By: Erica Herman
Growing up in Casa Grande, one of the biggest parts of my memories was the desert. Playing outside was something we all did, and being in Arizona, that meant that a majority of our time was spent on the flat and scrubby land that seemed to be everywhere.
In the seventies, the patch of desert behind Circle K on the corner of Trekell and Cottonwood was right across the street from my house. The group of kids from my neighborhood treated this area like a giant playground. One of our favorite activities was constructing tracks for our bikes. For days we would argue among ourselves about the layout, we wanting it to have dips and turns like the ones we watched the General Lee navigate on The Dukes of Hazzard. Once a general agreement about the formation had been reached, shovels and anything else that could be used to dig or move the dirt was “borrowed” from our houses and put to use. We found out quickly that making something into what you envisioned in your head was harder than it looked! Many hours of physical labor and trying to con bigger kids and even adults into helping us dig were put in to our effort. Eventually our plans came to life and every part of the course was tested with bikes, hotwheels and even roller-skates. Changes were made based on our findings and new ideas continually tried. The track was a work in progress and consumed every afternoon until dinner time and most of Saturday and Sunday. Eventually, after months of riding along our path, the ground was pounded down and the course could be seen from the road. We were so proud of our work and guarded our creation fiercely from anyone who might try to destroy it.
Besides having the track, our desert paradise had a couple of big mesquite trees that provided us with the opportunity for a “hang out”. The long hanging branches and the shade they produced gave us an area to set up underneath and play a variety of made up games. We drug an old backseat from a car that someone had dumped and used it, along with lots of milk crates we snatched from behind Circle K, for seating. A gigantic wooden spool served as a table to hold all of the treasures we collected from the ground, and everything that was found was put to use somehow. Shoelaces from the variety of discarded shoes found in the dirt were used to tie old beer bottles and jars together and hung from the tree to act as wind chimes. Pages from newspapers caught in bushes were smoothed out, stacked and held under an old clipboard to be used for writing and drawing. Old pieces of wood and wire were fashioned into weapons used for playing war or formed into tools we could use around our outdoor paradise. The possibilities were endless, however we learned early on to stay away from dead animals and birds, along with any container that wasn’t empty and dried out.
In the eighties, my family moved out by Central Arizona College and my desert playground got even bigger. Although I was in high school, my brother and I still spent time outside. Our type of playing had evolved into dodging what seemed like the million of cholla cacti on our three-wheelers and dirt bikes. We didn’t build a track, but created pathways that required quick reflexes when maneuvering and shortcuts to all our favorite places. We even fixed up an old golf cart and turned it into our desert mobile, making it look straight out of a scene from Mad Max. One day while exploring we stumbled upon an old dump, and I was fascinated with the old glass jars that once held Noxema or hair tonic that I found laying around unbroken. This turned into an obsession, and I began to ride out to this hidden area and explore whenever I had an afternoon off. I soon had a massive collection of glassware in every color, shape and size. I was eventually stopped by the construction of a dairy in the exact spot where I would hunt for treasures, but my love for the desert didn’t dwindle.
Looking back, the desert playground I had as a kid became a big part of my adulthood. As I grew and moved away from our small town, I found that I missed the barren land, saguaros and scrub bushes I was so used to seeing every day. Tall trees and lush grass didn’t excite me like a Palo Verde or Cottonwood tree. On trips home I would hope for rain so that I could breathe in the smell of the drops hitting dirt, and in small apartments in all the cities I lived in you would find a small potted cactus by my kitchen window. Even now I find myself incorporating the desert into my artwork, and mourning the chunks of land cleared around us for housing developments. Who would have thought that the landscape surrounding us would have left such a big impression? I bet many of you feel the same way.