By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/21/2020
Posted: 12/18/2010
Topics/Keywords: #Tonopah #HotSpring #Arizona Page Views: 1564
Some friends and I test the gay-friendliness of a small Arizona town.

This was the last opportunity for a weekend getaway to my favorite winter camping spot, the El Dorado Hot Spring in Tonopah, Arizona. And it coincided with a visit from an online friend, Brett, who had come into town to visit family. We had never met in person (the online acronym is "IRL", which stands for "In Real Life") but were already friends and he was anxious to go camping. Our new housemate, Jason, was eager to go. And of course Michael was invited, but he felt he had to stay home to manage the creation of our Christmas celebration, just a week away. So, for a fourth person, I invited a friend of a friend, Jeffrey. Jeffrey wanted to become a model; and I had promised him I would take some artsy model photographs he could use to start a portfolio. Camping on the desert would provide plenty of scenic backdrops, which has always been my portrait style.

So Jason and I set out from the house (it was nice to have help packing the Expedition) and picked up Jeffrey, and then Brett, at their respective addresses in central Phoenix, then continued our way westward.

Along the way, was a place I've been wanting to visit for a couple of years. It's some sort of artifact in the White Tank Mountains west of Phoenix (but not as far as Tonopah). It's north of the community of Verrado, and can be seen from the highway. It looks like a road or maybe a canal going right up the side of the mountain.

What is this artifact in the White Tank Mountains?

Verrado is actually a development in the town of Buckeye. It's fairly new, but has been built to look old, complete with a quaint "downtown". But we ignored the development and followed the roads as close to the White Tanks as we could get. Once it was clear we would not be able to actually drive to the anomaly, I parked the car so I could take Jeffrey's model photos, as well as one of Brett, Jeffrey's date.

Jeffrey Proctor, model.

We then proceeded back to I-10 and west to Tonopah, as Brett and Jeffrey got to know each other, each apparently surprised to find the other reasonable despite a seeming conflict of religions: One Christian, the other Pagan. Another topic of conversation was that, between the four of us, we had gone to school in consecutive decades: Me in the 1960's; Brett, the 1970's; Jason, the 1980's, and Jeffrey, the 1990's.

At the spring, I had made reservations for a campsite large enough to accommodate two tents, with unlimited soaking in Desert Pete (the semi-private) area, and an hour in Desert View, a private area that looks over the Sonoran Desert toward Saddle Mountain. No cameras are allowed in Desert Pete; so I figured the time in Desert View would allow me to take more modeling photos.

Jeffrey Proctor, model, at El Doroado Hot Spring.

But once the pictures were taken we jumped into the soaking pool to enjoy the warm mineral waters of Tonopah. (When I say "jumped" I mean that literally for myself, as I had to set the timer on the camera to a 10-second delay so I could join the group.

Jason, Paul, Jeffrey and Brett in hot water.

After our initial soak, we hung around our camp and chatted until we decided it was time for dinner. Setting up camp had been fun, as Jeffrey had never, ever been camping and Brett didn't realize he'd be sleeping in comfort on a thick air mattress with pillows and comforters in addition to the extra sleeping bags I brought along.

Jason, Paul, Brett and Jeffrey relaxing in camp.

Finally, the sun set over Saddle Mountain, and we set out to go for dinner.

Sunset over Saddle Mountain.

On previous trips to Tonopah, I've always eaten at Tonopah Joe's, which is within walking distance from the hot spring. But as we had checked in, the attendant mentioned another choice: The Tin Top Bar & Grill, which we were told had a "wide selection" of beers on tap. That caught both Jason and Brett's attention, so off to the Tin Top we went, arriving just before dark.

The Tin Top looked like it could get a little rowdy, though it was still quiet when we arrived. In fact, a family with a baby in a high chair was among the diners. We took seats in a polished wooden booth and a nice lady came to take our drink orders, returning shortly with pitchers of beer and a Diet Coke for me (I did also have a glass of beer, a type called "Fat Tire" that Jason favors).

Jeffrey, at 26, hadn't spent any significant time outside of Phoenix; and, describing himself as "nellie", was well-acquainted with the bigotry that so many gay guys face—bigotry that can include violence (and had done so in his own home as he was growing up). So, aware that he was in the smallest community he'd ever visited, and knowing the reputation for red-neckedness with which such communities have been painted by the media, Jeffrey voiced concern. "I hope we don't get beat up when we leave here," he said.

"That's just what I was thinking!" Brett agreed with a nervous laugh.

Jason and I have been lucky enough to not have had such experiences. Then again, on the imaginary scale of "nellie" to "butch", Jason and I both register close to the "butch" end—that is, people don't tend to guess we're gay unless they spot us actually holding hands with another guy.

But the waitress was as nice as could be to us; the food came quickly and was excellent. (Jason and I split a mushroom burger, since we are both trying to lose weight.) And then it came time to go, by which time the crowd had begun to feature more men in cowboy hats and boots and women in low-cut blouses with intentionally-torn sleeves. Jeffrey and Brett both appeared to be a little nervous, and clearly intent on getting safely into the Expedition.

So they nearly jumped out of their skins when a woman, accompanied by another woman and a tall, mustachioed, Stetson-topped man walked straight at us, clearly intent on saying something.

Brett and Jeffrey stiffened, and even I experienced an increase in heart rate. I didn't think we were about to be beaten up by two women and a man—but they wanted something and I had no idea what it was.

The younger woman of the two seemed a little tipsy, but looked into the center of our group so as to include all of us and said, "Would any of you like to buy a raffle ticket? It's only ten dollars, and it's to benefit a woman who wants to adopt a child and has just found out it will cost more than she anticipated. And it's a terrific prize your wives or girlfriends will just love…"

I shook my head and smiled. "Actually, we're all fresh out of girlfriends and wives at the moment."

She stared at us with incomprehension. "Well," she said, attempting to recover, "when you get girlfriends—"

Jeffrey interrupted, "For my part, I don't actually like girls and don't ever expect to have a girlfriend." When that didn't seem to register, he added, "I'll be happy if I can find a boyfriend."

It's been said that effeminate gay guys are the bravest of us all, in that they have to face their days unable to hide behind a mask of masculinity and must contend with constant homophobia with no weapons but their own strength and grace if they are to survive.

Raffle Lady overcame her stupefaction and returned to her point. "I don't care if you're gay or straight," she said. "This is a good woman who will make a wonderful mother if she can only adopt this baby…"

"How much more money does this woman need?" I asked.

"A few thousand dollars," Raffle Lady admitted. "But we've made a lot of progress in just a few days. And you know, little steps add up if you take a lot of them. It's when good people stop moving that nothing good happens."

I don't usually carry cash with me, and I don't usually give it to strangers with no more to recommend them but a good story. However, I sensed that these people were on the up-and-up, and as it happened, I did have a ten dollar bill. So I handed it over. Brett and Jason each offered the only dollar they happened to have on them, and I urged the woman to skip the raffle and just pass the cash directly to where it was needed.

Her female companion gave me a big hug, and hugged Jason and told him she was very sensitive to "energy" and that he had the brightest aura she'd ever seen. Knowing I am into metaphysics, Jason made her repeat this to me.

Meanwhile, Cowboy was talking to Brett about Raffle Lady and how she rescues condemned dogs and cats and how, whenever she finds an injustice, she does her best to rectify it. "She doesn't even know the woman," he said, marveling. "It's a friend of a friend. But when she found out the woman needed more money to complete the adoption process, why, she up and made this raffle thing happen on her own, got the prize donated and has been selling tickets right and left. All for a stranger who needs help!"

"She certainly doesn't seem to have a problem with gays," Brett ventured.

"Oh, poof," the man replied. "Life's too short to worry about what other people do in bed, Now, when I was younger, that sort of thing used to bother me. But not any more. Live and let live, I say."

By this time Energy Lady was hugging Jeffrey, who at six-foot-seven had to bend way over to encompass her with his arms. She whispered into his ear, and Raffle Lady asked me, "What's she doing now? Don't tell me she's trying to give him lessons in how to be gay!"

I laughed. "Oh, honey," I said in my best you-go-girl tone, "Jeffrey doesn't need any lessons in that!"

So, after a few minutes of jovial conversation we left our new friends, the Raffle People, at the Tin Top, piled into the Expedition and headed back to the hot spring.

"Wow, that was a nice surprise," said Brett.

"Not at all what I expected," Jeffrey agreed.

I couldn't resist preaching. "Remember, the media doesn't necessary report the truth. Their job is to create fear and distrust. My personal experience, traveling all over the country, is that there aren't that many bigots really, and most of them are afraid to act out their bigotry in public."

"I don't know if any of you are interested, or have been following it," Brett said suddenly, staring at his cell phone. "But 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' was just repealed by the Senate."

There was a moment of stunned silence.

Seventeen years of government-supported bigotry had just come to an end.

Big steps. Little steps.

As long as we keep stepping forward, we make progress.