SAN JUAN JON:THE CACTUS PHONE

As children we often visited our grandparents in southern Arizona where they worked a ranch about 25 miles southeast of Tucson. The trips always started with an announcement posed as a question. How would we like to go visit Nana and Grandpa? At that point our excitement would burst as we raced about the house shrieking in our joy. There was nothing grander in our young lives. The day of departure we would each be given a bucket filled with crayons, paper and toys. Wise and useful were the gifts giving us means to wile away the hours…and a place in which to barf when motion sickness overwhelmed us.

After what seemed an eternity we would finally pull off the two lane highway onto a straight dirt track and travel the 2 1/2 miles to the ranch house. The road was straight on a map but the ground was not level for it followed the contours carved out by cloud bursts. These torrents of debris and muddy water rolled in a ball of fury off the flanks of the Coyote Mountains that rose dramatically out of the desert floor to the west. The best part of our drive was Dad gunning the old truck over the rolling hills leaving our stomachs to float into the desert sky as we plummeted shrieking down the other side.

Their house was not ordinary. It was simple, small but magical. The front was framed with Saguaro cactus, but the side door, the boot and mud room, served as the main entrance. In the back was hard swept ground framed by an ocateo fence. The dwelling was wood framed and plain, smelling of wood smoke, leather, and the delicious aromas from the kitchen. The kitchen table was on a slight platform off of the main room which to our joy had a TV. We watched the original Maverick and many other westerns on this flickering black and white smugly knowing that we lived in the land they were trying to depict. To us we had landed in that very time as well. Marty Robins sang about the Big Iron on His Hip and the west Texas Town of El Paso on the scratchy phonograph in that same room. This house was heaven.

Of particular joy was being invited to go with Grandpa for the mail. You didn’t just go with him, you had to be invited. This was a daily ritual as important as the chores, the feeding of livestock and the eventual breakfast for us. So about 9 in the morning I would clamber into the pickup and us men would head for the highway. Over the roller coaster road we went, Grandpa smoking and me just pleased to be alive. Upon arrival at the pavement we would pull off and gather what mail there might be. We would sit in the truck while he read through it and we waited. And then it would happen. The startling ringing sound would break out over the silent desert as the phone announced the incoming call. The routine was known to those who knew my grandparents. Anyone needing to talk with them knew Grandpa would be getting his mail about 9:30 in the morning. A phone line paralleled the highway and attached to this line was an old timey phone placed in a wooden box at the base of a giant Saguaro.  What a thrill it gave me to hear its ring and to watch Grandpa go squat and open this box, putting a receiver to his ear talking to someone over there in Tucson.

Many years later I was working for the Forest Service in Boulder County. Available to me for a large sum of money was a cellular Motorola phone that was made to mount on the dash of a pickup. I didn’t bother with the dash mount but placed the phone in my pack. It was as large as a shoe box and that phone was more powerful than any I have had since. I kept it there so that when I topped out on high ridges I could catch the phone signal and make a call, or maybe more importantly, receive one. I let people know that they could try to call me in the late evening of those summer days and would climb high in the hills while the sun set to see if any would call. Strolling about on a ridge top one evening, I thought back to those days at the ranch, and Grandpa and his cactus phone.

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