I wrote this piece a few years ago after a press trip to Arizona. But now, with the President of the U.S.A. wanting to increase their country’s nuclear capabilities, I found myself thinking about what I discovered on that trip and thought I’d share it here.
“Promise me you won’t write about this crazy commune,” Erica Rich, manager of Arizona’s Office of Tourism taps her maroon-manicured nails on the website displayed on her phone.
“Please. Say you won’t go…”
A business card lies between her and Thomas Spanhel from Germany’s Sudwest Presse newspaper. Spanhel received the card, and an invitation to visit the commune, from a local pedicab driver. But Spanhel, myself, and four other writers are on a precision-controlled press trip hosted by Arizona Tourism. There is no time for deviations from the itinerary.
Admittedly, travel writers have a hard time drumming up sympathy as the entire occupation reads like one of those annoying pop-up ads:
Travel the World!
Nowhere do they mention that generally the pay is lousy, and that, on trips like this, you can forget having your own ideas and any time to yourself.
Spanhel slips the business card back to his side of the table. We’re in the funky gallery-laden town of Tubac, just south of Tucson. They’ve rolled out the proverbial carpet to honour our “International Press Visit”, including free pedicab rides. The driver explained that he lived, along with about 80 other people, in an intentional community and said they loved visitors.
Admittedly, as we’d now seen, he’d failed to mention that they called themselves Jesusonians and believed in the sacred Book of Urantia.
We turn back to Rich and smile.
She’s right. The website is freaky.
But, it represents the first unscripted opportunity to break from the carefully presented Arizona we’ve seen so far. Spanhel calls the farm, “If someone picks us up at 6:30 a.m. and returns us by 8:30, we can come.”
For various reasons, including the early departure and the references to Christ Michael, everyone else decides not to go. It’s just Thomas and me.
Standing on the sidewalk at 6:30 a.m., I’m wondering if we should have listened to Rich and the rest of the writers – what exactly do we know about these people?
Two disciples, CipPriAnkhA and Tarenta pull up with big smiles and a small car, driving us a short distance to their sprawling 135-acre ranch. We enter a bright farmhouse.
Aromas of roasting potatoes, frying eggs and hot coffee fill the warm kitchen. We sit with Tarenta at a large table. We’re soon joined by other Jesusonians.
Rich, we find out, has called ahead.
“She sounded anxious, like she thought we’d kidnap you.” Tarenta grins.
I smile back, “She figured you’d make us drink the purple Kool-aid,” I joke, sipping from my mug.
“It’s in your coffee,” deadpans the cowboy named Kamon.
Parts of his fingers are missing, melted, he explains, from his contact with Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam. “I came back with so many questions. How could we do these things to each other?”
The people appear open and laugh easily. Yes, they believe Gabriel of Urantia and his partner Niann Emerson Chase are their spiritual leaders.” But,” the denim-clad Kamon says, “it’s not blind following. We use our intelligence.”
We tour the farm, meeting older men fixing the communal cars and one cool dude fixing the shared bikes. Tweens walk arm-in-arm past white-fenced pens of goats, llamas and sprawling organic gardens.
The first and second assistant vicegerents deliver us back – on time – to our waiting bus. Rich and the rest of the group is waiting.
Thomas and I talk, fascinated by what we’ve seen.
We pull up on target for what we should be writing about.
“Welcome to the Titan Missile Museum,” says our guide Chuck Penson. “This is the last of the 54 decommissioned nuclear warheads that were on 24-hour active alert throughout the Cold War. Each missile was equipped with a nine-megaton thermonuclear warhead, or nine million tones of TNT.”
“If you can imagine a freight train stuffed full of dynamite, it would be 1200 miles long and capable of reaching its target – more than half a world away – in less than 30 minutes. It could flatten an area of 900 square miles.”
His face is passive as he adds, “This peace policy was called MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction.”
Penson then takes a long breath as the desert wind whips dust through our now-silenced group, “Currently, there are 450 much more advanced missiles positioned in the U.S. – each with triple the warhead capability of these sites – and the ability to reach any target in the world in 15 minutes.”
I realize I’ve stopped listening.
I stare past the chain link fence and across the vast desert.
It’s hard to believe we’re only an hour away from that lovely ranch and the ruined hands of a Jesusonian named Kamon.