They’re cousins, all 500 of them, and they all live on one 40-square-mile ranch.
Natalie has 34 aunts and uncles. Her grandfather had 4 wives, and 35 children. Her grandfather’s two partners each had a wife and 15 kids. Natalie says her grandfather was not a Mormon. He just liked the idea of having four wives.
Today, there are 500 people living in 300 houses on the property.
Natalie calls it “the village.” The village is almost entirely self-contained.
I drove about an hour into the Arizona desert to spend some time with Natalie as part of my research for a story I’m working on about prickly pear cacti. I found thousands of cacti. And 500 cousins.
The village has a grocery, and a clothing store. One of the men ventures out to Costco to buy food and toiletries in bulk for the tiny establishment.
There is a church, and a cemetery. In the cemetery is a sitting area, where the family can rest underneath a tree to say goodbye to each newly lost member. Natalie knows all of their names and stories. They are all related, save for the few for whom exceptions have been made. There are the two men who worked on the land in back of one of the houses and were found dead after no one had heard from them for days.
There are signs beneath the mailboxes and on the grocery door to announce community activities. One sign, written in a child’s handwriting in pink marker on neon-yellow poster board, announces a cemetery cleanup this weekend.
The intricacies of the not-so-little community were fascinating to me. It’s almost a separate society.
Natalie drove me around the ranch in her white pickup truck. We left the vehicle to see the two stores, which are connected to each other, to walk through the cemetery and to take photos on a hilltop.
When she was trying to get the truck back down the hill, she momentarily doubted her ability to do so. So did I.
There were several points throughout the day when I wondered why I’d gotten in the car, and why I’d gone alone to an area with no cellphone service in a state with no one I had met earlier than a week ago. The only answer I could come up with is that I’m either kind of crazy or I just know what I’m doing.
I think the best stories come from strange situations. What’s that old cliché? “When a dog bites a man, that’s not a story; when a man bites a dog, that’s a story.”
I think the best stories come from getting in the car, hiking up the mountain, running frantically from the unleashed dog.
The best stories come from going alone, finding out first-hand what peoples’ lives are like and why.
As far as Natalie’s story, I’m still working on the “why.”