No Pie in Pietown–August 1945

By Francis Line

Notes from the journal of Francis Raymond Line in August1945:

Location: North Rim, Arizona.

We were here to shoot the hummingbird. We needn’t have been frantic about our filming. The hummingbird worked about the thistle plant until dark.

And it was there again at dawn. I was set with my camera while the whole canyon was still swallowed in blackness, so I even beat the hummingbird to its work.

That hummer became the focal point of our filming for three days and nights. We caught him against a background of the Canyon in sunrise and sunset light, subdued by clouds, one morning wrapped in a gentle fog, once even under a veil of rain; then ,a color climax, the ruby throated hummingbird against a flaming red before-dusk canyon, with a rainbow arching the entire scene.

The month was wearing on-August 14,1945. Too emotionally worn out with it all-physically tired also-I didn’t sleep too well that night, and switched on the car radio in the wee hours. The hummingbird sequence had been for me a personal climax in my career as a professional motion picture photographer. What I heard on the radio at 2 or 3 o’clock that morning was a climax for the entire world. I uttered a shout, more frenzied than had come at first view of the hummingbird. It woke Helen and the kids. They crowded into the car-and all bent to listen.

Japan had surrendered. World War II was over. The news came to us in one of the most remote spots of America-nearly a hundred miles from any other human beings, half a thousand miles from any city of size. We were completely, unutterably alone. But at that moment the whole world seemed very close-and dear. Peace! We said some prayers of thanks that early morning.

I never slept at all, and never took my ear from the radio. Toward dawn another flash. Strange-yet really perhaps not so strange, after all-that this second news flash should be the first one following the Surrender Bulletin. Gas rationing would end at once.

Helen prepared a hurry-up breakfast. I filmed several more shots of the hummingbird but can’t even remember whether the sky was cloudy or clear. On the way to the nearest phone–75 miles distant, at Jacob Lake–just a wide place in the forest-we held a Council of Peace.

For years we’d had almost no gas. Our professional film work had suffered considerably. We needed many scenes of the Southwest to complete our story-particularly around Santa Fe. What better time than now?

Yes, Grandma and Grandpa Blackburn said, it would be perfectly agreeable for Gail and Victor to be gone a while if we wished to take them with us on our journey.

It chagrined me that there were still a few unused gas coupons in our ration book. But without need of them, we filled the tank, turned our car-not back to Mt. Carmel-but southward toward Tuba City and Flagstaff, and started out on the strangest week of touring we had ever had, or probably will ever experience again.

Flagstaff. No room at the Inn. Or at the Tourist camps either. Holbrook the same. And Winslow and Gallup.

Highway 66, as we traveled by night, was almost one continuous makeshift camping spot and row of makeshift campfires. Ten of thousands of gas-hungry and vacation-starved citizens of California and Arizona were celebrating America’s victory by taking to the road. Highways that for a year had seen only a handful of cars a day, no tourists whatsoever, became suddenly, thoroughfares of commerce. 1000 campfires of an army bivouacked in war might have produced a sight such as we saw between Flagstaff and Gallup. But these were campfires of peace. Americans seeking release from the emotional strain of war. An emotional binge. A Niagara of travelers flooding Highway 66. A thousand campfires, creating a strange path of light across western America.

Someone flying above in an airplane might have thought that the desert was on fire.

For a solid week we were never able to find lodging in a hotel, motel, or regular campground. The banks of impromptu night campfires lining the highway from Flagstaff to Albuquerque, was the strangest sight in its way that we had ever seen.

Helen and I like to camp out. But that week was 7 days of nearly continuous rain. Santa Fe—light rain, and no place to stay. We spent most of the night, five of us, sleeping in our 5-passenger car. Albuquerque. Somewhat the same. Since it rained but little, Helen and I found places to stretch out on the ground. The three youngsters did quite well in the car.

The message which the rain drops and the overflowing camp grounds, and motels, was drumming into us was beginning to penetrate into our planning patterns; abandon tourist centers, get as far removed from Highway 66 as our car could take us, and pray for clear skies.

Arizona’s White Mountains. That area was remote, and we had business there. Two years before I’d made a film: “Sheep, Stars, and Solitude“, following a herd of sheep on a wilderness trek from Arizona’s Salt River Valley up over the Mogollon Rim. National Geographic had asked me to repeat the trek, to do an article and stills for their Magazine. This second journey with the sheep , to be taken next year, would continue even farther, from the Mogollon into the White Mountains. To get some acquaintance with the area now would help.

So, early on a Sunday morning, we nosed our car toward Socorro, then turned due west over one of the remote roads of the state. Pie Town stood out in isolated splendor on the map. But unless we had driven slowly, and with sharp attention, we might have missed it altogether –

two eating-places and a filling station.

Five pieces of apple pie,” we said to the woman behind the eating-place counter.

Don’t have any pie,” she explained. “Not enough customers to keep it fresh.”

Here was the first solid evidence, since leaving North Rim, that we had escaped the Highway 66 influence, or at least were ahead of the sudden post-war tourist flood.

With high hopes in our hearts we went on to Springerwille on the weekend. No doubt, during the week, people live there. But not on Sunday. At least, not one person was visible as we drove around the few streets, which held its clusters of houses and stores together. Not one.

This didn’t really matter. The one point of interest, to us, was as visible as the Vishnu Temple rising in isolated splendor in the Grand Canyon, which we had so recently left. The 3-story large wooden Cattlemen’s Hotel had a light inside. Three floors of warm rooms. Bath tubs. Showers.

The lank western-dressed cowboy-clerk behind the counter gave me a patronizing smile.

“We got no rooms vacant, partner,” he drawled in a Texas accent. “Sorry. Our rooms are all took on a monthly basis. Ranchers. They use’em every so often. But they’re all rented up. Sorry.”

No pie in Pietown. No vacancies in a 3-story hotel in a town where none seemed to be living.

At least it wasn’t raining.

Helen was mad, not angry, but mad.

“I don’t care if it’s raining or not”, was her ultimatum when I went back out to the car with my message of despair. “I need a bath- we all do. Why aren’t there any vacant rooms?”  She and I went back into the hotel together.

The cowboy-clerk was firm. “I told you-all our spare rooms are leased by the month.”

Helen kept talking. Her description of our woes might be making an impression. The clerk began shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Maybe a good sign.

Just then, Adrienne and Victor and Gail came in from the car outside. They were sleepy-and showed it. They were dirty-and looked it. They were hungry-and said so.

“Can’t we stay here?” our 8-year old daughter asked, with weariness in her voice. “This place is nice. It’s warm in here. Why can’t we stay?”

My pleas had had no more effect than a cow horse’s tail trying to whisk away flies. Helen’s vivid rhetoric had maybe been as though the mare had found a barbed wire fence, and started rubbing and scratching against it.

When the kids appeared hungry, dirty, tired,and all completely unrehearsed-well, it was like the horse had found a pool of soft dust and could roll in it forever, and kick its legs in the air with glee.

Look, ” said the man behind the desk-now more clerk that cowboy. “These ranchers rent those rooms. But some of them’s not used much. Jed don’t come in hardly ever, on Sunday nights. Probably he’d never know it if I let you have his room.”

Five minutes later we were washing, showering, bathing-even rolling on the massive soft bed, almost like Jed’s horse might have rolled in some soft pool of dust in the pasture. There were no flies on us. We went down to eat.

“Oh, we don’t serve no meals”, said our benefactor behind the desk. “Sometimes breakfasts on weekdays. But never anything Sundays.”

We had driven all around Springerville; everything was closed-we knew that.

But a small café “a sort of hamburger place-round the corner and down the next street”

We might possibly have some luck there. Being Sunday,doubtful.But maybe,” said the clerk.

A small light was burning in a rear room of the hamburger place. It was closed.

“Look, Mom, there’s a man in there,” Adrienne, as well as Victor and Gail had their noses pressed to the window, hands shielding their eyes-peering in.

The front room of the café was rather large, neatly arranged with tables and chairs, a large record player against the rear wall, and the serving counter connecting the rear room, which must have been the kitchen. A light in the record player cast a yellowish glow around the main room. The rear room had its own light-and a man moving about.

I knocked hard on the glass pane of one of the double doors. Results, still zero.

I rattled the door vigorously.

“He heard us”, announced Victor. “He looked up.” Still zero results.

Grabbing the handles of both doors firmly, I shook and rattled them until Helen made me stop.

Results, 100%.

At least, nearly so. The man switched on a light in the front room, came up to the doors, unlocked and opened them, and explained with much more courtesy than would have been expected un’er the circumstances.

“We’re closed.”

The Cattlemen’s Hotel experience had made us experts. In all seriousness, we would hardly ever do what we had been doing here in Springerville, but a week such as we had experienced might even have made a beggar out of a king.

As the man had switched on the light and come toward the doors through the front room, the sight of three pairs of childish eyes, glued on him through the window, -maybe that had said to him all that was needed.

In a few minutes we were all seated inside at a large table, and the man was heating soup and cooking hamburgers in the rear room.

He had forgotten to relock the front doors. From out on the street, a stranger tried the door, found it open, and came in. This was the first person-other than our hotel and café benefactors-that we had seen in Springerville.

“Place was closed an hour ago,” said the stranger. “Glad you’re open. I’ll have a hamburger and some coffee.”

“We’re still closed,” said the man preparing our food.

Springerville, we were finding, was a place of compassionate people. With no further words, the café man-whether he was proprietor, cook, waiter, cashier, or all four, we never knew-was putting another hamburger on to fry.

The Stranger had taken a seat at a table near the center of the large room. We were at one side. Victor, always restless and curious, wandered up to the light record player, read the list of recordings, then asked of me; “Can I have a nickel? They’ve got a good record in there.”

I suppose I’m the only person in western America who has never put a nickel-or any other coin-in the slot of a record player to hear canned music. I don’t like their artificial clatter. I’d put in money to stop them—, but never to set them going. It’s one of my peculiarities. I confess it but won’t attempt to explain it. I could say that it had been a hard week, and a trying day, but that wasn’t the reason. To Victor’s request I simply said “No.”

The Stranger was obviously listening. None of us had been served yet, and there was nothing else to do. He reached into his pocket; fumbled for a coin.

“Here, kid,” he motioned to Victor. “Let’s hear your tune.”

The music was still blaring when our food came but this was once when I didn’t let it interfere with my appetite. I was not even too embarrassed over the episode of the nickel.

After too long, the music ceased.

The Stranger at his table, we at ours, were eating-hungrily, silently, earnestly. He finished before we did, but asked for some more coffee.

“First time I’ve been back here in 45 years,”he announced to no one in particular. “Used to work cattle down this way. Had some great times here. Haven’t been back in 45 years.”

I was glad he had spoken. Secretly I had been concerned that this might have been the absentee Jed, whose room we were occupying at the Hotel. Relieved, I said:

“So you worked cattle? My wife’s father-most of her relatives-were cattlemen. Down near Globe and Superior-that area. Maybe you’ve heard of them. Gibson’s.”

“Gibson?” The Stranger was bypassing me; speaking directly to Helen. “You mean you’re a Gibson? Not related to Charlie Gibson by any chance?”

“He’s my uncle”, said Helen.

The Stranger became a stranger no longer. We found his name was Jack. Even the cook, proprietor, waiter and cashier came in to listen as Jack recounted episodes of early Springerville days when he and Charlie Gibson used to work together on ranches in this region.

Our conversation was taking place across the customer-less cavern of the unfilled room. We had to raise our voices a bit to be heard. Jack finished his refill of coffee, looked across at Helen with a hesitant expression, and then motioned with his arm and index finger.

“Come here,” he almost whispered. Helen answered his look, glanced at me questioningly, and then the both of us went over to his table.

Jack was speaking so low now that we had to bend close to hear.

“Do you know about Charlie Gibson and the cattle rustler?” he asked.

We didn’t.

“Charlie had to use his gun.” Explained Jack. “He was riding out toward Cherry Creek when he saw the widow who lives near there driving her cattle along toward a corral. A man on horseback suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and cut some of the cattle out.”

That’s when Charlie came up. “Leave the Widow’s cattle alone”, he yelled.

The man didn’t pay a bit of attention.

“I’m warning you,” yelled Charlie.

The man reached for his gun but Charlie reached for his faster and sent a bullet singing through the air. The last he saw of the Rustler, he was hell-bent for Texas.

The widow wasn’t about to keep a story like that to herself. Charlie was soon quite a hero here.

In the first beds we’d occupied for several nights, we caught up on a lot of sleep that night. Not even the prospect that Jed night check into his room-or dreams of cattle rustlers-kept us awake. Next morning it was raining. We headed for Payson, en-route to Grand Canyon.

Payson, Arizona’s rodeo is not like the ones at Pendleton or Bozeman, where the riders are mainly professionals who travel the circuit. These Payson riders-at least the majority of them-are genuine cowhands vying with one another in saddle and roping skills. It is for real. We had long wanted to film the event. Now we found ourselves in Payson at just the right time. By laying over one day we could film the rodeo, if the rain would stop. All five of us showed our excitement as we went into the town’s hotel for a room.

“Got a reservation?” asked the man in charge.

“Do we need one?”

“Need one? Hell, our rooms are reserved a year ahead at rodeo time.”

If it wasn’t ration-weary travelers letting off steam after years of war, it was backwoods cowboys in off the range for the rodeo crowding the town until it was ready to split open. As the rain intensified Helen declared: “I don’t think I can sleep another night-five in a car.”

Until suppertime we searched for a place to stay. The town was so crowded with cowboys and sightseers that it was ready to split open.

After supper, almost aimlessly, we continued searching. It was about 8 o’clock, in a heavy increasing downpour, that we headed north out of town, through the pines-why, none of us really knew. No motels, no campgrounds. Not even any place to keep dry. I swung into a rancher’s gateway to turn around. The drive was at the back of the old ranch house, and a light shown from inside.

“That’s a big house. Maybe they’d put us up?” By her tone, I could see that Helen had really meant that one more night in the car was not for her.

I knocked at the back door. “Who is it?” came a woman’s voice.

Luckily the rain was making too much noise for her to hear me, because m explanation wasn’t very convincing. How do you explain to a woman, through a locked door, that you want to spend the night in her house?

Helen had come up, and she joined my shouts. The woman inside-bless her soul for a courageous individual-unlocked and opened the door. The kids had tagged behind Helen. All five of us crowed into the kitchen.

Three weeks before, that woman’s husband had died. In the nighttime emptiness of the big old ranch house, with the rain tattooing a dirge of loneliness against every windowpane, the woman almost took us into her arms in welcome.

Yes, there was a bed for Helen and me. And she could fix a place somewhere for the children.

“This is real Arizona hospitality” beamed Helen in thanks. “I was born in Arizona-on a ranch, too, and I know.”

“You were born here? Where?”” our benefactor wanted to know.

“Globe,” said Helen.

Globe? Why that’s our county seat.”

This was a fact, although we hadn’t realized it. Arizona’s counties are large-Globe was nearly a hundred miles away, over a wicked dirt road.

Yes,” Helen continued, “I moved away from Globe when I was a little girl, but I still have relatives there. My uncle, Mark Hicks, runs a large ranch near there.”

“Mark Hicks?”

Helen could not have spoken a more magic name if she had intoned the name of God.

“Mark Hicks! Why, he’s my supervisor. Finest man in Gila County. Mark Hicks is your uncle? I just can’t believe it.”

Although we had had a rush-up supper in a jammed café in Payson, we were -at this dear lady’s insistence-soon eating sandwiches and milk at her kitchen table. As we prepared for bed, she gave Helen a hug and tears came to her eyes.

We slept in ranch-ready beds. Next morning, we had a true ranch breakfast as our hostess and Helen talked Arizona until a beam of morning sun sprinkled into the windows through the pines, and we realized the rain had ceased.

Apparently we had done this gracious widow of Payson a real favor by staying with her and easing the pain of her lonliness. But she had done us a greater one. We filmed the rodeo that day and headed back to the Grand Canyon and the hummingbird bush, then to Mt. Carmel, almost forgetting the nights we had spent in the car without sleep.

One of Helen’s pleasant duties, on getting back to where we were staying at Maynard Dixon’s Mt. Carmel cabin, was to write her uncle Mark “Supervisor Mark Hicks, if you will” to be certain, on his next trip up to Payson, to stop in and meet one of his great admirers-the widow who had taken us in out of the rain and turned our discomfort into sunshine.

This article was subsequently appeared in the book by Francis & Helen Line: “Grand Canyon Love Story”. Now out of print. For more information about the Francis Line Collection contact us at Electric Pictures.

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