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The Day They Invented Dry Ice

I’m glad the spring thaw has ended. The sound of ice breaking up on the Middle Fork of the Hassayampa River kept me awake for several nights.

It was dry ice, of course, since the Hassayampa is a dry river. Dry ice was invented here, you know.

We’ve had a few chilly, rainy days lately. One woman stood on the steps of the post office and declared, “I can’t wait for summer to get here.” In Medieval times, she’d have been stoned. Maybe she was.

But the spring thaw was followed immediately by three days of 90-degree-plus temperatures, an ominous harbinger of the heat to come in a couple of months. Then the heat backed off.

One thing about spring in Arizona is that today’s weather never gives you a clue about tomorrow’s weather; it is good only for forecasting the past. Spring here starts at least a month before it shows up on the calendar in the East, and it’s always unpredictable.

Desert wildflowers are blooming on the roadsides. Saguaros are getting fuzzy white halos, like old men, or little babies. They’re preparing to bloom in May. Before they bloom, we’ll see the paloverde tree and the prickly pear cactus light up the desert–some of the more pleasant manifestations of Crazy Season.

So far, we’ve seen only a few capricious symptoms of what Arizona weather can be like.

A once-famous writer, Ross Santee, noted that Arizona storms begin and end with such sharp edges that a cowboy can shoot his cuffs and wash his hands in the rain without getting his hat wet. This is true. I have actually seen rain stop at the fence line between two ranches. Once I saw a New Mexico downpour stop at the Arizona border, west of which the rangeland was sere and the cattle were hides full of rattling bones.

I identify with the northern Arizona rancher who prayed, “Lord, we sure do need some rain. But if you don’t let it rain on our range, please don’t let it rain over there on Babbitt’s place.”

Wednesday before last, the skies north of Wickenburg were as black as I’ve ever seen them during daylight. I hurried home, figuring we were going to have a gulley-washing rain, a real frog strangler.

I quickly secured things on our patio, on the south side of the house, where I had been planting spring flowers in pots.

Fortunately, I was able to find miniature snapdragons; if I plant the regular kind, they grow nine feet tall. Tall snapdragons shade the pricklini bush, and the fruit won’t set. (The pricklinni is a cross between a prickly pear and a zucchini, and the elongated fruit is both delicious and spineless.)

Thunder and lightning were coming close. There was, indeed, a heavy storm. But it stopped at the ridgeline of our house–a downpour to the north, water running in the streets, jackrabbitts and javelina looking for higher ground..

On the south side of the house, it rained only a few drops, and the sun was beating down. My mother used to say that if it rained while the sun was shining, the devil was beating his wife. Dad used to say there was probably a good reason for that.

One phenomenon we haven’t experienced yet is the chilly spring wind which sometimes whips through Wickenburg–the kind that was blowing the day they invented dry ice. As you know, dry ice is simply frozen carbon dioxide–the gas that people and animals expel with their breath, and the stuff released into the air by decomposing vegetable and animal matter.

On the day in question, there was more carbon dioxide than usual in the air over Wickenburg. President William McKinley was speaking to his fellow Republicans in Phoenix, and anyone else who would listen.

The air, being exceedingly dry, quickly absorbed all the caron dioxide being expelled from the lungs of jubilant Republicans and disgruntled Democrats. The supply of carbon dioxide was enhanced by the rotten vegetables with which a group of unruly young men had planned to pelt the president and other dignitaries.

The CO2 was carried to Wickenburg on a cold, dry wind that was gusting around 78 miles an hour. The wind pushed the daily mixed train from Phoenix to Wickenburg so vigorously that it arrived in Morristown four minutes before it left Peoria.

Many of you know that Wickenburg has a “jail tree,” an ancient, gnarled mesquite. Legend has it that in the 1860 and early ’70s, when Wickenburg lacked a jail, miscreants were chained to the tree until they sobered up, or went to trial.

The jail tree was much larger in 1900, the day the day Jiggs Sutton and Hannah Coldheart invented dry ice.

Jiggs, a huge miner, was chained to the tree because he had gone on a drunken rampage the night before; it had taken nine men and three horses to get him down and chain him to the tree. He awakened with a raging thirst.

Hannah ran the Glory Hole Saloon right around the corner from the jail tree.. Among the many descriptive sayings that come to us from the Old West is “Cold as the heart of a hooker,” or some variation thereof.

Hannah had not plied that trade for many years, if at all. Still, the prospectors and hardrock miners around Wickenburg said that Hannah made Lizzie Borden look like Joan of Arc. Next to Hannah, the cold-eyed bankers of New York were described as philanthropists on the order of Andrew Carnegie.

Jiggs Sutton was so thirsty for whiskey that he pulled up the jail tree by the roots–it took him two tries–and carried it to the door of the Glory Hole.

He pushed the door open and roared at Hannah, “Give me a drink, woman.”

“Ya got any money?”

“No, but I’ll pay you later…Please, old woman.”

Air laden with carbon dioxide was whistling in around Jiggs as he stood in the door.

Hannah’s cold look froze the CO2, sending it rattling along the floor and against the walls of the saloon in the form of steaming ice cubes.

Thus was dry ice born, right here in Wickenburg.

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