travelog 3

The other Americans

...and the other America, experienced in a small town called Sierra Vista, Arizona.

As an introduction we want to say that our story tells of events that can really be called "encounters of the third kind". For the most part we have met friendly, helpful people - really nice Americans, until now. That's why it hit us so unexpectedly!

We drive westwardly just beside the Mexican border fence. Although we were warned several times not to drive the dirt roads in this part of the world after heavy rain, we succeed. Most of the road-sections are already dried up and we don't get stuck.

We get on the normal paved road again and after a while discover a police car in our mirrors (which we passed just before, while parked on the roadside), following us. Ah, once again a guardian of law and order who wants to check us out! But - he acts very uncommon, he just follows us. Although I inform Martin that I think the officer blinked his headlights - he answers that this would be outside of his imagination, because if an American police officer wants to check you out, he lights up his rolling "christmas tree". So I keep the lights of the cop in eye and follow exactly the speed signs. After some miles, the expected signal sounds and the lights flash up - the whole police car blinks festively. I stop the truck at the roadside and keep sitting, as we were told to do so when arriving in the United States. The sheriff is busy on his walkie-talkie and meanwhile Martin fishes the papers/licenses out of our bags - because the whole other stuff (passport etc) is stowed in our safe and we don't feel like opening it another time (as we did several times during checks of the Border Patrol). But the sheriff turns out to be a totally nice guy. He is just a little bit interested in our vehicle. He tells us that he would be a little bit "nosy" and that he hopes the small break wouldn't matter. He climbs up two steps of the drivers' cabin, peeks around me in the direction of our "living room" and chats nicely with us. Then he asks if we would mind having him take pictures of our truck. As we tell him that he should go ahead, he grabs his polaroid camera out of his festively blinking car and takes his pictures standing in the middle of the road - he's a policeman, why not. We talk for a while and then express our hope that we would be left in peace for the rest of our stay within the United States - we should be stored already in every computer of the US police or border patrol (funny detail: it seems to work, because since that moment, all officers are friendly waving their hands - but no one stops us any more).

Shortly after that we arrive in Sierra Vista. It is an inconspicuous city, but a little bit bigger than we expected. One of those roadside villages, a few houses surrounding the gas stations, supermarkets, malls and other consumer temples. About 5 miles long with many traffic-lights and a 4-lane main road with center lane. The people of the National Forest Service Ranger Station (of the adjacent Coronado National Forest) are very friendly and try to help us check our e-mail (many many mails have already accumulated in our laptop computer), but their telephone lines seem to be antique. So we get a hand-written map and many hints and leave for the city.

At first we had only the intention of getting two chip-cracks in our windshield repaired. But the man (a flying/mobile windshield repair service) wants to have $50 for the job, doesn't look very reliable, so we decide to wait with the repair and have it done somewhere else.

Next we search for a campground, because we want to stay for a few days and also because we need to fill up our fresh-water tanks. The first campground we try (with a big advertisement sign at the entrance) seems to be more likely for long-term residents. Everywhere are mobil homes with hidden tires so that they look like built houses. Some of them have also a little patio-garden in front of their entrance. After two bumps and a big "neighborhood crime watch" sign, two other big signs lead you to the office. As Martin is the copilot today, he is the one who settles the formalities. The door of the office opens automatically and within the frame a red-faced, thick man in his fifties asks totally thunderstruck, what the hell that vehicle is. After a few calming words and the assurance that we have nothing to do with any army, Martin is allowed enter the office. He doesn't want to sit down on one of the visitor chairs - they don't look very reliable. The owner drones his whole story - that it would cost $13.86 a night - no, there are no showers and no restrooms - no electricity - but water, yes, we could hook up on a water hose. Martin makes the stay dependent on the possibility to check e-mail. The man looks a little bit clueless and wants to know the definition of e-mail. But as he hears the word "computer", he tells Martin that this seems to be the toy of the children and that he doesn't want anything to do with such a machine. Martin tries to convince him, he explains the whole story slowly and as understandably as possible. That he wouldn't call Switzerland, that it only would be a 5-to-10-minute telephone call to Tucson (around 80 miles distance) and that we would be ready to pay the telephone charges. The man helplessly shouts for his wife (the real boss!). She sits down theatrically into an office chair, suspiciously watches Martin and says that THIS would be A LONG DISTANCE CALL! She would have enough strange telephone charges on her bill - no, that's impossible, she doesn't want to have us calling Tucson (we talk here about approximately $2 or even less!). OK. No possibility to check our e-mail, no $13.86 for just a parking lot. Martin says a friendly goodbye and leaves the office. Two baffled people look after him. There are in fact a lot of other mobil home parks, but no normal campground. And so our search goes on.

While I am waiting for a green light on one of the many intersections, I notice beside our truck a glazier's workshop car and so we follow him to his company which can't be far away. The people there inspect our windshield and tell us (probably because they earn more this way) that they could repair the chips, but that it would be easier and safer to replace the whole windshield. Every windshield, once hurt, would break one day (funny detail: we drive with the later repaired windshield from then until the homepage is installed - a few thousand miles - without any problem at all). Instead of telling us the price for the repair job, they ASK US finally if we would know an address within the United States delivering windshields for Unimogs. Words fail us!

We stop at a bookstore (as usual) to search for antiquarian books on cacti and succulents - without success (also as usual). Then we want to buy three detailed hiking maps of National Parks we have not visited yet. Normally these maps are sold at a price of around $10. Two of them have a price tag of $1 and one of $4.50. So I ask the lady at the cashier's desk if the maps are really sold for only $1. She misunderstands my questions and thinks I am asking her why the third map doesn't also cost $1 - and agrees to sell them all to me for that price. I think it's a bargain and decide to buy all the maps which could be interesting for us, so I ask her if that price is valid for all the older maps - she laughs and says that she only wanted to be nice to us!

Martin thinks, as he sees a computer store nearby, that he could check the e-mail over there. A friendly elderly man behind the cashier's desk says that he can probably help solve Martin's problem. Martin is not so sure about that, but asks if it would be possible to check the e-mail - just a short paid (!) telephone call to Tucson. The man seems to be agreeable but has to ask his boss. He turns out to be an unfriendly, fat, sleazy type that rejects our request instantaneously and tells Martin that he would have only a ring-system and with that it would be impossible - only voice would be transmitted. People have sometimes dumb excuses!

Next we try our chance with the water - we ask at a gas station, but as the man understands that we want to fill up our freshwater tank with about 60 gallons (about 160 liters), he tells us that water is very scarce in this region and with an important looking gesture he says: "we are in the DESERT you know!" and that water would be very expensive. He has to ask his boss (the normal excuse) and that one sends us to the city park where we could find public water for free. It's getting dark, we reach the city park, but besides restrooms and little water faucets (which normally are used in offices) there is absolutely no possibility to find a way to attach our water-hose. Probably the people think that we would run 160 times there and back with a water pot to fill up our empty tank - but the boss of the gas station got rid of us very elegantly...

Now we try to find a campsite at a campground which had been shown to us before. But here you must be an "Elk", the sites and the restaurant are reserved only for members. We meet a sheriff driving past us and ask him, he shows us a mobil home park just around the corner. He thinks that they should have some sites for overnight campers. The office is already closed, but the neighbours tell us that we could pay in the morning. During a heavy sandstorm Martin fills up all freshwater tanks and I wonder the whole night long why no parts of the surrounding, not so well-built mobil homes, are flying through the air. Throughout the night it's raining, but the next morning only blue sky! We are honest people - sometimes eventually you can also say, naive - so we drive to the office and want to pay for the night. The lady at the desk doesn't understand properly and tells me that it would be impossible to stay overnight in her mobilhome park. Then it dawns on her that exactly this had happened already - and she then changes into a hellcat. "Honey", that doesn't work, "Honey" I have to call the police, "Honey" this is disturbance of domestic peace and security etc., etc. I try to make her understand that a sheriff has sent us to her place. That's what she can't understand and what makes her more and more angry. Finally I assure her that the door of her campground was open the last evening and that a neighbour told us we could certainly pay the next morning - she gets furious. She decides not to accuse me because I am an ignorant European but promises that the sheriff would have to take care of some serious problems (which I could care less). For staying overnight she doesn't want a cent, probably she doesn't know how to book it into her account... And as I finally am allowed to leave her office, bathed in sweat, Martin receives me with the question if it is possible to check our e-mail...

We decide to leave this "hospitable" place and only to drive through again if it's necessary. But we wouldn't get out of our car!

PS: Not long ago we heard from friends that the town "Sierra Vista" is in Arizona also known under the name "Sorry Vista" - we know exactly why!

March 1998

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen