Shortly after noting that a town called Wickenburg is on the Arizona segment of my planned cross-country bicycle trip, I happened to be reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Ivan Doig, and discovered that he spent a piece of his childhood in Wickenburg.
Doig writes mostly about his native Montana and the Pacific Northwest, where he now lives. So it was a surprise to find him writing about the Sonoran Desert around Wickenburg in a 1993 memoir called Heart Earth.
Our two-wheeled procession will be coming into Wickenburg from the west on Doig’s “California highway,” U.S. 60, which then bends to the southeast for 60 miles to the desert metropolis of Phoenix.
They lived near the Alcoa plant in Alzona Park, a public housing project built by the federal government to house defense workers. After Charlie Doig underwent surgery for an about-to-burst appendix, the family spent time in Wickenburg during his recovery.
Doig recalls on his Web site “our nights in a cabin in the desert outside Wickenburg, Arizona, near a German prisoner-of-war camp, the combination of isolated landscape and the spooky nearness of those prisoners, the heart-racing amplitude of the nightsounds of the desert.”
The author, who revisited Wickenburg in 1991, noted in Heart Earth: “You didn’t need to be the reincarnation of Marco Polo to recognize that the accommodations along the main street, Wickenburg Way, were there to sieve tourists through, while around the corner along Tegner Street ordinary town life was carried on. Guest ranches were a sideline Wickenburg quickly tumbled to; in a historical blink, Indian territory had given way to Dudeland.”
His parents, Doig wrote, “must have only ever semi-believed that there existed a class of people willing to pay to mimic, for a few tenderbottom hours at a time, the horseback mode” that had governed their lives on the hardscrabble Montana ranches where they grew up.
I first became acquainted with Doig’s work in 1994 during a bicycle trip from Missoula, Mont., to Jackson Hole, Wyo. During a rest day in Dillon, Mont., a college town, I visited a bookstore and asked the proprietress if she could recommend a good regional writer. Her eyes lit up as she said, almost with the fervor of a missionary: “You’ve got to read Ivan Doig!” I bought Dancing at the Rascal Fair, the first in a trilogy recounting the first 100 years of Montana statehood — from 1889 to 1989 — through the lives of the fictional McCaskill and Barclay families, based on Doig’s Scotch forebearers. The other two novels in the trilogy are English Creek and Ride With Me, Mariah Montana.
I finished Dancing at the Rascal Fair during the rest of that bike trip and have since read nearly everything by Doig. Check out his stuff. You won’t be disappointed.