A Prick in Congress

As some of you know, mikeroweWORKS was launched on Labor Day back in 2008. Every so often somebody asks me how that came to be, and whether or not Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe had anything to do with it. Here’s my original reply to that question.

A couple years ago I went to Congress, to see if anyone there was still up for an honest day’s work. Turns out, there is. Dave Moralez has worked in Congress his whole career, but holds no elected office. He’s a third-generation cattle rancher in Congress, Ariz., a tiny town in the Sonoran Desert. Dave is also a fan of Dirty Jobs, so when he wrote in to see if I’d like to help him transplant a cactus, I said “sure.”

Dave Moralez looks like Work. He’s deeply tanned and big all over, probably 300 pounds. He wears an enormous cowboy hat and a fat mustache that conceals a permanent grin. Unfortunately, there’s not much to grin about in Congress these days. Another drought and a lousy economy have forced many ranchers there to rethink their business. Today, Dave pays the bills by selling his cacti, which grow in the mountains behind his house. “Yesterday I was rancher,” he told me. “Today I’m a landscaper. Go figure.”

My crew and I flew to Phoenix in early August. We spent the night in nearby Wickenberg, and headed over to the Moralez Ranch at the crack of dawn. Dave led me across the dusty yard to a big pick-up truck with a large iron cross built into the bed. Not standard. His sons, Dave Jr. and Daniel, were loading supplies – a tamping bar, three sledgehammers, two picks, a saw, an ax, some two-by-fours, a box of nails, and a case of water. There were also several long strips of indoor carpeting, skewered with dozens of cactus needles. Once loaded, Dave drove his truck toward a sunken arroyo that snaked through the back of his property, and headed toward the hills. My crew and I followed in a tiny Hyundai, the last available rental at the airport, and the only obvious choice for off-road desert adventure.

After 20 minutes of random twists and turns, Dave informed us via walkie-talkie that he was looking for a very specific cactus, near the top of very specific hill, somewhere off in the not-so-specific distance. Why his sights were set on one particular cactus was unclear, since we were driving past hundreds of identical candidates. They were all around us – towering spires of thorny defiance, poking out of the unforgiving terrain like enormous green lawn darts.

Eventually, we rounded a corner and came upon a bulldozer, parked at the base of a long, sloping ridge. We got out of our vehicles, and walked over to the big yellow machine.

“Where did this come from?” I asked.

“I parked it here last night,” said Dave. “We’re gonna need it to build the road.”

“I’m sorry – it sounded like you said … build a road?”

Dave grinned under his mustache. “I’m sorry too, Mike. But we need to build a road to get to the cactus.”

As is often the case with Dirty Jobs, there is no such thing as a singular task. So I wasn’t shocked to learn that the business of transplanting a solitary cactus would require a few additional steps. I did not, however, anticipate the construction of a highway in the middle of the desert.

“Really,” I said. “A road? Straight up a hill?”

“Relax,” said Dave. “It’s only a few hundred feet. And it’s not like we’re gonna pave it.”

“Why not just yank the thing out and carry it down here to the truck?” I asked.” This was maybe the funniest thing Dave Jr. had heard in a long time.

“What’s so funny?” I asked. “Your telling me four guys can’t carry one cactus down a hill?” Now Daniel joined his brother in a chorus of snorts and cackles, as Dave turned and pointed toward the top of the ridge.

There, backlit by the dawn’s early light, I got my first look at our objective – a massive saguaro anchored into the hilltop a hundred yards away. If Central Casting were looking for America’s Next Top Cactus, this was it. Fourteen feet tall, as wide around as a manhole cover, with two beefy arms curling up and out of its massive torso. It appeared to be giving me the finger.

“Holy crap,” I muttered. “That’s big.”

“Big ain’t the problem,” said Dave. “That thing weighs 2 tons. That’s 500 pounds a man. You really want to walk it down here?”

Sensing the rhetorical nature of his query, I responded with another question. “How old is that thing?”

“Well,” said Dave, “based on its height, I’d say 200 years. Maybe more. It was probably standing right there when Jefferson was president.”

Clearly, this was a cactus with a history, but as we trudged up the hill to give it a closer look, I realized that its resume did not include a “willingness to relocate.” The base was completely encased in a slab of solid granite, and the needles that protruded from its leathery hide looked like punji sticks, patiently waiting for an opportunity to slide into something soft and fleshy.

“Wouldn’t it be easier,” I said, “to take a different one? Maybe one of those back there by the truck?” This got the brothers laughing again. “Dad doesn’t do anything easy,” said Daniel. “And besides, this is the one the customer wants.”

I sighed, and looked at Dave. “OK, then, what’s the plan?”

Dave laid it out in simple terms. First we would build the road. Then we’d back the truck up the ridge and raise the iron cross from its rusty bed. Then while the cactus was still in the ground, we’d secure it to the cross. There would be much hammering and swearing, and according to Dave, “a strong likelihood of bloodshed.” Then the real work would begin. The trick was to remove the cactus with the roots completely intact, which meant digging well below the rocky surface. Once the roots came free, a hydraulic motor would lift the cross skyward, pulling the cactus up and out of its hole, into the bed of the pick-up, and off to greener pastures. “If we work fast,” said Dave, “we can beat the heat, and be out of here in three hours.”

This time, I was the one who laughed. On Dirty Jobs, the only thing that takes three hours is three hours. And sure enough, three hours later, we were three hours behind. The heat was affecting our cameras and causing technical delays, and my own level of expertise on a vintage bulldozer wasn’t helping.

By noon, the road was finally completed, but by the time we got the truck and the cross and the cactus in properly situated, it was almost 2 pm and 110 degrees in the shade. I have no way of proving this of course, as there was no shade to speak of. But the bloodshed Dave predicted is a matter of public record. I had been stabbed no less than a dozen times, trying to wrap strips of carpeting around the contact points between the cross and the cactus. For the record, the longer needles drew the most blood, and gravitated toward the area under my fingernails. But the short ones were no less painful. They got below the skin and stayed there, working there way farther and farther in.

Anyway, the “real work,” as Dave called it, finally commenced, and though it was four against one I couldn’t help but think the cactus had the advantage. Armed with a sledgehammer from the Civil War, I assumed a position on the downward slope, and began to work on the granite surrounding the base. My first swing bounced off the rock like vulcanized rubber, and sent the hammer flying straight back toward my head.

“You gotta swing it harder,” said Daniel. “Like Dad.” Dave stood across from me with an even larger mallet, which he swung with the ease and speed of a whiffle bat. Stone splintered. Dirt flew. Sweat poured. Dave Jr. stepped in with a pick, and Daniel stood by with a shovel to clear away the debris. I swung harder, and managed to chip away at ancient rock without knocking myself unconscious.

At first, the saguaro seemed indifferent, humoring our assault the way a horse tolerates a few flies. Then, as we began to expose the root system, the cactus began to fight back. No matter how careful I was, more needles of various sizes found their way into my shoulders and arms. Under Dave’s mighty mallet, the rock slowly gave way and the hole grew deeper, but the cactus itself remained solidly anchored into the hill. It appeared to have a core of solid steel, with a giant magnet buried somewhere beneath it. The day dragged on. Blisters popped and oozed, sunscreen and sweat streamed into my eyes, and little silver dots danced in my periphery. Pausing for a refreshing bottle of boiling water, I marveled at the intractability of this primitive plant, and quietly cursed my decision to accept Dave’s invitation.

By 3 p.m., things had gotten personal. I had come to see the cactus as Excalibur, and myself as a knight on a hopeless quest. When I broke my second pick handle of the day, Dave gave me the iron tamping bar with a chisel forged onto one end. It was far too hot to hold, but just right for cauterizing blisters, which is precisely what happened the second I grabbed it. By 4 p.m. Dave had employed his entire arsenal of tools to no avail. One of our cameras melted from the inside out, and I began to giggle for no apparent reason. A delirium was descending upon the whole scene, as the desert and everything in it conspired to drive us back to civilization. Meanwhile, the cactus stood firm.

I could spend pages walking you through every detail and every setback of The Great Dirty Jobs Cactus Crucible. Maybe I should. People don’t write about manual labor anymore – at least not the way they used to. And believe me, that afternoon in the desert would have brought the great ones back for an encore.

George Plimpton would have waxed poetic about the steady rhythm of sledgehammers, swinging in a Sisyphean counterpoint. Studs Terkel would have captured the closeness that manual labor can foster between fathers and sons. And Charles Kuralt would have turned a simple confrontation between a big man and a big plant into something even bigger. In their hands, Dave Morales would have become Hemingway’s “Old Man,” plucked from the Sea and dropped into Eliot’s Wasteland – an homage to all those scratching out a living in the rough terrain of their own metaphorical desert.

Anyway, that’s a long answer to a short question. Sometime during my visit to Congress, I decided to look a little closer at our country’s relationship with hard work, as well as my own. A few weeks later on Labor Day of 2008, I launched mikeroweWORKS. For the sake of a good story, I’d like to say that my decision occurred at the precise moment a 2-ton cactus broke free of its 200-year-old address, but I really couldn’t say for sure, since I was hallucinating at the time. The actual decision was probably made later that night, after we finally got that cactus out of the rock and onto the truck and into somebody’s front lawn on the other side of town.

By then the sun had set, and I was too tired to drink the beer I’d been thinking about all day. (Almost.) Dave and I said our goodbyes. He and his boys were headed home with great news. A casino in Vegas had just called with a rush order for 50 cacti. It was a month of steady work, and it would begin at 4:30 a.m. the next morning. The Moralezes were jubilant. I was dehydrated.

Back at the hotel, I liberated another Dos Equis from the mini-bar, and jotted a few lines in my journal before passing out. Most of it is illegible, but the gist of it had to do with starting over. With reinvention. With what it must be like to find out that the path you’ve been on has come to an end, and that the only way forward is on a road through the desert that you have to build yourself.

I fell asleep before I finished the beer, but my last conscious thought – as I pulled another needle from my sunburned shoulder – is still scribbled at the bottom of the page. “Hard work really is the thing that matters most. And in spite of all the pricks, there’s still reason for hope – even in a place called Congress.”

Happy Labor Day



3 thoughts on “A Prick in Congress

  1. Having spent several years living further South in Arizona than Congress, where it is substantially hotter, with even less shade to speak of and even more pricks per average plant I have to admit – even while I laughed my sympathies were with you Mike. Has to be one of the ‘uglier’ jobs you’ve done over the years.

  2. I write a blog on 21st Technology, and read your prickly tale with interest. We often think of technology in terms of healthcare, restaurants, retail — service-oriented fields. In reality, technology can play a role in helping laborious tasks as well. Your “history of the cactus relocation” was fascinating for many reasons, but I’m quite sure technology played a role. From cell phones to the machinery that made the wrenching gear…technology played a part. It’s imperative to show the relationship to recognize that hard work and technology can and should go hand in hand. And many, many techies will tell you that most practical knowledge is obtained on the job, not in the classroom.

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