If anyone’s wondering why I haven’t posted on this blog for the past few months… I blame Hollywood. I’m working on a new film studies project that goes hand-in-hand with a crash course on western movies, and I’m completely immersed. So immersed that when L. suggested we should take a vacation, the first place that came to my mind was Tombstone, Arizona. And because she’s an extremely good sport, she didn’t scowl.
On Saturday morning, we jumped in the car (not my car, which mysteriously failed to start due to a “computer short”) and headed east… into a monsoon. I know I don’t have any right to complain about the weather in southern California, since most of my east coast friends are currently living in igloos, and no one should ever complain about rain in a region where drought is an everyday reality… but I didn’t really want to spend our vacation in a “mud and rags” western (think: SHANE). In my imagination, Tombstone is the heart of the mythic Great American Desert, where it never rains. In reality, Tombstone lies at the heart of the Sonoran Desert – one of four North American deserts, and the one that gets the most annual rainfall.
We turned south at Indio because I wanted to make a movie-themed stop along the way. Once again my expectations were thwarted. I expected the landscape east of Anza Borrego to look like the Mojave Desert… or at least like Anza Borrego. Instead, we found ourselves in a thriving agricultural region – fed, I suppose, by water from the Salton Sea, and in great enough quantities to turn a desert into a relatively lush garden. A staggering sight which fairly begs questions about long-term sustainability.
We continued on to our first destination: the Imperial Sand Dunes near Glamis, California. Even if you haven’t been there, you’ve probably seen this area before. It’s better known as “Hollywood’s Sahara,” the setting of contemporary films like RETURN OF THE JEDI (remember the Sarlacc pit where Jabba the Hut tries to execute Luke, Han and Chewbacca?), STARGATE, and THE SCORPION KING.
As a horror fan, I also know it as the backdrop of the final confrontation in THE HITCHER (1986) – the one where serial killer Rutger Hauer pursues mama’s boy C. Thomas Howell across the desert in an attempt to either kill him or fuck him… you be the judge. (Don’t look for any such subtext in the paint-by-numbers 2007 remake.) As we crossed over from Edenic landscapes into Saharan waste land, the first thing we noticed was an appropriately ominous sign warning us not to venture off the road into the…. LIVE BOMBING AREA! I don’t know about you, but it makes me a little nervous to think that the local grocer’s fruits and vegetables are being grown right next to a contaminated bombing area. No wonder the region is producing monsters like Sarlacc and Rutger Hauer.
Like so many desert areas in the southwest, the Imperial Sand Dunes (as seen from Osborne Overlook, the highest point) appears impassably vast and unmercifully monotonous. On this particular day, however, it was neither hot nor dry – so my memory of the area is a little inaccurate. There was no blue sky, and no mountains in the distance. We drove past the nearby town of Glamis (where Jennifer Jason Leigh met her untimely end at a coffee shop in THE HITCHER), then turned south toward Yuma, Arizona.
As we neared Tucson, we quickly realized that there is one natural feature that clearly distinguishes the Sonoran Desert from the Mojave and the Great Basin: the saguaro cactus. Just as a newly arrived Brit might expect to see camels and Bedouins on the Imperial Sand Dunes, I came West three years ago expecting to see this particular cactus, because it’s featured so prominently in desert-based films (and Road Runner cartoons). Saguaros are common in a number of classic westerns – which is one way to determine if the film was made in the Tucson area.
Equally striking for someone who’s lived in L.A. for a few years were the clouds. On our second day in Arizona, we drove around listening to The Orb song “Little Fluffy Clouds,” which samples Ennio Morricone's harmonica and Rickie Lee Jones’s stoned ramblings about desert clouds. After the rain, the clouds were even more imposing than the landscape – the scenery was like something out of a John Ford movie. (I’m thinking in particular of the storm scene in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and of Howard Hawks’s homage to Ford in the funeral scene in RED RIVER.) After nightfall, the clouds cleared off and we saw more stars in the sky than I’ve seen since I was growing up in rural Virginia.
Around dusk, we were still an hour or so away from Tucson – perfectly timed for our second stop of the day, in Coolidge, Arizona. Coolidge is a sleepy farming community, distinguished mostly as the home of the nation’s first archeological reserve. The main attraction at Casa Grande National Monument is a 4-story “great house” built by an ancient tribe of Sonoran Desert indians sometime in the 14th century, at the height of their civilization. Think of it as a southwest Stonehenge. The openings in the walls are said to align with the sun and moon at particular times during the year, signifying the best times for planting, harvest and celebration.
The builders, a relatively unknown tribe of hunter-gatherers, had already ceased to exist by the 17th century when Spanish missionaries found the structure in ruins. The Pima Indians referred to their extinct neighbors as “Hohokam,” meaning “all-gone” or “all used up.” What the Hohokam used up was their water. Although they crafted elaborate irrigation systems to channel water from the nearby Gila River, they couldn’t control nature. In his book The New Desert Reader, Peter Wild writes: “Quite surprisingly to tourists today squinting against the glare of 100 degree heat shimmering over the huge ruins of Casa Grande National Monument rearing before them, some of the desert Indians prospered, at first planting corn and melons along the moist places of riverbeds, then over the centuries developing vast irrigation projects and sedentary, hierarchal societies necessary to maintain the complex waterworks… [but] though these ancient peoples grew in power, building the cities that have made the Southwest dearest to the hearts of American anthropologists, they did not prevail. Every few hundred years of so drought struck…”
I confess that I didn’t track this monument down because of its historical significance. I knew about Casa Grande only because Coolidge was the filming location of another outstanding 1980s horror film. Like THE HITCHER, the punk-western-vampire movie NEAR DARK was written by Eric Red, who deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award from horror fans. NEAR DARK also boasts a great director, a great cast, and a great score. No matter what accolades Kathryn Bigelow receives for THE HURT LOCKER on Oscar night this year, to me she will always be the director of NEAR DARK (well... and maybe POINT BREAK... and STRANGE DAYS...). The film is also, in my opinion, one of the high water marks of Lance Henriksen’s career, and he’s well supported by his ALIENS co-stars Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton (at his most gleefully sadistic). Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright also turn in solid performances as the star-crossed couple at the center of the film (though this in no way justifies the TWILIGHT-inspired art on the new DVD re-release of the film, which reduces the rest of the vampire family to minor characters). The whole movie gels perfectly to the rhythm of a typically pulse-pounding yet ethereal score by Tangerine Dream.
Visiting the Casa Grande National Monument made me appreciate NEAR DARK that much more… because it’s not hard, while standing in the shadow of this immense hand-built structure, to imagine an ancient race of people being granted immortality through their deeds. What we know about the Hohokam is based entirely on their craftsmanship, which has outlived many droughts. Casa Grande stands as a reminder that, in the desert, water is as precious as blood. And what better way to preface our trip to “the town too tough to die”?
“Dante Alighieri, it has always seemed to me, made the mistake of his life in dying when he did in the picturesque capital of the Exarchate five hundred and fifty years ago. Had he held on to this mortal coil until after Uncle Sam had perfected the ‘Gadsden Purchase,’ he would have found full scope for his genius in the description of a region in which not only purgatory and hell, but heaven likewise, had combined to produce a bewildering kaleidoscope of all that was wonderful, weird, terrible, and awe-inspiring, with not a little that was beautiful and romantic.”
- James G. Bourke, On the Border with Crook (1891)
The first known description of the Sagauro cactus in English literature:
“A species of tree, which I had never seen before, here arrested my attention. It grows to the height of forty or fifty feet. The top is cone shaped, and almost without foliage. The bank resembles that of the prickly pear; and the body is covered with thorns. I have seen some three feet in diameter at the root, and throwing up twelve distinct shafts.”
- from The Personal Narrative of James O. Pattie (1831)
As much as I like Lance, I'm glad he wasn't our driver...