Dudeland in the Sonoran Desert

Ivan Doig“Wickenburg is an intersection for everything — the Phoenix highway, the California highway, the highway that we migrated down from Montana, that other earth.”
Ivan Doig, Heart Earth, 1993

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.
Heart EarthDoig 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.

Wickenburg panorama

Wickenburg panorama

During World War II, Doig’s colorblind, undraftable father, Charlie Doig, loaded up his 1940 sky blue Ford coup and took his family — 5-year-old Ivan and asthmatic wife, Berneta — from Montana to boomtime Phoenix to work in an Alcoa plant that turned bauxite into aluminum to make bomber skins. Charlie also figured that Berneta’s asthma would be less problematic in the Arizona desert than the mountains of northern Montana.
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.
Rain over Wickenburg

Rain over Wickenburg

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.
Dancing at the Rascal FairI 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.



Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Literary musings

4 responses to “Dudeland in the Sonoran Desert

  1. Pingback: How not to become buzzard food « Jim’s Bike Blog

  2. Jerry Armon

    Came across your May 2009 blog about Ivan Doig. I, like Doig, lived in Alzona Park. My father (also colorblind and rejected by the draft) moved from Texas to work at the Alco Plant (Reynolds Aluminum). My mother worked west of there at the Goodyear Assembly Plant. We stayed after the war and my father worked at the Caterpillar Proving Grounds in the White Tank Mountains, my mother worked in the Maricopa County payroll department, I graduated Isaac Elementary School, West Phoenix High School, Phoenix Junior College , ASU and was a high school teacher and coach for 36 years. I now live in Auburn, California and thanks to my discovering your blog, I’ll be reading books by you and Ivan Doig.

  3. Jerry Armon

    Jim – you must have a book!
    I searched Amazon and Barnes & Noble and can’t find one. Are there any available?

    • Jerry. Thanks for looking at my blog and for your kind words. Sorry, but I’ve never written a book. I did, however, edit one. See the April 23 blog post, “Two splendid adventures.” I think you will enjoy Ivan Doig. By the way, another of my favorite writers, whom a lot of people have probably not heard of, is Jon Clinch. See May 24, 2010, blog post, “A dark, compelling tale.” jimsbikeblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/a-dark-compelling-tale/

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