I left Ajo as the eastern sky was beginning to get light.
I made a stop at Roadrunner Java. It was the only place open at that hour and I’d read online that the coffee was good and donuts were excellent. That review was almost correct. The donut and coffee were both excellent. I highly recommend stopping if you’re ever in town, but go soon. The owner is not young and the business is for sale.
Down the road I went, passing the town of Why, still sleeping at just after 6 AM.
And I made my goal, Organ Pipe for sunrise sunrise.
I crossed the border easily though I got an alto (stop) light which meant my vehicle had to be inspected by the aduana, Mexican customs. I chuckled as the vehicle behind me, truck bed piled high with furniture and trailer equally piled, got a pase (green, no inspection) light. The aduana inspected my vehicle for approximately 30 seconds, and one agent asked where I was coming from. He was shocked and pleased when I said Naco. Then he smirked a bit and asked if I had any weapons. I pointed to my fist and said, “Only this.” He laughed and let me get going.
Soon I was south of town and skirting the western edge of a desolate plant and animal preserve called Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar.
I left home around 8:30, made a few stops and finally headed west from Tucson toward Ajo, Arizona, today a small community that was once a mining town.
My ultimate destination was Puerto Peñasco, located at the bottom of the map near the left. Right on the water.
On the west side of Tucson, I picked up Arizona highway 86, soon entering Tohono O’odham land.
Highway 86 is a two-lane road that was in rough shape. Patches on top of patches on top of patches made for a bumpy ride. It was partly overcast, and for about half an hour I got drizzled on and even even heavily rained on.
I passed towns and turnoffs with names like Chiwuli Tak and Pisnemo, listening to radio station KOHN, Hewel Ñi’ok Radio, the voice of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
The station played a broad array of music: Mexican, oldies from the fifties (even Elvis), country, and the best—traditional and new O’odham. New O’odham is a style called chicken scratch. Chicken scratch music is recognizable for its moderate use of saxophone, some drums, and lots of accordion.
There were also quite a few community announcements, most in the native language, so I couldn’t understand a thing. In all, it was very enjoyable.
I saw several signs commemorating or protesting the disappearance of Native women.
And right before I left the reservation, a casino.
About 20 minutes later I was in the town of Ajo. I got a meal at the only open restaurant and then wandered town for a while.
The plan had been to continue on to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and camp there, but by the time I wandered, it was close to sunset. I was exhausted and didn’t feel like driving, arriving in the dark, and searching for a place to camp. If, in fact, there were any spots even available.
So I watched the sunset and checked into a motel.
And it’s a good thing I stayed in a motel. The overnight temperatures at Organ Pipe dipped into the 40s, and I really wasn’t prepared for much below 55 (which had been the original forecast).
New plan: up early and be amid the giant cactus for sunrise.
My friend Pam lives in Tucson and has a little casita in the village of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, México. Mata Ortiz is a village of about 2000 people with typical small town shops—mostly food and other necessities.
But about seventy years ago, villagers began using clay in the area to form pottery, copying old pieces they’d found in fields surrounding the town. By the 1990s when I first visited, the community was becoming known for fine ceramics, and potters were beginning to show their work in galleries throughout the US, then Mexico, and eventually, throughout the world. The pots, not always traditional designs these days, carry prices up to $3000.
Pam and I left my house around 8 am on a Monday morning heading east on US Highway 80. East then northeast into New Mexico and to the tiny town of Rodeo, today with a population of fewer than fifty people.
Years back, I’d always stop at the Rodeo store and restaurant. I’ve purchased food there and had some great meals in the little cafe.
Pam and I decided to stop for a quick visit, maybe pick up some food to take on the trip. We found only a few snacks available—very few—and the restaurant owner/cook/waitress/cashier was having a cup of coffee with a friend. There were no other customers.
We chatted with them briefly and I told the owner how much I’d always loved the US Highway 80 map mural on the south wall of the cafe. Pam and I then headed on our way having found nothing at all to purchase.
Soon we were headed east on New Mexico 9 going through Animas (about 125 people) and Playas, (around 50 people), a town once built and owned by Phelps Dodge Mining Corporation. Then to Hachita (also around 50 people), Hermanas (no longer exists), and finally Columbus, with a population of about 1400.
As we drove from Hachita to Hermanas, we looked for any signs designating the area where Phelps Dodge Mining Corporation, the then Bisbee (AZ) mining company, had dumped a thousand or so miners in 1917. Read the book Bisbee ’17 for the history of the 1917 Deportation, or watch the 2017 filmof the same name (though not a takeoff on the book) to learn about that tumultuous and cruel time in history.
In any event, we found no clues to where the miners had been abandoned and could not even spot any remains of the town of Hermanas other than a cattle pen and a water tower.
We turned south in Columbus and headed for the border.
Crossing into Palomas, Chihuahua, we stopped for lunch a block south of the border at the famous Pink Store.
And then we drove southwest, stopping in Janos to see the ruins of the the Franciscan Mission built in the early 1700s, as well as the ruins of Capilla Capestrenses de Guadalupe.
Through Nuevas Casas Grandes, then Casas Grandes which was settled in the 1660s, past the Mormon community of Colonia Juarez, and finally to Mata Ortiz and Pam’s house.
We wandered Mata Ortiz, enjoying the views and visiting friends.
We made one trip back to the city of Nuevas Casas Grandes for pesos, and another trip back for a great lunch at a mariscos (seafood) restaurant.
And of course, we saw a lot of pottery. And bought some.
We visited the ruins of Paquimé, a once large city founded, experts believe, around 1050.
We went to Colonia Juarez and saw the Mormon Temple. I also bought the best empanadas I’ve had in my life, and believe me, I’ve had many.
Friday we packed up and headed home, again crossing the border at Palomas, but this time we stopped for green chile cheeseburgers in Columbus at the Borderland Cafe—worth going out of your way for if you’re driving I-10 through New Mexico. It’s only about half an hour south of Deming. Then, rather than heading back to the interstate, you can head east or west along Highway 9 and enjoy the rural scenery.
I’d say visit Mata Ortiz, but you need a passport, an FMM (Mexican travel permit) Mexican auto insurance, and a permiso (Mexican temporary import permit—a fee plus at least a $3-500 deposit) for your vehicle. Don’t drive down without all of that!
As a border resident, I always have my passport on me and I buy Mexican auto insurance yearly. I get a six-month FMM twice a year and drive only where no vehicle permiso is necessary.
I’d been in Louisville two weeks and most of the time it had been slightly overcast and cool. Sometimes downright cold.
Then, there it was, a day comfortable enough to be outside, and there was actual sunshine off and on. We decided to hop in the car, wander around rural Kentucky, and search country roads for old barns for me to photograph.
Jeannie drove, and it was my job to look ahead for two things: interesting barns, and places we could pull off to the side of the road.
We and three of her children had taken a nice back-roads drive through gentle rolling hills up to Madison, Indiana, the previous week, the only other sunny day, and there were fabulous old barns but nowhere to pull off the highway and too much traffic to just edge over to the side. As a lover of old barns, I’d been horribly frustrated to not be able to take any photos.
So, on the next sunny day, coincidentally a day with few obligations, off we went!
We headed east about thirty miles to Shelbyville. My sister knew of an old barn there, and I was itching to see and photo it and whatever else we ran across.
From there we headed north on a few local roads through farmland with old homes and glorious old barns.
And then the first surprise. We were pulling into the town of New Castle, less than an hour from my sister’s house (if we hadn’t made any stops). I spotted an old barn and Jeannie saw a parking lot.
After I took a quick photo, I noticed a log cabin just ahead, right in downtown, and there was a parking area immediately across from it. Yay!
As we climbed out of the car, I spotted the sign in front of the cabin: The Bookstore at Berry Center.
“Jean! It’s a bookstore! Wanna go in?”
We climbed stone steps to the door, me thinking a bookstore called “Berry Center” would be about gardening. We were promptly greeted by a young woman whose name we later learned was Emma.
“Have you heard of the author Wendell Berry?”
“Sure! Love his work.”
It turns out the Berry Center was named for Wendell Berry who had once lived in this town and currently lived just up the road. We explored every nook and cranny, both floors, of the sweet little shop. The upstairs held mostly children’s books while those for adults filled the downstairs.
We chatted for some time with Emma behind the counter before we left.
Then on to searching for more barns
And then the second surprise. Rather, a group of surprises.
We decided the next stop would be La Grange, for a few reasons. One, my sister had heard there were good restaurants there. We were getting hungry and decided to stop for a late lunch. Second, we were raised in the community of La Grange, Illinois, and thought it would be fun to spend a little time in another La Grange.
The first surprise was right on Main Street. There were tracks running right down the middle of the street, and yes, up to thirty trains a day roll right through downtown. Locally the area is called Trains on Main.
No trains were coming as we turned onto Main Street and found a parking spot across from the restaurant we’d decided to eat in. Not eat in, actually, because I still won’t eat in a public place. Too many unmasked people too close together for me. So we were across the street from the restaurant from which we could get some takeout.
The restaurant, called One Nineteen West Main, had a great door.
And it had a fabulous menu that included fried green tomatoes and something called potato cupcake bites, mashed potatoes with cheeses and chopped ham rolled in crumbs of (we think, though it doesn’t say so on the restaurant description) potato chips then deep fried.
As we pulled out of town, we found another surprise: The county courthouse looked like it was being moved!
We later learned it wasn’t actually being moved. It had been lifted so a new foundation could be poured underneath it. The courthouse was built in 1854, making it nearly 150 years old.
And that was our last big event on our adventure. We headed back to Louisville, only half an hour away, no more barns to see but delighted with our day.
I walked into the Health Department in Bisbee’s old county building and told the woman at the desk I needed a health permit.
The woman called to the health inspector, Arnold, and he came out to meet me and schedule an appointment.
Arnold introduced himself and asked what kind of business I’d be opening. “A little grocery store,” I replied. “I opened a few weeks ago.”
The look of shock on his face would’ve made me laugh except I realized something very serious was happening.
Arnold sputtered and even flapped his arms a bit. “But you have to have the permit before you can open! Tell me where the store is. I’ll be there on Monday. What time do you open?”
“It’s at 7 OK Street, and I open at nine,” I told him.
“See you then.” And he headed back to his office shaking his head.
Arnold’s was the first act of kindness. As I later learned, he could have marched right down and closed the place.
I’d opened my little grocery, the Bisbee General Store, a few weeks previously. I had approximately zero business sense and an equivalent amount of experience running a store. I’d had no idea I needed a permit. I’d simply opened.
Just over a month previously, I learned my grandmother had left me a small amount of money when she’d died. $2000. In 1973, that was the most money I’d ever had—and it would continue to be the most for many years.
I decided I wanted to open a little shop and asked people around the community what it was the town needed. Almost to a person, people said they wanted healthy food: grains, beans, whole wheat flour, herbal teas, etc.
Note: When I speak of “the community” here, I refer to Bisbee’s newcomers, the artists and hippies.
The one thing I knew about food was the bulk 50-pound bags couldn’t sit on the floor as they did in Mexico. Sacks of flour, beans, sugar, and salt sat right on the floor of the little market I shopped in across the border.
I bought 55-gallon garbage cans for the bags to sit in, and some friends built a little raised area of 2x4s and plywood. Another act of kindness.
I zipped up to Tucson and got old catalogues from the food co-op there and once back at home, I called a few places in Phoenix and placed my first orders.
In under three weeks, I’d opened my store, and it was a few weeks after that when I’d met Arnold in the health department on a Thursday afternoon.
On Friday, I opened the store as usual and put out the word that the health inspector was coming, and I needed help on Sunday making the place sparkle.
People showed up off and on all day. Windows were polished inside and out. The bathroom was scrubbed. Shelves were dusted and the offerings creatively displayed. Walls were washed down and the floor was mopped.
By around two o’clock, the place really did sparkle—as much as an old worn shop could sparkle, anyway. Amazing community support and kindness.
I showed up Monday just before nine, secure in the knowledge that my little store would easily pass inspection. Three customers were waiting for me, and I saw Arnold walking down the hill from the health department, clipboard in hand.
I unlocked the door and as I opened it, a dog went charging in.
On top of that, the overnight winds had blown out a high window. There were glass shards all over the shelves, grain bins, and floor. Dust and leaves had blown in the open window and were swirling about.
And Arnold walked in.
And the dog ran up to greet him.
The inspector looked around, dazed. “I think you’ve got a little work for this place to pass inspection, ma’am.”
He walked about, checking things off and making notes on a form. In just a few minutes, he tore off the top sheet and handed it to me.
“Just fix these things up, and I’ll be back on Thursday.”
I looked down the checklist. He’d only marked the obvious: dust and debris on shelves and floor. No mention of the glass, and no mention of the dog.
Again that Monday, I spread the word. A short time later, someone appeared with an extension ladder and measured for the new window. He tacked some cardboard up to keep more dust and leaves out.
The same young guy returned the next day and installed the glass. No charge. Kindness indeed.
And the angel cleaning crew showed up again, ridding the shop of all traces of leaves, dust, and glass. And of dog fur.
On Wednesday at close of day, all I had to do was a light dusting and sweeping to be ready for Arnold’s Thursday morning visit.
This time, I opened the store to a clean shop. Arnold showed up within half an hour, again prowled the place with his clipboard, and made little checkmarks on a sheet.
“Congratulations!” he said with a grin. “You can now open your store.”
He handed me the top copy and pulled out an official health department permit for me to post on the wall. Then he gave me a warm, friendly smile and walked out the door.
About six months later, after working morning and evening shifts as a waitress while keeping the store open all day, I knew I couldn’t go on working seven days a week.
Monday through Saturday, I’d waitress most days from 6-9 am, open the store, close it at five, and waitress from about 5:15 until 9 or 10. On Sundays, the store was closed but I often waitressed an eight-hour shift.
“What should I do?” I asked Maxine.
“Turn it into a food co-op,” she replied.
A week later, about forty people met at the store. We all sat on the floor and talked of how to create a co-op. Within a few hours, we’d drawn up an agreement. For cost of inventory, I’d sell the store to “the people of Bisbee” and payments would be made over time as proceeds allowed.
Someone wrote up the agreement and everyone there signed it. The Bisbee Food Co-Op was born.
The co-op later incorporated and kept that wording: The Bisbee Food Co-op was owned by the people of Bisbee.
People stepped forward, helped weigh all the grains and inventory the stock. They drew up a semi-formal contract, handwritten on a clean piece of paper, outlining the debt and how it was to be paid.
The co-op remained the heart of the community for many years. And that community grew to encompass many more than just the artists and hippies who once organized it into a successful store.
Over forty years later, the co-op eventually died a slow death due to mismanagement. But it never would have been here in the first place without a lot of community support and kindness.
It was 1986 and I was nearing forty. I’d recently left Tucson for a job in Kansas City, Missouri. In Tucson I’d been involved with the Sanctuary Movement, assisting Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing repression, torture, and death squads in their countries.
When I arrived in Kansas City in the fall of 1985, churches there were just beginning to organize to assist refugees. I immediately became involved. Soon I realized I had to go to Guatemala myself to learn firsthand what was happening.
My learning began in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. A refugee camp in the jungles of Mexico, less than a mile from the Guatemalan border. Where sometimes, at night, helicopters would drop low, their thump thump thump giving warning.
Warning before bullets strafed the village. A warning, but not enough.
Warning, but no time to jump from sleep, grab the babies, rush out the door and head deep into the jungle.
Just enough warning to let them know they or a neighbor or their daughter or son would soon die.
But I went there, to the place Death often visited. I went in daytime. I wasn’t ready to die, I knew I likely wouldn’t die—the strafing happened less by day. But I knew I’d walk close.
And today, how many in that village are still alive?
Walking out of the village, back to town, hiding in the jungle when I heard a vehicle. The army patrolled this road, and if they saw me, I’d be arrested. Visitors weren’t allowed in the camps. Hiding, crouching low in jungle’s dense green, running out when I spotted an old farm truck, waving it down for a ride.
Days later, time to enter Guatemala. A bus at dawn from Comitán in southern Mexico, then a back-of-a-truck ride to the border. Crossing a border, paying an illegal entry fee. Argue with the border guard who wanted a little of my money? The one who could prevent my entry or even have me arrested? Never a good idea.
Four hours, bumping along on a Guatemalan bus, probably an old school bus, on that road to Huehuetenango, from borderlands jungle to highlands. The paved road that dissolved to dirt and rock and cratered holes, the craters caused by bombs. “Don’t take that road,” the nuns had told me. Muy peligroso! Very dangerous.
Bouncing down that road, three to a seat, me wedged between two farmworkers. The man by the window with his head fallen to my shoulder in sleep, his machete tied at his waist, swinging, banging against my leg with each bump. Each crater.
Off the bus briefly in Huehue to stretch, then boarding again to ride south two more hours into Santa Cruz del Quiché, still in the highlands. Santa Cruz del Quiché, surrounded by villages too tiny to appear on maps. Most of the villages sites of army-led massacres. Villages that no longer existed because everyone there had been killed, the buildings burned.
South another hour, through Chichicastenango and changing busses in Los Encuentros. Cutting southeast in another old school bus, in the aisle for hours, sitting on my suitcase. But at least no longer on the road the army sometimes laced with mines.
Arriving outside Antigua in the dark. “But how do we get to town?” we asked. The driver swinging his arm to point up a steep hill to the road above.
Slip sliding our way up the hill. “I wonder when there’s a bus?” one of them said. “No, we’ll just get a ride,” I said, as I stepped into the highway and waved my arm to stop a passing truck.
Necesitamos un hotel simple y limpia. We need a clean, basic hotel. We piled into the back of the truck, and within ten minutes he’d dropped us in front of a cheap hotel where we bunked, three females sharing one bed, two males sharing one next door. I’d been a stranger before that night.
Another night, unable to sleep. Hearing the gunshots just outside of town. The next morning, I approached two women washing clothes at the neighborhood spigot. “What was happening?” They turned sad faces away, eyes downcast. As I’d feared: death squads.
Attending gatherings of leftists in little cafes, speaking of refugees and how to get information to villages. How many informers were there that night? Afterwards, scurrying down unlit streets, glancing over my shoulder at imagined footsteps. Avoiding darkened alleyways.
Another trip in 1989, as the wars still raged, as activists continued to disappear, as villagers continued to be massacred. Meeting in a daycare center in Guatemala City. Sitting on the floor, my feet in a hole. The hole caused by a bomb tossed through the front window a few months previously. Thankfully, women had just taken the children into the back room for lunch. No one injured.
The daycare center, run by—and for—women whose husbands were among the disappeared. To start a daycare center, to organize at all, was considered subversive.
Stepping out of the daycare center, we knew we were being watched.
Back to the hotel. The same man who’d been reading a newspaper on the patio that morning was still there, still reading a newspaper. In the dark. And he was there the next morning, pre-dawn, and that night too. Always with a newspaper. Our own personal spy.
Was it the same paper all the time? Did he listen at our doors when we were closed in our rooms?
Meeting also in living rooms. Thirty people standing, sitting, leaning against walls. Talking with village organizers who’d slid in after we’d gathered, who disappeared when they were through talking. Who cautioned us not to acknowledge them in the market, in the streets. To acknowledge them in public would make them suspect. Make them a possible target. Make us ones also.
Meeting with the US Ambassador to Guatemala, in the US Embassy. Taken to a small theater that was far too large for our little group. An uncomfortable feeling I was being watched, turning to see the camera pointed at us. Later spotting another at the edge of the stage. They hadn’t even bothered to disguise them. Blatant intimidation.
And meeting with organizers in a village on a dirt road, helicopters suddenly appearing above, flying lower, lower. Kicking up dust and gravel, impossible then to talk. The Guatemalans we’d been speaking with disappearing, running all directions, down every street. Me wondering if they’d be alive the next day. Wondering if we would be.
Our bus breaking down on a back road, several miles outside of Chichicastenango. At night. Flagging down a truck yet again, this time a produce truck. Hiding behind sacks of potatoes and corn. The driver didn’t want to be accused of operating an illegal taxi service. Having his truck confiscated. Going to jail. And then, well, who knew what would happen?
A third trip, 1990, in Quetzaltenango, traveling alone. Attending a concert by Nicaraguan activist Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy, one of the best concerts I’ve been to. And once again, walking many unlit blocks back to where I was staying. Walking in the middle of the street, once more away from darkened doorways and alleys. Again, looking over my shoulder, noises making me jump.
I’ve walked near Death. Walked toward him. Sometimes looked at him more closely than I’d liked, as though he were just across the room. And yes, there were times I was afraid.
But Death never wanted me. He never stepped forward, never gave forth a greeting.
Juan Pablo Ixbalan left his home in the village of Santiago de Atitlán, Guatemala. He crossed the lago in a small boat, a panga. Other parishioners accompanied him, and when they reached the shores of Panajachel, they began to walk.
They walked through the highlands and the jungles of Guatemala and crossed into Mexico. They did not have to hide or sneak across. They were expected and welcomed, and then they began to walk some more.
The pilgrimage took them a bit east and then north. They walked past villages and towns and along the outskirts of cities until they got to Reynosa, Tamaulipas. Here they headed into the city to continue their journey to the US border.
Again, they were expected and welcomed.
They persevered with their walk, knowing they’d already covered more than 1200 miles but had nearly 800 to go. At times they were joined by others for parts of the trip. Many who accompanied them were Guatemalans, but not all.
The pilgrimage continued to the small farming town of Okarche, Oklahoma. There they walked dirt roads, passing fields of corn, cattle, and wheat. Their walk ended, temporarily, in the birthplace of Father Stanley Rother who had been assassinated in the church rectory in Santiago de Atitlán in 1981.
Although the priest’s body returned to Okarche, he left his heart—literally—with the people of Santiago de Atitlán. The heart is buried under the church altar where Rother served the village he loved for so many years.
Juan Pablo and the others made the 2000-mile pilgrimage to honor Fr. Rother and to attend his beatification in September of 2017.
In 2015, thirty-four years after his murder, Father Rother was named a martyr by the Catholic Church. He was the first US-born priest to be named a martyr. The following year, Pope Francis approved his beatification and the ceremony was held in 2017.
Ixbalan and the other pilgrims were honored and well taken care of while in Okarche, staying in homes of local parishioners and eating, for the first time, fried chicken.
While in Okarche, Juan Pablo and the others had the opportunity to visit Stanley Rother’s childhood home. This is where he broke down in tears.
The sixty-three-year-old man wept for the memory of the priest who’d come to his village in 1968, when Juan Pablo was a teenager. The teen took to the priest quickly, although the man could speak none of the village language, Tzʼutujil.
While Rother had done poorly studying languages when he was in school and laughingly claimed to know fewer than a dozen words of Spanish upon his arrival in Guatemala, he learned the village’s language.
Juan Pablo remembered the man who’d worked side-by-side in the fields with the village men and could even fix the broken tractors.
He remembered the Father searching for—and sometimes recovering—bodies of the village’s disappeared. He remembered the priest setting up a fund for the widows and children of the disappeared. He remembered when the man started a village radio station. He remembered when Rother’s name appeared on the army’s death list.
After resting for some days in Okarche, Juan Pablo and the others began the final leg of their journey: to the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, forty-one miles away.
This time the pilgrims were not alone. Some of Rother’s family and friends went with them and over time, hundreds joined them for the journey, especially on the last leg through the city to downtown.
Over 20,000 people showed up at the convention center for Fr. Rother’s beatification ceremony. Juan Pablo and others from his village participated in the liturgy.
Archbishop Paul Coakley conducted the ceremony. Of Rother he said, “Ultimately, if God calls a young man from Okarche, Oklahoma, to be a saint, to be beatified, to be a martyr, it reminds us that all of us, no matter our beginnings, our circumstances, are called to holiness as well.”
I remember fifteen or twenty years ago when there was all kinds of work done on the Bisbee traffic circle. It went on for months, and when it was done, it looked basically the same. But there was a little landscaping in the center (some ocotillos and cactus) and of course the large N-S-E-W monoliths indicating the cardinal directions were added.
And as the cartoon in the paper said, “Abracadabra!” When the magician pulled the the cloth off the traffic circle, it had magically become a roundabout.
Roundabouts are a British thing. Traffic circles are a US thing. The difference at first seems small, though it’s critical: A traffic circle has two lanes and a roundabout has just one.
But as it turns out, there are other differences, due to the design of the single lane roundabout.
First, the number of accidents per year on a traffic circle is quite large compared to wrecks on a roundabout. One reason is when on a traffic circle, people may zip in between oncoming cars and head to the inside lane. But they need to then blast back into the outside lane to exit. Collisions often ensue.
The roundabout creates much less of a traffic hazard. With one lane, the driver enters when there’s space and never needs to jostle her way to a different lane in order to exit.
In addition, roundabouts are generally smaller than traffic circles. That is, their diameter is smaller, although this isn’t true for the Bisbee roundabout since it was born as a traffic circle.
But the smaller diameter of a roundabout leads to slower speeds. Thus, when there is an accident, traffic is moving more slowly so damage done to both vehicles and passengers is less than a wreck on a traffic circle.
This is also true for accidents involving pedestrians, bicyclists, and animals. Slower speeds result in less damage or injury.
In Britain, roundabouts are often used instead of traffic lights, and there are lots of benefits, from less maintenance to less pollution.
Roundabouts need little maintenance. There’s some grooming (if there’s a garden or grass in the center) and regular repaving and pothole repair. At an intersection with signals, big traffic lights burn out, and they whole signal system generally needs to be replaced every twenty-five years or so—and that usually means calling in the experts.
There are a lot of wrecks at traffic lights because so many people try to blast through on the yellow or even the beginning of the red. And wrecks those drivers cause can be quite severe and even fatal since speed is often a factor.
Then of course traffic lights have operational costs. There’s the monthly electric bill as well as bulb replacement.
Traffic lights can go out when there’s a storm, and often that means a police officer has to head over to direct traffic because some idiots just won’t take turns. But in a city, there aren’t enough officers to cover all the outages, so of course there are a number of car wrecks each time the light’s power is out.
Another big plus for the roundabout is drivers don’t waste gas sitting at a light. How many times have you sat at a light when there’s no cross traffic? Yet you’ve had to sit and wait. And wait. That simply doesn’t happen at a roundabout.
Studies show that each traffic light replaced with a roundabout in Carmel, Indiana, the US capital of roundabouts, saves about 24,000 gallons of fuel.
Initially, it costs more to build a roundabout, mostly because cities have to buy up more land than they would for a regular intersection. But because roundabouts have lower maintenance costs, have no electric costs, and and never have outages or need to be replaced, over time they save a lot of money.
That city in Indiana, Carmel, has more roundabouts than almost any other city on the planet. Well, more than any other US city. Carmel started replacing traffic signals with roundabouts in the mid 1990s, and they’ve seen an 80% drop in injury accidents.
In 1996, Carmel had a population of 30,000 and had 217 traffic accidents. In 2019, with more than120 roundabouts, there were approximately 100,000 residents and the city saw fewer than 200 traffic accidents.
Carmel currently has 125 roundabouts with plans to add more. There are only about a dozen traffic lights left in the city. That’s big news for the city that claimed Indiana’s first traffic signal.
Carmel proudly says the network of roundabouts has saved money, reduced vehicular emissions, improved air quality, and enhanced community walkability and traffic safety.
The switch to roundabouts came because of one man: the mayor. Jim Brainard had been to England in the 1970s when he was in graduate school. And he loved the concept of no stop-and-go. People just drove placidly on. So refined. So simple. So smart. No lines, no congestion, no pollution pouring out the backs of cars at street corners.
When Jim became mayor of Carmel, he introduced the idea of roundabouts to the city planners who tossed the idea aside. Jim did the research on how cost effective and efficient roundabouts are, and the planners changed their minds and got behind the idea.
By the way, roundabouts are also popular in Australia. The town of Canberra even had the International Roundabout of the Year in 2020 with its Gay Pride roundabout.
Will roundabouts catch on in other cities? I surely hope so. I know I now feel proud that Bisbee made the abracadabra! switch from a traffic circle. Anything that can lower the number of car wrecks, save money, cut back on pollution, save driving time and look pretty on top of that deserves our support.
Note: I wrote this in 2017. Be sure to read the end note!!
NPR recently ran a story on coincidences. There were some amazing stories and not one of my coincidences seemed to measure up to what I heard. But I have had a few.
Like the time I was in a cafe in Antigua, Guatemala, and a former housemate I hadn’t seen in eight or nine years walked in the door. Another time in Guatemala, (what is it about Guatemala?) on a different trip, I was sitting in a park in an obscure town and a friend strolled and sat beside me.
Just a few weeks ago, I hopped on the Tucson trolley to go to the Women’s March. As it was cool and damp and I have a hard time with cool weather on my legs and feet, I’d snuggled into my thermal boots. They’re warm and cozy, though I don’t particularly like them: black rubber with colored dots all over them.
Imagine my surprise when I boarded the trolley and found a young couple with their little girl, maybe age two. The child’s rain jacket was the same rubber and dots as my boots. A coincidence? Yes. Exciting? Not at all. But special in that brief moment when the child’s mother and I locked eyes and grinned. (sidenote: They also were headed to the march.)
But the biggest one, though it may not exactly count as a coincidence, happened in 1981.
I’d gone to Phoenix for a board meeting of the Arizona Solar Energy Association. After the meeting, the board members went out to tour a few solar homes. I spent the night with some friends on a chicken ranch named Huevos Rancheros del Sol (really) and returned to Bisbee the next morning.
When I unpacked the van, I couldn’t find my camera. I was devastated. I couldn’t afford a new one. Also, I’d taken lots of photos of the solar houses and wanted those pictures.
My then-partner went out to the van and searched. It was a plain panel van, two seats and nothing else, so it wasn’t hard to see everywhere. Obviously, he found no camera either.
About three weeks later, my partner and I did the co-op run to Phoenix. It was one of our volunteer activities: drive to Phoenix, visit three or four growers, pick fruits and veggies, bring them back to the coop.
The first stop was a farm in what was then the far southwest edge of the city, maybe five miles or so from Huevos Rancheros del Sol. This grower raised melons of all types. We’d stopped there first since we wanted the largest, heaviest things on the bottom of the load.
We picked several varieties of melons and laid them across the floor of the van. I closed the van’s back doors and we headed down the road for the peach farm.
When we got there, we picked a few boxes of peaches and walked back to the van. I laid down my box, opened up the back door and shrieked.
There, on the top of a watermelon, sat my camera.
It was impossible for it to be there. It hadn’t been there forty or so minutes earlier when I’d shut the back doors after loading melons. But there it was.
Is this a coincidence? It’s probably more like magic than coincidence, but it will have to do.
I suppose the coincidence part is that the camera both disappeared and reappeared while in the southwest end of Phoenix.
When I developed my film a few days later, all my shots were there, none missing or added.
The mystery of the reappearing camera still occasionally gnaws at me.
End Note: Just today, I looked at this piece and considered putting it in this blog. Then I decided it wasn’t complete enough. Not enough good coincidences. Half an hour later, I climbed into my car. My radio came on and the same coincidences story I’d heard years ago was replaying!
A sign, yes, and one more coincidence to put into this story, a story that is now complete.