Southern Arizona: a weekend getaway
Generic Arizona-ish clip-art because I still don't have a slide scanner
Ondine and John visit Casa Grande and Yuma, September, 1999

One fine Sunday afternoon in the Fall, Ondine and I decided to drive to Julian, a small town in the local mountains east of San Diego. So, we headed out on I-8 … and, on a whim, kept going all the way to Arizona.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is in Coolidge, Arizona, 20 miles northeast of the city of Casa Grande. We found a $27 room at the Moonlight Motel, blocks from the monument entrance. Since we hadn’t planned to be out for more than an afternoon, we needed supplies. In particular, Ondine needed a hat. After a search, we found a blue and red Oakland A’s baseball cap at a Texaco station.

We arrived at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument the next morning (Monday) at 8:30. It was already very hot. Admission for two or more is $4, and included the museum and a video presentation. We went directly to the ruins outside, saving the air-conditioned museum for later.

The Casa Grande ruins were part of an extensive community built by the Hohokam. The Hohokam were a people who farmed the desert using simple tools and sophisticated canals. They thrived for more than a thousand years, from 300 to 1450 A.D. Most believe floods around 1350 caused their sudden decline and disappearance. Many believe they dispersed into the desert, adapting to a different way of life. Some local tribes believe they are descended from the Hohokam. The Hohokam left no written record, so what we know of them is inferred from their artifacts.

Casa Grande was built in the early 1300s. You walk through the ruins, passing through ancient doorways and entering rooms that were inhabited at the same time the English ruins of Old Sarum, near Salisbury, were inhabited. Casa Grande and Old Sarum were, in their prime, bustling cities of roughly the same population: 3,000 to 5,000. They were abandoned at roughly the same time. There is more left of Casa Grande than of Old Sarum, notably the four-story Great House that towers over the site. The massive timbers used in its roof came from more than 50 miles away. The remains of the beams appear to have been shaped by stone axes. The Great House was built without forms, and you can see handprints of the builders where they patted the clay-like caliche walls into shape, four feet thick at the base. Was it a temple? An astronomical calendar? A mansion? A corn silo? A city hall? You can take your pick. Today, it’s shielded from the elements by a steel canopy that soars high above the ancient building. You can squint your eyes and, with a bit of imagination, make the modern canopy go away entirely.

The museum is small, but packed with displays and artifacts. The 20-minute video presentation began with a new-age introduction that drove the others in the audience away. Ondine and I remained seated hoping for something more substantial. The next video discussed the archeology and ongoing research - this is the one to watch.

In the picnic area there is a small elevated balcony from which you can see a platter-shaped indentation identified by researchers as a Hohokam ball court. About 200 such courts have been found throughout the Southwest.

After a late breakfast at Tag’s Diner in Coolidge (excellent), we headed West to Yuma.

The Yuma Territorial Prison was supposed to be in Phoenix, but after the legislative vote, two cunning Yuma politicians simply crossed out "Phoenix" and wrote in "Yuma" on the bill. Between 1876 and 1909, it was home to 3,069 prisoners - more or less the population of Casa Grande 500 years earlier - including 29 women. The first seven inmates were locked into cells they had built themselves. The last inmates built the prison they were to later occupy, in nearby Florence. After the Yuma Territorial Prison closed, the buildings and grounds were used by the local high school, which is why their athletic teams are known today as the Yuma High "Criminals."

We arrived at Yuma Territorial Prison State Historical Park at 2:30 in the afternoon. Admission was $3 each, and included the museum and a video presentation. The most-popular part of the museum was the display about female prisoners. Among the male prisoners were attorneys, bookkeepers, farmers, metalworkers, shopkeepers, and 15-year-old boys. Their crimes ranged from bigamy (several Mormons were imprisoned here for that crime) to passing fraudulent securities to murder. The video presentation was informative and entertaining. It featured actual park rangers as guides, all showing various degrees of self-consciousness on-camera. Afterward, we enjoyed the thrill of recognizing the celebrity rangers going about their tasks.

We explored the cellblocks beneath the blazing sun outside. Ondine retreated to the museum. I continued on, exploring the infamous "dark cell" (dark and cool), the library room (now empty), and the "new yard." I peered at the barber shop, the tool shed, and the reproduction of the early machine gun that once graced the main watchtower. The building that had once housed the hospital, like most of the buildings, had been destroyed by weather, fire, or dismantling for building materials.

Across the parking lot, forlorn rock piles mark the graves of 104 prisoners set free by tuberculosis, heat exhaustion, and disease. The main watch tower commands a view of the river, but it’s difficult to visualize the original prison layout because so much is gone. The museum’s diorama provides the best overview.

We drove into historic downtown Yuma on Main St., but it was deserted. There were shops selling antiques and crafts, and it looked like a nice place to while away an afternoon, had it been open. We had fresh ice cream at Gustaf’s, a family-owned ice cream shop at the end of the mall.

After filling up with more cheap Arizona gas, we headed home. We stopped in El Centro for dinner at Brunner’s on N. Imperial Avenue. Brunner’s had excellent food, strong coffee, and a crème brulee that was both marvelous and amply sized. We got home at 8:30 in the evening.

Gas: $ 40.00
Food: $ 65.00
Motel: $ 30.00
Admissions: $ 7.00
Souvenirs: $ 9.00
Maps: $ 6.00
Supplies: $ 32.00
Hat: $ 11.00
TOTAL: $200.00

MILEAGE: 786 miles

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