Arts & Culture » Book Feature

The Insane and the Mundane

While 'Weird Arizona' includes a lot of not-so-weird items, it's sufficiently offbeat and entertaining

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The road that led to Weird Arizona began in 1992, when Jerseyites Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman began producing "a homespun newsletter" called Weird N.J. It became popular, and in 2003, the duo published Weird N.J.: Your Travel Guide to New Jersey's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets.

That led to a follow-up book and a TV series, both called Weird U.S. ; the latter aired on the History Channel. Since the formula seemed to be working, new writers were brought on, and "Weird" guides to various states followed: The Grand Order of Weird Writers was formed. Among their ranks is one Wesley Treat, who had written Weird Texas and possessed what Moran and Sceurman called "the Weird Eye." When it came time for Weird Arizona, Treat was again pressed into service.

The result is a work that combines a healthy dose of Arizona-inspired weirdness with some material that's not much weirder than what you'd find in a standard travel rag. The first three chapters are especially prone to relative normalcy.

Chapter 1 looks at "Local Legends," including Apache Leap, where 75 Apache took the concept of "no surrender" literally and hurled themselves off an 800-foot cliff in the Pinal Mountains. Then there's the "curse of the Petrified Forest," said to befall those who pilfer petrified wood from the park, as if the cursed fines levied for doing so--which start at $275--aren't sufficient deterrent.

A chapter on "Ancient Arizona" looks at such dusty monuments as Camp Verde's Montezuma Castle and the Signal Hill petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park West, which, according to one theory, were used to track seasons and equinoxes. There's also coverage of Arizona's other big hole in the ground: Meteor Crater.

The chapter on "Fabled People and Places" also covers several obvious attractions, among them the long-sought Lost Dutchman gold mine and other alleged treasure sites in Arizona. Also nicked from the glossy tourism pamphlets: Tombstone, that standby of warmed-over Old West kitsch.

From this point onward, Treat strays from the well-trodden path more often, and the weirdness quotient gets bumped up. "Unexplained Arizona" looks at oddities like the Phoenix lights of March 13, 1997, thought by many to be UFO-related. There are also examinations of the fabled Sedona vortexes and, closer to home, a look at the travails of the Berkbigler family of Tucson, who were plagued by unexplained showers of falling stones in 1983.

Bizarre beasts? Yeah, we got 'em. At least that's the prevailing notion in Chapter 5, which looks at the Bigfoot-like Mogollon Monster, the blood-sucking El Chupacabra (said to have been sighted several times in and around Tucson) and the mysterious Navajo Skinwalkers.

The "Local Heroes and Villains" chapter is quite comprehensive. It includes an account of an actual visit with legendary Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who may be a hero or a villain, depending on who you ask.

Biosphere 2 is another attraction that's not particularly weird, but it garners a mention nonetheless, in the chapter on "Personalized Properties and Innovative Environments." Among the other attractions are the Mystery Castle at Phoenix's South Mountain and Tucson's Garden of Gethsemane, a religious shrine with statues made by self-taught artist Felix Lucero. Then there's the Quartzsite Yacht Club. It boasts a roster of some 6,800 members, in spite of the dearth of an element critical to the pursuit of yachting.

The gang at the Web site Roadside America are probably the reigning authorities on "Roadside Oddities," but Treat offers up a chapterload of them anyway. There's Hobo Joe, who makes his home in Buckeye, and Wigwam Village, located in Holbrook, which also plays host to various roadside dinosaurs. There's also a bridge in the shape of a diamondback rattler--the 280-foot Diamondback Bridge, located right here in Tucson.

If Treat is to be believed, the laurels for largest Kokopelli go to a 32-footer located in Camp Verde. If you like your roadside oddities truly weird, consider the case of a tree, located near Alpine, which bristles with hundreds of arrows. Nobody is quite sure why, though there are theories. Yes, there are always theories when it comes to these matters.

Other scintillating bits of weirdness include chapters on "Roads Less Traveled," "Ghosts of Arizona," a "Cemetery Safari" and "Abandoned in Arizona." This latter chapter, which caps off the book and is arguably one of the most offbeat sections, looks at odd structures throughout the state that have seen better days.

In spite of the forays into familiar territory, Weird Arizona offers a suitably and entertainingly weird experience.

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