Monday, February 24, 2014

Motel Hell

"If you don't move from this sidewalk, I will arrest you."  It was the sharp end to a surprisingly short and terse exchange with a Cocnino's Sheriff's Deputy.  The Officer had only engaged me for a matter of minutes, but it was enough time for him to threaten to put me and my photographer behind bars for standing on the sidewalk near the Coconino Municipal building.

Scott Curley
It was understandably a difficult evening for everyone in law enforcement, particularly in the southern part of Utah and the northern half of Arizona.  A man, Scott Curley, was on the run in the shrubby red rocks of Fredonia, Arizona in Coconino County.   One of their own, Kane County Utah Deputy Brian Harris had been shot and killed by Curley earlier that day.  Curley, after an afternoon crime spree, shot and killed Harris as the deputy tracked Curley into the rough terrain. The wanted man lay in wait under a Rocky Mountain Juniper and ambushed Harris as he trudged up over a rise.  When I encountered the deputy, Harris's widow was grieving, Curley was still on the run, and the Coconino Sheriff's building was filled with deputies, EMT's and fire fighters who were milling about, trying to find fellowship at Fredonia's multi-purpose maintenance building.

It was late, sometime after 11 when photographer Matt Michela and I rolled into Fredonia.  We had just checked into the Grand Canyon Motel.  A dusty brown plot of worn cottages off of highway 89.  The motel, wasn't for short vacation stops, it was an extended stay place that had been taken over by weary, dew rag wearing oil workers doing itinerant, back-breaking work in the surrounding oil fields.  The worn-out men in their early 40's look like they are in their late 60's and stand, or more likely slump on the broken wooden porches of their worn-out cottages, pull drags from cigarettes held by their oil pocked hands, and quietly morn the lonely life they live.   Our assignment desk had called ahead to make reservation, which, I am told surprised the motel's owners, since there hadn't been a reservation made at the faded pit stop in years.
Courtesy Matt Michela

As we park our news vehicle, the shine of the headlights pulsate off of the eyes of about a dozen cats, who slink, sleep and casually lick their paws as we unload our equipment after a long day on the road.  As I fumble for my room key, I notice the name of the motel, accompanied by the address: PO Box 456, Predonia, Az.  Of course being in "Fredonia," I wondered if the owners, never saw the typo, or just didn't care.

As I enter my wood paneled room, the thick stink of cat urine overpowers the shabby space.  As I drop my bags, I noticed the stench is not leaving, so I prop open my door, which is a reminder to about 3 cats that they enjoy peeing inside, and they marched in, giving me a look as if to say, "What, exactly, are you doing in our litter box?"

Matt and I decided to forgo more time inhaling cat urine and jumped in our news vehicle to scope out the town in which we will live for the next several days.

As we cruise down the main portion of town, a woman, suggests that an employee at the gas station across from the municipal building might be able to help us.  I speak with the young woman, who nervously admits she is friends with Curley, and knows he's been having some mental health issues lately, she agrees to speak to us, but only after she is off the clock, in about 15 minutes. Matt and I set up across the street to wait.

Kane Co. Deputy Brian Harris
That's when we met the deputy.  He approaches us quickly, as if he is marching up on a band of protesters, cloaked in masks, hoodies, and armed with rocks.  He downshifts into "There's nothing to see here" mode. "Ok fellas, the press briefing is tomorrow morning, so head on back to your room," he announces, pointing with his right hand in the direction he supposes is the location of our hotel, and, oddly, begins waving us on with his left, as if he is directing traffic.  "Ok," I respond pleasantly, "we look forward to that," and I continue standing on the sidewalk, turning from the deputy to the Sinclair gas station across the street.   After a brief pause, and no movement from us, the officer, again stretches his finger northbound, "well, there is nothing to get right now, and you are making the officers at the municipal building uncomfortable, so you need to get going." he says, this time more firmly than before.  Not interested in spending more time inhaling ammonia than I have to, I stay put, "Well, I understand, but we have no intention of bothering any officers right now, and we still have a little work to do, so we'll be headed back soon," I say, raising my level of annoyance to meet his, as I glance through the grimy gas station window pane at the woman who has agreed to talk to us.  She notices the officer  standing next to me, and I sense that she might back out of our interview, if she believes the police are involved.

The deputy, runs his tongue, from left to right, across the front of his bottom teeth, and begins speaking tersely into his shoulder mounted walkie-talkie.  "You are blocking our vehicles from coming and going!" he boils at me.  I sigh, and look up, and am, for a brief moment, distracted by a sky carpeted with a billion sparkling stars, but return my eyes to the deputy, "Look, you know as well as I do, that this is a public sidewalk, and we have every right to be here!"  I say, raising my voice and squinting as the two of us continue our standoff.  "Not if you are interfering with the easy transport of emergency vehicles!" his voice is, almost on cue, interrupted by the deep, distant howl of a prairie wolf, loud and pronounced, as I look from left to right, at a vacant, dust covered highway sleeping quietly under the bright shine of the moon.  Here comes my first mistake. Sarcasm, which I've learned over the years, is always my first mistake, "Yes, I can see, it looks like Los Angeles at rush hour." I laugh as I give a sideways glance at the woman across the street who is locking the doors to the convenience store and looks nervously over her shoulder, cloaked harshly under the sickly hue of buzzing neon lights.  "We are expecting more vehicles anytime now!"  He is fuming at this point, "and if you stand here, you're camera will distract the officers driving."  I press my chin towards my chest, and look at him in amazement, "Seriously.  You just said that?"

Grand Canyon Motel
"If you don't move from the sidewalk, I will arrest you!" the lawman says chest heaving, "Ok, look," I try, a few seconds too late, to diffuse the situation, "You see that woman over there?" I gesture to the nervous girl, her hands stuffed deep in her pockets, moths dancing and crashing into the harsh lights illuminating the gas pumps by which she stands. "We are tying to talk to her, and if you leave us alone, we will do just that and go."  The angry deputy steals a quick glance, and begins to breath normally, "Go!" he points at the girl, "Then go to your motel!"  As we gather up our gear and cross the street under the deputy's watchful eye, I say, again sarcastically, and again, mistakenly, "We'll try not to get hit by the SWAT team rumbling through town!"  Matt's eyes widen, and so do mine, but as we approach the girl, he stomps away towards the municipal building without arresting anyone.

That night as I settle in, laying, sleepless on top of the scratchy, army grade blankets, I breath in the nauseating smell of cat waste, and listen to felines howl and rustle outside.  I blink and watch the ancient digital clock tick off time, from 3:32 to 3:33, and as I spot a small roach dance across the ceiling, I think, "perhaps a night in jail wouldn't have been so bad."

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