He wore olive drab work clothes with the sleeves rolled down, and a fedora hat was pulled low. From what little of him was showing, I couldn’t guess if he was 75, or 105.
He climbed onto the counter stool next to me at the coffee shop and we began an awkward conversation. He said his name was Smokey.
He said, “You’re the official state liarof Arizona.”
“Yep,” I said. I noticed that he had smoke-grey eyes, and although he mostly stared straight ahead, he gave the impression of always looking out behind him.
He said, “I read your stuff on the Internet. When are you going to tell about Sunburnt Maggie?”
“I think they call her Suntanned Maggie,” I said. “Who’d believe a story about a mermaid in the desert?”
“You been writing some mighty fishy stuff lately,” Smokey said, adding cream and sugar to his coffee. “I seen Maggie the other day.”
“Out there where the CAP canal crosses the Hassayampa River. She was splashing around in the canal. She was wearing purple sunglasses she’d found somewhere.”
The Central Arizona Project aqueduct carries water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson. I wondered how Maggie could get through the pumping station where the water comes out of the river above Parker, but when you start wondering about mermaids, a lot of other questions come before that one.
“How does she look?” I asked.
“Beautiful as ever,” Smokey said. “Long brown hair, not a trace of grey. Pretty face, and those fine, naked bossoms.”
“You’d seen Maggie before?”
“Yep. One time down on Willcox Playa. We were hauling ore in barges from the mine at Dos Cabezas over to the Southern Pacific Railroad. Maggie came alongside and taunted us.”
“Wait a minute. Willcox Playa is a dry lake, an old inland sea. The only water there is a big mirage. How could you float ore barges on a mirage?”
“Well, the barges were mirages too,” Smokey said with a straight face. Straight seemed to be the only face he had.
A lot of people have told me of seeing Maggie. I thought I spotted her one day just above Yuma, but it turned out to be a party girl from San Diego who was tubing topless.
I guess the closest I’ve been to the mermaid is the statue of Maggie in downtown Blythe, California.
Maggie has been hanging out in the Colorado River and its tributaries for more than 150 years, about as long as the river has been the boundary between Arizona and California. Scholars speculate that she escaped detection by Charles Darwin, leaving the Galapagos Islands about the time he got there, and swimming up the west coast of the Americas to the gulf of California.
Steamboats navigated the shallow, muddy Colorado river from 1852 until 1916, hauling people and goods from the gulf up to the army posts and mining towns along the river.
It wasn’t easy. J. Ross Browne, a magazine writer who visited the area in 1856, wrote that the river “could scarcely fall any lower without going entirely through its own bottom.”
Browne continued, “A more capricious river does not exist. Formerly it ran through the desert to the north-west, but for some reason or another, it changed its course, and now it runs about three feet above the level of the desert.
“As a navigable stream it possess some advantages during the dry season; boats can seldom sink in it; and for the matter of channels, it has an unusual variety. The main channel shifts so often that the most skilful pilot always knows where it is not to be found by pursuing the course of his last trip.”
What pilots did not need to have added to this difficult mix was a mischievious mermaid. But there she was, wriggling around in the channel just when navigation was most tricky.
With water that shallow, it was easy to see how Maggie was constructed–the top part a lovely woman, the bottom part a big fish.
One grizzled captain used to mutter, “Holy mackerel.” A deck hand would say, “Cap’n, I believe she’s a bass.” The captain would say, “You keep carping about that.”
Maggie was not mean, like the sirens who lured Greek sailors to their death, or the Lorolei who was so deadly to German boatmen. Maggie was a party mermaid. She’d gesture and point, misdirecting pilots toward sand bars. Then, at the last moment, she’d giggle and wave them off.
When children fell off the river boats, she’d toss them back.
She did cause a couple of wrecks, and one divorce. In a land where women were few, men went to sleep at night dreaming confused fantasies about sweet Maggie.
Occasionally, a woman passenger rode one of the steamers upriver. When an eastern lady was on board, Maggie liked to pop up, hang her elbows over the gunnels, and scandalize the woman with her bare chest. Then she’d spit a mouthful of water at the passenger and disappear into the river.
In little towns along the river, preachers preached sermons against Maggie and her sinful nakedness.
However, Maggie is revered in the small California town of Blythe, where Interstate 10 crosses the river. A statue of a mermaid, sitting on a rock and holding an open parasol, dominates a downtown park.
An English developer, Thomas Blythe, first came to this area in the 1870s with plans to irrigate the desert on the west side of the river.
Unfortunately, the river had changed its course, cutting a new channel west of Blythe. So the town was in Arizona and Blythe’s prospective farming empire was in California.
In the last weeks of 1905 and the first weeks of 1906, heavy rains drenched the West. The Colorado went on a rampage. South of Yuma, the river broke out of its banks and flowed into the bed of an ancient sea in California, known today as the Salton Sea.
The raging river was threatening to wash away the hamlet of Blythe. Maggie the mermaid had grown fond of teasing the people there, and she didn’t want to see them drown.
Upriver, Maggie found a freight barge tied up to a grove of salt cedars along the bank. She untied all the lines and let the barge float down to Blythe.
She lodged the barge against the shore in just such a way that it became a breakwater, protecting the town. Furthermore, it diverted the river from its newer western channel back to the old channel east of Blythe.
Come daylight the next morning, Blythe was back in California. If you look at the rich farmland
along the California shore today, you’ll see what a good thing that was.
The residents of Blythe wakened that morning to find themselves citizens of California. As Thomas Blythe said, “Thank God. I couldn’t have stood another of those Arizona summers.”