Despite the hellish Arizona heat (which has had me in a funk) and the general absence of much-needed monsoon rains this summer (more on that later), there is something stunning and cinematic about living in the desert southwest. Big skies. Jagged mountains. Spiky saguaros. Red rocks. Dazzling sunsets.
I realize I may get a few eye rolls here from a pragmatist. Or someone who’s lived in the Valley of the Sun for his or her entire life. But remember. I’m coming at this from the perspective of having spent thirty-plus years of my life in relative flatness. Namely, northern Illinois, where you can drive for miles and know you’ll never see a rise in the grade of the road.
Evidently, I’m not alone in recognizing the allure of a western landscape. Case in point: Hot Rods to Hell. It’s a rollicking road trip film about a middle-aged couple, who decide to leave behind the civilization of the east for an overdue escape to the desert in the west.
As the 1967 flick begins, traveling salesman Tom is recovering from a car accident that has injured his spine. Fortunately, he survives mostly intact. But he’s left with jittery nerves and a chronic back ailment. Tom and his wife, Peg, decide the best antidote is to leave their Boston home. They opt to spend their later years operating a motel in the California desert. They figure it will be a quieter existence and the dry heat will be good for Tom’s back.
It all makes sense, right? But they encounter a few problems on their way west. Tom (played by a haggard Dana Andrews, who’s nearing the end of his rope and career) and Peg (portrayed by a frantic Jeanne Crain, who must have needed the money desperately) are derailed on their journey by a band of teenage hoodlums.
The carousing kids crave controversy, drag racing and Tina. She’s Tom’s and Peg’s shapely, seventeen-year-old daughter. The terrible teens become fixated on the idea of trying to drive Tom and his family off the road. Apparently, just for the thrill of it and the chance for a rendezvous with Tina.
It would be criminal of me to spoil the ending of this overwrought, drive-in disaster, because it is a super-suspenseful spectacle that devolves into scene upon scene of jaw-dropping, delicious, B-movie mania. However, be forewarned. This desert debacle includes a cameo appearance by Mickey Rooney, Jr., and his band, (yes, Mickey had a son … and his son had a band) performing poorly in a seedy club that just happens to be on the premises of the motel, where Tom and Peg will soon become landlords.
At any rate, if you follow my stories, you know that, beyond the fact that my husband’s name also is Tom, there actually is a thread of thematic truth to be salvaged here. (Even though, my Tom doesn’t have a back problem or a nervous disorder; we have no plans to buy or manage a motel hideaway; we don’t have a teenage daughter; my name isn’t Peg; and I my friends tell me I look nothing like Jeanne Crain.)
When Tom and I packed up our car and traveled west in July 2017, my surprise heart attack in St. Louis nearly ran us off the road like a pack of hell-bent, drag-racing teens frantic for on An Unobstructed View. But, like Tom and Peg, we survived the experience. Now in my wide-eyed sixties, I write poetry. I dodge crazy Arizona drivers. I tell screwball slice-of-life stories. I bask in the dry heat. I swim outdoors to keep my heart pumping.
And, when torrential rains boil over the mountain peaks and spill into the valley, I savor the monsoon storms. Like the one that blew in last night unexpectedly. Blowing dust and bending palm trees. Igniting the atmosphere. Lighting up the sky. Dumping an inch of rain on the parched Phoenix area. Reminding me as I drove home through the shadowy Papago buttes that these “bonus” years in the desert southwest after that fateful road trip are an ever-evolving chapter in a story that’s far from flat.