The city limit sign lists the population of Blythe as over 21,000. My wife finds this hard to believe, and I remind her that the count includes the inmates of Ironwood and Chuckawalla Valley state prisons, some 20 miles outside town in the desert sands, amidst the rattlesnakes and scorpions.
When we pass the “do not pick up hitchhikers” sign, a plea to avoid inadvertently abetting prison escapees, my wife confesses that she always wanted to stop and take a photo of me sticking out my thumb in front of the sign.
The weird feeling in the pit of my stomach when we exit Interstate 10 at Lovekin Boulevard betrays my discomfort at even being here. I don’t belong here anymore. I’m not sure whether this is more return of the prodigal or return to the scene of the crime.
For three years and three months, I lived and worked in this remote outpost on the Colorado River, managing a branch of the county court located 90 miles across the desert from anything approaching civilization. We stuck it out by spending weekends in Phoenix or in the Coachella Valley or in Nevada. Those years were particularly hard on my wife, who wasn’t working and was a twelve hour drive away from her family. Even though we were in the middle of nowhere, at least I was employed and was able to pay the bills. Until suddenly I wasn’t, caught in a spate of layoffs resulting from the court’s budget shortfall.
There was one restaurant in town that we particularly enjoyed back then, and we stopped to have lunch and reminisce.
“How long have we been gone?” asked my wife as we munched on chips and salsa.
I had to go back and count. “It was six years at the end of September,” I finally announced.
We saw no one we knew in the restaurant, but the waitress said she remembered us. Indeed, nothing had changed. Same line of customers waiting for tables at lunchtime, same amazing food, same servers.
Blythe is one of those places where time stands still. When we arrived in 2010, the movie theater was still open. My wife attended a matinee the first month we lived in town. And then the theater promptly went out of business. Ten years later, the movie theater sign still stands, advertising the arcade and ice cream parlor that once were inside this air conditioned oasis in the desert. On the marquis by the road, instead of announcing the movie currently being shown, the sign still reads “theater available.” After a decade, the space remains empty and unused.
Blythe is such a sad little town. The Foster Freeze is boarded up; more storefronts are now vacant. The cool 60 degree temperature in January hides what residents know all too well, that 100 to 120 degrees is the norm every day for seven months out of the year.
We get back on the freeway and head east over the Colorado River and into Arizona. We take Exit 1 in Ehrenberg, just one mile from Blythe, but in another state where the gasoline at the Flying J truck stop is a dollar a gallon cheaper than it is just across the bridge.
The clocks on our phones jump ahead an hour. We are on Mountain Time now, having finally escaped California.