I am introduced to the southwestern desert of the USA, I am introduced to the world of the meteorite hunters and desert rats.
“Look out ‘dere,” spoke the woman behind the counter of a curiosity shop off interstate 40 in northern Arizona, “Wha’ you see out ‘dere dat is beautiful?”
I looked out the open doorway of the shop at the desert expanse beyond. I searched for the words to backup my previous statement that the desert was, in fact, beautiful.
The shopkeeper, did not seem to agree with me. She scrunched up her nose and protested with exasperation that I, a traveler who claimed affiliation with the far northeastern state of Maine, would come into her desert and call it nothing other than beautiful.
You’re a long way from home, amigo.
The shopkeeper had a cool sort of laid back air to her and seemed to know time in slow motion, the way many people do who live far away from any sign of urbanization. Her hair was bleached and braided and her skin was dark, but I could not discern if her ethnicity was African, Native American, or if she just spent too much time out in that hot desert sun.
After an exchange of names, the shopkeeper could barely contain her good humor from spilling out from behind the thin veil of her exasperation. I tried to peak through the front like seeing the apparition of a person on the lee side of a Japanese rice paper wall. I had called her home beautiful, but it is almost arrogant in back country America to proclaim that land of your birth as being beautiful to an outsider — and, sometimes, the more a person says they find no solace in their native landscape the more you can tell they love it.
As the shopkeeper’s words formed harsh adjectives directed towards her desert home, I had the impression that she may have thought it was more beautiful than I ever could.
She then lead me to the wide open door of her shop.
“Wha’ you see out ‘dere dat is beautiful?” she repeated.
But I drew no words from my store of vocabulary that could describe my vision of the beauty desert that stretched out before me. But as the sun sparkled bright upon a parched red earth that here and there abruptly shot up into the sky in thin plateau pillars, I muttered a weak “You can really see the sky here.”
“Sky!?! Sky!?! Is ‘dat da reason why you think ‘dis place is beautiful?!?” she shopkeeper retorted.
I felt as a bone tossed to a voracious set of canine jowls.
“‘Dere is sky everywhere. When I look out ‘dere all I see is duuust and some mou’tin,” she exclaimed.
I tried to back myself up by saying that the sky was, in fact, bigger here than in other places without really knowing where I was going. I grew quickly aware that I was further solidifying my position as a person whose feet had arrived in the desert but whose mind was still laying somewhere else — I was an outsider.
“We at 6,000 feet,” the shopkeeper continued, “that why ‘dere a lot of sky, ‘dere is a lot of sky here ’cause we in ‘da sky.”
I shuffled my feet a little and looked over the tables that stretched across the shop from end to end. I walked back from the doorway and began browsing through the oddities that were for sale. The tables were blanketed with meteorites and large chunks of petrified wood and just about anything else that mineralization, grew, or fell out there in the desert.
The meteorites had prices upwards of $10,000 on them, and I would have made a jest about these high prices if I already did not know that the southwestern desert seems to attract humans from all over the country who feel a passionate sorts of affinity to the astro realm. If dropping 10 grand could make a person feel a little closer to home then so be it.
I poked at a particularly large meteorite. It was shiny silver and had little pock mark craters all over its surface.
“Where did these meteorites come from?” I asked.
“They come from ‘da sky,” the shopkeeper answered matter of factly.
It only takes a mere moment to make yourself stupid.
“Yeah, but how do you get them?”
“The meteorite hunters watch their smoke as ‘dey come down.”
“How do they watch them? With a telescope?”
“They watch their smoke.”
I was thus introduced to the meteorite hunters of northern Arizona, and found out how this shop that stood at the side of Interstate 40 in northern Arizona was stocked with meteorites.
The shopkeeper of desert oddities told me that due to the elevation — 6,000 feet above sea level — the meteorites don’t break up as much before hitting the ground as they do in other regions. So meteorite hunters watch for where the meteorites fall at night and then they go out with medal detectors to try to find them.
I wanted to meet a meteorite hunter.
“Are any of these hunters here now?”
“No, they out ‘dere digging up some rocks.”
“Where out there?”
“I don’t even know. They just tell me they going out ‘dere to dig up some rocks this morning and then they were gone.”
Undaunted, I kept the conversation going. I think I mentioned that I was an archaeologist and that I dug up rocks, too, and that I was going out to a project in Quartzsite.
The shopkeeper grew excited about my destination. “Quartzsite is my favorite place in the whole world,” she spoke with dancing eyes before telling me that she goes there every winter for a big rock and mineral convention.
“But I really want to go to California. Before I die, I will be in California. I want to smell that smell, you know, that smell from the pine trees,” she spoke as she wafted her hand in front of her nose. “I am fifty years old and I have been out here in Arizona for fifty years. I want to get out of here. I want to go to Florida,” she said before thinking better of it, “No, I don’t want to go to Florida, it too hot ‘dere, I’ve been ‘dere before and it too hot. I want to go to California. It is nice in California”
“You going to California?” she then asked suddenly.
I answered in the negative.
“I know you going to California,” she replied knowingly, “Everybody going to California. I know you going to California, too.”
I smiled and said that I may be going to California, and the shopkeeper laughed, “Everybody going to California.”
We then exited the shop and I looked at the large statues of dinosaurs eating people and people riding dinosaurs that stretched all over the yard in front of the oddities shop. I suppose the shop needed to do something to entice visitors to slow down their 80 mile per hour pace and exit the interstate. I suppose it was these giant dinosaurs that attracted my attention.
There was a 20 foot high, full color sculpture of a T-rex with a person riding on its back rodeo style next to a giant brontosaurus that also had a guy riding on it. Another T-rex was over the shop itself and had mechanical jaws run by an air compressor. I think it may have been eating a stuffed guy.
This place was awesome.
In the driveway a mannequin woman was in the driver seat of a broken down convertible car and there was a virtual farm of ostriches on the far side of the yard. Signs hung all over the place telling visitors that the ostrages possess the ability to bite them.
To be charmed away from the speeding highways of American the siren’s song needs to be sweet. This shop, which has become a well known road side attraction, left my curiosity nothing to desire.
I walked towards my car to leave, and the shopkeeper yelled out one last parcel of desert knowledge, or perhaps it was a warning:
“The people out here, they call ‘dem desert rats. You wanna know why? Cause ‘dere ain’t nuttin out here but dust ‘n sky!”
Vagabond Journey Through the Arizona desert series