The Guitar Trail

Back again on I-10, I found myself inching along in a traffic jam, finally coming abreast of a serious car accident, complete with overturned cars and the injured lying in the road. The old west was a dangerous place, but so is the new one. The dreadful sight abruptly jerked me out of my historical reverie. Welcome to the real world. Hello Tucson.

Coming into a big city is always a headache for a traveler Ė at least for one who doesnít have a place to stay. Which is me. Finding a motel poses more of a conundrum than, say, in a resort town. I always hope to stumble onto a motel row, but that rarely happens, especially when Iím dogged tired from a twelve hour day behind the wheel and itís 9pm and traffic is careening all around me.

Tanque Verde poolTanque Verde crewThe hour was late because earlier I had stopped by the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch on the east edge of Tucson. Unlike The Home Ranch, which sits out by itself far from town, Tanque Verde is bordered by residential Tucson, which seemed a little odd to me. More a resort than a ranch, Tanque Verde features sprawling lawns, tennis courts, cocktail lounges, and a hundred plus cabana rooms. Yes, thereís riding, and the hilly, cactus-strewn desert country behind the ranch is starkly pretty, but the place just didnít have much of a rugged western flavor. But, hey, the weather was great! Rugged or not, come wintertime it could be tempting to work in southern Arizona.

(More recently, Iíve read a fascinating history of the Tanque Verde Ranch. As one of very first cattle ranches in southern Arizona, itís seen its share of wild and woolly action. And back then, it was out in the middle of nowhere.)

After finally checking into my last motel room of the trip, I tracked down a brewpub near the college campus (is it ASU or U of A?) and settled in for a beer and some grub. Brewpubs are my first choice of eateries when I hit a new town. They usually have character and a casual ambience, plus the food is often good and fairly reasonable. And then, of course, thereís the magic words: ďfresh beer.Ē

In anticipation of my arrival in California, I called my friend Walden to ask if I could stop by for a brief stay. He said sure, then gave me the name of a musician friend of his in Tucson. So I called Tim Weedenkiller (good name, huh?) and, though he had no time to visit, got directions to Tucsonís more interesting music stores.

Folks, point me to a music store (or a flyfishing shop) and Iím a happy camper. The next morning I was up and out and headed to Chicago Music in the heart of old downtown Tucson. Located in a huge old brick building, Chicago Music ranks as perhaps the strangest music store I have ever visited. The cavernous and musty interior was filled to the rafters with used instruments of all shapes and sizes. Rack after rack of old trumpets and violas and amplifiers and cases and amps. And thousands, I mean THOUSANDS, of guitars. The downstairs displayed a smattering of new guitars and a whole bunch of used ones with labels I didnít recognize. Climbing a flight of stairs to a sprawling balcony, I discovered thousands more guitars literally stacked against each other in row after dusty row. It was like a burial ground for broken, forgotten, and off-label electric guitars never to be strummed again. I felt sorry for them.

Picking my way through this jumbled maze of gear, I was stopped by screaming from somewhere beyond. A crazed customer? Well, I figured, this place could make me scream, too. Warily continuing on, I finally found myself face-to-face with a large, uncaged, and very vocal Great Amazon parrot. I gave him a wide berth. Man, I thought, this haunted house of a music store has everything. Retracing my steps, I finally emerged out onto the sidewalk, thankful to once again see the light of day.

Epiphone guitarLike many stores catering to the folkie crowd, The Folk Center carried a smattering of guitars, banjos, and mandolins, plus a wide array of ethnic folk instruments. I guess thereís a market for thumb pianos, shakers made from dried pomegranates, and Latvian elbow drums, but Iíve personally never felt a great need to own any. I was about to leave when I mentioned to the owner that I was an archtop guitar fan. Ah-ha, he said, then disappeared into the back and re-emerged with a blonde 1953 Epiphone Zephyr. Now this, thought I, is more like it. The guitar sounded great and I comped on that baby for a good twenty minutes. Even though I already own a fine archtop, I was (and still am) tempted to buy it. I must confess that I have the guitar disease and itís all I can to restrain myself from acquiring more and more. Truthfully, quality vintage instruments wisely purchased can be good investments. You can also go broke buying them. So I withheld. Anyway, I didnít have a square inch more room in my truck to carry even a matchstick more.

With visions of blond archtops dancing in my head, I climbed back aboard the I-10 and headed north. My plan was to visit another guest ranch in Wickenburg, which meant driving through Phoenix. Good Lord, what a nightmare of roadwork and stoplights. Iím talkiní mile after mile after mile of stoplights that made you want to scream. I donít think Iíll be visiting Phoenix anytime soon. It may have risen from the ashes, but itís fallen down again.

Los CabLos Cab golfFinally I pulled into Wickenburg, a desert community known for its winter season dude ranches and snowbird population. After getting my front tires rebalanced (always a fun thing to do), I took off to find Rancho de Los Caballeros, locally referred to as ďLos Cab.Ē On the edge of town, I passed a ďLos Caballeros Golf ClubĒ but figured that couldnít be the guest ranch. Continuing on out the road, I found myself miles later out in the open desert, surrounded by cactus and arching rock formations. Where the heck, I wondered, is this place? Finally, I could only guess that I had missed the turn and headed back to town. To get directions, I turned into the golf course and by golly if I didnít find the dude ranch, too. Los Cab made Tanque Verde seem rugged. With its golf course, manicured lawns, many tennis courts and swimming pools and spas, this behemoth operation is much more a country club than a ranch. I gave it a quick tour, spoke to a very formal but polite front desk clerk, then split.

Squinting hard in the setting sun, I drove due southwest on highway 60, passing trailer park after trailer park filled with ďsnowbirds.Ē Heading south for the winter has become a way of life for many senior citizens from northern climes. While the parks didnít look too exotic, I was pleased to see that most of their marquees proudly announced a regular music jam. Now thatís cool. Music knows no age boundaries. Heck, I may be snowbirdiní it one of these days.

It was dark when I finally crossed into California at Blythe. Iíd been out of the state for five months, the longest period away since moving to the Golden State in 1958, and it felt good to be back ďhome.Ē That feeling lasted Joad familymaybe a full five minutes, until a MacDonalds' meal and a tank full of expensive gas quickly wiped away any shred of warm fuzziness.

The drive across this section of the Mojave Desert always puts me in mind of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. What an ordeal those folks underwent, crawling across this forbidding landscape in junker trucks heaped with furniture and family, only to find that the streets of California werenít paved with gold. Itís bad enough driving this section now; Iím thankful I didnít have to it back then.

From here on in, my trail followed from friend to friend in old familiar places up and down the state. If reading about this doesnít sound all that that intriguing to you, then you have my absolute permission to stop right here. Thanks for getting this far!

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