According to all the better guidebooks, the ones that got updated annually and accepted a limited number of what were called “sponsored chapters,” the Painted Cave of Slippery Rock was one of three attractions no self-respecting tourist traveling through the American Southwest could afford to miss. The other two were the Hoover Dam and The Blood Obelisk, a granite memorial in Arizona commemorating the massacre of several thousand local residents (“Indians” was how the less enlightened touts described them) at the hands of rifle-toting soldiers under the command of General C. Hawthorne McLelland, the infamous “Butcher of Boise,” head of the rabid 2nd Regiment, composed mainly of illiterate miners and Canadian mercenaries posing as undocumented potato farmers. The Dam and the Dick, as the attractions were known in the travel industry, were standard park-and-click stops on every tour bus company’s itinerary.
Smart operators knew that if you were going to fill your coach with camera-toting retirees and already-regretting-it newlyweds too poor to afford a proper honeymoon, you had to include the Dam and the Dick on your schedule. It was standard procedure for the tourist keen on checking off landmarks from his “Things I Must See!” list: You went to Paris, you saw the Eiffel Tower and the cathedral of Notre Dame (no matter how many annoying mimes and Senegalese postcard vendors you had to fight off). You came to the otherwise barren and lifeless precincts of the American frontier, you saw the Important Sites, historical memorials chief among them
Knowing the competition could blithely poach a price-conscious ticket purchaser by offering the slightest point of difference – “We show you more!” — no tour organizer was brave or stupid enough to leave the Dam and the Dick off his schedule.
The Painted Cave was a different story. It had only been discovered in the year 2000 – “The Archaeological Find of the Millenium,” said the billboards promiscuously scattered alongside Interstate 10, the paved artery that linked Arizona with the Land of Enchantment and points beyond. In a slightly smaller font, the signs exhorted visitors to “Be Among the First to See What Everyone Is Talking About!” The Painted Cave’s very newness was intimidating, mildly frightening. It was something that needed explaining, like the latest dance step. Most tour operators were initially loath to disrupt their Dam and Dick combo for fear of alienating their clientele. “You don’t serve people sushi in a pizza restaurant,” one reluctant coach owner told the Arizona Republic.
Peter Harvey, the founder and CEO of Harvey’s Southwest, the most important bus line in the region and famous for the hand-made snow-cones dispensed on-board, told the newspaper that in his 34 years of showing off this great land of ours, he had learned one thing: You give the customer what he wants – and you don’t presume to tell him what that might be. “Don’t you worry,” Mr. Harvey told the paper, “he’ll tell you!”
The proprietor of Arizona’s largest bus tour company seemed to make a lot of sense, the good old fashioned common kind that people of a certain age could see melting away in the hands of a younger generation, and thousands of readers from Prescott to Tuscon found themselves nodding along in silent agreement as they digested the story, displayed above the fold on page two of the business section (headline: New Tour Stop Nixed By Bus Cos.) Mr. Harvey might have won even more converts had he not made the unfortunate choice to use the word “redskins” while enumerating the Dick’s myriad photographic charms.
What Mr. Harvey declined to mention in his interview was that he and most of his colleagues in the travel industry were hesitant to include the Painted Cave of Slippery Rock on their standard itinerary because the proprietors of the Painted Cave of Slippery Rock had initially refused to pay “incentive bonuses” to the fine companies that transported so many eager admission ticket buyers (souvenir shoppers) to the Painted Cave’s gift shop.
Just as taxi drivers in Las Vegas could expect a little something from the brothel owners in Pahrump every time their cab transported a randy conventioneer to Nye County’s legal whorehouses, the barons of the bus trade had come to expect a gesture of appreciation, usually in the form of United States currency or a substantial gift certificate to Chili’s, every time they unloaded a shipment of consumers at a roadside attraction. Five dollars per head was the going rate. A savvy retailer could expect to sell at least three times that amount in tee-shirts and key chains alone.
In 2002, when the seemingly nice fellow from the Painted Cave first called the Harvey Company to inquire about being added to the tour itinerary, Peter “Little Pete” Harvey, Jr. fielded the call. So things got off to a poor start. Little Pete lacked much of his old man’s Western gentlemanliness, the stolid taciturnity that reminded strangers of movie cowboys and heroic cops with a secret tragedy in their past. Dad was courtly. Pete, Jr. was surly.
They looked remarkably similar: high foreheads bisected with a dramatic widow’s peak, and thin, almond-shaped eyes that suggested a vaguely Asian lineage. The family joke, told over one too many plum brandies, was that Peter Harvey’s great-grandpappy, Earl Harvey, had been surreptitiously diddling a Coolie woman while her husband was off building the railroad. Over the years – he was now nearly 40 — Pete, Jr. had acquired a dismissive brusqueness about him, an impatience with people (and life in general) born of having too much given to him. Too many things, too many opportunities, too many directions. The truth, which he couldn’t even tell his wife, Sheila, who enjoyed the idea of being married to a successful businessman, was that he longed to be a photographer, capturing moments of glamour and power for the entertainment magazines to which he and Sheila subscribed. Peter Harvey, Jr. wanted to freeze history, to say to the world, “I was there when something important happened.” Instead, he passed his days “overseeing” Pete Senior’s bus empire, a task that chiefly involved expressing dismay and disbelief at the incompetence of his underlings, all of whom he knew despised him for his unearned wealth.
When he wasn’t reviewing sales figures and driver expense accounts — $11 for a burrito? Stuffed with what? Lobster? – Pete Harvey, Jr. had ample time to stare sullenly at his computer monitor, switching between the HollywoodDirt homepage to free pornography sites that didn’t require a credit card.
Perusing pictures of Oscar-nominated actresses in their fancy ball gowns, with their hair done up just so, made him want to see bare flesh. Complete exposure. Debasement. And when he stared at the frankly gynecological spread shots of disadvantaged Navajo reservation girls on SluttySquaws.com, his dream of becoming a photographer faded gracefully, like a sunset behind a mesa, and at those moments Peter Harvey, Jr. didn’t feel quite so bad about being a rich man’s son.
Still, he didn’t like the tone of the man on the other end of the line. It wasn’t anything he said, nothing you could put your finger on, Pete, Jr. thought. It was subtle, almost hidden, like the scent of perspiration beginning to break through a wall of floral cologne at the end of a long, air-conditioned day.
The man said his name was Douglas Bishop and that he was from Scottsdale – not Phoenix, Little Pete noted, but Scottsdale, where a nicer class of people lived in master-planned community bliss.
“What can I do for you, Doug?” Pete asked, already feeling mildly perturbed to have been taken away from his wild frontier reveries. In fact, he didn’t want to do anything for anyone anymore. He wanted to do things to people – especially caramel-colored Navajo girls who needed the concept of Manifest Destiny pounded into them by an emphatic teacher.
“Well, Mr. Harvey,” the Bishop fellow replied, “it’s more like what I can do for you. For you and your bus company.”
Whenever strangers used the phrase “your bus company,” Little Pete could never be sure if they meant his dad’s company or the family’s company, and this uncertainty gnawed at him like an intestinal parasite.
Pete couldn’t quite place this Bishop’s accent. It certainly wasn’t Western, but it wasn’t Eastern either. Chicago? He couldn’t really tell. And that annoyed him some more.
Douglas Bishop was keen on arranging a meeting where he could bring in some materials, sensationally sharp brochures and such, that would give Harvey’s Southwest a clear idea of what a fine attraction the Painted Cave of Slippery Rock was, and how Harvey’s thousands of patrons would be most grateful to have been introduced to a “new” natural wonder by the biggest tour bus company in all of Arizona.
“Never heard of it,” Little Pete said sharply, lying.
“Right, and that’s why – see I’m proposing I stop in and maybe familiarize you with our Painted Cave. It’s a real winner, Mr. Harvey,” Douglas Bishop said, slightly flustered at Peter Harvey’s abject miserableness, a meanness that contradicted everything he had heard about gentlemanly Pete Harvey, the Grand Old Man of Southwestern Bus Tours. Maybe the legendary entrepreneur was having prostate problems, or erectile dysfunction. How could he have not heard of the Painted Cave? Was he senile?
“Well, Doug,” Pete replied, enjoying the informality to which he was entitled, holding the upper hand and all, “our company has seen a lot of attractions come and go in the past thirty odd years. Me personally, I’ve been associated with the business for close to twenty of those years, and my dad another fifteen, and I tell you what. Reputation is everything. See? You know, anyone can buy a bus and put their name on the side of it. Doesn’t take much, much…” Pete searched vainly for the word. “Much. You know.”
“Right.” Doug understood.
“So. That’s –” Little Pete expelled an audible sigh. “All right – give me an idea of, of what you’ve got.”
“The Painted Cave? It’s, well,” Doug Bishop chuckled softly as he pinched his script between his thumb and forefinger, “it’s a wonderful family attraction.”
“Uh-huh,” Pete said, switching Websites and enlarging a lesbian threesome on his monitor.
Reading quickly, taking great care to observe the punctuation marks on his hand-written cheat sheet, Doug said, “Discovered recently by an outdoorsman and survivalist trekking through the Camelback Mountains north of Phoenix, The Painted Cave of Slippery Rock, named for an ancient boulder that many observers believe resembles a stone waterfall, brings visitors face-to-face with their ancestors. See what life was like when hunter-gatherers roamed the desert many thousands of years ago! See how our native ancestors fought the elements and wild beasts for survival! It’s all there captured for eternity on the cave walls, deep beneath the desert.”
Doug paused and waited for a response. “America Daily named it one of their twelve ‘Notable New Attractions’ last year…And so forth,” he said.
“Uh-huh. Sounds good,” Peter Harvey, Jr. told him in a tone that suggested Douglas Bishop’s new attraction wasn’t really that good at all. Little Pete clicked on a thumbnail of a leggy blond girl inserting her tongue between the shaved (waxed?) labia of a another leggy blond girl. Maybe they were sisters, Pete thought.
“So. Good, Mr. Harvey. I’m glad you like it. I’d be delighted to come on in to your offices at Coyote Point with my partner, my business partner. And we could talk about getting the Painted Cave on your regular tour itinerary,” Doug said hopefully, vaguely aware that the man on the other end of the phone wasn’t fully listening to his excited descriptions of ancient artists depicting the mysteries of their distant world in swirls of primitive ochre.
“Yeah,” Pete said noncommittally. This blond girl – the one on the left, the shorter one – man, she had big nipples. “I missed the part about incentives.”
“Incentives. The, um, the –” damn, you could do a frickin’ cave painting yourself with those erect nipples – “the, um, considerations. You know, we bring thousands of shoppers to your place. Obviously we need to be compensated for the, you know, the referral, obviously.”
“Oh. Wow. Wow, right.” This wasn’t part of the business plan Douglas Bishop and his partner Leonard had drawn up the previous week. Admittedly, during their blurry bacchanal in Santa Fe, where the idea for marketing the Painted Cave was born, they had been slightly intoxicated from too much tequila and the omnipresent sight of high-maintenance divorcees out shopping for modern art in their heels and halter tops. The entrepreneurs hadn’t figured on paying kickbacks. But Doug and Lenny could always adapt. They were good at that.