Arizona gothic

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:

O, Fernie, where art thou?

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.

i'll have four boxes of armor-piercing bullets and a side of fries, please.

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

Some highlights:

neigh neigh woo woo

what the elk is going on here?

i know my brand, what's yours?

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.

a big house built for big love ...

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”:

don't do it! things are bound to get better!

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:

cluck you!

cluck you too!

Outside a hardware store:

buy tools so you can carve a big brown bear just like me!

Outside my old high school (home of the Snowflake Lobos):

how lobo can you go?

Even old playground toys started to take on new significance:

when i grow up i want to be mounted outside somebody's home!

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?

anyone ever heard of Travis Walton, the moon man?

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


12 responses to “Arizona gothic”

  1. Lane says:

    Good for you Bry. It’s really nice to see some images after all the years of vivid descriptions.

  2. celia says:

    Nice cropping of the originals. It was fun to be a part of this. I had similar sentiments this last trip, finally coming to grips with why my friends were returning there in droves. Not for me, but why not for them?

  3. i should have given props to my sister for taking most of the pictures. we kind of executed the project together.

    and apologies to anyone else who read this the first hour it was up: what a bunch of typos i left in there!

  4. Dave says:

    Are those animal statues a Snowflake thing, or an eastern Arizona thing, or a rural Southwestern thing, or what? They’re so weird! Growing up in Albuquerque, just a few hours away, I swear I never imagined such a thing.

  5. the statues started showing up way after i left there. i first noticed the horse statues 5 or 6 years ago — and again, they mostly belong to two brothers who live next door to each other. but they keep adding more and more of them, which is why i was intrigued, and the more they added the more i noticed other weird things around town, like the chickens or the high school mascot. maybe there’s a frustrated sculptor out there in the desert who’s found a way to make a living. my parents did mention, though, that i had just missed a traveling flea market extravaganza that included dozens of life-sized animal statues, so maybe it’s a growing trend. supposedly there was a full-sized buffalo somwhere around town but we didn’t have time to hunt it down.

  6. Trixie Honeycups says:

    dave, what about the central ave/louisiana ave lumberjack?

  7. WW says:

    Or the giant arrow sticking up from the Indian School/Carlisle intersection?

  8. ooh. we had giant arrows in az. i used to love to drive by the “twin arrows” truckstop (somewhere near meteor crater on the old rte 66) & see those giant arrows in the ground.

  9. Lisa Parrish says:

    Wish I could post a photo to the comments. I have a lovely one of “Crowder’s Gun -n- Vac” store in Jonesborough (“J-bo” to the locals), Tennessee. Yes, one-stop shopping for rifles, ammo, and vacuum cleaners. And nearby there is a burger joint with a giant chicken outside.

    Rural areas are the nation’s psychedelic Disneyworld.

  10. UPDATE: i sent my lawyer friend in chicago the link to this article and he reminded me that our old debates were more about whether or not we benefited from growing up in a place like that than they were about whether or not he ever seriously thought about raising his kids there. as for *that* debate, i’d still hold that the odds were against us really getting out, no matter the benefits.

  11. James says:

    One of the first dinners with old friends I had when we moved back to Taylor was at your parents house (with Nathan, who didn’t remember me, which was understandable given that he was probably FIVE the last time I saw him).

    We moved back deliberately for family reasons – when my wife and I had Sophie (now 7), we lived on an island off the coast of Washington state. She had one uncle and one cousin. And she was the only grandchild my mother hadn’t seen. Soph was almost two when we moved, and we bought a house around the corner from where I grew up, so she (and her little brother) can walk to grandma’s, and she has fourteen cousins in the immediate area.

    Cindy and I both swore we’d never live there – and there are a lot of reasons it drives us crazy that we do. But we ignore the crazy stuff, embrace the stuff we benefit from, and try to shape the rest of our lives around the things we want to fill them with.

    I survive it in part through terraforming: I took over the old LDS church in Taylor and turned it into my studio –

    The library where your Aunt Eva worked when I was a kid is my office; I teach art classes in the old cultural hall where I remember pinewood derbys; and the old chapel is now a soundstage.

    We also tend to see ‘home’ as a base, where we can return after roaming around. I’m writing this from an office at the Warner Studios in Burbank; in two days, I’ll be reading it over again from my office in Taylor. And in late Spring of next year, I and my family will be spending a few months in Rome, while I finish a novel. And as excited as I am to get to live in Rome – I’m just as excited at the prospect of returning to Taylor having LIVED in Rome. So I guess it’s context, for me.

    Or maybe I’m just trying to have my Trapper’s Pie, and eat it, too.

  12. Julie says:

    Fascinating! Especially because I hail from such a different part of AZ–low brown desert, and unmitigated sun which leaves one listless, far too uncreative to execute such phenomonal animal statuary. I love trying to imagine a life for myself in a place I’ve written off years ago. There is something perversely delicious about it.