An afternoon calm falls across the backyard of a modest home on East Waverly Street. Only sporadic footsteps are heard from within a yellow school bus, circa 1952. Faded, peeling and somehow glorious, the huge machine rises like a challenge just beyond the low fence. A single gate in that fence leads to its beckoning door.
This school bus has not budged for decades. Yet even in its immobility, the old machine has provided shelter for kids and grandkids, for activists and for political frontiersmen seeking something that resembles justice.
The bus is a testament to the notion that the course of our lives is not preordained, that true freedom isn't something given, but something to be seized. It is the freedom to imagine.
That's why we're now pondering the vintage rig, which originated in a school district in Sacramento, Calif., and rumbled into Tucson by way of San Francisco, Nevada, Phoenix, Mexico and Belize. And it is why we're talking about the man who once tacked its course—who ignited the huge engine with the fuel of adventure, and showed us all how life could be lived if we possessed the courage to follow.
Michael Pickett Haggerty died March 5 at age 81 after a tough fight with cancer. He was a former city councilman, a longtime business owner, one-time head of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association, and someone known, even by his critics, for his unquestioned integrity.
Mike was a relentless crusader for a free Ireland, and a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. He was a dedicated family man who interpreted that term broadly; in 1994, when six Irishmen were tried in a Tucson federal court for allegedly trying to ship weapons to their homeland, Mike and his wife, Mimi, offered very public support. An acquaintance of the so-called "Tucson Six" lived briefly in the bus. These things drew the FBI's earnest attention; along with other Tucson activists, Mike and Mimi Haggerty fell under intense surveillance.
He was a founder of Tucson's St. Patrick's Day Parade, and this year's grand marshal, though he did not live long enough to attend.
Today, I'm in that bus with Mike's widow and their daughter, Shannon Harrison. You see, to complete the story, we simply had to get onboard. They explain that in 1972, during the heady and fearless days of the counterculture revolution, Mike Haggerty quit his advertising job, sold their house overlooking the Pacific Ocean, loaded his family members onto the bus, and hauled them to Mexico. They spent nine months cruising that country's highways and village streets, all the way to Belize and back again.
It's widely agreed that this was one of the best times of their lives.
Eventually, the bus returned them to the United States and, finally, to Tucson. Not long after, they started a business.
The Haggertys joined with another family to buy the house on Waverly Street, in a working-class neighborhood then called Sugar Hill. Their shop, Piney Hollow, operated for 37 years, most of them on North Fourth Avenue. The shop was a perpetual menagerie of family and friends. Together, they made jewelry, and everyone eventually learned beadwork.
They were also offering lessons in how to live, for those who chose to ride along. Their bohemian lifestyle was not for everyone. But all were free to choose the pieces that fit.
To longtime friends and extended "family" like Adrienne Halpert, those pieces still fit today.
"They were modern pioneers," says Halpert, owner of the Global Arts Gallery in Patagonia, and a former administrator with the Tucson Arts District Partnership.
In 1970, she wandered from New York City to California, and spent a year living with the Haggerty family. "That's where I learned about organics and recycling and being a responsible, honest human being," she says. "And that's before it was trendy. They chose the small-footprint life."
Today, Mimi and Shannon sit on a couch in the bus, opposite a row of fold-down bunks. To the front is the captain's chair, cast in the shadows of an overhanging mesquite. For two hours, we've been talking amid the rig's hand-built cabinets and dusty kitchen, and the conversation has shifted to low gear.
Mimi describes how Mike grew up in Portland, Ore., chafing at the conventional expectations of his parents.
"There were things he knew he needed to do," she says. "He took his own path. We had a great life, even though there were sticky moments. If we hadn't done some of those things—if we had done what was expected of us all the time—it would have been boring."
But dull, it most definitely was not. Mike and Mimi were together for 60 years. He devoured history, and wrote fiction drenched in mythology. They had five kids, and a clutch of grandkids. And they still have the funky house in the neighborhood once known as Sugar Hill, with the bus parked out back.