14 July 2018

Arizona Hills

by Leigh Lundin

Seven years ago, a coterie of writers banded together to launch SleuthSayers. In his first column, Dixon Hill introduced his fedora. I think I met that fedora recently.

Dixon Hill
Dixon Hill
To be sure, I also met the storied Dixon Hill and his equally legendary wife, Madeleine. You may remember reading about her, the very charming lady who drove fuel tankers in Iraq.

Dixon has written about his own military training, parachute jumping, explosives, and special ops. Yet in his writing and in real life, he displays quiet confidence and an utter lack of braggadocio. What you read, what you see, is what you get.

But fair warning: Around him, women get a gleam in their eye, that “Yum, Teddy Bear” look, which the rest of us males envy.

I’ve wanted to meet the man behind the writing. A few months ago, it looked like that might happen, but life intervened. Finally I set foot in Arizona only to meet an elk in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then a death in the family followed. Finally, though, I was free. Dixon squeezed me in.

Despite lack of sleep, he proved the most consummate host. Being raised by a professor shows. A natural teacher, he’s written about the history and geography of Greater Phoenix. I found myself racking up mental notes everywhere we visited.

First, at my request came a brief introduction to automatic sidearms, this from a guy who’s living (in multiple senses of the word) depended in part upon knowledge and skill of weaponry. Who better to learn from?

Hole-in-the-Rock
Hole-in-the-Rock, Papago Park
Dixon followed with a tour of Phoenix. He drove through Papago Park to point out the Hole-in-the-Rock, an elevated cavern open at either end. He named the surrounding mountain ranges. He noted bridges that ran high over dry river beds, waiting like a boxer for that blow that never comes… until it does.

Questions had been gathering in my mind about desert plants, mesquite, ironwood, and especially cactus. With Dixon’s wide-ranging interests, I was almost unsurprised to discover he’s a member of the Desert Botanical Garden. There, they combine education with beauty.

Dixon shared a story about his father and the infamous ‘jumping’ cactus, AKA Teddy Bear cactus. His dad experimented, risking his own flesh. He hypothesized cactus pods store up kinetic energy, until the slightest touch sends them exploding off their host plant. Me, I think that’s a damn clever theory.

Dixon had another surprise up his sleeve, a visit to the Poisoned Pen Bookstore adjacent to Poisoned Pen Press. Loaded with signed mysteries and science fiction, it’s a drool-worthy shop in Scottsdale that seems both packed and airy at once. Independent bookshops could take lessons from them.

I introduced myself to the owner… not too crudely I hoped. Dixon and I made quite the prickly pair.

Setting aside his own fatigue, Dixon showed me his writing cabin set in a corner of the garden. There he retreats to write, coaxing the computer from his arm chair. The fedora there… was it the same Staff Sergeant Hill traveled with around the world? I suspect so.

The visit turned out entertaining and educational, everything and more I expected from a man I learned about through his writing. One day, Dixon, let’s do it again.

The Flight of the Phoenix

So…

At Phoenix airport, I gathered my kit around me, my wits and my tickets. Hot as it was, I found myself strangely reluctant to depart. Turned out United had the same notion.

“Whoa,” said the ticket agent. “You’re too late to board.”

“What? No, I can’t be.” How many times had she heard that story? “Really, I received a confirmation email telling me to check in, like now, I’m on time.”

Anxious to put in her propeller, a United supervisor strolled over. Her snoot lifted into the air like my soon-to-depart plane.

“We closed boarding and no, you could not have received such an email.”

“I did, I did,” I said plaintively, thinking I must have read it wrong. Wait… Although I’d had poor luck finding phone signals in Arizona, five million people populated Phoenix. Surely AT&T had a presence here, didn’t they?

I pulled out my dusty iPhone and… Yes! A signal! Moreover, an email! The right one. I held out the phone like a child showing homework to the teacher.

“Ma’am, here’s the email. It spells out the details and I’m here on time.”

She read it once. Not quite believing it, she peered closer. I could almost hear the chips in her brain going, “Oh crap, he’s right.” Then she glanced at the clock ticking away on her computer terminal and lit up. “NOW,” she said with immense satisfaction, “now you’re too late.”

The counter agent gave me the most carefully neutral look. She managed to convey a measure of sympathy.

“I’ve booked you tomorrow. If you don’t mind a hint, lose a couple of pounds in your suitcase.” Again she gave her patented neutral look. “Thank you for choosing United.”

No hurry. Good company, good food, good night’s sleep. Orlando could wait another day.

Phoenix Rising


The personality of all cities depend upon geography and geology. More than most, the Copper State’s very existence depends upon Mother Nature’s good nature.

It’s bedrock is literally laid bare. River beds lace hither and yon, empty and dry… most of the time. Water, when it comes, can rage rapidly, as colleague Susan Slater has expressed in her novel, Flash Flood.

Unlike Eastern states, water rights are bought and sold. So are mineral rights. A few strip mines in the Copper State have left behind unnatural terraced hills, white not from rime but extraction chemicals. Arizona has been fortunate in other metals that begin with the letter A in the periodic table: Au, Ag, Al… gold, silver, and aluminum.

NASA used selected places in Arizona for lunar mission training. It’s not difficult for an outsider to think of Arizona as a beautiful planet in itself, one where pioneering humans have dug in, stubbornly nesting amongst its fabulous rock structures, a landscape hospitable to the hardiest among us.

Just avoid uninsured elk.

6 comments:

janice law said...

Sounds as if you had a terrific holiday, minus the elk and United Airlines. Remember, though, as Nora Ephron's Mom said, IT's all copy!

Eve Fisher said...

But it's so hard to sell elks insurance - those antlers are a liability, you know.
I love the desert - which is why, ever since moving away from California, I only visit. That way I treat it with respect and awe, rather than familiarity. And in a desert (like a South Dakota winter) you start taking it for granted, and you're going to end up as bleached bones.

LarryK said...

Great piece. If you liked Phoenix, you gotta go back to visit Tucson and the regions in the Southeastern part of the state. A little cooler, with no elk but beware of javelian and rattlesnakes! Visit boothill in Tombstone and make your way to the Chiricahuas National Park. Finally, your tale of United airlines and the supervisor reminded me of the song United Broke My Guitar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo. Enjoy.

Leigh Lundin said...

I did have a good holiday, Janice. I also fully embrace that saying too… It's all copy.

Eve, that's one of the things I liked about the frozen North and survival classes. If you didn't pay attention, you could end up a popsicle on a lonely country road. Both are sorts of deserts, and both can be beautiful and deadly.

Larry, we're channeling on the same wavelength. I remember that United video; I think the same guy had a follow-up about their non-apology. I spent most of my time in Safford and nearby Thatcher, but that 'cooler' aspect escaped me. Regrettably I didn't manage to visit either Tombstone or the park. I keep discovering places I 'shoulda' visited. A javelian… THAT I'd find scary.

Dixon Hill said...

Leigh, I'm glad you liked the visit. I thought it was great to finally meet the man behind the name! And, Mad agrees, you're welcome back any time! You may want to visit during the NON-summer months, however, when the weather's a bit more ... well ... livable.

Here in the desert, we call summer the "Off Season," because those who choose to visit during that period of often-grueling heat tend to be a little "off." Hmmm ... maybe you SHOULD visit during the summer months! LOL

See you again soon, I hope! And, maybe I can line up a range for us, next time!

--Dixon

Leigh Lundin said...

That version of 'off' definitely applies to me, Dixon. I look forward to seeing you again!