This shorty is based on “Crazy Woman Camp”, an abandoned campsite I discovered while hiking in southern Arizona. It’s also featured in my collection “Road Tales”, available in print and ebook at Amazon.
Crazy Woman Camp, Why, AZ
In the far reaches of southern Arizona, just above Organ Pipe National Monument, lies the tiny hamlet of Why. Little more than a wide spot in the road, the town’s main attraction is a rustic market and gift shop – aptly named “The Why Not Store”. One can purchase fuel and Mexican insurance before traveling across the border or take advantage of homemade biscuits and gravy at the restaurant next door. Each winter, hundreds of campers populate the nearby RV parks and BLM land.
Gunsight Wash is a favorite for those with self-contained units who prefer solitude and distance from their neighbors but campgrounds with amenities abound in the area, as well.
The local Border Patrol division maintains a strong presence which includes monitoring the adjacent Tohono O’odham Nation, providing campers a sense of security in the well-traveled routes used by illegal immigrants and Mexican drug cartels. Unfortunately, many illegals venturing into the U.S. with a backpack of canned tuna, a change of clothes and dreams of wealth face harsh conditions in the desert. Hikers and OHV riders often stumble upon shallow graves or sun bleached skeletons.
On a day hike near Gunsight Wash, I discovered a primitive but elaborate campsite with an odd history. It was located in the middle of nowhere, next to a dry wash, which made the find even more astounding. How could anyone survive out there for any length of time?
At first glance, it was obvious the occupant exerted great effort to make the area “homey”, circling bushes and trees with carefully placed stones.
A four-foot tall rock oven with metal grates had been built beneath a sprawling Ironwood tree. Positioned on top of the fireplace was an empty liquor bottle bearing a hand-written card – “Crazy Woman Camp”. Upon closer inspection, I found a note inside which read:
“The way the story goes is this – A woman and her son lived in town where the son got into drugs and such. Determined to free her son of his demons, she set camp on this spot. Days filled with desert solitude, loneliness & hard living, the son was forced to give up his sinful ways. Living in a tent, they built the stonework you see & buried their horse in a grave just to the west of here. Locals called her Crazy Woman but far from crazy, I think she was a loving mother who was willing to suffer along with son to bring him to a better life.”
After wandering around the area, I discovered two graves a short distance away which may or may not have been the final resting places of Crazy Woman and her son. Closer to the camp was a large mound where their horse allegedly was buried. Scratched into the surface of a flat stone read the words, “A Man’s Best Pal”.
I often wonder what happened to Crazy Woman. The desert and isolation can magnify irrational thought. Perhaps she could no longer function in society and found peace with her own reality in the harsh elements. Regardless, I feel there is more to her legacy than what was written inside that empty liquor bottle.
by Debra S. Sanders
Jack Brody eased back on the accelerator, bringing his ATV to a halt near a barren patch of desert next to an Ironwood tree. Removing his helmet, he glanced around the primitive campsite before shutting off the engine and disembarking.
She’s not here.
Walking to the back of his vehicle, he removed a case of water strapped to the rack and placed it next to the tree. A tiny puff of smoke emanated from a rock fireplace a few feet away, suggesting Crazy Woman might be hiding. He grinned. She was a feisty old gal.
“Hey, Nana . . . where you at?”
Jack sauntered to the edge of a wide wash and slid down the four-foot embankment to soft sand and gravel. It was hot and dry this time of year. Even the rattlesnakes stayed underground during the day. His brows drew together as he searched the dusty landscape. What if Nana was sick? Heatstroke wasn’t uncommon during the summer months in southern Arizona, especially for the elderly. Why the hell an eighty-year-old woman would want to live out here was beyond his comprehension. Maybe she didn’t have any money or family – at least none who cared.
Jack scratched the back of his head, eyes running up and down the wash. One of his buddies said she moved to the desert with her son ten years ago. The teenager fell into dangerous habits involving drugs and she thought the isolation would cure him of his “demons. If that were true, the kid must have hauled ass a long time ago. And ho would blame him if he did? This place was as close to Hell as anyone could get without dying.
He crawled up the embankment and headed for the shade, still worried but needing a cooler place to think. Nana was tough but not that tough.
After discovering the withered old woman during his first week working at the local Border Patrol division, Jack took it upon himself to bring her care packages on a regular basis, keeping his off-duty activities a secret until another agent saw him in the desert.
“She’s loco,” he warned Jack. “We stay away from Crazy Woman’s camp. You best do the same.”
Jack refused to heed his co-worker’s advice, continuing to make weekly visits to the woman he nicknamed “Nana” and establishing an uneasy trust similar to feeding a feral animal.
As he brushed dirt from his jeans, a low, husky voice crept over Jack’s shoulder like a slithering serpent.
“Jaaaack . . .”
He whirled around, smiling at the hunched figure eyeing him from a few feet away. White hair stuck out in tufts from under a sweat-stained cowboy hat. Coppery wrinkles lined her face, the result of too much time under an unforgiving sun.
“I brought you a case of water.”
“I see. You good boy, Jack.”
He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “It’s gonna be real hot for the next few days. Why don’t I take you to Ajo? One of the churches opened a shelter for people with nowhere to go.”
“I got a place. This my home.”
“It’s a tent, Nana, not a home.”
She jutted her chin and looked away. “Home.”
“When was the last time you ate?”
“Yesterday. Maybe longer. But today, Jack, I eat good. Let me cook for you.”
He arched a brow. “What you got to cook?”
The old woman flashed a broad smile. Most of her front teeth were missing, evidenced by a gaping hole. “Big surprise. You stay, Jack. I cook.”
His mouth twisted to one side, contemplating the invitation. He was off work until Thursday. It wasn’t as if anyone was waiting at home. Why the hell not? “Okay, Nana. I’ll stay but I want to work for my supper. What can I do to help?”
“Rocks. I need more rocks for my garden.”
Jack bit his tongue to keep from laughing. No wonder all the agents called her Crazy Woman. She’d gathered stones from the desert and boxed in every bush and tree around her camp. Some of the edgings were shaped in hearts, others a linear border. Further away, small bits of white quartz formed a maze. Or walk. Or some kind of odd shape she’d dreamed up in her head. Not that it mattered because in Nana’s mind it was pretty.
Pulling a backpack from his ATV, Jack wandered a short distance into the desert and began filling the bag with baseball sized rocks. Damn, it was hot. How did the old gal keep from getting heat stroke?
He looked up just as she removed something from inside a ragged piece of old canvas. What the heck was she up to now?
Jack dumped his bag of rocks near the Ironwood tree and grabbed one of the waters from the case. He drained half the contents while watching her place a slab of pink meat on the grill. “What ’cha got there?”
His brows shot up. “Fish? Where’d you get fish, Nana? There ain’t no water around here.”
“I know where to go but not as many fish as there used to be. Harder to catch.” She stoked the coals without looking up. Smoke curled around her hunched figure, hiding her face.
He shook his head and walked back to the ATV. That wasn’t fish. Maybe rabbit. Jack stopped and looked back. Aw, hell . . . it was probably coyote.
“Jack, come here. Eat.”
His first instinct was to leave but he didn’t want to hurt the old woman’s feelings. Wiping his hands on a faded rag, Jack turned and made his way back to the masonry fireplace. “Smells good.”
She shot him a toothless grin. “I smoked this piece just for you. It real tender. Sit on that rock.”
He did as requested, easing his large frame onto a flat topped boulder. A few minutes later, gnarled fingers handed him a six-inch strip of meat on a mat woven from grass. A gooey sauce lathered its surface topped with what he guessed were dried herbs.
Jack stared at the charred meat for a full minute before tearing off a sliver and sliding it into his mouth. He rolled it over his tongue before swallowing, surprised by the flavor. Not gamey at all. And tender, just like she said.
“This is good, Nana. I really like the sauce.”
The old woman cackled. “See. I tell you.”
He needed no encouragement to finish the meal. “It was nice of you to share your food. I know you don’t have a lot to eat.”
She shrugged. “It been slow fishing with all this heat but I got good bait. I know how to catch ’em.”
“Well, you’ll have to tell me your secret. The last time I went fishing, I didn’t even get a bite.”
Blue eyes twinkled beneath the brim of her hat. “Used to be easier. You soldier men chase the fish away.”
A thick line formed between his brows. Was she talking about the Border Patrol agents? “How did we chase the fish away?”
Nana didn’t answer, her pinpointed gaze tracking his movements as Jack reached for his water bottle..
“Man, you must have coated that meat in red pepper. It sure is spicy.” The back of his hand swiped across his forehead. “I’m sweating even in the shade. How do you stand this heat?”
“I like it hot. Good for jerky. Dries the meat real fast.”
Jack handed her the grass mat before struggling to his feet. “Whoa, I’m feeling a little dizzy. Mind if I stay for a bit? Just until it cools down.”
“No, no . . . you sit. Feel better soon.”
His knees buckled as he tried to sit, causing him to miss the boulder and land in the dirt. Something was wrong. The fish must have been tainted. “I . . . I think I got food poisoning. I don’t feel so good.”
“Not poison. That ruin meat. Just herbs to make you sleep.”
Jack blinked several times as his vision blurred. His tongue felt thick, swollen. Opening his mouth, he gasped for air. Words gurgled in his throat but never made it past his lips. Pushing to his feet, Jack took one step before collapsing.
“He asleep?” A man with long hair and a scraggly beard emerged from a deep hole covered with brush.
The woman nodded. “Get the rope, boy.”
She tied it to Jack’s feet. The man threw the other end over a sturdy limb and hoisted the unconscious body into the air. He walked away, returning a few minutes later dragging an empty metal drum which he centered under Jack’s body.
Nana grabbed Jack’s hair and pulled his head back, revealing a wide expanse of neck. “I stick him. He bleed out quick. You get rid of motor car.”
“Can’t I keep it, Mama?”
“No, no, not good. Someone might see it.”
“But I want it. None of the other fish ever have anything we can use.”
“You get rid of it like I say!” The old woman whirled around, pointing a bony finger at her son. “I’ll sharpen the knife. We get lots of jerky outta this one.” She tugged on Jack’s arm, examining the muscular tone of his shoulder. “This white meat. Not like those dark ones we catch in the desert. I feed you good, boy.”
“Do ya want me to bury the bones in the same place as the others?”
She nodded. “Now you know why I say dig that hole wide and deep. Gotta cover up these fish guts afore they start stinkin’!”