I woke up yesterday with a bunch of thoughts gelled in my brain, and while I went about my morning routine I was writing furiously in my head. Words, at last! Then, the road called … the six-mile dirt road that follows the turns of the San Francisco River flowing past our campsite, and off we went.
We wandered past a few homes down next to the river bed, marveled at canyons and cliffs to our right, explored a couple long-abandoned stone huts and walls, tried to figure out the pattern of smashed parts and glass from a nearly-pancaked blue Beretta at the base of a stony track, and hunted for big-horn sheep. Got a glimpse of the top of the mine beyond the far side of the river too. Delightful, hot, bizarre in places, and very remote feeling.
The river flooded badly in '83, demolishing much of the town of Clifton below us, and actually is the reason there's a cheap town-run RV park at the north end of the valley (our current resting spot). The USAC of Engineers won't allow homes at the north end anymore, due to flood fears. The rest of the town is protected with giant floodgates.
Our next stop was to go see the mine a bit better … the Morenci Copper/Molybdenum Mine that's run by Freeport McMoRan and is the largest copper mine in the U.S., and one of the largest in the world. When we headed to this RV park, by the way, we knew NOTHING about Clifton/Morenci. A look at the map showing a nearby Plant City made us assume there might be industry in the vicinity.
The terraced cliffs of the mine were apparent when we pulled in last week, and we'd gotten some amazing stories the day before from an old mine-employed chemist about the history of the place, but hadn't really seen it for ourselves. We headed up Hwy 191, aiming for the spot on the little cartoonized local map that said Mine Overlook.
The map didn't indicate how far the overlook was, or that we'd have to drive underneath the giant conveyor belt system that takes the mined chunks and gradually crushes them down into pieces that can be suspended in a concentrate solution. From there they use electrowinning to make big sheets of 99.9% pure copper. This particular mine produced 902 million pounds of copper in 2015. It's big. Mind-bogglingly huge.
Hard to comprehend, even while driving past enormous sheds, pits that make huge mine trucks look like tiny Tonka toys, and terraced literal mountains of crushed stone that we realized have been built one truck-load at a time. We watched the trucks inch their way up the zig-zagged grade, back up and dump over the side to the terrace below, and then zip their way back down the road for another load. It was like watching something out of Star Wars … a planet being terraformed.
It's come a very long way from the first wagon-loads of copper being pulled to Kansas City for shipping east, back in 1865 when the mine started. Hillsides of black slag speak to the old ways of smelting and refining, and the barely visible corner of the old concrete-block high school that's peeking out of the side of a growing terraced mountain helps give some idea of how much change they've done to the landscape since 1985, when the school was abandoned and they moved into a new building in town.
We've seen the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and the Morenci Mine all in the last 3 months. Three things that make you feel tiny, take your breath away, and are hard to wrap your mind around.
They have a way of putting things in perspective. Long-term perspective. Life and cycles and death and time and the smidgen bit of it we get to spend on earth, and what really matters to me.
Almost all the traveling I did as a child was either driving in a car to visit people we knew, tenting for a week near a lake somewhere, or flying to South or Central America and visiting people dad knew or had corresponded with. Poor people for the most part, living in small towns or remote villages only reachable by perching in the back of an open truck. Some were in cities, like San Salvador or Lima Peru, but we still usually stayed with friends in apartments or in a cheap local hotel.
I grew up thinking that Disney and Resorts and fancy hotels and big museums were for the folks who weren't lucky enough to go to a “real” destination where everything was upside down and backwards and dirty and sometimes scary … except the people. Ahh, the people. The warm, lovely, generous, curious, kind, simply-living folks who opened their homes and hearts and scarce pantries to us. I knew my friends didn't take vacations like that, but I didn't know anything else. I was a little spoiled.
This trip is no different, other than the fact that it's within the boundaries of my home country, the USA. It's a bit of all of it actually … camping by remote streams, visiting people we know, and some we don't. Seeking out the human interaction, the stories, the history, the wants and needs and desires and perspectives of a huge variety of people. Finding the similarities, musing on the differences. Looking for reasons for the differences, when they're hard to understand. Reveling in the connections, the humanity, the deliciousness and terror of what it means to get another day and choose how to use it.
The number of ways of living that we've seen in the last two years is astounding. Chemists who spent their life analyzing every 10th foot of a 1000' core sample and dodging the union strikers, pragmatic Navajo boiler-makers who still teach their daughters to kill and skin wild animals for food, Old Orabai Hopi mesa-dwellers whose homes perch on the remains of the previous thousand years of homes on that tiny little mesa, and trailer park dwellers who cling to that El Dorado that “rides like a living room” as their last ticket to freedom because if they get their night-seizures checked out they might lose their license.
House painters with unimaginable personal losses, kayak-tour snook fishermen with lime green trucks and big hats and dreams to match, struggling marriages with new babies in arms, broken families that still smile and march forward, crazy-in-love spry senior citizens, private pilots, commercial pilots, broken down bus-dwellers, friendly Harley sightseers, retired museum docents that still have the joie-de-vivre of a 6-year-old perfectly intact, and countless people who just want to help.
They'll give you food, give you a new lift jack for your trailer, give you a diamond knife sharpener for your knife-obsessed child, give you bags of groceries, give you work, give you meals, give you love, give you opportunities to love, give you their deepest heartache, give you stories, give you trust, give you keys, give you respect, give you a chance, give you a fat envelope, give you an ear, give you a set of tires, give you their heart.
These humans have been rich, poor, left-leaning, right-leaning, lying down, marching, black, brown, white, hispanic, church-goers, sun-worshippers, Christ-followers, full-hearted, bodies failing, full of optimism, full of fear, satisfied and steady, seeking and restless, building their walls, sharpening their swords. These people have been my fellow Americans, my brethren, my tribe, my loves. My chances to grow. My opportunities to understand. My shoulders to lean on. My voices to learn. My lives to touch. My people.