Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Roadside America: Part III - Weird, Wacky, Tacky and Wonderful

Virtually every geology-based road trip I've been on has had its share of unforgettable side trips, off beat detours and unplanned turn offs. The best part, second to the geology, was the adventure of the unexpected and the inexplicable waiting at every turn.

That’s when you see the unusual signage, the eccentric pieces of art, the unique architecture, the kitschy sculptures, the cheesy tourist stops, the poignant juxtapositions, and all the wacky, tacky, bizarre and oddball attractions that are so characteristic of Roadside America. It’s also when you find remnants of vanishing America - the diners, drive-ins, juke-joints and storefronts that have been thoughtfully preserved or recklessly abandoned to the ravages of time. 

Here's what I stumbled on this November while traveling with my friend and geologist  Wayne Ranney on the roads and backroads between Phoenix, Arizona and the Mexican border. This is my third post in this series in what has become a tradition following our geological excursions. The other two may be found in the "Index to Topics" in the column to the right under "Roadside America."

Outside Clifton, Arizona (2012 population of 3,447), its drive-in theatre has become pastureland. Along with nearby Morenci, the region rose to prominence subsequent to the discovery of copper in 1872. Drive-ins were an innovation of the 1950’s. An icon of American civilization, they were a perfect marriage of Hollywood and the automobile. Once a mainstay of every American city and many rural towns, the country had over 4,000 during the 60’s. They provided the family with a night out together, and for teenagers, you know what else. In the 70's and 80's, the industry gradually succumbed to competition from cable, movie rentals, digital media and land development. As of this writing, Arizona still has two with 357 still clinging to life nationally, spurned by a “Save the Drive-In" movement.

On the foothills of the Superstition Mountains (home of the Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine), for a small town such as Apache Junction in south-central Arizona on Route 88, signage was an essential component in getting a car to pull over in the 50’s and 60’s. Kovac's Corner was a beer and chicken joint that burned down years ago. They broasted chicken using a pressure fryer. The Broaster Company of Beloit, Wisconsin licensed their trademark to over 5,510 purchasers of their equipment that followed their cooking specifications, recipes and certification process. Sounds like the beginning of fast food to me!

Literally across the street, beer and chicken headline a newer version of the menu today. Nothing gets my digestive juices flowing more than an enormous chicken alongside my table.

This turn of the century, headboard-fence in Bisbee, Arizona caught my eye. In 1880, Bisbee was founded as a copper, gold and silver mining town, named after Judge DeWitt Bisbee who financially backed the adjacent Copper Queen Mine. Mining in the Mule Mountains was incredibly successful back in the early 1900's with Bisbee soaring in growth AND culture. In 1917, the open pit mine fulfilled the heavy copper demands of World War I, but in 1975 the Phelps Dodge Corporation halted its Bisbee mining operations. The resulting mass exodus of workers might have been the end of the town, but mine tours and tourism revived the local economy. Today, "Old" Bisbee, the town above the Lavender Pit Mine, has gone from "Copper to Culture." It's totally reborn as a haven for artists, hippies and everyone wanting fresh mountain air, gentrification in a renovated period bungalow, the local cuisine or a romantic night in an antique-filled hotel.

I did a double-take at this New Age front on an old building-cum-home in Bisbee. One can only imagine the sheek decor inside. During its mining heyday, Bisbee produced nearly 25% of the world's copper and was the largest city in the Southwest between Saint Louis and San Francisco.

This "masthead" decorates one corner of the building.

This demising wall across the street was intensely muralled. Notice the graffiti proclaiming "Old Bisbee."

And this creative gallery sign was next door. The "Five C's" of Arizona's economy are: Cattle, Copper, Citrus, Cotton and Climate. Bisbee deserves a sixth "C" for Creative.

Here's a 60's mega food-sculpture in newer Bisbee, down in the flats below the Lavender Pit mine.
Bisbee is the nation's southernmost mile-high city.
Prior to 1906, Tortilla Flat in south-central Arizona was a stagecoach stopover on the Yavapai Trail between Tonto Basin and the Salt River Valley. Later, as the Apache Trail, it became a freight road for the construction of the 1911 Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River that flows through Phoenix. The flat became an important supply stop on the road. Today, the trail is officially Arizona Highway 88, while Tortilla Flat lures travelers for lunch and ice cream. Within its handful of stores, over 100,000 single dollar bills are plastered over the walls, rafters and ceilings of every room, including the rest rooms. The name "Tortilla Flat" supposedly originated from the cowboys who drove cattle from Globe to Phoenix, who camped at the flat having forgotten to pack flour to make their tortillas. An alternative explanation offers the rock strata stacked like tortillas.

Believe me now?

Arizonans are an independent and courageous lot. Apparently, this individual took the "No Smoking!" warning at the pumps as merely a suggestion rather than a really good idea. "It's never gone off yet!" Note "Safety Award" on the right sleeve. Needless to say, we departed rather quickly. Location shall remain unmentioned.
Mobil was previously known as the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company back in the 1930's. Socony stood for Standard Oil Company of New York. It was an American oil company which merged with Exxon in 1999 to form ExxonMobil. Today, Mobil continues as a major brand name within the combined company, as well as still being a gas station. This weather beaten sign hangs above Arizona Highway 60 in the center of Miami, Arizona. Miami is a another classic Western copper boomtown, though its copper mines are largely dormant now. In an incipient revival akin to Bisbee's, the old downtown has been partly renovated, and low-cost housing is attracting new residents with an artsy and antique flare. It's only a matter of time.
Also in Miami is a vestige of another vanishing tradition, the "Blue Plate Special." Originally served on a blue plate with partitions for a meat and three vegetables, a low priced meal was served by diners and cafes back in the 20's through the 50's. It was a good deal but "No Substitutions." A Blue Plate Special has become a colloquial expression for an inexpensive full meal but also connotes any good deal with "all the fixins." This sign on an abandoned diner has received a new coat of paint. Maybe Miami's revival will reopen the kitchen.
In Miami, a preservationist-minded individual is holding on to the past. On Live Oak Street (U.S. 80), this Art Deco style gas station was literally a museum both inside and out - old cars, vending machines, tools, signs. Notice the building's white, tiled facade, period glass bricks and rounded corners.
When was the last time you saw a gas pump that looked like this? That's glass not plastic!
Unbeknownst to the casual observer driving through town and not even a half mile from the main street resides the massive Miami Copper Mine. Along with the mining town of Globe seven miles to the east, they lie in the foothills of the Pinal Mountains within the Arizona Silver Belt dating back to the 1870's. In the 1880's, the price of silver fell, while copper rose exponentially. The porphyry copper deposits were in bodies of ore that were disseminated through the rock mass rather than in concentrated veins and pockets, hence the development of the massive pit mine.
In far southern Arizona, this sign was a first for me. Any guesses precisely where we are?
Here's a hint.
We're in Naco, Arizona, at the Border Fence or Wall between Mexico and the United States. 96.6% of apprehensions along the 1,951-mile border between the two countries occurs along the country's southwest boundary and traverses a variety of terrains including urban areas and deserts. The barrier strategically exists where illegal crossings and drug trafficking have existed in the past. In addition to the physical barrier, a "virtual fence" of motion sensors and video cameras watches everything and everyone that moves. Note three of them on tall poles down the road. We counted over two dozen white Border Patrol vehicles on maneuvers in one hour. Critics in Arizona and Texas assert that the fence adversely isolates endangered species in critical migration corridors and jeopardizes fragile ecosystems much the way roads and canals have compartmentalized the Florida Everglades (recent post here). In 2010, a Rasmussens Reports survey indicated that 68% of Americans are in favor of the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence.
Where would Clark Kent have gone nowadays to make a quick change into Superman? Probably Starbucks. Statistics-websites state that there are currently only four outdoor telephone booths left in New York City. Thinking for a minute, I wouldn't know where to find one in my home town. The once-ubiquitous "street closet" is becoming increasingly difficult to find for obvious reasons, and towns nationally are requesting that they be removed as an unkempt, albeit stench-filled eyesore. Recently, Verizon announced that it would start providing wireless computer connectivity in the vicinity of its previous phone booths in Manhattan. Think about that for a moment. On an ironic note, no one heard your private conversations if you made them from a public phone booth, but virtually everyone within earshot hears everything you say on a wireless phone. This one in the rural hamlet of Portal, in southeastern Arizona, has been stripped of its essential item - the phone. At least the booth is still there for Clark! Geologically, Portal is at the mouth of a canyon referred to as the Yosemite of Arizona. The region is also a mecca for birders.
This store or perhaps a gas station with its setback from the road still retains its old West facade. We're near the mini-hamlet (year 2000 population of 309) of Elgin. It's the first location in Arizona to engage in commercial winemaking, which we experienced first hand.
Right next door was an antique railroad car gradually decomposing into the landscape.
You never know what you're gonna find.
Back in Tucson, after a 1,300-mile geological road trip and mystery tour, we got an early start to investigate the metamorphic core complexes that encompass the valley. I did a double take at this raptorian red light.
Thanks again, Wayne.

1 comment:

  1. Jack - This may be your best posting yet in the Roadside America series. I remember seeing all of this, but viewing them again through your "lens" makes them come alive!. Thanks for the outstanding post. Wayne