When I was in high school, I used to tell friends that someday I’d write a memoir called “I Grew Up in Snowflake, Arizona, and Lived to Tell This Tale.” I’d lived in the little mountain town of 3,000 or so people since birth, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to wonder how a place so remote and insignificant could conceptualize itself as the center of the universe and deem everything outside its borders as frightening and abnormal. My high school years weren’t particularly pleasant, even though I had an abundance of valuable friendships. I was the kid in the Echo and the Bunnymen t-shirt. Kids in Anthrax t-shirts would say, “What’s that? A band — or a gay bar?” and I’d say, gesturing to their shirts, “What’s that? A band — or a bovine disease?”
This year I celebrate the point at which fully half my life has been spent outside that little town. All but four years of the second half of my life has been spent on the East Coast. I’m settled, and I still have the feeling I had when I first saw the Manhattan skyline at age nineteen: that here’s a place for me to feel at home. Though I still think of myself as being from Arizona, it seems a long way off, and I rarely spend more than a week there every two years or so.
When I do go back, it’s the weirdness — the ever increasing weirdness — that first catches my eye. Like this, for instance:
When I was a kid, this was a Tastee Freeze, but we called it “Fernie’s.” Fernie was the older lady who owned the place. We played pinball there. We bought banana-cicles: fresh bananas frozen and dipped in chocolate. I’m not sure when Fernie’s closed, or when it was replaced by Ammo Hut. Maybe it was before McDonald’s finally arrived down the road (which was long after my time); maybe McDonald’s put the Tastee Freeze out of business. Who knows. But the first time I noticed this place, several years ago, I swear the drive thru window was still in operation.
Several years ago, while visiting my parents, I took a roadtrip to Albuquerque to see my friend Farrell. A bunch of us — about a third of the contributors to this site – had converged for a couple New Mexico camping trips. I complained so mightily about the trauma of growing up where I did, recounting a list of oddities like the one pictured above, that they staged an intervention and made me promise to take it to therapy. Five years later, I’m proud to say it’s been effective treatment. Even though my shrink romanticizes the rural west (he thinks I grew up, like Sam Shepard, in some kind of Sam Shepard play, and that I should use it as a source of creative energy), he’s helped me grapple with the need to embrace my geographical roots. Slowly, I’m coming to appreciate things about myself that have rural Arizona origins, like my compulsion to cook for friends who’ve just had a baby or lost a loved one.
I have a friend from high school who’s a lawyer in Chicago. We email every couple years. In our last exchange, he confessed his persistent desire to return to Arizona and raise his kids in our home town. How could you do such a thing to them? I asked. His reasons were easy to name: built-in family networks, back streets where your kids can ride bikes unattended — that sort of thing. It wasn’t until last month, when I returned to northern Arizona for my grandmother’s funeral, that I experienced the least bit of sympathy for what he was saying. Sitting on my parents’ front porch, wind blowing through the elm trees that surround the house they built when I was four or five, watching the kids in my neighborhood roam the streets in packs just like I did as a kid, I saw something of the appeal.
There’s a bit of a timewarp in effect in a town like that. Everything seems to move more slowly than it does in the outside world, and the cumulative effect is that in some ways it still feels like the 1970s there. (In the 70s it probably felt like the 50s.) My brother reassures me that even in 2002, when he graduated from high school and moved away, even with the Internet connecting you to the outside world, it was a pretty bleak place to grow up — and growing worse for kids with no ambition and easy access to meth and oxycontin. And there was a bit of the apocalyptic to most people’s conversations during my recent trip: MySpace, for one, was a danger everyone seemed to be reckoning with. But these new perilous intrusions aside, the place seemed to be on the verge of a building boom. Part of the new growth seemed to come from retirees, but I also ran into people my own age — people who got out, earned professional degrees, and had chosen to move back. Unlike the people who never got out to begin with, these people didn’t seem prematurely aged, weatherbeaten, overweight. They seemed relatively normal, happy, their little kids running loose through the Mexican restaurant where I ate with my parents one night. They seemed to have social lives, to be intelligent and interesting. What kind of a utopian community were they creating for people our age there? Could I ever live there for a year – say, on an NEH fellowship, holed up to write a book?
The thought passed almost before it had a chance to register. What would I have to give up, after all, other than most of the things that make my life meaningful: food, music, art, the ability to see any movie I want on a large screen, no matter how limited the distribution. Relative anonymity. Democrats. Oysters. The ocean.
But imagine what I’d gain: More than anything on this trip I noticed a new abundance of animal statuary. You certainly can’t find this kind of stuff in New York, not even on Freeman’s Alley.
Okay. So far these come from one family. When I was a kid they had a slightly more ornate decorative scheme: dozens of sun-bleached longhorn cattle skulls with horns attached. They had a set of longhorns affixed to the front of their red pickup truck too. They live down the road from my parents and are very nice people, salt of the earth. I went to their home occasionally as a child. Their TV room had more taxidermy than many small natural history museums. Outside their front door hung a buffalo head, and I was told many times during my childhood how my great-great-grandfather had killed that buffalo and given it to its current owner’s father in the early decades of the twentieth century. Like my mother, they had ancestors who had helped settle this town in the 1870s. I grew up down the street from an old 19th-century pioneer mansion their progenitor had built: William J. Flake, literally the guy who put the “flake” in “Snowflake.” (Mr. Snow didn’t stick around to see how things turned out.) The old William J. Flake home has its own horse head statue, mounted to its highest gable. When I was a kid I thought that house was haunted, and I was sure the horse head had something to do with it.
Apparently the cattle skulls and most of the old taxidermy, including my great-great-grandfather’s buffalo, have been relocated to a big barn that’s advertised as a “heritage museum.” Atop that building is my favorite animal statue of all, what I like to think of as “The Suicidal Elk”:
Once I’d taken in this series of animal statues, it was hard not to notice similar ones everywhere around town. Outside a feed store:
Outside a hardware store:
Outside my old high school (home of the Snowflake Lobos):
Even old playground toys started to take on new significance:
Maybe it was the old abandoned playground out behind the local Catholic church, where this photo was taken, but things were starting to take on a sort of carnival freak show feel. Who needs Coney Island when you have stuff like this kicking around town?
At the funeral, an uncle asked me, in his southwestern drawl, if I still lived in the Big Apple. Could you really raise a family there? I said sure. He said, “Well, if that sort of thing works for some people, I suppose there’s no reason they shouldn’t have that option.” Which is how I feel about the hardworking folks I grew up with, many of whom still have the same cars parked out in front of their houses that they had when I was a kid. I’m glad they have that option. And though I’m quite sure I’ll never take advantage of it myself, I can say that if you don’t like where I come from, well, then you can just kiss my big white