Saturday, March 14, 2009

Location, Location...

by Ben Small

Part and parcel of a good story is the location chosen. I especially enjoy mysteries set in locations that offer historical, cultural or topographical oddities or curiosities, or those which will add interesting aspects to my plotting.

And I've found a gem this time, right in my own back yard. My next book, title as yet undetermined, will be set in the historic areas south of Tucson, the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers, the valleys they support and the Santa Rita Mountain Range which splits them. It was here that the first Spanish settlements arose during the 1500s, and it was along the San Pedro where Wyatt Earp carried out his vendetta against the Cowboys. In fact, close to the place where I took the lead shot for this article, Wyatt Earp shot dead the famous outlaw Curly Bill Brocius, leader of the rustling Cowboys, in a hail of gunfire. Back then, the term "Cowboy" was an insult; intended to refer to the murdering rustlers who invaded ranches in Mexico and the Arizona/New Mexico territories, murdered the residents, and stole their cattle or horses. There was no law and order back in those days, no jurisdictional respect or order between federal, county and local law enforcement agencies. County law enforcement was aligned with the rustlers, while the Earps were town and deputy U.S. marshals. Two U.S. presidents tried to remedy the outlaw culture, and the Government of Mexico threatened war, but it took Wyatt Earp and his brothers, not the most pleasant or legitimate characters themselves considering their gambling and prostitution interests, to clean up the mess. And at root, politics was behind much of the conflict, for the rustlers were Democrats, and the gamblers and pimps were Republicans.

How's that for consistency?

Despite the time difference between then and now, the 1880s mentality still remains. This is harsh country, and solutions to problems are sometimes direct and brutal. As was stated in the movie, Casino, there are many holes in the desert. I happened on one grave (Curly Bill?) where someone was kind enough to mount a cross. But many graves are unmarked, if remains are buried at all. Many bodies were and are left to the coyotes, mountain lions and the ever-present turkey vultures.

Back in the 1880s, this area was the Wild West.

Now it's just wild.

The San Pedro and Santa Cruz river beds, valleys, highways, and the mountains in between them are known as Smuggler's Alley, where trafficking in drugs, weapons and humans is most keen. Residents report finding live and spent 7.62 X 39 shells -- the kind shot by AK-47s, the smugglers' weapon of choice -- in their backyards. They hear gunshots and see people running.

The Border Patrol snatches over 800 illegals per day here.

Drive through this area during daylight, and you will see Border Patrol vehicles, lots of them, all shapes, sizes and types of them, and you'll pass through Border Patrol Inspections, both permanent and temporary. You'll see helicopters flying over, and you'll see people on mountaintops, watching, much like Cochise and Geronimo and their bands did here in the mid-to-late 19th Century. At night, you'll see flares, Kleig lights and flashlights. You may see flashing signals in the mountains. The Border Patrol will fly over, spreading their floods on hilltops or fields. You may hear shouts or shots, perhaps both.

The winds blow often, sometimes fierce and gusting; they carry strange sounds, conversations and activity from some distance away. But from where..? Tension grows as dusk falls. It builds...

At night, the desert comes alive. You hear rustling, the baying of coyotes, and sudden rushed movements, a struggle. A scream on the wind. Laughter? Terror? The air stills like it was snuffed, and you hear another rustle in a bushy mesquite nearby. You hear a shot, or was it a door slam maybe at the ranch next door? You analyze what you heard, decide there was a clang to it. Must be a door that took a breeze badly.

Be careful when you're between the valleys.

Here's a daylight shot from my car window, not far from the Santa Cruz.

If you look carefully, you'll see two people watching me from on top of a foothill five hundred yards away. I departed quickly, after I saw one of them raise a rifle through my zoom lens. I called the Border Patrol and gave them the GPS coordinates.

This is beautiful country along these two rivers, even when the rivers and streams are not running. Mountains, washes and game abound. The San Pedro valley is noted as one of the world's best bird sites.

But beware, around the next corner may lurk danger. If you're off the main roads, you may want to be armed.

Other risks affect folks in this area, too. Water, for instance. Green Valley and Tucson pull most of their water from the Santa Cruz watershed. The water table, which varies from several hundred feet from the surface to just a few feet close to the river, is declining, and groundwater and stream flow are showing increased levels of contaminates. The Santa Cruz originates in Mexico and flows north. Nogales, Sonora is a major industrial center, and it's pumping TCE laced water into the riverbed.

But there's more... This area, up from Mexico to Tucson, sees some of the most intense mining operations in the world. Gold, silver, copper, molybdenum, uranium and other minerals are mined and processed here, and these processes use sulfuric acid, arsenic and other heavy metals and poisonous substances. The chemical tanks, piping, seals and acid ponds sometimes leak. Tailings from these mines dot the countryside, creating huge toxic mounds saturated with these chemicals -- and radioactive to boot. This is open pit stuff, most of it, so the mountains are being scarred. And where tunnel mining prevails, there are problems with subsistence (sudden collapse of mine shafts). A collapsing mine channel may unpredictably divert rushing floodwaters during summer monsoons. You're in the mountains, and there's no soil to absorb rainfall. The ground is hard-pack. It, too, is mined, for Portland Cement and Cemex, the Mexican concrete giant.

The chemical runoff from these mining operations is contaminating the groundwater at ever increasing rates. And the areas close to the river, where the water table is closest to the surface, are prime farming areas. Take for instance, this pecan farm, where I'm placing Denton Wright's ex-wife in the new book, a horse rancher and pecan farmer. The farm is less than a mile from the Santa Cruz, so the water table is close to the ground.

As I was scouting this area, I came upon a copper mine just a few miles from this pecan farm. (Indeed, another one was across the street from it, an abandoned mine, but with the tailings pile still intact.) A big 'un, with enormous sulfuric acid tanks and holding ponds and a pile of tailings climbing to the sky. Huge ore trucks pass by, throwing up clouds of dust. The trucks are timed, so the dust doesn't become a fog, but when the wind is blowing, good luck.

Here is the tailings pile. You'll also note the hanging dust cloud from an ore truck that passed by some minutes before. The roads are paved with crushed tailings here, so you're traveling on radioactive roads through radioactive clouds dusted with sulfuric acid and arsenic.

Good times, huh?

Adding more fuel to the area's growing flames of discontent and concern, there's the proposal of a Canadian company to put a new silver, copper and moly open pit mine just south of Tucson, close to Vail, an incorporated suburb. The waters from this location feed both the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are currently conducting investigations that will lead to an environmental impact statement, but an 1872 federal law gives mining a preference over any other land development, and local residents feel bitterly that environmental concerns are once again taking a back seat to mining development. It's irony that this battleground is proceeding despite a severe downturn in materials prices, a decline that's laying off copper miners and closing many mines.

A lot of property for sale here...

So Denton's ex-wife is in the midst of this mess, trying to save her pecan farm and horse ranch, while dealing with the pressures of guarding against illegal trafficking across her lands. She lives north, in horse ranch territory, just west of the old McCartney Ranch, where Linda McCartney died. She lives two blocks from Tucson's only oasis, Aqua Caliente Park, where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday met the territorial U.S. Marshall, who informed them Frank Stillwell and Ike Clanton were waiting at the Tucson train station to murder the entire Earp clan. The shooting of Frank Stillwell thereafter, for which Doc Holliday was charged, was the beginning of Wyatt's famous vendetta. The Cowboys were destroyed.

The problems are great, the challenges greater, and the risks are real and apparent. Still, nestled at the foot of the Santa Catalina range, in an area twenty miles away from her farm and horse ranch, Denton's ex-wife's residence looks scenic and tranquil. Desert plants, especially saguaro abound underneath the concrete-like hard-pac. It's a desert jungle, thick with mesquite, chollas, barrel cacti, acacia, ocotillo, hopbush, paloverde, mexican jumping bean, chuparosa, canyon ragweed, Parry's penstemon and creasote. Sandwiched between two mountain ranges, the northeast side of Tucson, where she lives, sees double the rainfall of metro-Tucson. The mountains squeeze the water out of clouds passing through their slot like a wet chamois twisted in strong hands.

But looks can be deceiving...


Jean Henry Mead said...

It's a real problem and more dangerous than anyone knows. While I was a San Diego news reporter, the border was my beat and I flew in the first Bell helicopter assigned to the border patrol in 1977(as well as reporters from all over the country) along the fence line and Rio Grande River. There were hundreds of trails through the cactus and sagebrush from the Mexican border. And it's gotten absurdly worse since that time.

Morgan Mandel said...

Those are great shots. Oh, by the way, we have more water than we need. Too bad some of it can't be shipped over there somehow.

Morgan Mandel

Ben Small said...


You should write an autobiography. You've had some amazing life experiences. I would love to read them.

Morgan, ship all you can. Although, as I'm saying this, it's raining. But it's sporadic, just enough to create some havoc at the Tucson Book Festival. BTW, you folks may want to attend the Tucson Book Festival next year. This was the inaugural year, but there are over four hundred fifty authors here, numerous book stores and exhibitors from all over the country, and huge crowds. This festival has the full support of the University of Arizona and the Arizona Daily Star, and it's being held on campus. I did very well at book signings today and have some tomorrow, too. And I'm on the program tomorrow. Headliners are JA Jance and Elmore Leonard, but there are many more. But it was the crowds that most amazed me. Book lovers from all over. The university was jammed, the festival very well organized, and people were buying books, lots of them. One would have thought there were no economic issues...

Jean Henry Mead said...

Some day I will, Ben. :) But I've still got a lot of living to do before I write my memoirs.