WELCOME TO GILA BEND
I was lying on my back staring out through the ceiling vent at a sky so hot it was no longer blue, only a blistering white. At fourteen the world is an inhospitable place, especially if its peopled with younger brothers. Fortunately, the rocking of the camper had finally lulled them to sleep. Abruptly the rocking stopped and the quiet was ripped open with a loud bending, twisting screech. The sound seemed to go on and on. My brothers on the bunk below awoke with a jerk, and in their excitement began bouncing on the bunk. We knew it couldn’t be a car wreck; the bump we felt was to small for something that awful to have happened. Shoving my way between two hyper boys, I landed on the cool linoleum and slipped on my blue flip-flops. I had learned a few days earlier one does not jump out onto blacktop in bare feet, if one wants to walk and not hobble embarrassingly through the Old Yuma Prison.
I swung down to the ground and rounded the end of the camper at a run. My dad stood just outside the driver’s door looking up toward the white-hot sky, a smile on his face.
When we had trouble, we could judge how bad it was by the broadness of my father’s smile. His philosophy was, there is nothing we can’t fix given a little time. I glanced to my right and saw my mother sitting with poker straight arms, gripping the steering wheel, white knuckles, head bowed between her two outstretched arms. The heat was moving in waves over the hood of the truck and across the sand.
I looked past my dad and saw a small white building with large plate glass windows.
Pressed against the windows were people’s faces with mouths round as a cheerios. My father turned and in a calm even tone said, “You can back up now, Mary.” Then he turned and started walking toward the little building. A small groan, almost like a sigh emanated from my mother’s mouth. As her head came up, I saw the sweat had plastered strands of hair to her flushed forehead. She had been driving steadily for the past four days through heat, rain, sandstorm, and the unrelenting fear that one of the freeway overpasses would be to low to accommodate the turtle shell of a camper sitting on her bent back, thus scraping her family off and into oblivion.
The corner of a seventy foot long corrugated metal patio roof kissed the corner of the camper shell. The patio-roof, and small white building, were an ice-cream parlor and only one of about five businesses that made up the downtown area of Gila Bend Arizona. The corrugated metal roof was no longer lying smoothly on its rod-iron columns; it had buckled and bent into an accordion shape, that no longer resembled a roof.
My mother, brothers, and I stare at the monstrosity in stupefied silence. My father, approaching across the sweltering sand parking lot, held five melting ice cream cones in his hands. He handed my mother the first ice cream cone and smiled at all of us.
“Enjoy this! It is the most expensive ice cream you will ever eat.”
ARE YOU PEOPLE CRAZY?
Our family vacations have always been a cross between an adventure into the unknown and a comedy of errors. My mother was always the rational one on the edge of panic, and my father the responsible one with a flair for adventure. Between these two we seemed to have all the bases covered when we lurched into the great world beyond. However, our unorthodox approach to vacations sometimes resulted in narrow escapes.
One June when we had just finish school and had been home long enough for my mother to wish she had reconsidered having children, my father announced that he had a few weeks before he started building the next house for one of his clients. What that meant in “Dad speak” was: How fast can we pack the camper and hit the road? Usually, this statement also meant that we had less than two days to prepare, and no real plan as to our final destination.
One example of our unusual approaches to vacations occurred the previous summer. We were on our way to the Salton Sea dressed in our bathing suits and pulling our ski boat behind the Pontiac. We got as far as the Laguna Mountains before Dad asked if we would rather go on to Texas? We voted and took off for Texas, all of us wearing our bathing suits and dragging our ski boat.
Now, not to digress to much from the main body of our story but I need to relate the almost mythic ability of my father to fall asleep anywhere, anytime, and sleep through absolutely anything. In fact he slept through all the car races that we went to in the old San Diego Stadium: to put this feat into perspective, think about sleeping through NASCAR while sitting in the front row of the stands. He also fell asleep on the lava rocks below the cliff of our house in Mexico. If I had not walked onto the deck and seen the waves coming in with the turn of the tide, he most likely would have been washed out to sea. He was fishing from the rocks, and because he was always exhausted form the heavy construction he did, he could not sit down without falling asleep. I scaled down a hundred foot cliff, hanging onto the rope we had tied there for access to the beach below our house. Screaming, waving my arms, and hopping across the sharp lava rock, I must have looked like a demented mother hen. I reached him just as the waves began to wash over the rock where he slept. Dad could sleep through the Second Coming.
This new vacation, however, had a destination: Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon, so, of course, this trip to Arizona was to be another example of adventure and mayhem. We were so excited and eager that I think we were packed by four-thirty that same afternoon. The road to Mesa Verde was beautiful, the red rock cliffs and tree-covered canyons simply breathtaking. On the third day out we decided to find a campground that was a little off the beaten path, since where we had camped the two previous nights was crowded and noisy. Entering a very small town, we pulled into the local gas station and got directions to a beautiful little campground, located at the base of the mountain. However the road to the campground was steep and unpaved, wending, almost straight up and down with one small turn about half-way down. But at the bottom was a picture-perfect glade with a small brook burbling under a wooden bridge. On the other side was a camping area with tables and fire pits illuminated by the dappled sun streaming through the canopy of century-old oaks, peopling this idyllic setting. We soon set up camp, had a delicious dinner, and sat around the campfire listening to the quiet evening in this perfect place. At about ten that evening my mother and I retired to the camper, while my brothers were going to sleep in a tent my dad had set up for them. My dad, every the nature lover was going to sleep on a cot outside so that he could see the stars.
At some point during the night, I was awakened by the sound of thunder and flashes of lightning. I sat up in my warm, safe bunk and looked out at the amazing spectacle that God was putting on for us. Being from Southern California, we rarely saw lightning so stupendous that it made the night as bright as day. The rain began in earnest and very soon my two brothers came bounding into the camper. Their tent had collapsed under the weight of the rainwater, and since the tent had no floor, the sleeping bags soon became waterlogged cocoons. We waited some minutes for my dad to appear. The longer we waited for him the more panicked my mother became. Finally, she sent my brothers out to get him: I believe her exact words were:
“Go wake your father before he drowns!”
He was still sleeping face-up in the driving rain.
At last we all got safely into the camper and bedded down for the night. Just as we were dropping off, pounding on the camper door startled us all awake. My dad opened the door, and standing there was a soggy forest ranger with rain dripping from his Smokey the Bear hat.
“ARE YOU PEOPLE CRAZY? CAN’T YOU SEE IT’S RAINING?” he yelled over the storm.
My dad, seeing that the ranger was soaked to the skin, asked him if he wanted to come in. The Ranger emphatically replied,
“ You need to get out of here now! This is a canyon and we get flash floods!”
We needed no further motivation. We were packed and across that little wooden bridge in under three minutes.
However, this was only the beginning of our adventure. The road up the mountain, which had seemed steep and narrow on the way down, had by then turned into the proverbial road from hell. The dirt which had been stable earlier that day had now turned into a quagmire. For every five feet forward, the truck and camper slid three feet back down toward the yawning maw from which we came. We could see our slow progress because the lightning continued fast and furious, illuminating that lovely little campground.
We had made it almost to the top of the road when we heard what could only be described as a runaway train barreling down the canyon toward the little campground, where shortly before we had innocently placed out tents. The wall of water swept everything before it: the bridge, the ancient trees, and all that stood before in that idyllic glade disappeared. The echo of that sound still haunts me today.
We looked on in stunned silence and knew that God and a forest ranger had just saved our lives. I know you are thinking how could they be so stupid. But in our defense we were from San Diego where it never rains like that ever. We had never heard of the kinds of flash floods that Arizona gets. Nowadays everyone knows not to camp in canyons, gorges or even alongside rivers and streams if there is going to be heavy rain. Well these Californians learned a life-saving lesson and thank God each time we see rain, that He sent us a soggy ranger in a Smokey the Bear hat.
Vacations…. For most of us it brings memories of long car trips, taking the plane to Grandma’s, seeing relatives, new places, fights with our siblings and sunburn that brought tears to our eyes. The Holly vacations had all of that, plus adventures one shudders and laughs to remember. All our vacations were by some form of motor vehicle. All our vacations were spontaneous. Our dad, Cassel Benjamin Holly, better know as C.B., (could you blame him as a kid taking on initials rather than his given name?), worked for himself. He was a well-respected and sought-after contractor and cabinetmaker. He was often booked for months, even years, sometimes so free time came when he was not starting another job immediately. The golfer Billy Casper had Dad build him three houses over the years. So, as you can see spontaneity in leisure time was critical.
We were, in the early years, car travelers and temporary occupiers of Tee-pee Motels across this great, if somewhat kitschy, country of the late 1940’s and 50’s. But when the first campers were introduced to the American middle class, we fell hook, line and often flat tires in love with this method of conveyance, well that is me, my Dad and my brothers did, my Mom not so much.
“The only difference between this and a tent is that the tent at least stands still while you are trying to cook….”
Another constant in our vacations was always having and additional neighbor kid or two along for the ride. This was often poor Rusty Coole. One of my earliest memories is of a trip to see the Grand Canyon. This was in the days when there were few and far between tourists sites, camping grounds or restaurants near the Grand Canyon because most of the area along the rim was Indian reservation land.
I remember that we drove for such a long time to get there, and when we arrived in the middle of a hot July day the canyon was so large that it was difficult to take in. In the shimmering heat rising off every surface, the spectacle of the canyon and rocks took on a surreal, almost postcard, appearance. We stayed the whole day and watched the sun beginning to set over the breathtaking vista before us. My mom decided we needed to find a camp ground before dark to get set up and have dinner, so we trudged back to our 120 degree camper and hit the road.
Well, it became apparent after driving for an hour or so down narrow two lane roads, that camping grounds, RV parks, and motels were not part of the vast magnificent vista.
It quickly became dark. If you have ever been to the Grand Canyon, you know what I mean by dark. I mean blacker than a hole in the ground, blacker than a moonless ocean, black enough that you can’t see your hand in front of your face.
By now it is well after nine thirty and we are all just a tad grouchy and hungry. My mom had a lot of wonderful character traits, but patience was not one of them.
“C.B., I don’t care where we are or whose land this is, pull this **&%## camper over so we can eat dinner and go to bed!”
I almost never heard my mother swear, not in her entire lifetime. So it was a bit of a shock not only to me but to my dad. Well, he whipped a left turn and drove straight out into the open landscape. We bounced, bumped, slid, and careened over the great unknown and unseeable terrain. Finally we slid to a stop. I could hear my parents exiting the cab of the truck in silence.
The rest of the evening went better. Mom cooked something delicious, and we all felt a lot less grouchy. We bedded down for the night, Mom and me on the top bunk, Rick, Rod and Rusty on the bunk made up of the dining tables and benches, and Dad on an air mattress on the floor to the back door.
It must have been around two in the morning when I first head the train whistle in the silent distant night. I have always loved trains, so for me it was a friendly sound. We were not alone in this place. I am not sure who noticed it getting light outside first, but I was the first to whisper to my brothers the ultimate, unknowable question…
“Why is it getting light outside?”
It was about this same time we realized the train whistle was getting much louder and more insistent. Suddenly Rod sat up and yanked the curtains open over his bed. Staring us in the face was the headlight of an oncoming train. Needless to say we, were all awake by this time and yelling ….
“Dad you parked on the tracks!”
“I didn’t park on the tracks!”
“You parked on the tracks” came at him over the piercing train whistle screaming down the tracks heading straight for the side of the camper. By now every one was bouncing on the beds, one of my brothers tried to get to the back door but the air mattress threw him back into his bunk. With all of us yelling my dad calmly repeated
“I didn’t park on the tracks! And you are not getting out of this camper!”
“Whoo Whoo!” The light grows bigger and bigger! The yelling became more frantic!
At about fifty feet from the side of our camper the headlight of the oncoming train suddenly veered left. We all were stacked one on top of each other, gaping out the camper window expecting that headlight to be the last thing we would ever see. My dad calmly lay back down while saying….
“ I didn’t park on the tracks….”
We were parked about fifty feet from the curve of the train tracks. Unknown to us our dad had walked all the way around the truck and camper before coming into dinner. So he knew that he had at least twenty or so feet around us that were clear, safe terrain. But he too did not see the tracks in that black, black night. But he knew…
“I didn’t park on the tracks……”
RACE DAY IN BAJA
Many years ago I learned what Cinco de Mayo was like in Baja; well in Ensenada on one particular Cinco de Mayo that is. On a warm spring afternoon as I lay on the deck at our house in Mexico trying to get a tan, a useless endeavor, I decided I was bored and needed a new interest. I was alone down at my family’s summer home for a few days of rest and quiet time to catch up on my reading. Unfortunately “The God Father” was not a book one should read alone on a beach in Mexico. It was too scary, not restful and downright horrifying when the guy finds his horse’s head in his bed. I dearly love animals and that did it for me. I hurled the book off the deck and used a few choice words for Mario Puzio and all the “Black Hands”. My dear sweet grandfather was Italian and hated the Mafia and the Sicilian’s with a passion that as a child I could not understand. Now I understood. I found the book some weeks later lying in a pool of water among the hydra ranges. I left it laying there.
Now staring up at the uncaring sun I decided I needed a change of scenery to get the picture of the horse out of my head, no pun intended. I dressed and headed for my car. I thought the drive down to Ensenada would be lovely and I just might do a little shopping. As I drove the curving road that clung to the cliffs I thought of the movie “To Catch a Thief” with Grace Kelly. We see her and Cary Grant in a sleek convertible, speeding along the beautiful and treacherous roads of Monaco. The cliffs beneath the road plunging straight down into the Mediterranean as the sun set diamonds on the waters face. Well, I had the same kind of road but I was no Grace Kelly and my little Mustang was not a convertible. But one could dream, and who wouldn’t want to dream of Cary Grant.
As I took in the breathtaking views I noticed cars passing me in a hurry. There was a lot more, and faster, traffic than was usual on the narrow two lane road to Ensenada. I briefly wondered why but did not long dwell on the question.
When I arrived in Ensenada I found to my surprise that there was no place to park. This was unusual even for a Saturday. I finally was able to squeeze into a parking space barely longer than my little car. I got out put on my wide brimmed Sun Hat and started walking back to the main street that bisected the town. There were a couple of shops that I wanted to check out. One was where I purchased ladies fans that looked like their 18th century ivory hand-painted cousins. We went through a lot of fans in shows since some actresses were never able to master the gestures and language of the fan without breaking the fans spines . Well there are some things you just can’t “actor proof”, so I was constantly trying to find and buy ladies fans to replenish our stock.
The other store I wanted to visit had in its window a chess set that I dearly wanted, but at $1100 dollars it was a distant dream. I turned the corner and stepped onto the main street through town. The sidewalks were crowded, unusual but I proceeded. Then I saw the sign that hung across the street. In giant letters it spelled out Cinco de Mayo. Suddenly it dawned on me that today was the equivalent of the 4th of July for the Mexican people. It was also the day when the San Diego to Ensenada Yacht Race took place. Hence the traffic and now, to my chagrin and embarrassment, there were drunken Americans pushing and shoving filling the street with their obnoxious behavior. I thought I would just get to my two stores and then leave town as quickly as possible. That was not to be.
As I dodged drunks and got pinched a few times I hurried along the sidewalk hugging the walls of the shops. Suddenly as I passed by the plate-glass window of a bar a body came hurling through the window landing on the sidewalk just missing me. Startled by the crash and flying glass I stood transfixed pressed against the wall of the bar.
The body rose from the sidewalk and staggered back into the dark noisy cave. I stood there amazed that he seemed unfazed by his unusual exit. Bloodied but unbowed he resumed to his celebration. Well the old saying “God watches after drunks and idiots” seemed as if it might be true in this instance.
I turned and quickly and moved away from the broken glass that littered the sidewalk. I had gone only a few yards when I looked down the street and received an even greater shock. In a line that stretched from one side of the street to the other was ranked three deep the Mexican Federalies. Guns drawn they were sweeping the street arresting everyone. If there is one thing you learn early on when living in Mexico it is that under no circumstances do you want to be arrested. Seeing not only police but the army drawing down on everyone I knew it was time to get out of town. I turned only to be confronted by another line of police and federalies half a block away moving toward where I was standing.
Think, Think, I have to get out of here! I ran knowing that there was a small restaurant a few doors down from the bar. I reasoned that if I could get to the restaurant maybe I could get out a back door. I found the restaurant and as I entered I could see all the patrons were pressed up against the windows watching the spectacle outside on the street unfold.
I moved to the back of the restaurant looking for the kitchen. I found it and realized all the staff was out front watching. I saw an open door that revealed a metal security screen, I headed to the light. I emerged into a back alley that would take me to another street and away from the melee that was breaking like a monstrous wave over the inhabitants of this usually quiet little town.
I ran down the alley crossed a side street and made my way back to my car. I reached the little Mustang shaking so hard that it was difficult to put the key in the lock and open the door. Once settled in I didn’t know if I had enough control to get my car out of the tight, tight space in which I had put it when I parked earlier. Then I realized that the car which had been parked in front of me when I arrived had left. “Thank You Lord!” I could just pull out of my parking spot with no manoeuvring necessary.
Soon I was back on the familiar road headed for home. That night I heard a news report of the arrests in Ensenada. The outrageous actions of the Yacht Racers and their drunken followers were reported in the newspapers and on TV in San Diego. I didn’t tell my parents about my stupidity and almost arrest. I knew they were nervous enough about me going into Mexico by myself and I didn’t want them to worry anymore than they already did.
I learned my lesson. Always assess a situation before walking into it. I had several warnings. I should have left Ensenada when I saw how crowded it was, or when I saw so many drunks on the street, or when the guy was hurled thought the bar window. It was a lesson I would never forget and in hind sight God really did watch out for this idiot.