Why Why? A stark, no-frills retreat from the world

  • Diane Sylvain

Two highways meet in a "Y" at Why, Ariz. This remote crossroads some 30 miles from Mexico seems an unlikely vacation spot, but for the past three years I've made it my winter retreat.

At first glance, Why doesn't seem like much. There are a couple of dozen simple houses, a few dirt streets, two gas stations, three cafes, a bar, a grocery store, a second-hand store and a post office. The border patrol has an office nearby.

"Why Why?" people ask. The residents shrug and say, "Why not?" Actually, the residents changed the name from Y to Why because the post office required at least three letters in a place name.

Highways 85 and 86 join at Why. Just past the junction sits Coyote Howls RV Park, where 300 to 400 rigs park during the mild winter months.

This is called "boondocking" in Coyote Howls Park, which means living away from conveniences. Coyote Howls has no electric hookups and you have to haul your water. Restrooms have flush toilets and hot showers - a quarter buys eight minutes' worth of shower time.

Boondocking teaches self-sufficiency and conservation. You don't stand at the sink brushing your teeth while the faucet runs. You get by with a shallow basin of water to wash dishes, and you find that a tiny amount of detergent goes a long way.

The friend I stay with uses four solar panels to charge two batteries that supply all his lighting, color TV, tape deck and water pump. Propane runs the refrigerator, the stove, oven and hot water heater, as well as the catalytic heater that keeps us warm at night. He is free to go practically anywhere as long as there is sunshine, water and propane.

Since making Coyote Howls my regular vacation spot, I've come to know some of Why's year-round residents. One goes by the name "Weird Al."

Al, 73, spent his life working as an aircraft mechanic and served in Vietnam. Weird Al is losing his sight now, but he has seen a lot of odd things in the sky and claims Why is a good spot to see more of the same. He gets buzzing in his ears and attributes the strange noises he hears to the pilots of spacecraft.

A sign on the wall in the kitchen of Al's small trailer reads: IF THE GRUB HERE SEEMS STRANGE IT'S BECAUSE THIS WEIRD IS FROM ANOTHER PLANET.

Al's girlfriend Babe insists she is not weird, but she likes to read him his mail about flying saucers. Babe has a chubby little dog with bulging brown eyes called "Me Too." Al and Babe live side by side in separate trailers, and along with two dozen others, put up with the scorching summer heat and miserable humidity that accompanies Why's monsoons in early fall.

A former year-round resident of Coyote Howls, Tom, was more eccentric than most. Drive by Tom's lot almost any day at any time and you would see him sitting in his car reading a newspaper.

Tom's car was so jam-packed with junk, there was no room for anyone but him. Tom had a trailer to live in, but he preferred his car, and although his space was 50 yards from the restroom, Tom drove there. Tom passed away over a year ago.

Vern, an ex-hobo, and his cronies can be found hopping from cafe to cafe, in both Why and Ajo, some 10 miles away. They while the hours away smoking, drinking coffee and talking about all the fishing and gold prospecting they are going to do, even though it's clear that the only prospecting they'll ever do is the armchair variety.

While frequenting the local cafe in Why, I became acquainted with another resident, Darlene. She and her husband live in the park year-round, and while he is quiet and clean-cut, Darlene is, well, lackadaisical about her appearance. She wears the same T-shirt and jeans day after day and hangs out at the bar. One night last winter, Darlene got drunk and walked home in the dark. Midway she decided to take a shortcut and got hung up in a fence. When her husband finally found her, he had to untangle her from the fence to take her home.

Eva, a longtime resident of the park, is an avid hiker, in excellent physical condition, and well into her 80s. It is nothing for Eva to hike eight or 10 miles in one day, since hiking is perhaps the best recreation Why has to offer. Many park residents are older people who keep in shape this way.

The desert is where I go to explore. For miles you can experience no traffic, no noise, no powerlines and no people.

Mountains formed from volcanic activity zigzag over the flat landscape with its spread of cactus, mesquite and ironwood. Towering saguaros and organ pipe cactus rule this desert, along with cholla in many forms, prickly pear, pincushion and fishhook barrel cactus. Palo verde trees grow along the washes. The desert is anything but barren and lifeless.

In early March the desert starts to bloom, and by April cactus are everything from bright yellow to deep orange to vibrant magenta.

Even in late December the desert teems with life. In the middle of the night the eerie crooning of coyotes penetrates the stillness of the dark world - sometimes echoing in the distance, sometimes just outside the trailer. Each morning we hear the cactus wren's harsh, low-pitched cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha; the orange-crowned warbler's trill.

I could do without the gila woodpecker's hammering on a metal TV antenna, but I love the curve-billed thrasher, whose song features trills and couplets. Many species live along the washes, including juncos, chickadees and white-crowned sparrows. Once in a while a line of Gambel's quail can be seen scooting across the open. Ravens overhead are common.

Hiking is exhilarating and soothing. Where else can you go in peace, knowing you aren't likely to meet another human being? Surrounded by cactus so adapted to a land almost devoid of moisture, I feel strangely at home.

Sometimes the sunlight hits just right and I see sparkling fragments of crystalline rocks. On warm days a lizard pops out from a burrow and scurries from bush to bush with lightning speed. Snakes won't appear until the weather grows hotter.

The mountains in the distance are brown, very different from the snow-peaked Rockies I know. These mountains are smaller, yet steeper - they shoot up in jagged points.

After a mild afternoon of hiking, sometimes my friend and I wait until sundown to visit a cave he found when he first came to Why. The cave is shallow but large. As we climb up to it, we always feel we are entering a special place.

From the cave opening, we can see over the valley floor and the park miles away. The white dots scattered about are the rigs. As night dominates, they become speckles of light. But the most magnificent show of all is the vastness above, the stars that poke through in all their brilliance.

Ann Ulrich typesets articles for HCN, and occasionally writes one.

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