The concrete mixer is my friend. The concrete mixer is my protector. I am one with the concrete mixer.
That’s how it was Tuesday afternoon when I was stuck behind a column of five combines doing about 10 mph on state Route 87 south of Coolidge.
I grew up and learned to drive in the East Valley, so for the five years I worked for a Pinal County newspaper I always hated getting stuck behind a slow vehicle on those two-lane roads I had to use to get from Casa Grande to anywhere other than Eloy, where I almost never needed or wanted to go.
Passing in the oncoming-traffic lane is something I never take lightly, but this time I could calmly weave past the farming machines in the shelter of this mixer, deliverer of the “McMega drivethrough” culture most of Pinal County doesn’t want to see replicated around them, according to a study rolled out that day in Casa Grande by the Morrison Institute in front of some 300 people.
A few miles back I’d passed the Westcor/Pederson mall being built at Interstate 10 and Florence Boulevard, with its Target-to-be up front. Back when gas was $1 a gallon, I loved — no, needed — to have dozens of “different” Targets, Wal-Marts and Borderses I could drive to, anonymous destinations where I could still know my way around and chew up my excessive spare time.
So Casa Grande was truly the “big house” for me, with one of everything if it had anything, plus small, endearing independent places that didn’t offer the variety or anonymity I’d gotten used to. I was so not cut out for this that I commuted from Tucson or Phoenix for half the time I worked there.
I started working at the Tribune two weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, and assumed the economic downturn would hit hardest in places such as Casa Grande and that land of imaginary lines known as Johnson Ranch, where development was just beginning to take off.
Today, that sounds idiotic. Pinal County, which had fewer people than Scottsdale in the 2000 census, has grown by two-thirds to just less than 300,000, according to the Morrison report.
That report is called “The Future at Pinal,” a very deliberate word choice about a desire to create unique destinations before the area is completely subsumed by people like me. But that may be difficult to do for desert dwellers who spend too much time in the car, as I did that day and as about half of the new Pinal does every day.
In the late afternoon sun, I started to get the still-rural desert along Ellsworth south of Germann in Queen Creek confused with the fields surrounding Coolidge, and the Tribune’s big red brick building on a downtown street in Mesa confused with the little red brick building in downtown Casa Grande I used to work in.