About eighty years ago, a tributary of the usually dry San Pedro river flooded across the highway and washed away a bunch of cars. They’re still stuck in the sandy wash, half exposed and rusting away. From a few of them,Trees grow out of the broken out windows.
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is a narrow swath of land that extends from Saint David Arizona to the border of Mexico. There are threatening Private Property signs everywhere around the protected land. You know the signs are all backed up by guns and anger. Nearer to Bisby, which is farther south, we came against a sign proclaiming, “Trespassers will be shot, those that survive will be shot again.” This is the reality of living in Arizona — religious fanatics, gun nuts, Border Patrol and smugglers.
Saint David was founded by Mormon settlers in 1877 after being scoped out by a Mormon battalion that passed through in 1845. There are no records of important massacres occurring here, but it is known that the entire region was populated by Native Americans prior to U.S. troops clearing it for settlements. The population of Saint David remains strongly Mormon to this day. According to the current census, there are precisely 666 households in the town. The entire town is reported to be haunted by “screams and cries.”
The Stone Tape theory postulates that hauntings are the result inanimate materials or places absorbing some form of energy from living beings — the hypothesis being that these “recordings” come from moments of high tension, such as murder, rape or during intense moments in someone’s life. Arizona was built on violence, a fact that we all have to ignore to move on, but in the case of Saint David, as a passerbyer, it’s hard not to wonder what the source of these haunted screams could be — ancient disturbed magic, U.S. atrocities against the Native Americans, domestic violence that occurred in the once isolated town or the ongoing violence between drug smugglers, locals, human traffickers and the Border Patrol.
A little farther north on AZ Highway 80, in Benson, one of the waitresses in Reb’s Cafe told me that the were many homeless people living in the desert in this region. They mostly survived on small fixed incomes provided by the government or some retirement fund. They came into town to cash their monthly check, buy some booze and stumble around drunk for several days before disappearing back into the desert. Once when I was at Reb’s, a tattered man came in, crazed and desperate. He apparently had already spent his whole assistance check and was begging for food. The waitress went into the back, came out with a large styrofoam cup filled with chili and told him to be on his way. The man disappeared into the night holding his chili. I wondered how it felt when he fell asleep alone under the stars with nothing to look forward to but the next month’s temporary drunken stupor.
Anyone who has driven through the Arizona desert knows that you can easily drive a hundred miles without seeing a single tree. There is nothing but rock, dirt and scrub — dark mountains loom in the distance. When you reach Saint David, there are suddenly trees everywhere. These follow the San Pedro riverbed. Also, there are many manmade ponds, fed by the local artesian wells. This water is also used for agriculture. You drive through groves of pecan trees and locals selling hay.
We were exploring the area when we turned off the 80 onto a dirt road that wound past fenced yards and houses barricaded and barred. There was no avoiding the sensation that we were in a hostile frontier. What we didn’t see made us more fearful of what might actually be there. A large compound filled with many RV’s and trailers made us imagine a cult or militia gathering. Houses with blocked out windows brought back images from old horror movies we’ve seen. It was hard not to feel isolated and vulnerable when we left the highway.
We turned on a dirt road that was across from the cemetery. We passed the wash filled with the 1940’s dead cars when we reach the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. It felt like another world.
There was a government sign stating that the area was designated as a firebreak area. Aside from the periodic major flooding, fire is the second most common form of natural disaster that the town is subjected to. Due to the dryness of the season, it was easy to see that the whole area was a tinderbox ready to go up. I didn’t see how the area would function as a firebreak as it was. I think the government ran out of funding after they put up the sign.
Amongst the trees with the dry grass blowing in the breeze and the sun starting to set, there was a stillness and remoteness that felt really nice. When we got out of the car, my girlfriend looked around and said she wanted to shoot the place with her Holga toy lens. I thought about it a moment and decided I would join her by shooting my crappy adapted Russian Industar-69 lens — not really a toy lens, but kind of the same in the sense that the results are always unpredictable and never technically very superb.
We hiked around the area saying very little. It was a moment to just let go and take in our surrounds for what they were. Shooting our toy lenses, guess focusing and capturing our surroundings without the constraints of trying to take technically perfect photographs freed us to see the landscape for what it was — something new. A place to find ourselves in the openness between these trees.
Photo: Kim Nicolini