag of ice for the cooler in my trunk and tells me that the library, with its free WiFi, is on Porter Rd. and Smith-Enke. She names the roads as if she were saying, "Between Indian School and Camelback" in the middle of Phoenix. The last time I visited the Maricopa Library it was in a temporary building with a volunteer staff of one. I donated my Ms. Magazines after I read them.

I lived in Maricopa in the mid 1980s, before Phoenix commuters drove across the Gila River Akimel O'odham Reservation to find homes the realtors, banks, and cable TV shows convinced them they could afford. My Maricopa was a flat farmland where the only relief was the rectangles of pecan orchards and cotton fields. One evening I watched a dust storm move in and clocked its progress by counting the rows of trees disappearing in the Smith's orchard.

The pecan orchards were shady in the summer, but the cotton fields were steaming chest-high jungles that left my head and shoulders exposed to the sun as I scooped up insects in my sweep net and collected cotton bolls. I cracked the bolls open to look for pink bollworms later in the day, with beer, on my front porch.

The house I lived in the summer I looked for bollworms was nestled against the channelized Santa Cruz River. Each evening I sat on the berm that kept the river running in straight lines along field borders to watch the sun set behind the Sierra Estrellas, the Star Mountains. I watched the sun's slow waltz north to the summer solstice, where it paused before sliding back toward the south for its date with the winter solstice. The moon danced to a quicker beat, jitterbugging from southwest to northwest over the course of each month I lived next to the Santa Cruz.

Ripe cotton bolls and the Sierra Estrellas, 1984.

I leave the restaurant and drive toward the library. Maricopans no longer navigate by pecan orchards, cotton fields, and farm shops. Instead, signs direct drivers to developments by Centex, KB Homes, and DR Horton. You are your developer.

Tan houses covered with spray-on stucco loom over imitation adobe walls that strain to keep the metastasizing houses inside. Many of the second story windows peering over the walls are blank, emptied by foreclosures. Young, spindly desert trees and dusty shrubs try to make the barren roadways look welcoming. The desert sun is no longer captured by pecan trees, cotton, or alfalfa; it is reflected off of tile roofs, asphalt driveways, and paved roads that were graded soil the last time I drove them. Mary Poppins would have no trouble dancing across Maricopa from one roof to the next.

An over-55 development seems to have collected all the water from the rooftops and pavement in town. Water tumbles across artificial rocks in an artificial waterway and fills concrete block-lined pools between lush green lawns. I enter up the brick drive but am turned back by a 20-something guard in a faux stone guard shack larger than my apartment: I can only go in if I look at a model home. I tell him that I'm just visiting, seeing how Maricopa has changed since I lived here the mid 80s. "Oh," the young man in the guard uniform says, "It's really different now. There was nothing here back then!"

The Maricopa Library looks like an upscale bank--a cross between a strip mall and a Moroccan palace. I follow BMWs and Mercedes Benz across decorative pavers to park under a palm trees in the lot. Across Porter Road I see that the pistachio orchard planted by a man I used to date has been replanted with homes.

Three tall arches across the front of the library are filled with smoked glass windows and an imposing front door. Inside, wooden tables and chairs rest on earth toned carpeting. Translucent window screens are pulled down across the smoked glass, letting in light but keeping out the sun's heat.

A wooden basket-weave wall curves around the children's section; a Maricopa timeline is burned into it. I learn that Father Kino visited Maricopa Wells in 1694, that there was a 100-year flood in 1983, shortly before my first trip, then another one ten years later in 1993. The time line concludes near the rest rooms with the library's opening in 2009.

I answer email and check the mileage to Yuma, where I'm visiting friends this evening. I'm still reeling from the changes outside, but inside the library is like every other library where I've checked email while traveling. The remarkable thing is that it's lovely, but unremarkable.

Before leaving Maricopa I head east, away from the center of town, and see that the house where I watched the sun and moon set is gone. But the packed earth yard where it sat is still surrounded by farm fields, a buffer between Maricopa and the Gila River Reservation.

I turn south toward another surviving farm where I lived for a summer in a trailer near the quonset hut shop. As I near the highway to head to Yuma I stop a crew cab pickup truck leaving the farm to ask about a friend, who used to manage the place.

A large, hirsute man fills the driver's seat and his large brown dog fills the back seat. The man manages the farm now; my friend is his uncle, but they no longer talk. He identifies himself as the younger brother of the man I dated while I lived in Maricopa.

He tells me that his brother died several years ago. He is the first of my former boyfriends to die. I had assumed the first would be the one who sky dives, rock climbs, wind surfs, scuba dives, and once roller bladed, unsuccessfully, down Mexican Hay Mountain. I didn't ask if his brother lived long enough to see his cotton fields sprout a crop of tan houses with spray-on stucco.