Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

December 18, 2004. Hot Wells Dunes

Several people suggested a stop at Hot Wells Dunes in my travels east. I’d never been to a hot spring – I don’t count the lukewarm swimming pool in Hot Springs, South Dakota, where I did laps one evening. So after getting a lot of complicated directions, I headed there on a blustery afternoon. When I got there the light was almost gone, and I made straight for the tubs. I was assailed by a cheery voice welcoming me and inviting me to join them in the warm water. So I put on my swim suit and settled in.

The two folks in the tub were a youngster traveling across the country and an older local woman who was a friend of his parents. She was sharp and opinionated. She defended the local kids riding ATVs around the sand dunes; would I rather, she asked, they were getting drunk in town and wreaking havoc? When she was a kid, she said, they came out to the dunes and drank and then collapsed where they were for the night. Much better than getting drunk and driving around suburbia to find the next party. She said she was retired from raising five children, but they kept coming back to her house, and every time they returned they’d have picked up another person – a spouse, a child, a second child. She smoked cigarettes as she soaked, leaving the butts by the side of the pond.

We were joined by a white-bearded man who introduced himself as Jerry. He spends his summers at his log house outside of Davenport, Iowa and his winters traveling with his wife in their fifth wheel – an RV balanced in the back of a pickup truck that tows it. Jerry and I got onto the subject of accessing the internet from our vans, at which the young man told me I absolutely had to have satellite radio, it was just the best. But he wasn’t sure whether satellite radio had all my favorite NPR programs. As I rattled off their names Jerry announced that I was clearly his type, he too needed Morning Edition and All Things Considered and the Car Guys and Garrison Keillor to make his week complete. He mentioned that he’d heard the road into the hot wells was going to be paved next year. The woman reported that locals had taken off the arrow on the road sign to the wells, and they planned to remove the sign altogether so outsiders couldn’t find the place.

In the morning I headed to the tub early, hoping to have it to myself, but Jerry arrived there just as I did, and his wife joined us a few minutes later. He told me that the park ranger had asked one of the other campers to leave, because he had been there too long, and because he was washing his laundry and his dishes in the tubs. Jerry seemed very satisfied about Conrad's explusion, as if he were exploiting the system and taking advantage of the opportunity to be there. Jerry noticed the cigarette butts lying by the pool from the night before, and said that the locals didn’t take care of the place the way the outsiders did.

Later in the morning I took my book over to the pool and dipped my feet in to read for a while. A little while later a scraggly young man covered with tattoos, silver jewelry, and ear studs slid into the pool. He explained that he and his girlfriend were at the Hot Wells waiting for the Renaissance Festival to begin in Apache Junction in February. Both originally from Michigan, they now follow the Renaissance

Festivals, selling jewelry, chocolate, and whatever else they can think of. The girl had “Andrea” tattooed on her wrist, so perhaps that was her name; he never told me his. (Later Jerry told me that they went by Pinky and Autumn; maybe I read her tattoo wrong? I continued to think of her as Andrea and him as nameless.) I mentioned that I had friends involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism (a medieval re-enactment group), but unlike Andrea and her friend, they had quite conventional day jobs as computer programmers or airline employees. Andrea said they didn’t have day jobs – or that this was their day job, they didn’t have a separate more conventional life. They were heading to his family in Palm Springs for Christmas, and would return to the Hot Wells in January. It’s a good place for people who need a place for a long stay; quiet, except for the ATVs, cheap, clean toilets, and lots and lots of hot water.

In the afternoon I took my laundry to the outflow from one of the tubs to do a bit of washing myself. Conrad was there, a grizzled white-haired man, scrubbing his shirts. He works as a campground host at Rocky Mountain National Park six months of the year, but in the winter he has to find a place to stay. He has an RV, and travels from place to place. When he leaves Hot Wells Dunes he plans to head up the road thirty miles or so, to a rock hunting area where he said he can stay for a while. A roly-poly bearded man came over to the tub, and we invited him to get his laundry and join us. He didn’t have any laundry to wash, but he stayed to talk. He works in carnivals, in a game where you throw darts at balloons. For eight or nine months of the year he travels with the carnivals, the rest of the year he too is looking for a place to squat. He wasn’t as well equipped as Conrad, driving a battered white car and sleeping in a tent up near the edge of the sand dunes.

Conrad took off with his laundry, and I continued to ply Steve with questions about the carnival life. Really hard, he said, you work 24/7. You have to be up and ready by 9:00 or so when the midway opens, and all day you’re there trying to get people into your game to part with their money. He is paid on commission. On his best day ever he brought in $2200, of which he got $600. The rest went to his boss, who owns the game, businesses that manage carnival acts, the contractor who arranges the carnival, the town that hosts the carnival, the organizers for hooking up the electricity. Everyone takes a cut out of the carnival revenue. It’s really political, he said. The contractor decides which acts go where, and your location determines how much money you make. So if your boss slips a little something to the manager or the contractor, you’ll get a better location.

Steve works for the owner of his act, so he doesn’t have to deal with a lot of the politics. But he does have to get the public into his game, and not let them drift off to some other act. And he has to get them to give him their money, not his colleague working down the counter from him. There are complicated rules, he said, to prevent long-handing – when his colleague down the counter tries to entice Steve’s prospect away, grabbing any prospective commissions for himself. The experienced people can tell who in the crowd is going to be a good customer – the mark, they call that person, someone who will part with his money. Steve has been in the business for two years and didn’t yet know how to sense a good mark. But he could tell if his colleagues sensed one, their demeanor would suddenly change. They would perk up, straighten their shirt, and try to make eye contact to lure the mark in. They wouldn’t be able to put into words how they identified a good mark, they just knew.

A tall, rather distinguished-looking man with a white beard and a leather cowboy hat ambled over and joined our conversation. Robert was also in carnival work, he had been at it for seven years. He and Steve tried to figure out whether they had been in Lubbock, Texas at the same time the previous year, and decided they must have been. Robert said it was all “locates, locates” that made the difference in money, but Steve said that Robert wasn’t playing straight and that’s why he made so much. Robert said, well, that’s how the carnival business is, it's not straight. Robert said he’d had everyone in the carnival turn against him, because he was showboating, and he was the TA even though he was on balloons where you pay a dollar to play till you win. Translation: he was showing off, and he was the top agent – earning the most on the midway – even though he was on a lousy, unprofitable game. Robert picks his shows, and doesn’t work the whole season. Steve said he needed more experience before he’d be able to do that himself.

They invited me to join them for some chicken in Conrad’s RV, and I think they were surprised when I accepted. On the way over, Steve explained that Robert and his crew were gambling with the customers, offering them their money back or extra prizes if they played just one more time, knowing they wouldn’t win. That’s why Robert made so much money. Gambling is illegal, Steve said. I think he preferred to play it straight. Or maybe he didn’t have the nerve to try it himself.

Lunch reminded me of nothing so much as an episode of “Lives of the Cowboys” on Prairie Home Companion. Despite his Michigan origin, Robert had a slow Texas drawl that made him a dead ringer for Lefty, talking about going into town to get him a beer or find him some company. Robert had cooked the dinner over an open fire, stewed chicken with tinned pineapple, baked potatoes, and vegetables and beans out of a can. Conrad had paid for the chicken, and Steve had driven Robert to town to pick it up. I got to be the guest and do nothing at all in return for my meal. They joked about themselves as “three eligible bachelors,” and seemed to think I expected more refined company. We all commended Robert’s cooking, to which he responded “well, he-e-e-ll, ah coulda dun much better in a kitchen.” I told him he had to do all the cooking from now on, and they laughed. They told dirty jokes, some of which were funny. Conrad told Robert he should get himself a real job, or open a barbecued chicken concession to sell to the ATVers. Robert noticed that I didn’t eat the pineapple, and said I wouldn’t like to share pizza with him. Whereupon we all launched into what we liked on our pizza. Conrad didn’t seem convinced that I didn’t want a beer, and kept offering them to me. When I asked for water, he rummaged through his RV kitchen for a glass, finally coming up with a scratched plastic measuring cup from REI that he

apologized for profusely. They talked about other folks at the hot wells, referring to Andrea and her boyfriend as “the kids.” They asked me to join them in the hot tub after eating, but I passed, saying I was going to “get some stuff done.” An hour later Jerry invited me to join him for dinner, but I told him I’d had chicken with the guys. He seemed impressed, said they had never invited him to join them. He chalked it up to me being a single woman.

People here seem to be waiting – for the national park to open, for the carnival season to get underway, for the renaissance festival to begin. I waited too, passed the day soaking in the pool, chatting, reading a novel, washing laundry, redoing the henna in my hair and letting it drain down the outflow from the pool. It’s nice, for a day. Perhaps if I had nine months of hard work ahead of me, as Steve and Robert do, I’d also be glad to just hang out for the winter, soak in the tub, cook chicken with the guys, and tell dirty jokes.

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