Life on the Fringe: Apache County, Arizona

IMG_1635

Heading deep into the desert with a friend who has made a forgotten piece of the world into her new home.

“It’s a drive,” Patricia told me, then held up the map. About an hour down the highway, we’d take an exit, drive for twenty minutes, then turn down a dirt road. “It’s another hour from there.”

I told her she was giving new meaning to “off the grid.”

It was late, so I did my best to follow her in the maze of taillights along Interstate 40. Near the New Mexico state line, we took an exit and stopped for gas, then continued down to that first dirt road. I didn’t quite believe her when she said it would be another hour, but as the road twisted and wound, as the lights of everything except our two trucks disappeared and the increasingly high weeds started to whack the undercarriage of my Ford, I started to realize how completely screwed I would be if my truck chose that moment to break down.

This is where Patricia has chosen to build her life.

IMG_1658

The road to Patricia’s land, as seen the following morning.

There are few places in the country more isolated than this area that Patricia has set up. It’s not just the geography. The weather has a bone to pick with anyone who decides to make this place home. Temperatures soar over 100 degrees in the summer and plummet below freezing in the winter. The wind gusts, at times, over 50 miles per hour. There are few trees for shade. There are critters aplenty (I saw a couple coyotes in the morning), minimal rainfall, and few opportunities for growing one’s own food.

Patricia loves it.

This isn’t just about going off the grid for her. There’s a higher purpose at work. She sees the land as neglected, degraded. She wants to put her time in and help it regenerate, grow, and bloom. Ideally, this eventually becomes land she could live off of full time.

We hit her property at around midnight and I looked up at the Milky Way scattered across the sky. Among other advantages, places like Patricia’s spot offer some of the greatest stargazing in the world.

“You take the Yurpee,” she said. “I’ll sleep in my truck.”

“I can’t take your house, Patricia.”

“You take it. You’re the first houseguest I’ve ever had.”

IMG_1641

The “Yurpee.”

Patricia bought this land two years ago. A little over a year ago, she raised the Yurpee (a combination yurt/teepee). It’s a small operation, just big enough for one person to sleep in. Many nights, particularly when the wind is howling, she sleeps in her truck. But the structure is solid, standing up to the brutal winds that roll uninterrupted across the Colorado Plateau.

Little by little, she’s putting her home together. It’s a pioneer existence, though the Yurpee makes me think more the nomads of Mongolia than of any settlers of the American West. For money, she works as a copy editor, driving into town to use the Internet, post her work, then head back to the middle of nowhere.

I’ve known Patricia for around eight years, and what makes her existence so astounding to me is that she’d never done anything like this before. Sure, she learned a lot of permaculture work while living on a farm before she moved out here, but she was working with a team of people, many of whom had been living this way for years. To suddenly snag twenty acres of land far away from anything she knows and attempt to homestead on it takes a staggering amount of guts.

IMG_1637

Morning view from inside the Yurpee.

In the morning, she takes me around the property. Over here, the future orchard. Over here, the strawbale. And right here, the greenhouse.

She tells me the land already looks different than when she first arrived. She heats some water on a Coleman stove, pulls out a couple of oranges, and we have a breakfast of fruit and tea in the middle of the endless sagebrush.

“I like it out here,” I say.

“You’re welcome anytime,” Patricia tells me. “I don’t get a lot of visitors.”

And from the way she says it, I gather she’s just fine with that.

IMG_1654

Patricia is keeping a blog of her progress on the land. It’s called Fringed Sage, and you can find it here.

Advertisements

The Hourglass Point: Arizona in Three Parts

IMG_1612

A return to a former home, my old college campus, a show I started 15 years ago, and the years when I started to grow up.

I tell my grandmother, over the phone, that this is where the pivot happened. This is where I began to shed a lost, confused, directionless adolescence and move into something resembling adulthood. When I say this, I’m standing in a plaza in Flagstaff, Arizona, and I am referring to the town itself. I went to school here, earned a degree, started a poetry reading that continues fifteen years later with no help from myself, and began to move toward a life that would fall apart, and the next life I would build from the wreckage.

There are points in our lives like an hourglass. Everything we have ever done seems to come together at one extremely narrow aperture. We sense that we were always moving in the direction of some decision or some movement forward where everything would be clear, where we would step through an invisible barrier and, on the other side, encounter a limitless sense of possibility.

If I paint that transition within myself as an arc, and if I lay that arc down on a map, it would look something like my drive through the state of Arizona.

PART I—PHOENIX

IMG_1596

I like to quote the David Ives when anyone asks me about Phoenix: “It’s like death, without the advantages.”

The Phoenix Valley, which encompasses the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Chandler, Mesa, and a dozen or so other municipalities, is a wasteland with all the cultural amenities one could ask for. There are nice restaurants, beautiful golf courses, and the other comforts of a city where people with money who have fled other states have brought their comfort with them. And all you have to do to access these things is to live inside a convection oven with all the personality and charm of a root canal. The streets are too wide. The houses are too big. The dominant architectural style is strip-mall. Everything is stucco. When Henry Miller’s wrote of “the air-conditioned nightmare,” this city could very easily have been what he was talking about.

I lived here for two and a half years.

One of the problems with going to college right out of high school is that many people simply aren’t ready yet. I fell into that category: an immature, confused, horny tennager (is there any other kind?) so bad at making decisions that I decided to spend my first two years of school in central Pennsylvania, surrounded by racists, homophobes, and a social life that centered around drinking until the lights went out with people I had nothing in common with.

So when I moved out to Arizona at 19, it was a relief. For a while. I went to school on a sprawling campus and continued to have no idea what to do with my life. When my mother visited me and commented on how ugly the city was, I got very pissed off at her for being right.

I only went to school here for a year and a half before dropping out and delivering pizzas while I figured out my next move. I know there are jobs way more depressing than delivering pizzas at three o’clock in the morning to drunks. I’ve had a few of them. But I’ve never worked one that left me more physically and mentally drained every day, which is not how I expected to feel at 20.

One very good thing came out of my life in Phoenix. I got started in this art form called slam poetry, and within weeks of attending my first slam, it became the center of my existence in Phoenix. I was suddenly surrounded by people who took writing seriously, and who forced me to take it seriously. I’d always enjoyed any class that involved writing, always wrote stories in some form. I was always building worlds in my head. What going to the poetry slams taught me was that this wasn’t enough. You had to sit down and do the work and do it consistently. You had to put it out there, good or bad, and if it failed, you had to learn why and come back stronger.

If I hadn’t discovered this form, I doubt I would have returned to school. At least not for a while. But I did. I enrolled at Northern Arizona University, moved to Flagstaff, and started a poetry slam in a bar called The Alley. Fifteen years later, that show is still running.

Photo on 9-8-15 at 5.43 PM #2

Brent Heffron, one of the first regulars at the Flagstaff Poetry Slam.

Now, I’ve said all of this awful shit about Phoenix. But the reality is that my 24 hours there on this trip was one of the best days I’ve ever had in the city. I still have a community there, and it’s a community that has built up over the years in a strange fashion. I started off having lunch with my friend Kris, who has been through a divorce and a marriage since last I saw her, and a walk though Old Town Scottsdale. It was so good to see her I didn’t even mind that we were surrounded by chain stores and a strange little canal that only serves as a reminder that this entire water-burning megalopolis has no business being where it is.

From there, it was on to a coffee shop to see Brent Heffron. Brent was one of the first readers at the very first Flagstaff Poetry Slam 15 years ago, and I can’t recall him ever missing a show in the year and a half I ran the thing. He was one of those people that gravitate to this art form seemingly out of a vacuum. He’d never been a writer, was still trying to figure out how to express something building up inside him, and suddenly had this forum where he could bring all the strange energy boiling under his skin and give it a home. He worked harder than just about any other writer in those years that I first knew him, and we would run into each other at the National Poetry Slam for years afterward.

We spent about three hours talking, and the overwhelming impression I had was of a man very comfortable with his life. I’d seen the same thing the previous days, visiting my friend Logan, who also came up with the slam. He and Brent had competed together when they were still in school, and there was something reflected by each of them in the other. They’ve become grown men, fathers, homeowners. They’ve settled close to where they grew up and are working to improve their communities. And seeing the two of them on consecutive days, I had a revelation about travel I’d never had before. It came when I suggested Brent come to New Orleans for a visit.

“If I can,” he said. And I knew he meant it. But I realized that when he could was going to be a long time from then. He’s got responsibilities, good ones, that he is tending to. I thought about Logan, working in his garden, teaching high schoolers, raising his daughters. I hadn’t seen either of these men in five years, and it hit me that if I hadn’t come out to see them, it could easily have been another five years before we saw each other again. If I want to maintain a face-to-face relationship with them, and with the dozens of other friends and family members I have scattered around the country, that will necessitate travel. And if they can’t do it (and many of them can’t), then I will. Because I can.

Travel as a means to community.

And for all the venom I spit at Phoenix, for all the sarcasm and disdain I unleash in its direction, I find it interesting that it is the place where, fifteen years ago, I began to take my writing seriously, and the place where, all these years later, I realized there is something deeper in my need to travel. Sitting there with Brent, I stumbled upon a new reason for being on the road. It’s about family. The family I was born to, as well as the family I’ve chosen. I love both of these families, and I want to keep them together.

PART II—MEMORIES ON HIGHWAY 89A

IMG_1607

It’s one of the most beautiful drives in the country, a snaking road through Oak Creek Canyon and the impossibly red rocks of Sedona. It starts from the former territorial capital of Prescott, where residents once responded to a hotel fire by picking up the hotel’s bar, carrying it across the street to the grassy area around the courthouse, and continuing to drink at the displaced bar while the hotel burned down (and yes, the bar is still there). From there, it’s up to the strange little artists’ colony of Jerome, once a billion-dollar copper mine, then a ghost town when the mines when dry, and now a home to retirees and artist types who’ve made a new community thrive in this town pressed into the side of a mountain. It’s a vertical town, and you change streets by climbing stairs up to the next one. If you’re in a car, you wind down the switchbacks, then make your way to the tourist Mecca of Sedona, famous for it’s beautiful red rock mountains and its weird, overproduced, pseudo-hippie downtown, where you can find everything from fringed leather jackets to stands where a mystic will photograph your aura.

I could write a great deal about that road. But right now, I’d rather write about Christopher Lane.

When I started the Flagstaff Slam in 2000, a poet from Dallas who’d recently moved to the area became a regular, and eventually became a member of the first Flagstaff team to compete at the National Poetry Slam in 2001. When I left town in 2002, Christopher helped take over the show, then took it in directions I never dreamed of.

He founded a group called NORAZ Poets in 2003, and used it to to help facilitate workshops, run shows and, most impressively, to create the Arizona branch of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. He became one of the most important poets and community organizers in the state, performed hundreds of times for people of every age range. He’d been through extraordinary hardship in his life, and had somehow emerged as one of the most generous and thoughtful artists I’ve ever met.

One day in 2012 I got an email from Brent Heffron. Christopher had died. He lay down one day to take a nap and never woke up. He was only 40 years old.

We hadn’t been in touch for a couple of years. Not on purpose. Nothing had happened. I’d just moved into a different life and didn’t see him or talk to him much for a while. Then not at all. We simply lost touch.

19377a

Christopher Lane (photo: Janise Witt)

When I first met Christopher, he was living in a trailer on a ridge in Oak Creek Canyon, right above a general store that sold jewelry and served impossibly good sandwiches. It was a peaceful place, both secluded and close enough to the main highway to take his motorcycle out on long rides across the state. We used to sit under the awning of his trailer and talk about writing. I was always blown away by his sensitivity, his incredible ability to empathize. He became a mentor to a lot of people in the poetry scene almost from the beginning, and it came as no surprise to me when I heard about the world-shaping work he was doing in the time after I left the state.

IMG_1622

Christopher lived on the ridge just behind this store.

I stopped at the old general store and walked around. I kept looking up that ridge where Christopher had his home. I’ve spent most of my life trying to learn how to write, to share what I’ve picked up, to have some small impact on the people around me. I want people to know about Christopher Lane, and I hope that talking about him and writing about his life is a small way of continuing what he did. It’s astonishing what this guy put together in Arizona in less than a decade. I’d like to have even a share of the impact on the people around me that Christopher had on me and everyone he touched. Maybe I can do that. I hope so.

PART III—FLAGSTAFF

IMG_1634

Flagstaff. The center of the hourglass. The pivot point. One of the most important places in my life.

And if it wasn’t for Justin and Erin, a place where I would no longer have anywhere to stay.

A couple years ago, my dear friends Justin Bigos and Erin Stalcup moved to Flagstaff. Our paths have had an interesting way of winding around each other over the years. They both teach at Northern Arizona University, where I went to school. They met each other the same place I met them: at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. And, I didn’t realize until years later, Erin  used to come out to the shows I ran while she was growing up in Flagstaff. Small world.

IMG_1628

Justin, Erin, and a lot of tamales.

I used to stay with these two in Brooklyn on my swings through New York. Now, they were establishing themselves in a quiet mountain town that couldn’t be more different from their last residence. We spent the evening catching up, eating dinner, and making plans to attend the Flagstaff Poetry Slam, which is still running a decade and a half after I thought it would be a good idea to start a reading there.

The Flagstaff Slam, after years of moving around, is back in the same location it started in. The location houses a completely different business in a completely redesigned room, but it was kind of beautiful for me to come back and see the show running in the same spot as it was in my early twenties. Deep down, I sort of hoped I’d see some of those old faces at the show. Brent. Logan. Dom. Julie. Frank. Josh. Suzy. Christopher Lane. But it was a brand new, very young crowd, and it all felt very far away. There was no one I knew there, and no one who knew me. Maybe that’s how it should be at this point. I’m thrilled the show is still running, but it would be foolish to say I have any real connection to it now. I started something 15 years ago, but it has taken dozens, maybe hundreds of people to keep it running this long. The show is theirs. It belongs to the city.

IMG_1629

Looking into the Flagstaff Poetry Slam.

The following day, Justin invited me to talk to his class about writing and traveling. I spoke for about twenty minutes, and all I really remember saying was that the best part about being a writer was the relationships you develop. Everyone I’d visited, and everything I’d done in Arizona the previous week came out of a decision to take my writing seriously 15 years ago.

We travel these strange arcs. We drop stones along the way. We hope a few of them hit the water and ripple out.

 

The Camp Verde Bugle published a nice piece on Christopher Lane’s life. You can read it here.

A local affiliate did a good piece about Christopher and the Alheimer’s Poetry Project. It’s not enough of him, but it’s something. Watch it here:

 

Tucson and the New West

IMG_1566

The real shock was seeing Spring again.

The last time we saw each other—the only time we saw each other—was nine years ago, in Spain. I was still married, still in my twenties. She was still a rumor until that trip, the girlfriend of my good friend Logan. They were traveling in Ireland. I was living in France. We made plans to meet up in Spain, and during that trip we shared one of the greatest days of my life. A hike through the Alhambra, dinner of wine and cheese and bread on a plaza overlooking the city of Granada as, below us, two hundred thousand people roared their support of the Spanish national soccer team.

IMG_2213

Me, Logan and Spring—Granada, Spain, 2006

Since that trip, Logan and Spring have moved to Mexico, broken up, moved back to the States, found their way back to each other, fell back in love, and now live in Tucson where they own a home and, less than a year ago, became the parents of two beautiful twin girls.

When Spring came out and hugged me that first morning I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Been awhile.”

IMG_1877

Spring and I playing chess in Spain, 2006.

There’s a kind of sadistic delight older people take in reminding young people that they, too, will age. Having grown up with my grandparents, I considered aging to be a good career move. You get old, you retire, you spend the day telling stories to your grandkids and having cocktail parties at night. My grandparents remain the most fun people I’ve ever met.

The part I never anticipated was that, as I got older, my friends would get older too. That they would get jobs, have children, and settle into lives you couldn’t have imagined when you were in school together. In the fourteen years Logan and I have known each other I’ve watched him grow from a grinning 19 year-old skater who dabbled in poetry to an internationally touring performance artist, teacher, and activist with a deep spiritual connection to the land he lives on, and the idea that everything he can change, and everything the kids he teaches can change, begins with a relationship to the land.

IMG_1554

Logan Phillips in his Tucson neighborhood, 2015.

Logan and I have always been voracious travelers. We’ve both lived abroad (he in Mexico, me in France). We’ve both embraced nomadic existences for most of our lives, occasionally crossing paths in far flung points on the map. Now here we were on the back porch of a house he owned and had every intention of raising his family in. He motioned inside with his hand, referring to both his partner and his daughters. “I don’t want to do anything but work in my garden and spend time with my girls. That’s what’s most important to me now.”

For Logan, life now is all about this kind of tender care. His major concerns—raising children, gardening, running a youth poetry organization, teaching in schools—all share the common thread of helping living things grow with care and attention. In his garden, he takes me through an introduction to permaculture, a word he uses with a wink.

“It’s not like this is something new,” he says. “People have been using these techniques for centuries. We’ve just forgotten most of it in the last hundred years.”

A garden in the desert of the southwestern United States is a dicey proposition to begin with. The sun is merciless, water is scarce. Yet Logan has managed to take his garden completely off the city’s water grid, primarily by using rainwater caught off his roof, which collects in a few pots around the house, and one very large water tank that he uses to irrigate several parts of the garden.

IMG_1537

The water tank. Gravity is used as the water’s primary delivery mechanism.

 But rain doesn’t just hit the roof, so Logan dug ditches throughout the property to manage the flow of water during the worst storms of the year. And for the times of year when the rain isn’t falling, there are old methods of keeping the plants alive.

Perhaps the most unique method—at least to IMG_1527anyone outside of the southwestern U.S. or northern Mexico, is the use of ollas. Ollas are ceramic pots that can be used as slow release watering systems inside of larger pots. What Logan has done—and what has been done for centuries—is to place the olla inside of a larger pot so that the lid is still exposed. Then he pours water into the olla, and the soil leeches the water out through the clay in the pot. Keeping a lid on the olla also prevents water from evaporating too fast, a major concern in this climate.

The idea, Logan tells me, is to get the land back to green a little bit at a time. If he can make these plants grow this year, he can make some more grow next year. There’s no better storage vessel for water, he reminds me, than the soil itself.

IMG_1534

Logan uses sunflowers as trellises for climbing bean sprouts.

But for Logan, this idea of permaculture has a flaw. “I think there’s too much focus on the land and not enough on people.”

We are walking through his neighborhood, the oldest one in Tucson, to see the shrine of El Tiradito. Roughly translated as “the castaway,” this is reportedly the only shrine in the country dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground. The buried soul was reportedly one part of a love triangle, and whether it was the woman involved or one of the men she loved depends on which version of the story you read. Regardless of the shrine’s origins, it has become a symbol of the neighborhood of Tucson Viejo. In part because of the garlanded flowers and votive candles that surround it, and the prayers written on paper and slid into openings in the stone wall. More importantly, however, this shrine has become symbolic because its very existence is the reason the neighborhood exists today.

IMG_1552

El Tiradito shrine.

In the early 1970’s, the city of Tucson began construction on a massive project that would have plowed under the oldest part of the city to make room for a convention center and a freeway. The first phase, which cleared the way for the convention center, was completed, but the neighborhood held on to what was left by getting the shrine of El Tiradito listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As buildings on the register cannot be torn down, the city had to abandon its freeway plans, and the neighborhood managed to live on.

When we get to the shrine, Logan immediately sets about picking up candles that have fallen over and stacking them against the far wall. I join him.

“A lot of people think some places are too holy to touch,” he explains. “But holy things need just as much care as anything else. Maybe more.”

He invites me to leave a prayer in the wall, and I do. I tear a sheet of paper from my notebook and write a prayer for my mother and stick it in the wall. It’s not lost on me that the last time I saw Logan, and the last time I saw Spring, my mother was still alive.

IMG_1553

Prayers left in the crevices of the wall at El Tiradito.

We walk the neighborhood for a while longer. Logan tells me about the plans for his youth poetry workshop, Spoken Futures. Almost by accident, the group has become a torch bearer in the fight to keep Mexican-American studies alive at the high school level in Tucson. This is important, because in 2010 the state of Arizona banned Ethnic Studies classes in all public schools. The decision, particularly because it seemed to specifically target the Tucson Unified School District—which has a very high number of Latino students—was seen as racially motivated. This perspective was upheld recently when a federal appeals court ruled that a lawsuit against the law could move forward.

This is not the first law to generate accusations of racism in the state of Arizona. In 2010, the state also passed a law called SB 1070, which requires law enforcement to determine a person’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” the person might be an illegal immigrant. Despite accusations of racial profiling (the law is known locally as the “papers, please” law), SB 1070 remains on the books.

For many of the kids Logan teaches, these laws feed into the sense that there is a new southwest, and that they are not welcome in it. They are the castaways in this new vision of America, and their isolation is a byproduct of the fear and paranoia that surround debates about immigration. Maybe it’s no accident, then, that Logan envisions the Spoken Futures program being headquartered next to the El Tiradito shrine. Symbolic of the forgotten and abandoned, the shrine still had the power to turn back powerful forces. More importantly, it exists as a reminder of what this city was in its past, and of who laid the groundwork to make much of the state what it is today.

IMG_1560

Eventually, Logan and I wind our way back to the house. Spring is there, and the three of us sit in the kitchen, talking and reminiscing over a life that seems a million miles away on this bright day. Or maybe not. We all shared a moment in a sunblasted country nine years ago, and today we share another moment in another sunblasted country where these two old friends of mine have made their home, and make their stand.

A garden. A writing program. A family. These are people who grow things where people tell them nothing can grow. In the evening, we go to the back porch and watch the sun go down, the light playing on the leaves of the small trees in the garden. They look impossibly green.

IMG_1540

To learn more about Spoken Futures, visit their website right here.

Logan’s website, for all of his multi-media work, is right here. His book, “Sonoran Strange,” is available on the site.