Thanksgiving Trip: Chapter 6 — Homeward Bound

San Diego — It dawned bright and sunny in Phoenix and I was ready to be home.  I had some friends who used to travel between San Diego and Phoenix a lot and always took two days to make the trip, so it sort of made me question my assertion that it was an easy one day drive.  But I was determined to give it a try.

I did get off to a slightly rough start when at the continental breakfast in my motel I forgot to pre-spray the  waffle iron and had a very stuck waffle while a bunch of ladies watched in horror at my pathetic cooking attempt and even worse approach to digging my waffle out of the one available iron.  The pieces were good though!!!

Anyway, by 8:30 I was on the road.  The Highway was busy but moving at the speed limit or a little better which i took to be a good sign, along with the lack of ANY clouds on ANY horizon.   I took the dogleg south to Gila Bend to join I-8 west then headed straight to San Diego.

I was going to simply stop in Yuma, which is right on the border, for a top off of cheap Arizona gas (same source as San Diego but regular was $3.279 in Yuma).  But it was about 11 am and since my gas station was right next to a buffet, and dearly I love buffets, I decided to have a good lunch instead of a gas station hot dog and chips on the road.  Wonderful as those are, there comes a time when options can lure you away.

Have you ever noticed that if you go to a normal restaurant lunch may be about $7-$10 and you get normal servings and feel fine.  But at  a buffet for the same price if you haven’t gone back 27 times and need to be carried to your car in a wheelbarrow you somehow feel cheated?  Trust me, I was not cheated!

Since I had already blown some time and it was still early I decided to go take some photos of what is left of the infamous Yuma Territorial Prison.  Ever since I was a kid soaking up books on the old west, the Prison at Yuma was the iconic lock-up for bad guys.  It was our own version of Devil’s Island and the literature made it sound like even a short sentence to Yuma was essentially a death sentence.

The last view of freedom a new prisoner got to see was this gate as he entered the main prison compound.  The double gate allowed a wagon to enter and be trapped between gates while it was searched.  Escapes were attempted, of course, but escaping while going through this “salley-port” was difficult at best.  Not that any escape from Yuma was easy but this was an extremely difficult place to sneak through undetected.  But over the years not that many managed to actually escape and survive anyway.  Most were caught right away and those were the lucky ones.

Not that much remains of the old cell blocks that at one time were two stories high in places.  Here is a shot looking down the alleyway between two of the cell blocks.

You can see the old stone work made for a very strong fortress designed to keep people in and the surrounding desert and, in some directions, extremely unfriendly indigenous folks who were not thinking the white man was all that good a deal for them, made for an even more formidable barrier to freedom.  Of course the guards in the watch towers with Gatling guns also helped tarnish the idea of trying to escape.  It is interesting to know that in spite of its fearsome reputation as a “Hell Hole” and “Snake Den” (it actually did attract some of the local creepy crawlers for a variety of reasons and a number of inmates died of snakebite IN JAIL), the locals were jealous of the accomodations.  They didn’t eat as well as the prisoners (actually in those tough times, not that many people did), plus the prison had running water (it sits on a bend of the Colorado River) and with the invention of electricity, they even had forced air cooling and power.

Still, this prison was operational at a time when prison was not a place you wanted to go to.  The theory was that if you made it unpleasant enough people would want to avoid going there.  However, like today, some of the “crimes” that resulted in sentences from the hinterland that sent someone here seems awfully thin.  It is fascinating to read why some of the prisoners were there.

Here on the left is a typical six person cell of about 9×12 sq ft.  This was taken looking through the bars of one of the cells in the cell block shot above.  Do notice the “facilities” furnished by the bucket in the call as well as the ring in the center to chain unruly individuals when necessary.  This looks light and airy but I rested the camera on the bars in the door and took a wide open shot for a second at ISO 1600 and this was about high noon.  These were dark, dank, thoroughly unplesant places to spend a few years.

These cells, unpleasant as they were, were nevertheless the good ones.  The so-called “Dark Cells” were for solitary confinement and had no windows, beds, ventilation, “facilties,” and prisoners there were served a single daily meal of bread and water for the duration of the confinement.  It made the normal cells look like the Ritz Carlton.  I’m actually in favor of re-opening Yuma as it was in the 1870s and 80s, before electricity and reserving it for the likes of child molesters, rapists, and the sort.  20 years would be about right and for the 2 or 3 who survived the heat, the snakes, the conditions, after 20 years they might REALLY not want to go back.  Ah but that is a topic for my “rant” blog and not so much this one.

While there I was chatting with a docent and complimenting them on finally having a sign indicating it was likely Frank Leslie not Doc Holliday who killed johnny Ringo (despite every movie about that period in Tombstone with Wyatt and the O.K. Corral showing Doc as doing it) when she laid a bombshell on me.  Her maiden name was “Donner” and she was a descendant of that famous Donner party trapped in the snows in northern California.  We had a wonderful discussion about that and those days.

So, after about an hour and a half in Yuma it was time to get back on the highway and head west once more.  When the prison was the town’s main attraction and even up through the 1970s, Yuma was a sleepy little town but now, it is an endless sea of RV resorts and all of the support stores, shops, and resources for the so-called “Snow Birds” (or sometimes “Sun Birds”) fleeing the northern climes and heading for the warmth.  I knew there were giant flocks of them in Phoenix and Tucson but never expected to see so many here.  There were even “cities” of them in the desert sand dunes areas.

As I drove west through the Imperial Dunes in California the winds came up and it was blowing even my little rig around.  What a perfect closure to the trip.  On the way to the destination in Denver I went over Vail Pass where it was blowing snow and 28 degrees.  Around El Centro starting over the pass up out of the desert, it was blowing sand and 82 degrees.  Too perfect.

Now after a few days to reflect on it I’ll try to log a debreifing to this mission as we used to have to do in one of those past lives.  I feel it was, as good trips shout be, a good learning experience.  Now to see if I was paying attention.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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