Driving Arizona

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | April 10, 2011

When I rolled past Picacho Peak just before sunset I smiled at a surrendered dream. Tommy and I were going to make our fortunes off of that mountain. We were radio announcers in those days and we had an idea to put a broadcast tower on top of Pichacho Peak.

The mountain rises in jags and slabs out of the Sonoran Desert almost halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. If we were smart, Tom said, we would save our money, buy an FM radio tower, put it on Picacho, get a frequency license, and capture the listening markets in both cities.

“How much does a tower cost?” I asked.

“How the hell am I supposed to know? You’re the one who went to college.”

“Gotta be a lot, I reckon. A couple hundred thousand maybe. So, you’re earning the same thing I am, which is $176.43 take home every two weeks. How smart was my idea to go to college four years?

“Yeah, so what’s your point?”

“Oh, just that we’d have to eat Ramen and popcorn for about three decades to get enough to buy the tower and then there’s the money for the lawyers to get the license and we’d have to build a studio, which won’t be cheap.”

“Okay. To hell with it.”

Pichacho Peak, Arizona

We were sitting in a pizza joint next to the radio station in Clifton, Arizona, and drinking beer. We were unable to afford a pizza. Whenever we had to choose between pizza and beer, beer always won. Tom had just finished his on air shift at KCUZ-AM, “Music fooooorrrrrr (melodramatic pause) all of Greenlee County, Eastern Arizona, and Western New Mexico.this is (another melodramatic pause, as if the audience could not wait to know) K-CUZ, 1490 on your AM dial.”

FM radio stations and signals were just beginning to proliferate and I did not have the soft mellow sound that was required to introduce album cuts, which is why I ended up in a copper mining town playing Juice Newton and Mickey Gilley records to miners taking too hard to drink after a day in the hole. Tom had a throaty sound of gravel in his vocal chords and I did not know how he came to be in that cinderblock studio down below the highway that led up to the mines.

Instead of practicing my ability to be clever while introducing songs by Mel Tillis, I was trying to bring news to the greater Clifton-Morenci metroplex. Roy, who was our general manager, had told me I could produce a newscast for the mornings using wire copy and whatever I might learn by calling the police department.

“But I can’t pay you for it,” he said. “So, don’t even ask. You want to be a reporter, this is where you start learning.”

Roy wore a powder blue cardigan to the station almost every day and the grease he used on the hair at his temples also seemed to have been smeared over the top of his head where he was bald. His pate shined brightly in the Arizona sun.

“So, if I want,” I asked, “I can work extra hours for free?”

“Yep, and people will hear you for miles around.”

“One thousand red hot watts of mellow country for drunken miners and their angry wives.”

“Pays your check, doesn’t it, smartass?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry.”

There was more to it than the big money, though. Steve and I did sports broadcasts for the Morenci Wildcats and shared color and play-by-play duties. We went to the little towns in the White Mountains on Friday nights when the air was cool and sweet and there was color in the trees and people were happy for their silly games. I did not care about sports except to play them and there were times I thought people were absurdly attached to the identity of the high school football team and its performance but I grew to love the drama and the energy even though it often felt contrived. During the games, unknown spots like Show Low and Sierra Vista and Superior became hopeful and optimistic and that was enough reason to love football.

The Wildcats were always diminutive athletes for genetic reasons I never was able to discern but they were fearless and won many games they ought to have lost to bigger teams. In basketball, they were fast and moved the ball adroitly as if they had been playing together since kindergarten but I do not know when they might have found time to practice. Most of them were poor and had to work jobs after school but their hands were fast and they caught passes almost without looking at the ball. One year they went to the state championship and Steve and I drove his yellow convertible Cutlass down to Tempe to do the broadcast from Arizona State’s arena. On the drive, Steve kept practicing his intro and saying in his deepest voice, “Live from the big house on the campus of Arizona State University, it’s Wildcat basketball.”

They lost, though, and then things got even grimmer than just a basketball score. Ira, the station owner, found his four announcers sitting in the lobby on the vinyl-upholstered furniture while a particularly long record was spinning. We were planning our bright futures when the man with the kind eyes and sagging cheeks introduced us to misfortune.

The greater Clifton-Morenci Metroplex in Eastern Arizona

“Well, the mines are going to be laying off, which means the restaurants and the jewelry store and the motel and all of them other businesses such as we got around here won’t be advertising because the miners won’t be spending money.”

“And you can’t pay us any more.” Tom finished Ira’s thought.

“That’s about the size of it. You boys ought to go down to Tucson and see about work.”

“Well, hell, Ira,” Tom was getting indignant very quickly. “Do you think if I could’ve gotten hired in Tucson in the first place I’d be up here?”

“I don’t know. But now’s a good time to try your luck again.”

Tom was not worried about our situation nor did he think it was particularly tragic that all of Greenlee County might not be able to hear “Swap Shop” every day from ten to two. The majority of our broadcast time was consumed by people calling in and saying, “I’ve got a used John Deere portable generator for sale for a real good price and if anyone wants it they can just call me at…..”

We did not go to Tucson because we knew we were not likely to get hired. My voice had not completely reached any kind of post-pubescent timbre and Tom did not want to deal with more rejection. Instead, Tom called his friend Earl, who lived down in Eloy, and got him to join us in an adventure on the road. Tom had a 1964 Ford Falcon, a kind of miniature pickup with a stick shift on the floor and two bucket seats. One of us was forced to ride in the bed of the truck so we put a lawn chair and a cooler back there and ended up arguing over whose turn it was to drink beer and stare backwards at where we had already traveled.

Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon

On our way to pick up Earl, Tom started back on his yapping about becoming broadcast giants once we took over the top of Picacho Peak. I did not listen much because Tom talked a lot. I liked to hear him rattle but not when he was stuck on a topic. Earle took first shift in the back of the truck but not before we made a decision about where we were going. I suggested Florida because it was March and I had been down there a few times during spring break. We had no need of goals other than to go look at girls.

Earl had dark eyes and thick curly hair and when he sat in the back of the Falcon he waved at every girl in every passing vehicle. Most of them waved back and a few wanted us to pull over and talk but Tom and I knew that had nothing to do with us. Earl banged on the roof of the truck and shouted at us for not stopping and when we went for gas he jumped out and accused us of being stupid, a singular truth that had long been unavoidable.

“Why didn’t you guys pull over? Damnit. Those girls wanted to talk to us.”

“No they didn’t, Earl,” Tom said. “They wanted to talk to you.”

“Well, so what, you could’ve talked too.”

“Yeah, but it would have been a waste of my time. I’d love just sitting in a Texaco station in this heat and waiting for you to make time with some girl. But I’ll be happy to drop you off.”

“Oh shut the hell up. It’s your turn in the back.”

“Good. You leave any beer?”

Mogollon Rim

I did not want to leave Arizona and we had no way of knowing if we were ever returning. The first time I had hitchhiked out from Michigan I loved the Kaibab Plateau and Coconino Forest and the Painted Desert in a manner that seemed almost inexplicable and without connection to my youth in the Midwest. The Grand Canyon has not yet let go of me and just last year I walked it rim-to-rim for the third or fourth time. The years when my leg muscles were supple and my lungs were big and efficient I had run across the canyon, down the Kaibab and up Bright Angel, distracted sufficiently by the beauty to endure the pain. I had also ridden a motorcycle down the Mogollon Rim south of Winslow and loved how the ponderosa pines thinned and the cool air curled back as the switchbacks wound around and lowered you to the desert floor. I thought about all of this as I was driving past Picacho Peak in a rental car.

And I smiled when I looked off into the distance and saw a red light flickering on a broadcast tower, fortunately, nowhere near Picacho Peak State Park.

3 Comments for this entry

  • Mike Jasper

    Cool story.

    You know, I always wondered how I would ever go from newspaper reporter to newspaper columnist. It was easy. Write the column, don’t charge them any more money, and you’re in.

    Is it free? Does it kill column inches? Of course we’ll publish your column.


  • Rick Salvatierra

    I really enjoyed the story because, of all the coincidences, I worked @ KCUZ also. In 1975. I did mornings, did the Clifton and Morenci coaches interviews, unsuccessfully tried to sell airtime to the businesses in the area. Ate many a pizza at that same pizza place next door. I think it closed at 6pm on Sundays, hell, I think most of the town was closed by 5pm on Sundays. I got my friend Mike to join me there after I’d been there a month or so. Having grown up in San Diego, Clifton/Morenci was a big culture shock. But I have fond memories of the place…the slag dumped in the night, with the yellow/orange glow reflected off the clouds. We lived in a trail up the road where the Clifton Hill Climb took place. Trips to the ‘big city’ – Safford. Looking at the big hole in the ground which was the Morenci mine. Thanks for stirring up the memories!

  • Rick Salvatierra

    oops…that’s supposed to read ‘We lived in a TRAILER…” hehehe…

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