Spring 2001

Tom Cole


It was 9:00 AM and I was driving my Dodge Shadow west bound on Elliot Road when I saw the flashing lights of a Gilbert prowl car behind me. I pulled into a residential street, stopped, and waited for the police lady to come to the window.

My dog Noodles started yapping at her the minute she looked in the window.

"Do you know what you did?" she asked.

"Nope." I said.

"Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap!" said Noodles.

"You drove across a vacant lot and had your car out there where that construction is going on. May I see your driver's license and registration?"

"Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap!" said Noodles.

I took out my wallet and found my driver's license. Then I got the registration from the glove compartment. It was stuffed in the Shadow's manual.

"Let me see your insurance too."

I handed her the license and registration and then started going through the manual to find the insurance card. I knew I had it but couldn't find it right away.

"Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap!" said Noodles.

"I was bird watching over there." I explained. "Hush, Noodles, you knucklehead."

"Have you had anything to drink?" she asked.

"No," I said. "It's a little early for that."

"It depends on when you get up."

"Well, I got up at about six." I waited a second and said, "You could smell it if I'd been drinking. Anyway, you see, there's a vermilion flycatcher that likes to sit on that fence."

The officer had no interest in the vermilion flycatcher. She could, however, clearly see the bird book on the dash and the notebook labeled in black marksalot pen: WILD BIRDS I HAVE KNOWN.

My story must have seem believable. She forgot about the insurance and said, "I have no problem with you going over there, but I can't promise that another officer won't pull you over again. You're good to go."

"Good to go." It was still rather new phraseology to me. I'd heard it on TV but had yet to hear a real person say it. No one I knew used the expression.

"Okie dokey," I said.

"Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap!" said Noodles.

I drove away and wondered why she thought I might be boozing. Then I had an idea and looked over my shoulder. There on the back seat was a unopened can of beer. It was left over from the five-day raft trip I had just taken down the San Juan River the week before and was still coated with red dust from the northern desert.

The officer had pulled me over for driving across a vacant lot. She didn't know that I was on my way to yet another lot -- a bigger one, a mile on a side -- and one I always felt the cops would kick me out of one day: the Elliot and McQueen lot.

The lot at Elliot and McQueen was like a thousand other lots that have had to succumb to encroachment of suburbia. All of them began long ago as pristine desert that was plowed under to make farmland. As the city enveloped the farms and the rural land was covered with houses, some lots remained. These lots retained their rural character in many ways. They were bordered by dirt roads, they were quiet, and while they did not contain the wildlife of the original desert for the most part, they still retained the wildlife of the old rural area: all the hawks, the coyotes, and a dozen other creatures. And they were more often than not still plowed and planted with alfalfa or wheat. The lots were still used as working farm land with absentee landlords.

The lot I drove to visit that day lies on the south side of Elliot Road with the railway its western border and McQueen Road to the east. I call it the Elliot and McQueen lot. As I said, once pristine, natural desert, this lot was long ago first plowed and ruined by farmers, but the fate it will soon meet is infinitely worse. Soon it will be covered with houses and all indeed will be lost.

I turned left off of Elliot Road and put the car into the lot on the dirt road that led south across it. Violet green swallows were streaming over the green field. To me they always represented the rural areas. You'd see them only as you drove down these lonely dirt roads that bordered farmland or these lots -- never right in your suburban neighborhood.

I stopped. A burrowing owl was on the ground next to the V-shaped cement canal that even now was being used for irrigating crops. People sometimes asked me where to find the burrowing owl and I would tell them about the Chandler Airport site, but this was even better -- closer and easier to find.

The burrowing owl is an intrepid diurnal creature of the plains and desert southwest. It lives in badger holes and the like and has bright yellow eyes and long legs. It was completely unafraid of my car or me. I looked at him for a while, wrote him down in my notebook, and drove on.

At the end of the road is Mesquite High School. It borders the southern end of the lot. I looked and saw that there were water pipits in the grass on the baseball diamond. They flew out into the plowed field of the lot. Pipits look like large heavily streaked sparrows, but they give themselves away with a teeter totter pumping of their tails and a longer, non-conical beak. That year they were the only water pipits I could find anywhere so I was happy to see them.

I turned west on the next dirt road and found another cement canal there. It was full of water. Of all things a black-crowned night-heron stood up at the edge of the canal and flew away. I got out of the car to watch him go and then decided to walk Noodles along for a while with the car parked behind. We went to the tracks and found meadowlarks in the plowed field beyond. There was also a rather large and woolly coyote in the field. He pranced off slowly and with little more concern than to look over his shoulder once or twice to see what we were up to.

I'd seen him before. He had come out and looked at Noodles and me more than once before. Each time he then just disappeared into the tall wheat that covers various parts the vacant lot. I turned and looked and there was another coyote next to a creosote bush watching us. I took it for a female. She was cutting a rather bold pose -- a cocked but unconcerned stance in front of the bush.

These coyotes were right in town and I assumed they ate a jackrabbit or two a day; there were plenty of those desert hares in the field. I knew I wasn't about to tell anyone about the coyotes because Game and Fish would likely send their guys over to shoot them on general principles. At least I thought they would. They'd find a scientific or humanitarian reason, I thought, but it would still be a sport shooting.

I had seen Game and Fish guys on television. One day it got into their heads that shooting coyotes from helicopters was a fun idea. On the day of their outing the TV news cameras came in to ask what they were doing. Suddenly, the Game and Fish guys did not seem so proud of their plans and became positively retiring and demure They would talk to no one. They had no comment. They wouldn't even get near the helicopters. They pretended to shut the whole thing down because they knew very well that people who shoot dogs are held in low esteem by the general public and like most people they still wanted to be popular. And, of course, they had no good reason to be shooting coyotes from helicopters anyway -- aside from the sport of it. So they waited until almost all of the camera people had left. A couple of cameras remained but the Game and Fish boys couldn't wait any longer and went on their hunt anyhow. Only a few seconds of video were taken.

I saw the video. What struck me were the hats -- the big, silly, preposterous hats that all the Game and Fish guys wore. They were big, wide brimmed cowboy-like hillbilly hats and they wore them inside the helicopters where there was no sun. I knew immediately why they were wearing them. This coyote hunt was a fun sporting event for the Game and Fish guys and such joyous events call for certain apparel. They were party hats.

My father always hated Game and Fish. He once showed me an article in a Game and Fish publication. It was entitled, "The Roadrunner. The Clown of the Desert."

The story told of how a rattlesnake would take a snooze out in the noonday sun and how the roadrunner (that clown of the desert) would sneak up and build a ring of cholla around him. Now the rattlesnake, so the article went, cannot cross over cholla and the roadrunner knows it but the snake doesn't, so when the roadrunner wakes the snake up, the snake slithers away and gets stuck on the cholla spines and the roadrunner takes advantage of his preoccupation and chops his head off.

I can still hear my dad: "Oh, Jesus! Those rattlers do like to take naps -- and right in the noonday sun where their temperature will go up to 120 degrees. What utter bullshit! And isn't that clownish of the roadrunner to chop off the snake's head? He haggles the snake's head clean off, that clown -- that CLOWN of the desert!"

The roadrunner's technique of killing the rattlesnake is kind of like my technique for killing alligators. My method relies more on distraction, though. You just leave the Sunday paper by the swamp. Then you come back and sneak up and club the gator over the head while he's clipping coupons.

On the western side of the lot are a few hovels that bums reside in. They have some palm fronds set up as wind breaks and a some of their Spartan gear stowed around there -- cans and ratty blankets and the like. The area is full of Anna's hummingbirds, loggerhead shrikes, and meadowlarks.

If you've ever gone and looked around the area where bums hang out, you will be surprised that you can more often than not find some girlie magazines or pornographic magazines lying around. You can also find the bum's stash quite easily. Just look for a rock that seems to have been moved recently and look under it. Half the time you'll find a bag of dope or a pill or some crystal meth or cocaine. I don't take their dope, but I do find it interesting to find their stash. It's kind of a hobby of mine. There's another lot -- an old dump where someone has stashed a ton of women's clothes: brassieres, pink pumps, dresses and a half dozen cheap wigs. I guess the bum or whoever he is -- maybe the dean of liberal arts from a local college for all I know -- goes out there and dresses up and dances from time to time under the light of the silvery moon. Humans is real strange critters.

At the Elliot and McQueen lot, I picked up a piece of paper printed out from a computer. It seemed to be part of the journal of a man who said he was the author of children's stories. The account told of how he received air fare from his publisher to go to book signings and meet all of his wonderful young fans. Most of the journal page told about his relationship with a woman and her prepubescent twin daughters. In part he wrote:

"Susan went on to tell me more: How the girls had been aware of other people's sexual feelings since they were out of diapers, sleeping together and experimenting with their own bodies. She said (and I blushed) that if they were going to fool around with someone else she would rather it be with someone she knew...We hugged chastely, like brother and sister, drawn together by our mutual love for her daughters.

"Not many mothers would allow their daughters to hang around with a confessed little girl lover, but that was exactly what she had done. I felt I owed her something for being so understanding, so I tried to think of something that would help her with raising two young girls.

"It was good not to have any secrets, I thought, as I drifted off to sleep a little later, visions of two identical girls dancing naked through my head."

I showed my co-worker Margot the manuscript page and she made me give her a copy which she sent to the Gilbert police on the off chance that it would make the difference in some pending court case against this perve.

I have continued to visit the lot nearly every weekend. Recently I saw some birds there I couldn't quickly identify. Then I said, "They're bluebirds!" And a little later I was able to say, "Jesus, they're mountain bluebirds!"

Mountain bluebirds have a much less hunched posture than western or eastern bluebirds and don't have the rusty colored feathers on back and breast. Mountain bluebirds are sky blue thrushes and they have the habit of hovering some fifty feet above the ground before diving down for insects on the ground. I had always felt that mountain bluebirds were high altitude birds. I had seen them often in Flagstaff hovering in the icy air. I was surprised to see them in the Valley. I was able to come back for weeks to the Elliot and McQueen lot and find the same birds there hovering and diving. They stayed long enough for me to bring people over to see them.

There's a big Christian church right across the street from the lot and on Sundays at around ten o'clock the cops set up a little roadblock-like traffic control area there so the people who have just drunk a heady draught from the goblet of dogma can drive out of their lot without getting run over. I always motor back from bird watching at the Elliot and Cooper recharge station and make a left turn around the cops in the street and weave my truck around and through their parked squad cars there on the side of the road. Then I drive into the Elliot and McQueen lot like I own the place. It's the least I can do. They always give me the fish eye, but so far they haven't been curious enough to ask me what I'm up to.

I drive down the road and stop the truck to look through my Swift Audubon 8.5 X 44 porros at some horned larks that have flitted across the road and landed on the ground in the dry field to my right. I know that I have seen my last horned lark at the recharge station a mile away because the field next to it has been covered with houses now and I have to come here to see the larks. I look across the field for any bare areas and see under the magnification of the lenses other horned larks on the ground. They burst into the air in a scattered low-flying flock making a wheezing squeal like someone unfastening old, rusty car parts.

Beyond, in the sky, there are northern harriers cruising for rodents, some high up and others gliding only feet from the ground so slowly that you would think they'd lose airspeed, stall, and tumble into the plowed earth. Harriers are always present here and most of the time, as is the case today, turkey vultures hang as though painted in the enormous sky.

I know that it will not be long before houses cover the lot. I will miss the cement canal and how it dries up and gets clogged with tumbleweeds and how my dog likes to burrow into those tumbleweeds because they smell like rabbit. I will miss the haunt of bums. I will miss having an in-town place to see mountain bluebirds and a natural area close to home where I can see the harriers glide over the fields. I will miss any chance of getting the next edition of the pervert's journal.

The passing of this lot will be the same as all of the ones I have seen for years. From my house, I once could look out far into the mystery to the south. Out there, over the fields, I could see the groves of cottonwood trees and beyond them other fields still that spread across the land onward to the distant horizon. When houses were built on that land, only a few lots remained until they too were filled in with the advancing beige jungle and there was no longer a desert, or a farm, or a vacant lot. Everything was gone; and along with everything else went the long lonely dirt roads that stretched mile upon mile along the quiet fields with the violet-green swallows flying over them.