If there's one lesson that's made it into my souvenir bag after countless weekends on the road, it's that you can't believe every circle on your map. Outdated tips, well-intentioned e-mails and barely comprehensible posts from apparently misguided Internet forum members all result in hours lost along featureless back roads.
A huge, crane-hoisted wind chime that blew over years ago, a reportedly "gigantic" can of soup that turned out to be smaller than I am and an "abandoned military museum" that, in the end, I concluded was built in Brigadoon, are all things I've spent fruitless miles searching for, peering over my steering wheel in frustration. I've mastered the expression of "disappointedly befuddled defeat."
But sometimes there's just no way to call ahead. Ghost towns don't have chambers of commerce. Field research is often the only option. Besides, when your source is a well-respected book, you give the attraction the benefit of the doubt.
Such was the case with the elusive giant cactus with 47 arms, which I decided to track down in November 2005 during one of my Weird Arizona research trips. I hadn't originally planned to head as far west as Quartzsite, but how could I pass this up? It's a cactus. A giant cactus. With 47 arms.
I mean, I've seen cactuses before. Plenty of them. But no matter how many saguaros I see, I still think they're pretty cool. They are the definitive cartoon cactus. A great big saguaro, arms pointed skyward, says to me, "You are now in the desert. Beware false train tunnels and signs reading 'Free Bird Seed.'" So when the opportunity crops up to see a succulent with almost four dozen arms, I'm there.
Besides, how hard could it be to find a cactus in the desert? Sure, the question seems silly now, but I had the name of a road, I had directions to it, I had a specific driving distance, and even if I missed the plant itself, I had the assurance there was a green sign at the site sporting an arrow and the very idiot-proof phrase "Giant 47 Arm Cactus."
So, up Dome Rock Road I went, three miles like I was told. Then four miles. Then five. I must've missed it. Try again.
Three miles, four miles, five miles, six. OK, maybe it's three miles from the other end.
Still nothing. Maybe there's a misprint. I'll turn up Cholla Road. Cholla is a type of cactus. Maybe it's up there.
I know, I'll ask one of the locals. Where are the locals? There's only one trailer and it doesn't look friendly. No one knows I'm out here. I don't think my scream would travel very far. Maybe I'll just look again.
I tried looking on the left side. I tried looking on the right side. I gave up on the sign, which I concluded must have been stolen. I crossed to the north side of the highway and ended up on government mining claims. I returned to the original three-mile mark and ventured off into a dry creek bed. Nothing.
There was no more time. I donned my expression of defeat and headed back to Phoenix. How I could miss a mutant cactus with nearly as many arms as six octopi, I couldn't imagine.
As it turned out, there is no Giant 47-Arm Cactus. At least not anymore. A more liberal Internet search upon my return revealed a page I had previously missed, which declared the cactus dead in 2003. There was even a picture. It was brown, withered and collapsing. If it looked even that good more than two years later, I still wouldn't have recognized it. It resembled a chewed-up Slim Jim. Shame, really.
Oh well, someone will find one with 48 arms eventually, anyway.