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Tucson Weekly On The Playa

Strange Things Happen On An Expanse Of Desert Outside Willcox.

By Leo Banks

AUGUST 11, 1997:  AT NIGHT, THE lights of nearby Willcox twinkle above a vast expanse of desert here known as the Willcox Playa. The lights, the stillness, the absolute silence can capture the soul. It seems a place of endless peace.

Don't be fooled. This 50-square-mile patch of sand 70 miles east of Tucson is an eerie no-man's land where people see mirages, blinding dust storms can rise up in an instant, and summer temperatures can hover around 135 degrees.

Legends about the Playa abound. In coffee shops of Willcox's main street, the locals spin tales of quicksand pits that swallow men and airplanes. But the danger and mystery don't keep people away, they attract them.

Retired Willcox schoolteacher Joe Duhon has had several close encounters with the Playa, but he keeps going back.

Seven years ago, after a hard rain left 12 inches of standing water, Duhon hauled out his catamaran, rigged its 30-foot mast and set out to sail the desert.

"I went as fast as that sucker would go," says Duhon, who estimates he reached 18 m.p.h. He went out about a mile, but turned back when he got the jitters thinking about quicksand. He still shudders at the memory.

"The night before I did it, I was so scared I couldn't sleep," says Duhon, who once stumbled on the wreckage of a military plane there. "I had all kinds of dreams, like having to be hauled out of there by helicopter. But I'm the only person to ever sail the Playa."

Duhon enjoys speeding across the hard-packed sand on his dirt bike, almost challenging the dry lake to best him. Once it nearly obliged. The surface was wet and the bike began to sink.

"I didn't think I was going to get out," he says. Duhon walked the bike for about a mile before finding a stick to scrape the glue-like muck from its wheels.

Formed by the runoff from nearby mountains, the Playa, also called the Willcox Dry Lake, is what remains of several lakes that existed in the Sulfur Springs Valley millions of years ago, according to Anne Woolsey, director of the Amerind Foundation, a nonprofit archaeological institute in Dragoon, Arizona.

Woolsey says the last time the lake was full of water was about 4,500 years ago. The water drew Indians, and archaeological digs at its edges have unearthed evidence of numerous camp sites, stone tools, and bones of Ice Age animals the Indians hunted.

Today, the Playa is a table-top of sand that cracks beneath the desert sun and floods after monsoon rains. It's so flat that the elevation across the entire plane doesn't vary more than a foot from 4,136 feet.

Astronauts and cosmonauts looking from outer space are said to use the Playa, barren as a distant planet, as a landmark. It is hostile to wildlife, but rabbits, coyotes, huge beetles, swarming wasps and an occasional mountain lion are seen there.

On the Playa, the bizarre is ordinary. After World War II, the military used the site as a practice bombing range. But vibration from explosions cracked the walls of the buildings in Willcox.

State Sen. Gus Arzberger, who grew up at Kansas Settlement on the Playa's edge, was working at an auto dealership when a bomb shattered its plate glass window.

Complaints ended the bombing, but the military kept using it as a gunnery range. Low-flying planes strafed targets with .50-caliber machine guns. But Arzberger says that practice also ended when ricocheting bullets killed cows three miles away.

Unexploded bombs were found there as late as the 1960s, and .50-caliber slugs still litter its surface. After a rain, the tips of the big bullets pop through the sand, rippling the landscape with fingers of lead.

Most stunning, though, are the Playa's endless mirages. Everyone swears by them--buildings rising from the shimmering horizon, trucks speeding along upside down, groups of people dancing.

Pete Cowgill, former outdoor writer for The Arizona Daily Star, once saw a Southern Pacific train chugging across the Playa. As he watched, the engine disappeared into the earth. The next car followed it, then the next, and the next.

"One by one, about a hundred cars flat disappeared," says Cowgill. "It was the most fascinating non-sight I ever saw."

In his years on the beat, Cowgill earned a reputation for fearlessness. No place in Arizona's vast outback could best him, except the Playa.

One night he tried to hike it. He planned to walk for four miles, sit and look at the stars. But after a short time his mind began playing tricks on him.

"I had a vision of being swallowed up into the bowels of the earth," says Cowgill. "I knew it was silly, but it scared me. I just turned and ran off the damn thing." He has no plans to return.

But Duhon isn't finished with the Playa. He wants to go back at night, alone, to meditate.

"When I'm there I feel like I'm being cleansed," he says. "I try to be scientific about things, but something goes on inside me when I'm out there. I can't explain it. It's almost mystical."

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