May 29, 2018

The Anza Borego Desert

Dateline – Chandler, Arizona

And so the trek across the country begins anew. I’m on the southern route this time, coming across I-10 and should arrive back in Birmingham either Friday late or Saturday early. I’m not planning on any other major stops and I have an extra day in my time table in case of an unforseen delay. I decided to come back this way as I-10 is the only major cross country route I haven’t driven and this completes the set. However, as I left the San Gabriel valley and headed into the 110 in the shade of the California desert, I started to question my sanity. At least the car is new and the air conditioning works well.

I slept in some this morning and stopped in Palm Springs to have lunch with Shann Carr, another old friend from Atlantis days. She’s a fixture on the LGBT entertainment circuit and one of the warmest, funniest humans I’ve ever had a pleasure to know. She’s working Palm Springs real estate these days so she doesn’t have to take gigs she doesn’t want to and still working on her plans for an LGBT focused conference/resort/production studio. (If anyone has a spare eight figures lying around the house, I’ll put you in touch).

Then, it was back to I-10 and searing heat and such wonderful towns as Blythe, Quartzite and finally Phoenix where I decided to stop for the night, but on the far east side in Chandler so I can avoid the city traffic when I get underway in the morning.

Story time: Some of you have probably heard this one as it is perhaps my favorite of all the odd things that have happened in my life. It comes to mind due to today’s drive through Palm Springs and the California desert.

When I had just turned 26, I finished medical school and matched for residency in Internal Medicine at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. I had liked the feel of the program when I interviewed there and Vickie Rozell was living there at the time so I knew I would have at least one friend in town so in June, 1988, I pulled into town with my U-Haul and my first apartment in midtown, a block from the old governor’s mansion and two blocks from Music Circus, one of the last of the old fashioned summer stock in a tent companies. My intern year is mainly forgotten due to chronic sleep deprivation, but about nine months into it, I met Steve, who would become my first partner. How to describe Steve? He was a person who provoked strong reactions in other people, both positive and negative. I used to call him a human catalyst because you could put him in any room with others and all sorts of interesting reactions would begin to happen.

About three months after we began dating and were starting to become serious, we went on our first vacation together. Steve was an LA boy who had grown up just outside of Hollywood, and who seemed to know everyone of his generation in the area, having been a property manager in both West Hollywood and Venice Beach. His favorite place was the desert outside of LA and San Diego, especially the Anza Borego area, so we loaded up the truck and headed off to Palm Springs and the desert state parks. I had never spent any time in the desert and the contrast to the lush green of the Pacific Northwest wilderness was somewhat alien to me.

Years later, in 2001, Steve died after several years of serious pulmonary disease. I knew he wanted to be cremated so I decided to do that and to take his ashes to the Anza Borego and scatter them there as he so loved the place. Steve knew he was dying, so he had made pre-need arrangements at the local funeral home. He was on hospice and died at home and the hospice folk called them and they came and took him away that morning.

The next day, I went down to make arrangements for the cremation. “I’m sorry sir, we can’t cremate him” said the unctuous little funeral director behind the desk. “What?” I exclaimed. It turns out I had run into a little quirk in Alabama law. Apparently you cannot authorize your own cremation in the state, it must be done by your legal next of kin. This was many years before gay marriage was even a possibility so I did not count. I looked the gentleman in the eye and said. “His parents are dead, he has no children, he has been estranged from his siblings for decades and I have no contact information for them. What do you want to do about it?” The funeral director hemmed and hawed (and he was an obvious queen so he was sympathetic as to the predicament) and then said “I have an idea”. He got hold of the cut rate crematory in town and arranged for Steve to be transferred there.

So off I went to Cremations-R-Us thinking I was just going to run into the same dilemma. The gentleman there however said “We’ll hold him for three days (wink wink). If no one comes to complain, we’ll cremate him and no one will ask any questions (wink wink).” I was good with that and a few days later, I went down to collect his cremains. As I was going to scatter him, I did not buy the fancy urn and he was in a plastic bin inside of a cardboard box with ‘Cremated Human Remains’ printed on it in large letters.

About a week later, I packed up the car and, rather like I am doing now, headed off on a cross country jaunt to the Anza Borego with Steve resting comfortably in the trunk. I met an old friend of ours from Sacramento in San Diego, and together we went out to the desert where I scattered him so he could dance on the desert wind and be part of the spring bloom. At the last minute, however, I decided to honor his love of genealogy and family by keeping some of him back so that I could take him to the homestead in Eastern Kentucky where the first traceable Spiveys had lived. Back the box went in the trunk, but considerably lighter.

I then headed up the Oregon coast, eventually reaching Seattle where I spent some time with my family. My next planned stop was Alaska. Craig Mollerstuen, my college roommate with a million frequent flyer miles, had given me a ticket to Anchorage so I could come up for a few days. I was due to fly out on September 12, 2001.

Of course, the events of the day before precluded that from happening and, as air travel was uncertain, I decided to head back across country and the ticket was converted to round trip from Chicago. I arrived in Chicago a few days later, left the car at the airport, and had my Alaska interlude. The flight back was a redeye depositing me in Chicago around 6 AM so I collected the car and headed for Detroit as I had made a lunch date with Cindy Naas Nathan and her family in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river.

When I got to the border tunnel, security was on high alert as it was only about a week after 9/11 and they were stopping everyone to check their cars. I pulled into the security line and the nice border guard asked me to please open the trunk. Of course I did it without thinking and the first thing he removes is the box labeled ‘Cremated Human Remains’. Oh boy, do I have to go to the special place where various guards do a major once over on the car. “Why are you importing human remains into Canada?” (I’m not, I’m just passing through). “This box is awfully light. Where’s the rest of them?” (Already scattered). “Where’s the death certificate?” (It hadn’t yet come when I left town). I told my story to several layers of bureaucracy and finally, the head honcho decided I was harmless and let me through.

I was a bit late for lunch after that so I, of course, had to regale Cindy and her family with the reasons why. I had never actually met her before this lunch. We had gotten to know each other over writings at epinions.com and she had been a big fan of the original MNM columns. Lunch was delicious (including Ed Grover’s squash soup) and afterwards I headed towards Toronto which was my next scheduled stop.

As I was heading that direction, I began to worry about Steve in the trunk. If I had had difficulty getting him into Canada, what sort of problems might I have getting him back into the USA where everyone was in a state of collective freak out. Various things occurred to me. I could ditch the original box and put him in a box of Cheez-Its or something, but I had visions of being singled out at the border for a search and some officious type pouring him out by the side of the road. I also discarded disguising him as aquarium gravel. I still hadn’t quite figured it out when I went out to dinner with friends in Toronto. One of them was an antiques dealer and he said “Stop, leave him with me. I’ll handle this”. So Steve remained in Toronto while I continued on my trip.

Several weeks later, after I had returned home, I received a package from Toronto. Steve returned home disguised as an Ebay purchase of a Murano glass fish. The next month, I had one of my usual runs to West Virginia with the mine workers and I took him with me and made a detour to Kentucky and scattered him at the home place.

I found out later that my visit had caused problems for Cindy. One of her young sons, having heard my dining room tale of the border crossing had gone to school the next week and told the teacher. “My mom met this nice man on the internet and he came to our house with a body in the trunk of his car”. She received a very concerned telephone call from school officials and had to explain that she was not, in fact, consorting with axe murderers.

And, as Samuel Pepys says, so to bed.

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