Well True Believers, I’ve returned from my research excursion into sunny Yuma, AZ and the old Territorial Prison.
Getting a jump on the perennial LA traffic my intrepid partners and I sallied forth in the early hours, talking shop most of the ride. Somewhere at the edge of the San Diego County Line I watched one of those birds that divebombs in front of cars speeding down highway smack into the windshield of the SUV in front, blooming from a dingy brown into a puff of white down feathers, as if it had been some kind of ethereal creme-filled confection blown apart by a gust of wind.
Ploughing through the feathers and ignoring the bad omen, we continued on to Yuma, AZ, called ‘The It Town’ by the Arizona Star, according to a billboard.
Had a great lunch at the historic Yuma Landing Bar and Grill, named not after the steamship landing as I’d thought, but actually the first airplane landing in all of Arizona, around 1911 or so. Pictures of antique aircraft decorated the walls, along with some very interesting photographs of old Yuma itself, even a few sketches of the old, old days (1880’s). The house speakers were cycling through some classic country – Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride, Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton. Plus they made a great burger. It was a pleasant dining experience made all the more pleasant by its affordability.
Afterwards we headed over to the prison itself. Situated on one of two rocky hills which flank the Colorado River, the prison was erected in 1876 as the brainchild of a pair of local entrepreneurs seeking to draw revenue to the area. The place was planned out not by an architect, but a local contest winner, who got a $150.00 prize for his efforts. The laborers weren’t contractors, but the inaugural seven inmates, who were put to work building a plank wall on the north and east sides of the site to contain them, and some adobe cells. The iron doors were shipped in later via steamboat and unloaded by the growing prison population, who also hauled the sternwheelers into drydock, built the stone water reservoir and guard towers, and dug the stone and clay building materials out of Prison Hill itself. Initial temporary buildings notwithstanding, security was never a problem for Yuma (dubbed the Hell-Hole by its inhabitants) Prison. If one managed to escape the guards and scale the walls, there just wasn’t anywhere to go. The closest town was miles across the surrounding desert, much of it trackless Sahara-style dunes, and a group of local Quechan Indian line riders were kept on retainer to chase down escapees.
In its 35 years of operation only 26 prisoners ever escaped, most of them during the supervised work details. 111 died of various causes, from tuberculosis (the most common way out of Yuma) to gunshots. While there were no executions, punishments (other than daily sharing a cell in 110 degree heat with five other prisoners who only washed one day a week) occured, both confirmed and legendary. Would-be escapees were fitted with ball and chain, ‘incorrigibles’ were chained to an iron link in the floor of their cell, or flung into the Dark Cell, a black-as-the-pit stone room with a single narrow pipe in the ceiling for ventilation and light and an iron cage in the center.
Rumored punitive measures include tales of guards dropping rattlesnakes down that pipe, or filling the cemetary of stone pile unmarked graves outside the east wall.
The inmates of the prison varied in their criminal activity, from the man convicted of ‘seduction under the pretense of marriage (which moral grounds aside, also translated to a concrete theft of property if you think about the dowries young women brought with them into matrimony in those days), to gunman Buckskin Frank Leslie, who rode with Wyatt Earp. In later years, female prisoners were incarcerated at Yuma, like would-be stagecoach robber Pearl Hart, and Elena Estrada, who, spurned by her lover, cut out his heart and flung the bloody thing in his face.
The prison population represented an interesting cross-section of America. Though the majority of inmates were white (and Catholic), the prison housed Mexican, Apache (including at one point Haskay-bay-nay-ntayl, the infamous Apache Kid – who coincidentally enough also spent time at Alcatraz, and was one of the aforementioned succesful 26 escapees, overpowering three guards and disappearing into a snowstorm with two other prisoners), Chinese, European, African American, and even African individuals. A placard at the prison breaking down the demographics of its some 3,000 inmates even claims to have included a single Buddhist.
As stated, only a fraction of the original structures remain. The adobe wall is mostly gone, though the imposing Sallyport which served as the main entrance remains. Pieces of the wall are devoid of plaster and have been melted down by years of weather, though its a bit of thrill to see the bits of straw and stone in the old mud bricks which must have been packed by the prisoners’ own hands. You can walk in one of the cells, though the roof of the main cell block (atop which a hospital sat at one point) is now open air. The original guard tower over the stone water tower remains, and you can still walk into the Dark Cell and see the banded iron in the floor. Spiders are the only inhabitants now, and birds nest in the crumbling padlocked cells, the walls of which are scrawled with grafitti dating back to 1929.
A very interesting excursion, which should prove fruitful in the Yuma-centered segment of the forthcoming Merkabah Rider installment, ‘Have Glyphs Will Travel.’
From the prison we attempted to find a series of old petroglyphs to the east of town, using only my buddy’s internet phone (I am in no way a technophile -I’m sure there’s a proper term and I’m probably mucking it up) as a guide. That proved fruitless, so we headed back to Yuma and took in the site of historic Main Street while we waited for the six ‘o clock showing of Thor.
I’ve walked through a lot of offbeat towns, but even the weirdness of Quartzsite did not compare to the strange feeling one gets walking a mostly deserted business district at four in the afternoon. Shop after shop was boarded up or closed early, with some signs proclaiming ‘Be Back Next Week,’ and one memorable and somehow slightly disquieting bit of signage declaring ‘Gone Fishing For Souls.’
Walking Main Street, Yuma I felt like I was passing through a Lovecraft story. Three quarters of the closed shops were hawking dusty, strange antiques. We saw a moldy quilt patterened with Egyptian hieroglyphs. There was a turnstyle display with little plastic/rubber demon headed puppets hanging limply on the pegs. Peering through one dusty glass door at a Zoltar fortune telling machine (yeah, like the one in ‘Big’ with Tom Hanks), we saw a seven foot tall chicken statue. Faces peered back at us from behind cracked and dusty glass frames, antique photos of people I didn’t recognize, except for one of Annie Oakley. We passed an art gallery which had a cheery ‘Grand Opening’ sign in the empty window, the curling purple and pink balloon ribbons still hanging from the corners, and I smoothed back the eviction notice taped outside. Very depressing.
The most impressive structure on the street was a high brownstone and pillared affair. It too was closed. The faded United State Post Office letters across the top could still be seen. They’d been replaced by a set of austere stone letters which gave the name of some company I’d never heard of. Inside everything was taken care of, but again, they were all long gone by four. Looking up the company name on my buddy’s phone, we read a vague, impressive sounding list of the company’s purpose. Whoever there were, they were big enough to buy out the Post Office. The high iron spiked fence protected a well-kept lawn (which as anyone who’s been through that part of Arizona knows is no light endeavor) and two plain sandstone dais (es?), on which I imagined some Innsmouth-like employees of this shadowy corporation enacting God knows what in the dead of night during the vernal equinox or some such (worshiping the giant chicken from the antique store maybe?). Chuckling about it all away (but I think, dreading to see what this area was like when the sun went down), we scooted off to a showing of Thor at the amazingly reasonable price of $6.50, my companions whispering that the price was probably so good so as to entice people in. Then the screen would start flashing a dancing silver pumpkin head or something.
Something wierd about the theater too….in a case in the lobby, dozens of coffee mugs and tea cups, all of them different colors, shapes and styles, each and every one personalized ‘to Cassandra’ by Hollywood celebrities, ranging from Jerry O’Connel and the gal with the eye makeup on the Drew Carey show to A-listers like Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and a big old green teapot inscribed by John Travolta.
Well, Thor was alright. A great big beautiful FX show with some amazing art design, charismatic actors, and neat-o little asides to us Marvel-lites, but not much in the way of a coherent or engaging story (surprising considering J. Michael Straszynski’s name was on it). Oh and spolier, to those who haven’t sat past the end credits (and you ought to know better by now), looks like The Avengers will be puzzling over The Cosmic Cube in their much-anticipated team-up movie.
We purchased a ticket for the last showing of Priest (because at 6.50 a ticket how could you not?) and headed over first to the Coolest Bar Downtown (that was the name I think) for beers, and then an impromptu excursion to a local Italian eatery (and more beers).
Night on Main Street and there were no dark tendrils reaching at us out of the sidestreets, nor fish-eyed pale skinned residents rising out of the broken old shops to snatch us off to be giant chicken feed at the big corporate bash. Not entirely complete turnaround, but it was lively. The clubs and bars opened up, spewing out endless monotonous loops of Hispanic dance music, and a crowd of teenagers dressed to the nines for the local promp diddy-bopped up and down the ave.
Once we were full of beer and calzones we’d seen all there was to see and returned in time for the start of Priest. I was engaged even in my stupor for the first ten or fifteen minutes. As soon as the hordes of vampires attacked the homestead, killing off ma and pa and spriting off the daughter, inducing the enmity of the girl’s uncle, Paul Bettany, I recognized the plot as being ‘The Searchers,’ which I thought would be interesting. Also the opening info-dump set protrayed in kinetic Gennedy Tarktakovsky (the man responsible for the REAL Clone Wars cartoon) animation had me going. But pretty soon the needlessly digitial vampires started showing up (a la the needlessly digital plague victims in I Am Legend) and it turned into a literal snore-fest for me. The last movie I fell asleep in the theater to was Patriot Games.
Well, we spent the night at a Travel Lodge and departed in the morning. The boys returned to Yuma Landing and I tried out a Mexican lunch counter serving Chivo Birria (Goat Stew). A little bit too boney.
We headed west and decided to pull over and take a look at the amazing dunes that comprise the north edge of the Sonoran desert.
We scaled a couple big ones, cracking wise about Arrakis and Lawrence of Arabia. I took a brief call from the wife atop a sandpile and that short exposure to the blowing grit filled my phone with so much Mexico it still grinds everytime I open it. The blow is pretty harsh, and literally gets into everything. I don’t know how the Bedou do it without goggles, but I could barely see when I got back in the driver’s seat, and had to flush out my eyes with Evian (which is all I’d use Evian for anyhow).
We drove on, and passing through the rockpile mountains outside of Jacumba on I-8, I spotted a stone tower high up overlooking the winding pass, so we decided to make another impromptu stop.
Stopping only once more on the road up to see a Gray slumped over the wheel of his flying saucer, we stepped out of the car in front of the Desert View Tower into a bracing cold we hadn’t expected after all our time in Yuma.
The three story turret is actually a reconstruction of a similar building erected in the 1870’s to assist in ox-hauling freight. The current one was apparently constructed in the 1920’s.
The caretaker got me with the rattlesnake eggs in an envelope gag, which was apparently an old one (but obviously not to me, because it scared the crap outta me). He then proceded to do the same to one of my companions and a boy who came in after us with his father.
We scaled the winding staircase, observing various displays of folk art and taxidermy, cultural history, and gay love (yeah, it was some weird ascendancy thing. We went from mole skeletons and roaring boar heads, to celebrations of African and Indian Women In The West, to a pair of contruction workers suspended high over a concrete canyon deep mouth kissing), finally emerging to poke our heads out of the roof and be buffeted by hurricane force winds that swept over the rocky tops and down into the pass. It was like sticking your head out of a Southwest airlines flight.
After the tower, we explored the adjoining Boulder Park, with footpaths winding to heights higher than the tower and creeping underneath massive boulders, a good many of them handcarved and painted as if from sugar into whimsical animal shapes by artist W.T. Ratcliffe in the Depression.
We made our way up the switchback until we were overlooking the old tower, and spent a good forty minutes clowning in the buffeting wind, which you could literally lean against during the big blows.
It was a visceral, amazing sensation standing at those heights ‘surfing’ on a boulder, the wind flattening your clothes against your chest and legs, ballooning your jacket and trying to push you to your death.
Jeff lost his hat. A big surprise gust came and took the thing off and sent it turning into the wind, sailing down the mountainside. It was like one of those scenes in adventure movies, where they want you to get a sense of the danger by whipping a hat away and letting the camera follow it as it dwindled into the abyss.
We descended in a search pattern, building up the lost cap (a beige one at that) in each of our minds, thinking maybe if one of us actually found the thing we would be granted some unquantifiable boon for the remainder of the adventure, as if we’d pulled the sword from the stone or plucked up the Holy Grail or something.
Lunch in Cardiff By The Sea at a beach cafe. I had fish tacos.