"When I was 12 I had a download," she says, lifting her hands above her head and pulling them slowly down, "I was going to live where the big cactuses and cowboys and Indians are."
So she hitchhiked across the U.S.A., head crammed with glossy girl dreams born of an Arizona Highways subscription she'd procured with babysitting coin. She'd split the busted-family depths of working-class New Jersey, turned 18 on the road and found the Old Pueblo at journey's end. Discovered fleeting homeless comfort with the Rainbow folk, street kids and bead-making gypsies, and hastily learned their survival tricks like eating out of Greasy Tony's trash, and how to squat alongside 14 others in a single room, or other such raw-food, all-naked sustainability in a tripping hippie camp out in Thatcher, Arizona.
"But where were all the cowboys?" Surprise!
Forget cowboys, she had the Tanque Verde Swap Meet where she learned to hock her girlhood jewelry to eat.
The houseless teen fell in love with that swap meet, the same organization from which she just leased a clapboard storefront to begin selling health supplements. It'll carry her into retirement. The 40-plus year Tucson circle of life (which begins on her birthday, August 1) ain't lost on her.
Today that girl is Dar (short for Darlene) Dobroslavic, an evolved 60 in a handsome black embroidered tunic, matching loose-fitting black pants. She tours her walled-in home grounds, dubbed "the better bunkhouse," a whole psychological leap from the surrounding cinderblock and oil-stained neighborhood of asymmetrical zoning and busted frontyard Fords.
The aesthetic pleases, its placement of objects and sense of the correct order of things calms. Smells of various spring-summer blooms and requisite Tucson dust and her slumber-happy dog Lula lumbers into various ports of yard shade. There's a vintage ('73) Avion trailer, a comely curved metallic jolt in the hard sun, complete with internal AC, small stereo, livable, and unoccupied (at the moment).
Dar's hyper-acumen comes into hazy focus in the yard, fast-talking layered subjects of "infinity wellness," tribal cultures, how to build and live in a salvaged-material house, which she did—and the horrors, joys and governmental prize fights involved in caring for her mentally disabled son, Micah, who is now 41.
There's a colorful, telling matriarchal wall mural painted by her long-standing woman's group and a homemade outdoor stage, where she'd throw pandemic-era shows featuring area shit-kicker Hank Topless or folkie Wally Lauder. An outdoor shower sits behind that, constructed from found street objects ("Isn't it adorable?"), next to a bedroom-sized bungalow (rented out), whose interior she and a pal constructed from found wood.
A garden filled with rising crops reveals a deep family tie tracing to her Croatian grandfather who grew and sold such in a New Jersey farm stand, who'd place a young Dar there as a cute prop to help sales.
The scene is part commune, desert prairie home and ad hoc hostel for hikers. It reveals a duality, an outward show of the woman herself, the everyday commodities of her world requiring precise attention to detail in order to charge forth with clinched fists and a self-mocking chuckle. She's a formable autodidact with a detail-rich intellect who'll spend leisure-time reading, say, published medical pieces at breakfast, who spent 14 years in and out of college, but never cared about a degree.
She is the "benevolent dictator," on her big-lot compound, which she purchased for a song in 2012. She's had maybe 100 people come through to stay so far, mostly hikers on The Arizona Trail, which runs from Utah to the Mexico border. Dar is a designated Trail Angel, a volunteer who helps path votaries with rides, housing, showers and laundry.
Hell, the woman collects people like postage stamps, her "Dar's Stars, ex-healers and dealers." She adds, "I get to meet people who are up to shit—new ways of thinking, new ways of being." She often takes in strays who need help. That has always been her thing, rising from a fascination with the anthropological study of humanity and a sharp eye for their "magic," a word she often repeats.
An amusing Salinger quote received from her late one night says much: "She wasn't doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together."
* * *
Back in her main house, Dar settles around a vintage Formica table in her living room, telling how her last year was particularly gnarly, including a COVID infection, which got her and her two children, and a van-totaling car-crash, from which Micah and Dar suffer back and shoulder pain. Rickie Lee Jones floats softly from a radio tuned to KXCI. The house calms too, walls arranged with fetching folk and found art, mandala and Native ritual imagery, many books and games, and, of course, tea spiced with powdered inositol (for her depression).
Dar listens hard, her roundish pleasant face sharp with expectation, which can exhaust. She organizes her life into tidy mental files opened and closed in wily anecdotes and laughter, couched in this confident idea everything always works out. She references liminal space and goddesses as means to explain her own self-religion, fortified on Landmark Forums (a group seeking answers to life problems, is sometimes deemed disputatious), Buddha and Zen practices, Navajo and Hopi teachings and other studies. It really all comes down to kindness, helping others, and framing life as a gas of inexplicable happenstance. She files herself a non-worrier, but the commas of worry around her eyes and mouth maybe tell something different.
"No, I am not crazy. But my father was."
Her mechanic father was a first-generation American born to Croatian immigrants, youngest of 11 children, suffered a breakdown at 38, schizoaffective disorder. "He would make us sit there for hours and try to read his mind." He was a greaser, "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and he looked like Waylon Jennings. My mother would start the party and stay to the end." The family lived in a rental until dad beat up mom and she split for a shelter. Dar, the oldest of four, was out of high school, on her own at 16.
Dar's mother was an orphan who grew up in Irish foster homes, whose father died drunk on the Bowery. Mom landed on her feet, is alive and fine today.
And dad, well, "he got out of the mental house and lived homeless for 43 years. Imagine living that long homeless." There was love there. Dar set him up once with a place to live, food to eat, but it couldn't work.
"I was a little too industrious to stay homeless," says the woman who spent her first night in Tucson and her last $25 on acid and wound up walking all through town, a frightened tripping teen.
She tried every drug in the world for kicks. None stuck as habit, kind of remarkable considering how easy it is to self-medicate depression, a whirr in her life.
On that cross-country hitchhike she found a home in Boulder, offering floor space and food, which blew her young mind. "I'd never seen real charity in action. So, yeah, that's my drug. It changed my life completely, the generosity of spirit and benevolence."
Her worklife began at a deli on Sixth Avenue ("I'd get yelled out for not wearing a bra") and by '81 was bartending at the Backstage (the former Tumbleweeds) on Fourth Avenue, selling dope to hookers, and helping book bands. She was a barefoot hippie girl, only now with Micah to feed, whose father was in jail. Soon she was editing a college lit journal and from that rose a self-made businesswoman-activist's ideal of eloquence, her CV would read like a person driven on the graceful side of the righteous.
Aside from Dar's accidental foray into real estate ("people are so ugly around their money, so entitled") and skids-avoiding house-cleaning, she found work that earned her a living aiding others.
(An upside to the real-estate work, Dar helped club-owner Greg Haver get arts-music venue Monterey Court up and running).
It's the little things too, the sojourns into Mexico with Micah (who requires 24-7 care) to work at orphanages. Feeding the homeless, the animals. Every Friday she and Micah bring flowers to an old folks' home. Dar has spent years aiding, advising, consoling and counseling those with severe mental and behavioral disabilities, and their parents.
The woman with no high-school diploma or college degree once worked as a lecturer for special education teacher training, which led to work as a psychosocial vocational rehab specialist at UA. She moved to Cochise County to teach high school in Elfrida, Arizona, in a youth-transition program designed to keep kids from dropping out, while teaching kids' parents for GEDs. There's some irony there: "I had no degree, right? That's nuts. They worked some kind of magic to get me in."
Dar didn't want to rent when she and her daughter Britt moved down to Cochise County in '97, so she built on a piece of desert land she'd purchased with a bad check for $500 (but made good) in ghost-town Gleeson, Arizona. Helped in part from houseless folks she'd befriended in Tucson—Dar once served on a Tucson task force on homelessness out of the mayor's office. She didn't know shit about building a house, so she read up on how to do it. With mad tenacity and salvaged materials, they "worked frantically on weekends, Friday sundown to Sunday at sundown." She and Britt lived in it off the grid on dirt-floors (for the first two years) with no water ever (hauled water in buckets) or electricity (added solar panels later). Britt, at 7 years old, actually helped build the thing.
"I would get up in the morning, pull on my stockings and shoes on dirt floors and go to work."
They lived on the range for six years. They'd travel back and forth to Tucson to visit Micah.
* * *
Micah suffers from intellectual disability, bipolar disorder and mild cerebral palsy. Violent episodes made him dangerous to himself and others, so at 14, Dar placed him in a home to get needed care. She began to see the toxic-system neglect between different homes and agencies. Micah's self-worth hit a new low ebb, and he was gobbed up with so many drugs he needed a wheelchair.
Horrified, she moved back to Tucson, pulled Micah out, fought for and won an arrangement with the state to care for her son with state aid. Darlene and like-minded colleagues saved lots of government money that otherwise would be funneled to group homes. Micah's quality of life and health improved measurably, prescription meds and hospitalizations now at a minimum.
"We changed the system," Dar says. "His life was in shambles."
Such shambles took horrific shape. It's not something Micah can talk easily about, not then, not now. "We couldn't read the signs," Dar once said in an NPR interview about the subject.
In 2002, Micah pulled a knife on a caregiver, and was placed in lockdown. Four years later, Micah revealed that same caregiver had molested and raped him.
"My darkest hours were when Micah told me," Dar says.
Dar pursued legal angles, found herself crying for hours learning how difficult the rapes were to prove, particularly after four years, the perp long gone. "It's one of those crimes where there is rarely justice. The collateral damage alone ..."
She worked hard, put Micah into a good public school, and he learned to read and play drums.
Buoyed on experience, Dar, in 2006, teamed with lawyer friend Val Schaffer for what they called the "Intelligent Experiment," purchasing with loans a six-unit apartment building to launch an alternative co-op where residents with intellectual disabilities could help one another while living steady, cost-effective lives with proper oversight. The experiment hadn't been tried in Arizona, and a story appeared in these pages ("The Intelligent Experiment," May 10, 2007).
The project deflated mostly because, Dar says, with unjaded gusto, "people don't want to work hard. They are all about a co-op but don't realize it's a share of work."
The pair sold the apartment building last year, the proceeds lifted Dar out of debt for the first time in her life, with some coin left over.
Micah now lives in his own casita near Dar, in an "individually designed living arrangement" (IDLA). Micah's overseen fulltime by Dar, daughter Britt and other caregivers.
Though Dar says, "he sure can raise hell."
Lately, Micah's been on an experimental THC, CBD and nicotine program, and the results, she writes in a letter to medical establishments, are astounding. He has "surged ahead over the last year in arts, sciences, geography, math" and his motor skills have improved and rapid mood swings have decreased. The medicinal benefits have been a boon for the family. Right now, Dar says, "we're reading about legends of the Pima Indians."
* * *
Days later in Dar's house, Micah wears a Bowie tee and headphones, glued to a baseball game on his laptop at the small kitchen table. Occasionally he steps in and joins the conversation. There's a tenderness about him, and he shoots straight; he will tell you if he likes you. Like mom, he listens hard. And no, he does not want his photo taken.
Daughter Britt arrives for a hang. The 30-year-old's face is like a healthy deer, in the most beautiful way, big brown eyes, perfect skin, blond coloring. She's expressive, eloquent and curious like her mother, with a quiet messianic thing about her, studies environmental science and biology at UA, hates the liberal yuppies making bank gentrifying what's left of Tucson, destroying barrio heritages. Talks glowingly of her brother, mom and her Latina girlfriend.
Both fathers vanished from their children's lives, no financial help, nada. Britt's dad is so far untraceable, even with the help of a professional. "My grandma always said," Dar says, "sometimes you have to leave well-enough alone."
Britt too wears a classic-rock tee, Led Zeppelin, like mom (Hendrix) and Micah today. They classify people into psych-magic divisions for earnest fun: they're either "rainbows or drainbows."
There's a sense the scholarship-earning, 4-H fair-winning Britt looks out for Dar, appears accustomed, for better or worse, to the patterns of mom's life, though Dar doesn't see that at all. Britt celebrates Father's Day and Mother's Day with mom and she is still kind of amazed she was raised for years in a homemade house with no running water, where she learned to gild calves, rope cattle, feed horses and fix houses, the only kid on a plot of 10,000 acres.
"It's been hard for Britt," mom tells me later, adding their close relationship can be tumultuous at times. "She's had a tough life because of me ... but a good life."
She continues, "That's who I am, I just work. I was blessed with this fortitude." She adds, "I'm always going to remember who I wanted to be. I wanted to be successful at aging ..."
And Micah? He's her Doodle bird, her sidekick. "He's very broken," she says. "He can scream and he suffers. But he's a pretty trippy dude."