Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Future of the Verde Valley May Be the Future of the World

The Future of the Verde Valley May Be the Future of the World
Clarkdale’s Plan for Sustainability
The Outs- November 2009
Ellen Jo Roberts

A completely new concept for the way a town can function is being planned in our very own backyard. It’s such an amazing idea that it could change the state, the country, and eventually shift the entire world. Right here in Arizona’s Verde Valley, a “Sustainability Park” has been mapped, drafted, and is on its way to reality. The park is scheduled to include numerous ecologically beneficial projects, and production of sustainable energies, as well as 75 acres of birding, nature and picnic areas, and a performing arts venue. It’s all happening in Clarkdale, Arizona, USA-- the first “master planned community” in the United States, a company town created by Senator William Clark for the United Verde Copper Company in 1912, the same year Arizona became a state.

“The [Sustainability] Park will become the economic and social engine of the Town of Clarkdale. It will provide enough electrical power to supply the entire town and then some.”
-A Plan For The Future of Our Town, c. October 1st 2009

Clarkdale sits in a picturesque location, between the foothills of Jerome, and the Verde River. Chock full of handsome vintage homes and historic boulevards, the town was ahead of the times from its very beginning. Unlike the haphazard arrangement of its neighbor, Jerome, Clarkdale was well-planned with uncommon-for-the-time amenities, like spacious streets, modern sewer system, street lights, ample parking, public parks, and plentiful activities for the residents of the town. All buildings and homes were built and owned by the United Verde Copper Company (later taken over by Phelps Dodge). The town went bust when the mines closed in Jerome in 1953, shutting down the Clarkdale smelter. With no company to run the company town, Clarkdale fell into chaos-- until a band of citizens petitioned for incorporation. Clarkdale was emancipated from Phelps Dodge in 1957, and became incorporated as a free and independent town. Renowned for its varied vintage architecture, 4th of July and Halloween festivities, summer concert series in the park, and “Made in Clarkdale” art show, Clarkdale is home to Yavapai College, Salt River Materials Group, Verde Canyon Railroad, Tuzigoot National Monument, and the Yavapai Apache Tribe.

The Clarkdale Sustainability Park is the brainchild of the town’s current mayor, Doug Von Gausig. First elected in 2004, Arizona born Von Gausig, is an avid enthusiast of environmental conservation, preservation of wildlife, and sustainable energy for future generations.
He graduated from ASU in 1970 with a degree in biology, followed by 6 years in the Air Force, before settling in the Verde Valley. He has lived in Clarkdale since 1981.

“There are several interrelated goals, that's the beauty of this project. The Town of Clarkdale has been looking for a stable, sustainable source of revenue and economic development since it was founded”, says Mayor Doug Von Gausig. The draft plan for the sustainability park includes an Algal Fuel facility, for growing algae to be converted to biofuel, a biodiesel plant (in cooperation with Jerome, Arizona’s Verde Biofuel), a 100 acre field of photovoltaic cells for solar energy, a recycling center, a potable water treatment facility, and the heart of the plan, a Plasma Converter. For those unfamiliar, a Plasma Converter or “Plasma Gasifier” is a very clean and cutting edge method for disposal of waste, and conversion of waste products into heat and energy.

“It utilizes a very high plasma temperature stream, (similar to the plasma torches commonly used to cut metals) to literally vaporize almost any material that is introduced to it” A Plan For The Future of Our Town, c. October 1st 2009

“I'm particularly excited about the plasma converter”, says Mayor Von Gausig, “This process takes trash, hazardous waste, industrial waste, wastewater sludge - you name it - and converts it to safe, environmentally friendly energy. It literally converts environmental liabilities like landfills, hazardous waste, medical waste, etc. to a beneficial product - and at the same time helps solve our energy supply needs with renewable electricity. It can also supply ‘waste heat’ to other facilities in the park. This might be used to help purify our wastewater to safe drinking water standards. That alone could save the region millions of dollars annually by averting the need to acquire expensive new water resources!”

“The emerging field of algal and photobioreactor fuel holds great promise as a way to wean us from fossil fuels by creating biodiesel from algae. Typically the algae are grown in highly efficient, closed systems (systems not open to the environment). Algae grown in the facility will produce oils that can be converted easily to fuel oil. Typical yields are around 5,000-15,000 gallons of fuel per acre….
The park would have ample space for a Biodiesel production facility. Biodiesel is normally made from used cooking oil and other waste vegetable oils. This facility could be a perfect adjunct to the algal/photobioreactor fuel operation, converting not only waste cooking oil, but also the oils produced in those facilities.”
- A Plan For The Future of Our Town, c. October 1st 2009

Verde Biofuel CEO Tim McLellan said his company is “very excited to be part of such a dynamic, cutting edge project like the Clarkdale Sustainability Park.” McLellan’s company, based in Jerome, manufactures biofuel trailers containing all the necessary components for laymen to brew their own biofuel from recycled cooking oils. “Sustainability is not only the most intelligent approach to preserving our future, it is the only viable approach there is”, continues Mr. McLellan. “The Clarkdale Sustainability Park is an ideal model for several reasons. Clarkdale is a very small community with a forward thinking, progressive attitude that will serve as a very good example for other cities - large and small. With enough usable land, a sewer system already in place and great support from an enthusiastic community, there is no doubt the Clarkdale Sustainability Park will be a successful project”.

Jason Rogers, Verde Biofuel sales and marketing, adds, “It's great to witness this eco-social paradigm shift taking place not only globally, but locally as well. It's only a matter of time before all communities will come to their senses and do something."

According to Mayor Von Gausig, Clarkdale’s unique geographical position at the “top of the Verde Valley’ has always made retail growth a struggle. Clarkdale is not at major crossroads or “on the way” to any place else. The only reason folks come to Clarkdale is if they meant to. So, generating economy from retail businesses is difficult. Main Street is the quiet home to historic gas station, and a handful of bars, offices, and restaurants, with “downtown” anchored by the massive carcass of a former grocery store, now used for storage space, and up for sale for most
of the past 2 decades.

“We have never considered growth in housing a sustainable economy, so we are always looking for alternative sources of revenue so that we can give our citizens the services they deserve”, said the mayor, “This park will be a major source of revenues for the town in a number of ways, and will improve our future economic development with a clean, robust and durable industry. It will bring eco-tourists, governmental students, and business seminars here to see how it's done.

“Second, I think we can all agree that climate change is the biggest long-term threat that our country and the world faces. Whether one believes that warming is human-caused or not, we know that cannot afford to add any more carbon to the atmosphere. We are also facing depletion of fossil fuels and we all know that reliance on oil from foreign sources is contrary to our national interests. The Clarkdale Sustainability Park will produce clean, zero-carbon electricity and fuel, but with a difference. This park transfers the responsibility for reducing our carbon footprint from the individual, where it is now, to the community. I like to say that the Clarkdale Sustainability Park will have the same impact on the environment as if every citizen of Clarkdale changed to LED lighting, had solar panels on their roofs, and we all drove hybrid vehicles. While asking everyone to insulate better and turn off lights is great, it's not getting the job done. We need to take this problem on as communities, no longer as individuals.”

“Third, there is a tremendous need for ‘incubator’ facilities, like the Clarkdale Sustainability Park. In these parks, several different alternative energy installations will be integrated and synergistic. The park will be a place where seemingly unconnected energy producers, like algae and solar power, can come together to help each other solve the energy problems we are facing. The solution will necessarily lie in a diverse portfolio of energy generators - no one technology has all the answers. In the Clarkdale Sustainability Park they will all learn and improvise new ways to work together more efficiently. It will be a very organic operation that will solve problems and create new opportunities by working cooperatively and adaptively.
In addition to these goals, there is Peck's Lake.”

The proposed location for the park is land surrounding Peck’s Lake, a river-fed oxbow lake in Clarkdale. The lake, part of one of Arizona’s very first “Important Birding Areas” as designated by the Audubon Society, was a favorite recreation area enjoyed by Clarkdale residents for 90 years. Once home to a dance pavilion, 9 hole golf course, 4th of July fireworks, baseball games and boat races, the property has survived several ill-planned, ill-fated attempts at housing developments. Currently owned by Phelps Dodge successors, Freeport McMoRan Cooper and Gold, Peck’s Lake has been closed to the public since January 2004, when the town’s $1.00 per year lease expired and was not renewed. The area has reverted to wild, and the day use/picnic areas have fallen into a state of neglect-- the ramadas taken over by nature, and waist-high weeds, the lake choking with non-native species of plants. The lake’s clogged condition has contributed to the decline of bird population in the area.

“The lake was originally built as a source of process water for the smelter and as a recreational facility for the people of Clarkdale …Until 2003 the lake and surrounding property were leased to the Town of Clarkdale and continuously used for recreation, nature watching, fishing, etc. In 2003 the Town’s lease expired and was not renewed, and in December of that year, Phelps Dodge closed the property to the public and it has remained closed since then.
The lake has continued to degrade over the years to the point that diversity of waterfowl and other birds is now less than half of what it was only 10 years ago…
Peck’s Lake is in the process of eutrophication, which is a biological and chemical process that inevitably produces a wet meadow instead of a lake. In order to stop and reverse this eutrophication, the lake would need to be dredged and otherwise deepened, and the noxious weeds removed”
- A Plan For The Future of Our Town, c. October 1st 2009

Peck’s Lake, off limits to the public for 6 years now, has never been far from the mind of Mayor Von Gausig. Several plans have been envisioned for Peck’s Lake over the years, including a “Friends of Peck’s Lake” organization to clean up, monitor and maintain the trails and day use areas.

“If we can acquire the land surrounding Peck's Lake for the park,” says Mayor Von Gausig, “we will be able to rehabilitate the lake and the natural areas surrounding it to one of the premier wildlife habitats in the state. The facilities in the park, like the plasma converter, will all work together to clean up the environment in and around the lake, and will be a tangible demonstration that we can have a vital industrial installation immediately adjacent to a nature preserve with benefits to both.”

The ideal location of Peck’s Lake allows easy nearby access and connecting trails to area highlights such as Tuzigoot National Monument, Dead Horse Ranch State Park, and Tavasci Marsh. The plan includes abundant public space for day use, including an interpretive nature center and hiking trails, pavilions for community functions and performing arts. It also allows space for retail commercial development.

Though local support has been overwhelmingly positive (and unanimous in Clarkdale Town Council), the plan is not without its challenges.
“There will be lots of and lots of challenges, but in the model we are considering - the organic model - we'll see each of the challenges as opportunities to create a new paradigm”, says Mayor Von Gausig, “The entire project is like an organism. It will be faced with new situations every day, and will have to evolve, adapt and meet them in creative ways. Financing, land acquisition, regulatory adjustments, legislative and legal hurdles, coordination of disparate park tenants, and creative management will all be challenges. We will need to stay focused on the prize, though, and as a community we will come together to solve each of them as they arise. The idea is to nurture this organism and allow it to flourish in ways we can't even imagine today.”

“If the Clarkdale Sustainability Park becomes a reality, in what way will it change the Verde Valley? The state? The world?” I ask.
Mayor Von Gausig replies, “The Clarkdale Sustainability Park will become a reality. As it evolves and grows and learns, it will teach other municipalities all over the world. It will become a model of how we can live on this planet without harming our children's and grandchildren's ability to live a good life here, too - the very definition of ‘sustainability’. The initial plan calls for an interpretive center and learning facility that will coordinate seminars and disseminate the knowledge and experience we will generate. I envision communities from all over the globe coming here to see how we do it and how their communities might do something similar. The impact on the Verde Valley, the State of Arizona, the nation and the world is incalculable. This project will truly change how we fund our towns, where we get our energy, and how we relate to our environment. It will be ‘evolutionary and revolutionary’."

For more information:
a copy of the draft for Clarkdale Sustainability Park:
Algal Fuel information:
National Renewable Energy Laboratory:

Doug Von Gausig’s Natural Sounds and Photos at:

Ellen Jo Roberts has lived in Clarkdale since 2001. She voted for Doug Von Gausig. She shares a historic brick bungalow (built in 1914 by the United Verde Copper Company) with Bike Daddy Chad, a cat named Clyde, a Chihuahua named Floyd, and a Boston Terrier named Ivan. Read all about it at

Friday, October 16, 2009

The autumn of my 30s

It’s autumn of 2009, and we’ve been trying to get pregnant, unsuccessfully, for 2 years.
We’re both turned 37 year. My feelings are all mixed up—sometimes dark and confused, but sometimes carefree and relieved. So, as always, as I’ve done for my whole life, I thought maybe if I wrote it down, it would make more sense. Though, sometimes writing it down, shedding light on it, only makes it more confusing. People (usually people with children) usually have lots of well-meaning but annoying words of advice, and it makes me wish my husband had never told anyone we were “trying” for a baby. Now I feel funny, different, flawed, when people know we’ve been trying and not succeeding. Maybe if I write it out I take ownership back and will lose my ugly feelings.

Apparently being a good girl all my life-- losing my virginity at 21 to the man I later married, being of robust good health, with a completely uneventful and calendar-perfect ovulation cycle-- makes me somehow less likely to conceive than:

- Every drunk ass bum that has 5 shoeless kids in a shopping cart at Wal-Mart
- The girl with who didn’t know she was even pregnant until 3 months before her due date.
- A man who used to be a woman, took male hormones for many years, but later successfully was inseminated with a turkey baster. Twice.

It's a mystery how it all works, really! In a book it seems to make sense, how it all works, but the actual practice of it is amazing--The conception of a child is a miracle. People always say that, but I never truly understood it until now. There are so many amazing variables, mixes of different body chemistry, luck of timing-- down to the most microscopic window of perfection. It's amazing to me anyone ever gets born at all. It's truly a miracle.

I wonder what I am doing wrong. Do I eat too much of something I shouldn't? Do I drink too much coffee or beer? Did my magic markers in the 1980s pollute my brain's operating system? Should I not go running as much? Is there something fundamentally amiss that I could never detect on my own, some misstep in my development, something my Mom did/didn't do when I was in the womb? Like those DES Daughters of the 1960s/70s who were born without uteruses? Are my hormones dropping the ball somewhere along the route? So many possibilities. (The main possibility we all know is that I am just too dang old now).

I get angry with my husband because maybe it’s his fault! I see him sitting on the sofa and wonder if every part of him is equally lazy, even the tiniest parts of DNA. Then I get angry with myself for being angry, because that sure ain’t conducive to nothing. Sometimes I think there's nothing wrong with either of us, other than a basic lack of communication--not just in mundane day to day life, chores, bills, what to have for dinner-- but now, evident on the most primordial level. We cannot get our acts together to make a baby.
We don't mix. Our chemistry is wrong.

When I was a kid I was the “pied piper” of youngsters (said my Mom)—all the younger kids flocked to me, and for this I always envisioned I’d be a mom someday—jokingly saying I wanted 9 so I could have “my own baseball team”. I was a camp counselor and there was a time I entertained the idea of going back to school for a teaching degree.
Kids are wonderful, amazing, hard work and full of inspiration. I had a fantastic childhood, so maybe the idea of living through another one with a child of my own, seeing the world again through childlike perspective, is one of the things that drives me towards wanting a baby. Maybe I’m just selfish. I’ve got a lot, and maybe I don’t deserve having more.

I got married young, age 23, to my college sweetheart. It all seemed like a lark because I was too young to know any better. My maternal urge didn’t kick in early, like it does for some. In our 20s we were too busy scrapping for our own survival in the harsh economic climate of our beautiful new state, with barely enough to make ends meet. We lived on love, in small strange places, and did dangerous stunts in the wilderness. No way there was enough time or energy or money for a kid added to the mix.
We also never had any “oops”, which is the way parenthood happens for many. All of my life I’d had a perfectly regular cycle—running so perfectly like clockwork that I quit the pill at age 27, and instead we used natural fertility awareness to avoid getting knocked up. The thought behind it was that when we ready to have a child, it would be a cinch!

I watched family and friends start their families without the tiniest pang of envy. It was great for them, but for me, I was going in the right direction, enjoying what our life was. I remember Chad's brother and his wife struggling with their two young toddlers, as Chad and I got our gear ready to go cross country skiing--I had no interest in trading places with them. We got older, made a little more money, and around age 29, bought a house. "Settling down," but not quite thinking of parenthood yet.

Money concerns still make problems for us, but like a friend told me, “You will always have money worries- don’t wait until your money situation is ‘perfect’- because it never will be.”

Around 35 years old, with both of us on board and in complete agreement with 100% enthusiam about this plan, we started to try for a baby. It would be a lark, a gas, an easy slam dunk! Months passed. Sex, and lots of sex, even when we didn’t wanna, or it was inconvenient. I thought I knew what was what, and when was the ideal timing, but after 6 months of failure, I started writing things down on the calendar, invested in a thermometer, and an ovulation kit. Friends who’d tried for 18 months before having luck told me, “Yeah, been there. Done that. It won’t be until you throw all of that stuff away that you’ll have any progress.” They told us we’d have to “go on vacation” to some strange locale. Strange vacations came and went, and still my monthly visitor arrived right on time, just like she had since age 12. I could not shake her.

Every time my period arrives again, I re-evaluate. I don’t get so upset any more. It’s hard to sustain that level of disappointment and bewilderment for 2 years. People ask me why we don’t get fertility treatments, shots or drugs or medical intervention. There are lots of “procedures”, all very expensive, invasive, and none guaranteed. Every month I think about all of those complicated and slightly creepy tests my doctor mentioned, and every month I forget about them. (Though I do suspect it might alleviate some of my stress to get checked out a little bit more thoroughly).

As far as fertility treatments? I am not for them. Our culture sensationalizes and glorifies that kinda stuff now-- like Jon & Kate Plus 8, and "the OctoMom", and even Brangelina, and the Hollywood people-- churning out all those sets of engineered twins. My Mom apparently had been discussing my “problem” with an aunt, and that was what was she suggested. First off, I hollered at my Mom for talking about this with “people”. It’s not for people to know. It’s for me, and my husband and maybe my immediate family. Or maybe nobody. It’s private. I don’t wanna be the topic of someone’s gossip. Besides that, what if were to go through the whole ordeal, the procedures, the operations, the drugs, the time and money—and create a child who never wanted to exist and wasn’t ever meant to be here?

What if the kid turns out to be an asshole?

I’d rather that kid show up when he or she wants to, naturally—I understand, as we get older, the chance of this decreases.

Why do I want to have a child—is it for the child’s benefit or my own?
Am a selfish dirtbag more concerned with my own feelings than how a child might feel having my husband and me for parents? What if we’d be awful parents and ruin this kids’ life? Or, what if instead of being the best of us, the child is the worst of us? Do I worry no one be around to take care of me in my senior years? Maybe. These things are all possible. Do I feel like I am missing out on “Kids Say the Darndest Things”-style hilarity? Would the world be a better more fun and amazing place if I were sharing it with an offspring? I do not know. Is it my own selfishness to take part in all that life has to offer? Childbirth is a fundamental human experience that I’d like to share in and live through. I think? Maybe I’d be better off seeing the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China, and driving to the tip of South America. These are all fundamental human experiences too, but somehow I’ve been conditioned to think of them as shallow and selfish.

I have friends who are against procreation because they think this world is bad rotten place and they wouldn’t want to bring a child into it. Or they have the type of political beliefs where they don’t eat meat, and they think the world is overpopulated. Me, I am one of those kooky types constantly mesmerized and hypnotized by the beautiful world around me. I have friends and family with young children. I admire them all but do not envy any. I am in admiration of the notion of pregnancy, and admire the women and men who've had the experience.
Each family is not without its own dynamics I’ll never understand, but can completely appreciate. If parenthood is universal it’s not always necessarily in the same language.

My brother and his wife are new parents. Seeing their baby son, at 1 month old, did not inspire more baby lust or maternal urge, as I thought it might. I thought I’d be crazy koo koo bananas for a baby after meeting him. But, in reality, it caused me to backpedal a bit. Thinking, “Wow, this looks like a lot of work. Wow, this kid is taking up all of their time and energy. They’ll have many years of this.”
The baby was a pooping-eating-crying machine. One of my brother’s friends likened his life as a new parent to that of a roadie, cleaning up bodily fluids, and messes, dodging loud noises, moving heavy equipment from place to place.

My brother and his wife both seemed exhausted, but completely happy in a beyond blessed sort of way. Very pleased with this change in their lives, and this new little human sharing their condo. There is now a way their life has forever changed, in a way I cannot share with them, and cannot relate to—only another parent could understand.

We went back home and I thought, “I’m okay with the way life is now, just us, and the dogs and the cat. No crying, no baby gums pinching my breasts, no mustardy colored poop squirting out of diapers, no worries about someone getting chicken pox, or other childhood illnesses. I won’t ever need to help with algebra homework. Sitting on the porch watching the sunset, driving my ancient 2 seater sports coupe, without a worry, without saving for someone’s college fund, just thinking of what might be the next vacation. Oh, it does seem kinda shallow.

But, doesn’t it seem equally shallow to think the world needs to have my genes continuing on into the next 100 years? Maybe the world is done with me, and I should just accept it, and be creative in other ways—in ways I am good at, like making paintings, drawings, photos and stories. Maybe it’s not in the cards for me to have 9 kids like I planned.

I met my nephew when he was a newborn, and far too young focus his eyes more than a couple of feet in front of his face. Before he could smile on purpose. I think if I’d met my nephew when he was a little older, and smiled at me, this would be a completely different story.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Midwestern Melancholy

Midwestern Melancholy
Whirlwind around Lake Michigan
The Outs
The Noise
October 2009
Ellen Jo Roberts

10 days, 3 states, 2 time zones. We managed to spend time with all of our immediate relatives (including the newest family member, a very handsome month-old nephew). We traveled by car, plane, train, trolley, limo, city bus, and foot. We shared space with 5 dogs, 12 cats, 3 ferrets, 2 guinea pigs, and a rabbit. Towards the end of this epic Midwestern adventure I found myself anxious to get back to my Arizona. A lost girl in a big metropolis no longer familiar-- my suitcase smelling funky, full of smoothly polished beach stones, sand, and dog-eared postcards, my cameras exhausted of film, and my chihuahua lonely for his pals back home.

There is something fundamentally forever in the marrow of your bones that comes from the place where you were born. I grew up along the shores of the Great Lakes. Back in my young and dreamier days I whiled away many hours along the beaches of Lake Michigan, imagining my escape to the future. The more years away, the less easy it is to slip back into that world, like a coat that no longer fits, or a radio station on the fritz. I feel less and less like myself. All of my family is back there, and every time I visit I get a little twisted up inside. A pang of longing, for the birthdays, baseball games, and barbecues-- all of the small things I miss out on by being so far away. In my mind everything has stayed the exact same as I left it—so it’s always a surprise to find out that life has gone on without me. My brother and his friends aren’t forever 21, as I imagine them. They’re all married up now, dads, with jobs, car payments and mortgages.

My brother Jim, and his wife, Carla, have a brand new son, freshly born this summer. About 5 weeks old when we met him, he was at the age where he can only focus about 18 inches from his face, and almost starting to learn what they call a “social smile”, smiling on purpose, not just as a symptom of gas. He is awful cute. Jim’s taken to calling “Party Man” and “Shmutzie” for no apparent reason. They’re very good with the baby, and it made me proud to see the family continuing into a new generation with this wee one. My Mom made a big fuss for our visit, making homemade cookies, and other favorite treats. She gathered up some six packs of regional micro-brews for us to enjoy, and took days off of work to go on adventures and spend time with us. Jim and Carla were prepared, with all of their high-tech foldable space age baby gear, to join us for some small day trips around northern Illinois, skirting along corn fields, waiting at stop lights.

The weather in September is green, sunny and cool. Illinois is a breadbasket state. With rich soil and good rainfall, it’s full of farms growing corn and soybeans, all framing the urban and suburban “Chicagoland” metropolis in giant squares of green. DeKalb is about 65 miles west of Chicago, and home to the famous DeKalb corn, the birthplace of barbed wire, and Northern Illinois University. The art degree that hangs on the wall in my Arizona home is from Northern Illinois University. It’s where I met the man I married, as well as some of my favorite life long pals.

Took a stroll with the family around the campus lagoon, lush with willows, and Canada Geese, after a sundae at Ollie’s, “DeKalb County’s Best Custard Stand” (though any NIU student, current or former, would venture to say that it’s best of the whole state).

On the topic of alma maters, somehow, my 20th high school reunion happened to fall right during the time of our vacation. Naturally we had no choice but to attend. Lane Technical High School, Chicago, Class of 1989. With a student body averaging about 4,000 kids, there were about 1,000 students in my graduating class 20 years ago. Lane is a giant powerhouse of a public school, anchoring down the entire north side of the city. Back before the Information Age, when everything was still done by hand, the school was renowned for its technical programs: print shop, metal shop, machine shop, electric shop, drafting, commercial art. For many years we were the only high school in the U.S. that printed our own yearbooks. An education at Lane could fast track a graduate right into a trade. Nowadays, the shop programs have all been eliminated, and they no longer print their own yearbooks.

“Despite your bursts of creative thought, you are a wonderful person. Take care of yourself, be kind to small animals, and above all wear your seat belt. Live long and prosper. I’ll see you in 20 years.”- written in my senior yearbook by an art class buddy.

I liked high school. I earned a lot of skills, and friends that are all still valid to my life. One of the things that made Lane Tech such a great school was its huge population—a kind of microcosm of the city around us, with every nationality, attitude, and personality. There wasn’t just one “in-crowd”—everyone had their own in-crowd, and cross-referenced with every other group, like the ultimate mix-‘n-match. So, despite the $95 ticket price (!), I was excited about the reunion all summer. I bought a new party dress, and new party shoes and made a new necklace just for the reunion. As it turns out, I don’t know what I’d been so excited for! Because the reunion wasn’t really any good! I do not regret attending, but it was a disappointment. Only about 10% of my graduating class managed to attend. So, while there were some favorites and surprises, there were many more notably absent. Like my art class buddy who practically promised he’d be there via his yearbook inscription in 1989. Damn him.

Also, the DJ was terrible, playing loud-ass contemporary crunk, forsaking all headbanger, hippie, house, new wave, and old skool hip-hop folk in the crowd. The only thing of “our era” he managed to mix in was an endless stream of Michael Jackson, since the reunion happened to fall on the late Virgo’s 51st birthday. (Especially ironic, since Jehovah Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays).

Some favorite friends and delightfully surreal moments made it worth all the hassle and distance we went through to get there, but overall the interaction with fellow graduates was superficial, shouted over loud music, and not very fulfilling. Everyone looked pretty good—a little taller, a little bigger. The women either got rounder, or more angular.

Some arty pals had the right idea and cleverly crashed the party at 10:00pm, just in time for the group photo, and some free drinks. Why hadn’t we thought of that? We did manage to make a good time of it - knocking back some gin & tonics, and dancing to Michael Jackson. Late, tired, baffled by misty rain and confusing streets, we got lost trying to get out of there, completely flummoxed by the web of cloverleafs, and parking lots, with Chad trying to find our way by the moon, Arizona style, and having no luck.

While family, and reunion could be considered recurring themes of this trip, another would be trains. Chicago is well known as a major rail location, with intersecting lines connecting all over the United States, and almost every where you look. The Fox Valley Trolley Museum in South Elgin, Illinois, is home to a collection of vintage rail cars from the Chicago Transit Authority and South Shore Line, and a 1902 trolley that is the oldest “intra-urban” still in use. We’d passed this place, on historic Route 31, along the Fox River, many times, and figured it was a good easy day trip for the Shmutzie gang. Baby’s first train ride! One of the things that fascinates me most in Midwest is rust. It’s almost cute when I see it, since it’s so foreign to Arizona. Rust is everywhere in Illinois- it’s like its own world, language, planet of rust. I could wander that museum yard and take photos of the faded patina and jagged rust decorating the old rail cars for hours.

With the infrastructure of the city, public transportation and help of family and friends, we were able to save some bucks and get around without renting a car. A train from Chicago took us towards where Chad’s family lives, in Southwestern Michigan. The South Shore Line was a famous holiday route during the golden age of rail travel, to take vacationers from Chicago to the beaches of Southwestern Michigan. It still runs daily, mainly as a commuter route between downtown Chicago and northwestern Indiana, miraculously allowing pets aboard, provided they are sequestered in a travel carrier.

For $7.00 each, we were on the 10:10am departure from Chicago’s downtown Millennium Station, with Floyd snoozing in his airplane case, headed east to Beverly Shores, Indiana. Chad’s folks drove down from South Haven, Michigan to collect us on the beach at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Beverly Shores was a summer vacation destination concocted by a real estate developers, Frederick and Robert Bartlett in the 1920s and ‘30s. The development never panned out much, but the town does have the most adorable 1929-built depot ever. I was in love with the depot and its stylish neon sign long before I ever even saw it in real life. When the train dropped us off there it was like meeting a movie star, since I’d admired it from afar for so long. From the tracks to the beach, it’s a ½ mile walk. We trekked down the road, dragging our tightly packed luggage to the shore like an episode of “The Amazing Race”.

Beverly Shores is famous for one thing other than the delightful Mediterranean Revival train depot. After Chicago’s 1933-34 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair, Robert Bartlett had several buildings from the “Homes of Tomorrow” exhibit barged across Lake Michigan and dumped unceremoniously on the dunes of Beverly Shores. Bartlett thought they’d make a good gimmick to attract vacationers. However, the display homes, which weren’t built to last, soon fell into disrepair and many decades of neglect.

It wasn’t until the National Park Service took over control of the homes, that they were placed on the Register of Historic Places in 1986. In a program implemented in partnership with the State of Indiana, and its Historic Landmarks Foundation, stabilization and restoration of the homes began. Featuring 1930s visions of the future-- cultured stone, enamel paneling that could slide in and out and change the color of your home, a place for an airplane hangar underneath the kitchen (since everyone in the future would be having their own airplane, naturally!)—each home was an idealistic pre-fabricated vision of a tomorrow that never happened. Of the original 16 Century of Progress homes, 5 still survive at Beverly Shores—each in varying stages of restoration. The program is a success due to private individuals who applied and were awarded the opportunity to restore the homes in exchange for 30-year leases. After 30 years, the homes revert occupancy to the National Park Service. Each October there is a tour of all 5 homes: the Florida House, the Armco-Ferro House, the Cypress Cabin, the Wieboldt-Rostone House, and The House of To-Morrow.

The rural dune lands around Lake Michigan are glorious--steep sand dunes anchored by beach grasses, with birch trees flickering in the wind like Arizona cottonwoods and aspens. Chad’s Mom is a rock hound, gathering up smooth stones and lake-flattened rocks until her pockets are full and dragging towards the ground. Southwestern Michigan is peaceful-- one can see why it would be a respite from Chicago’s hustle and bustle. For me, it’s full of memories from summer camp days, perfect sunsets, and times long ago.

Our Roberts nieces and nephews are age 9, 10, and 11, old enough to toss around in the surf, and tell horror stories around the campfire. They live in a big old frame home on a typically leafy South Haven street. Their life is full of bikes, scooters, games, craft projects, a trampoline, a tree fort, and myriad critters—guinea pigs, cats, dogs, ferrets, and a rabbit. If I were a child I’d love to grow up in that house with them. They also have a chihuahua named Snooky, and had planned to marry her off to Floyd when we arrived. (When spooky Snooky didn’t show the least bit of interest in fearless Floyd we figured the wedding was probably a bad idea).

Chad’s parents live a short walk from the beach, and we walked down to the pale sands of the shore to see the sunset every day.

Michigan’s Van Buren Dunes State Park is a nice place to spend an afternoon, enjoying a picnic of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and soda (they call it “pop”). We spent a day running up and down dunes, hanging out on sandbars in the cold lake water, collecting rocks, and soaking up the last moments of Michigan summer. Labor Day in the Midwest is something a bit melancholy-- the end of summer and return of colder seasons. For us in Arizona it is precisely the opposite---joyous at the thought of cooler days, and the end of summer’s heat. Throughout this trip I couldn’t help but compare and contrast my Arizona life with this Great Lakes life I’d left behind, wondering how I’d be different had I stayed. Would I talk faster? Walk faster? Be more serious or more silly? Would I look older or younger? Rounder or more angular? What kind of career might I be in? I’d certainly drive a newer car, because that’s what people do there in the Rust Belt.

After several days in Michigan we headed back to Chicago via train, and spent an evening with a high school pal, Heather and her fiance, Mike. They are both tri-athletes, in preparation for an upcoming “half-Ironman”, both very fit and driven. Heather and Mike live in a hip north side neighborhood called “Roscoe Village”. When we were kids we just called it “Grama and Grampa’s neighborhood” because that’s where my grandparents lived. There was no glamour back then, just elderly folk pushing shopping baskets to the local corner stores. Now it’s full of boutique shops, young families, and fancy cafes.

My Chicago friends have so many places to choose for breakfast that they’re sometimes completely incapacitated by the abundant selections. They sit there, thinking of all the too many options. “We don’t have this problem where we live,” I joke, but nobody laughs. They’re so wrapped up in their city lifestyles they have absolutely no interest in what exactly it is we do in Arizona. It is the very end of the trip, and at this moment I feel like such a total foreigner, fresh off the boat in my weird skirt, and cameras slung around my neck. I look at my cluttered suitcase, think of the Karmann Ghia waiting for us at Sky Harbor, and the road home through the desert night.

Why is it that I always look my best in my own bathroom mirror?
Maybe it’s simply proof that “you can never go home again.” Doesn’t stop me from trying, because many of the people I love most in the world are back there. Maybe it is a symptom of Arizona living. This is my home now. I feel most like myself most here, more than anyplace else. The air, the sky, the elements in the dirt. They are in the marrow of my bones now, too.

For more information:

Fox Valley Trolley Museum
Ollie’s Frozen Custard
Lane Technical High School
South Shore Line
Century of Progress Homes

Ellen Jo Roberts was born in Cook County, Illinois in the spring of 1972. She lives in a 95 year old house in Clarkdale Arizona, with a 37 year old husband, a 9 year old cat, a 6 year old chihuahua, 5 year old Boston Terrier and an assortment of vintage Volkswagens that remain well-preserved in the dry desert climes. You can read all about it at

Friday, August 21, 2009

Small Life- The Outs, May 2009- The Outs, The Noise

Small Life

May 2009 Outs
The Noise
Ellen Jo Roberts

I live a small life in a small town. This is not to say I don’t have big ideas, larger than life friends, and huge adventures. It also doesn’t mean I’m small-minded, uptight, or xenophobic. I just live in a small place. Very small. So small that it is sometimes absent from abbreviated maps. And my life is just as small, because I both live and work here, in Clarkdale, a historic “company town” that never outgrew its waistband much. Surrounded by wilderness, and framed by vintage boulevards, I seldom have reason to leave.I savor the tiniest aspects of this small life. The random new wildflowers that appear in my yard. Lizards sunning themselves on the hot bricks of our house. A posse of javelina on my favorite running trail. Familiar faces and autos, folks waving and smiling as I walk my dogs up Main Street. The way the night air is scented with soap and static cling as I stroll past the laundromat, reminding me of a Mexican motel I stayed at once. The postmaster knows me by name, and remarks on the packages and letters I receive.

It’s remarkable to me how small and specific my life has become, because I grew up in the biggest of places, a sprawling megopolis full of every technology, nationality, religion, commerce, and possibility. Any band you wanted to see, any fashion you wanted to buy, any type of food or beverage imaginable. World class art and science museums, prestigious schools, and an amazing network of public transportation and city services. It’s funny that I have almost none of that at my fingertips now, in my very small life. I grew up in the city of Chicago, a major urban area along the southwestern coast of Lake Michigan, named after the wild garlic that used to thrive along its marshy shores. I was a city kid, taking buses and trains, and hanging around downtown. My public high school had 4,000 kids (more than the population of the town where I now live). I lived there until my early 20s, prior to getting the itch for sunshine, big skies and wide open west.

Remember that ol’ Tex Avery cartoon, about the country wolf and the city wolf? They were cousins, those wolves, and they went to visit each other in each respective location. The country wolf was a total freak in the city, just completely overwhelmed by all the urban activity, while his city cousin was as cool as a cucumber. That is, until the city cousin got out to the country to visit and went completely bonkers himself, overwhelmed by the natural rural beauty (and a sexy rural she-wolf). I asked big city folk what they liked about the country, and asked small town folk what they missed about the big city. And vice versa. I got some very thoughtful and thought-provoking responses.Natasha Shealy, a much-beloved voice here at the Noise, moved from a rural western town--Cornville, Arizona -- to a rural eastern town, Marshall, North Carolina. She’s also lived an urban lifestyle in cities like Tucson, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Shealy takes her sultry big city swagger with her wherever she goes, captivating small communities with her energy. “I miss the exotic foods of the big city, the frenetic energy, the intellectual current”, she says, “In the city you can buy stainless steel trash-cans after 5pm. In the city men wear really tight pants.” (Shealy has this theory she is continually hashing out, about men in loose pants vs. men in tight pants, and what it means from a sociological standpoint. I’m not sure if we’ll ever fully find the answer.) “To quote a friend, I am a ‘small town-junkie’ and have lived in my share of charming one street towns ‘til I returned home to Marshall, North Carolina, which is hands-down tops for small towns across America. Old Town Cottonwood gets my vote for second coolest small town, for its proximity to the river, the naughty charm of Kactus Kate's, and the irreverent peacocks who have inspired many a late night poem”.

My brother Jim, a true city slicker who prides himself on never having lived more than 10 or 11 miles from Wrigley Field, thinks that I know everybody in the Verde Valley, and that folks here are, in general remarkably friendly to strangers. “The stars in the sky stand out a lot more in a remote small town, but I’ll gladly forego a few stars for access to an occasional 3:00am taco.” Accessibility to goods and services is definitely a common concern with city folk. They're accustomed to being able to get whatever they want whenever they want it, and are unsure how they'd deal with someplace where the sidewalks roll up at sunset.

Jeremy McReady was in my 3rd grade class. I'll always remember him as a freckle-faced trouble-maker with a twinkle in his eye. He now lives only about 6 miles from his childhood home. “I was born and raised in Chicago, but we used to take weekend trips to a small Michigan town," he said. "Some of my fondest memories are the ones of isolation and nature. The walks in the woods, the fishing, catching frogs, bonfires with family and friends. I always remember a feeling of dread when we would pack up, look for the cat, Winifred, and start the 3 hour trek back. When you drive back the radio stations change and the music seems more aggressive."

Clarkdale resident, Doreen Gribauskas has an urban tale to share. "When I moved to New York City, I had culture shock for 3 months. The city life is so extremely wonderful and terrible all at once. You can see Monet's water lilies one moment and a Vietnam vet with no legs asking for pennies on the subway the next. I used to work down on 14th street making costume jewelry. It was right next to a meat packing plant. There'd be sides of beef hanging on hooks right on the sidewalk, butchers covered in blood, dumpsters full of bones. After work sometimes we'd get a 40oz and sit in the park nearby and watch the transvestites get ready for the night. Full-on meat market, human and bovine. Nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there!"

Elaine Bell-Quinn is a Chicago girl, though, when it comes to big cities she prefers NYC for being just a tad more cosmopolitan. "Living in Chicago, I miss New York City. New York City was great for having my laundry picked up, laundered and delivered, undies folded and back to me in the same day,” she laughs, “Amazing sushi delivery, and hearing many different languages on the block. The awesome, fully-stocked corner deli. The neighborhood feel of the city is so different. When I've lived in smaller communities, well, let's say I stuck out like a sore thumb."

Erik Kuska, a Los Angeles animator, artist and puppet master, grew up in Moscow, Idaho, a small town with gravel roads, county fairs, and a 4-H Club. “It was the slowest place on earth to me, but now that I’m racing away in my late 30's, I miss it,” says Kuska. “Small towns to me were people waving as they walked by. A nod on the sidewalk, or a greeting on the trail. Pleasantries. People stopping when you were in the ditch or helping when your horses got out of the pasture. Front door is unlocked, windows left open… But an early trip to California had me yearning for bigger things.” Kuska moved to the Chicago suburbs, then later Los Angeles, and later, overseas to London, England for a time. “Your speedometer picks up as suddenly you’re driving faster, and hoofing it on busy sidewalks to catch trains and make meetings. It’s almost like people become obstacles rather than conversations. You’re dodging rather than greeting, and that’s that. I think all your senses get assaulted with the constant white noise of the city and cars and construction… Emotionally you have a lot more to compare yourself with. The fancy car on the right, the guy’s ipod in the elevator, the houses, the restaurants, the wines… Cities also get you to buy into some ridiculous concepts like $12 beers at Laker games, and $20 valet parking. As a farm kid, paying to have some guy park your car is the silliest thing, right next to bottled water for $3 or a cup of coffee for $4. But soon that’s what you’re doing. Your life becomes linked to your car, and drive-thrus, and traffic.

“Cities were fantastic as they always provided some event, or museum or destination to get excited about...Growing up in a small town taught me to enjoy being with myself, and being around the cities and masses exposes me to multitudes of ideas and concepts. And I find strength in both of those.” Kuska makes another fine point on small town life. Everyone knows your private business in a small town. “My mother, who grew up in McHenry Illlinois, well, she disliked the small town for the main reason that everyone knew everything. The gossip between house-moms, and just being under the microscope of a place where everyone knows each other. Yes, that help is there when you need it. But that pressure is there if you have unique thoughts and the community does not share them. Go to a big city and your neighbors don’t really know you so you can disappear from all that. And even I can admit I’ve had some nights out, where I wanted to disappear and had the pleasure of knowing none of these people knew me or my parents, and I was gonna cut loose!”

In a place like Jerome Arizona, I imagine most people in town have seen each other naked, helped each other through the best of and worst of times, and shared gossip about their neighbors as regularly as breathing oxygen.

Laura Jones of Clarkdale, commonly spotted in the vicinity of Miller’s Market on Main Street, is a native of Long Island, NY, "In my small town, I love picking up my mail at the post office and running into neighbors and chatting. I love attending town meetings where you can actually voice your opinion and think that someone might actually be listening. I love sitting on my front porch and having neighbors just stop by for a chat or beer. In the city, I love reading a great book while riding the subway. I love not driving a car every day."

One small town concern I’ve heard expressed from many of my singleton chums, is echoed by city girl Dianne Tennison of Chicago, “After having stayed in Arkansas for a few weeks during my divorce, and after having seen what my dad got stuck married to where he lived... the dating pool sucks for us singles in small towns."

Mark Dolce is a photographer in Cody, Wyoming. “We, as humans, not necessarily man or woman, cannot live without altering our environment. To what extent is shown in the result of towns, villages, cities, campsites, roads, urban sprawls, golf courses ... a Circle K stuck out in the middle of nowhere or a farm or a field of corn or cotton,” says Dolce,“I prefer small towns - especially since 9-11 when every large environment with tall buildings and highly concentrated areas of people became potential targets. They always were but since 9-11 it became a reality. I do not like to see the air I breathe, I prefer wide open spaces, the landscape is pregnant with meaning ... even the cement jungle and asphalt playground we create in cities each has their own energy to offer.” Katrina Djberof is native to the Pacific Northwest, but she’s lived all over the Americas, both North and South, in cities big and small. “Life in the city that I love,” Djerbof begins, “…the diversity of city culture, food, music, independent media and film, community-owned radio. Individual fashion, dumpster-diving, community activism, reclaiming public space. Riding bikes all over, public transportation, avid recycling, community gardens. Lots of people, the small districts in contrast to the downtown bustle. The geography of Seattle, the walkability of San Francisco, the greenness of Portland, the absolute hectic-ness of Lima & Quito, and the architecture in Buenos Aires - lots of socializing,” flipping the coin, she continues, “Small town living that I love: conservation/preservation activism. A broad spectrum of ages in almost every enclave of activity. Knowing your neighbors, people pulling together to help one another out. The lack of traffic, beautiful sunrises & sunsets, little to no light pollution, spending more time at home and in the garden nesting."

Tina Raymond, grew up urban on the east coast, and now lives in Clarkdale. She rhapsodized over Jerome’s “Mountain Stranded Time” mentality, where time just moves more slowly, where people get sweetly stranded unawares. Raymond waxed poetic about its “2 lane highways, ‘get there when we get there’, walking main street at 2:00am of a misty morning, alone, window shopping.” Mountain Stranded Time hypnotizes us. The pace pacifies us. People just end up here, en route to somewhere else, they just end up staying. Driving to Sedona for a mundane errand I always think, “This is someone’s dream vacation.” The thrill never gets old for me. Maybe because I’m from another place, and I will never lose the romantic notions that drew us here. Sedona realtor extraordinaire, Jolynn Greenfield, offered some interesting opinions on this topic, as she deals with city folk all the time, seeking their own bit of wilderness and big sky. “Recently I sold a home in a [Sedona] neighborhood to a client who also has a penthouse in Minneapolis. She shared that they love the quiet, for a little while -- thus the Sedona purchase-- but they really love the shows, the food, the proximity to the action that they enjoy from their penthouse in ‘the city’.”

My cousin Johnny is a Chicago policeman, though he recently lived in Wyoming for a year or so and it put a spell on him. He's always debating heading back, despite the lower wages, "I gotta say that I liked small town living. It has its drawbacks, like no real place to eat, the shops are limited, the restaurants close early, etc. But life is slower. There is less tension. Maybe it’s where I lived as opposed to small towns in general. The mountains for me, and Jackson specifically, is the place to be. It offers the things that Chicago cannot. I missed my family, friends, home, all of that. But I liked the pace, the feel, the people, the fact that you can leave every door open to everything you own and no one will come in."

Michelle Hayman of Clarkdale sums it up with, “I have lived in the city, and it has its pluses, but I like where I am.” My small life is fully portable to every location. I have a different way of seeing since I’ve lived in the boonies so long. Spotting details I probably used to miss in the hustle and bustle of big city life. On a recent summer visit to Chicago I pointed out a large electric-green katydid in the shrubs near my brother’s condo. I plucked it up into my hand. He was duly impressed saying he’d not seen a katydid “in years”. As I set it back down on a leaf I thought, “I’m sure it’s always out here. He just didn’t see it.”

Artist and photographer Mark Foltz lives in Rimrock, a quiet community on the fringes of Camp Verde, AZ. “If you think of the total of your sense perceptions as a bubble that surrounds you, small towns allow that to expand. Your awareness increases,” says Foltz, “In the city, we have our defenses up to some extent, 24/7. That bubble of perception that surrounds us becomes smaller and harder; natural self defense, and less overall awareness. I like it here way better. I'm less stressed and more aware than I ever was in Akron or L.A.”

Big cities, despite their often times overwhelming metropolitan areas, are generally a collection of neighborhoods, knitted together, each with their own version of small life, with each neighborhood full of folks who seldom need to exit its bordering intersections. Each neighborhood has its own cast of characters, and favorite haunts. In certain regards, I am forever a city girl, since I need that structure of a community. I don’t know if I’d thrive living in a remote cabin in the forest, no neighbors, no library, no parades, nor pals. When I was finishing college and told an art professor my plan to move to Arizona he scoffed at me a bit. "You’ll be a big fish in a small pond there,” he said. I think he was sometimes right and sometimes wrong. I do miss some aspects of big city life, and have wondered where I’d be now had I remained there. But I also know this fact: fish will grow as big as the space allows them to. Maybe we’re all big fish with lots of room to brew up our big, huge, brilliant ideas.

Ellen Jo Roberts has lived in Chicago, and DeKalb, Illinois, and Flagstaff, Jerome and Clarkdale, Arizona. If you see her walking her famous dogs be sure to holler and wave as you drive past. Visit for abundant silliness and good-natured amusements.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Shopping Mall

I went shopping for new clothing this weekend. Specifically to find a party dress for my class reunion. Foolishly, I decided I needed to go to Prescott for some chain stores, and shopping malls, to get the best overview of what's available out there in the world. The Verde Valley doesn't offer much in way of retail.

Let me go back to the early days of my shopping career and say I have never been an avid shopper. I have always lacked both the bucks, as well as that crucial "shop til ya drop" gene. After about 2 hours of hustling and bustling, and shopping bags rustling, I am DONE. Not just for the day, but for several months. Until the next season, or the next time I need to buy a specific bit of attire- new jeans, shoes, a dress for a party.

Besides that, when you're rockin' a bod like mine, it is not easy to find clothing that fits. Everything seems scaled for people who have less shoulder, less bust, less height. Off the rack clothing is both too big and too small on me at the same time. You'd think bigger sizes would be proportionately bigger, but they are not. They are still designed for narrow shoulders, and short torsos. Frustration. Besides that, a few spins through the mall shops, and you notice it all starts looking the same. Every last bit of it.

The style I want does not exist in the modern day shopping mall. A search for party dresses turns up 2 specific species that I have zero interest in...

First up, "faux boho", long ass polyester paisley hippy dippy spaghetti string gowns that look like something groupies for the Black Crowes might wear.
Second option, matronly things with sequins, looking like what a senior citizen might wear to the Chamber of Commerce awards banquet. There are few other options--Maybe something called Business Attire with coordinated suit jackets. Everything is sleeveless, which doesn't do me and my ham-like farmer-tan arms any favors. Legs are good, arms not as much. (When did sleeves go extinct?)

There was nothing available anywhere, no hint of the family that I am looking for.
Colorful, classic, vintage styled--what you think of when you hear the phrase "party dress"! Flouncy bottom, cinched waist, cap sleeves-- just cute, elegant, and great with a strand of beads or two. Nice fabrics. Nothing too dated or trendy as far as patterns. Fitted to the female form. Several hours wasted in Prescott and Prescott Valley, I went home empty handed, and feeling more like a misfit than ever.

In my younger days, when I had more time than money (now I have little of either!), I'd rummage through secondhand stores in Chicago, and Dekalb for awesome vintage party dresses--and tailor things to my liking. My sewing skills are weak, but I managed to snip and hem. You'd think Arizona thrift shops would be full of western style awesomeness--- however, the reality is that they're swollen with Wal-Mart discards, and much senior-citizen polyester. I would be suprised to find any garment of real quality at my local Goodwill.

On Sunday, I went to a little local dress shop, in Cottonwood and found a whole bunch of what I was looking for. It practically clobbered me in the face as I walked in the door. The place was rife with precisely the style I was seeking! Two or 3 people had suggested that I go there --"Ellen this is your kind of place. Everything there reminded me of you..."and I hadn't listened, until now. I regret not going sooner-- I could have avoided that entire mall debacle. Lesson learned.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hobos and Weirdos I Have Known and Loved

Eventually I'd like to stockpile all of my old favorite articles from the Noise, in one easy-to-read location-- maybe here.
This one, a favorite of mine, was published in May 2008. My recent visit to Flagstaff inspired me to revisit it....

Hobos and Weirdos I Have Known and Loved
May 2008 "The Noise"- The Outs
By Ellen Jo Roberts

Flagstaff is a railroad town with a long history of hobos arriving via boxcar. Despite downtown's current boutiquey chic, it wouldn't take much to scrape away the glossy veneer, revealing a seedy underbelly populated by vagabonds. Summer breezes bring an abundance of weirdos, rolling in with their knapsacks, all enjoying the mild climate of outdoor living and the plentiful public land. I have known my share of hobos and I have adored them all. Their certain je ne sais quois adds invaluably to the flavor of any town.

First of all, I'd like to clarify what I mean by hobos. I do not include trust fund hippies ("trustafarians"), all traveling in artfully disheveled colonies, resting under downtown shrubs with at least 1 vaguely feral looking dingo mutt. They are hobo-wannabees, easily outted by their good teeth, expensive faux bohemian sandals, and a fanciful romantic notion of what it means to be a tramp. My ol' pal Brian called them "hippycrites". Hippycrites were a pet gripe of ol' Bri. Hypocritical hippies that complained about the government yet "used federal highways and got food stamps".

When I speak of hobos I mean the true busted, broken down, woolly weirdos who are living on the fringes of reality and the thinnest margins of society. They may have at one point had normal lives, jobs, families, in some land far away-- but in their current incarnation they have become "that weirdo". Often times with a geographic designation---"that weirdo who hangs out on Leroux" or some other modifier-- "that weirdo in the white jumpsuit on the bike", "that midget weirdo who pushed the baby stroller", etc. Even people who do not know their names have created a name for them and recognize them from the details.

I grew up in a big city and took public transportation so I am well conditioned to the presence of vagrants and vagabonds. My father, a Chicago policeman, called them "bust -outs". Just a catch-all term for folks living outside of regular society. Maybe homeless, maybe not. Maybe crazy, maybe not. Maybe broke, maybe sitting on a big bank account that nobody ever seemed to discover until long after their death. There were many weirdos in every neighborhood, weirdo mascots specific to a certain street or park, and while not all of them were harmless, the majority were as more frightened of us than we were of them. Each had their own eccentricity, a funny walk, a bad hairstyle, pants pulled up too high or hanging too low. Most shared the common characteristic of muttering to themselves.

Flagstaff attracts a wealth of weirdos. The rails and major interstates all converge on the picturesque mountain town. It is easy to blend in with the eccentric mix of natives, foreign tourists, and college students. It's a place where everyone is passing through, for a day, a week, or a few years. There were many favorite weirdos and freaks in Flagstaff. Remember that mystical fellow with the cape and the staff, fancying himself a wizard of some kind? What was his deal? How about that guy who rolled his VW Bus, then had it towed to a parking lot where he continued to use it as habitation for himself and several cats. There was that old fellow from Virginia who smoked a pipe and occasionally donned his army dress suit, complete with a chest full of medallions. I still think of that lil' guy called Herman, the small slumped wanderer of downtown, in his sweaty trench coat and slicked back hair. I never heard him say a word, but I once saw him smile. When Herman died many folks truly lamented his passing.

A visit to the Flagstaff library always was a certain opportunity to catch a bustout snoozing in a comfy overstuffed chair. Many of these random characters had been 86'ed from most of the bars in town, and several of them had a tendency to piss their pants. At one time, in the not too distant past, rivers of piss polluted downtown Flagstaff. "Dolores the Dwarf" was one of the famously incontinent. She was, as her moniker implies, a dwarf. She was elderly, with a mop top of shaggy white hair, and could often times be seen awakening from her favorite sleeping spot, in a doorway on Aspen Street. She would push a baby-stroller full of all of her meager belongings, swearing at cars and pedestrians, calling everyone foul names, muttering "hippies, punks, communists, polacks!" under her breath as she struggled with her stroller.
"I wonder of she has a family somewhere?" I mused, one day.
"They probably dumped her off here, like a stray dog." I was sworn at by Dolores, and it brightened my day every time. Every encounter with a weirdo enriches my life and adds another tale for the archives. Their outlooks are so vastly different they may as well be from a different planet, or a time traveler from a different millennium.

Grubbs was a favorite character in my Flagstaff story. Sometimes called "Chuck", or "Shiloh", but mostly just called Grubbs. A religion could be built on his teachings, and in fact, my friend Alice created one—she called it The Church of Grubbs. He lived in a motel on Route 66 and went to the Monte Vista Lounge every day to play the ponies at the off-track-betting. Legend has it he once got arrested for peeing off a roof. He was tall, robust and rumpled, with one pant leg tucked into his boot and one left untucked, a sure sign of craziness. There was something Bill Murray-esque about him, something endearing, crooked and oafish like Carl Spackler in Caddyshack. He talked in a blurred, deep, rolling mumble. Most of the time he talked about Eva Braun, Idi Amin, and the Playboy Bunny, a stream on non-sequiturs, though this was occasionally punctuated by sudden bout of clarity. Sometimes he bordered on the brilliant and profound.

He told me he had been a cop. I said, "Wow, that had to be a tough job!" He responded, suddenly articulate, "Nope, easiest job in the world. You put on that uniform and (*snapped fingers*) you get anything you want." Another time, out of the blue he said, "How many people do you think went to Harvard and don't remember it?"
One time he said, "You're my girl, right?" as he walked by and I went weak in the knees. I am Grubbs' girl! He thinks I am his girl!

Perhaps his most enduring comment was his common salutation: "How's yer politics?" I myself have used this to greet people for years. It is perfect.

Grubbs stole a waitress' tip from off the counter and left 3 cigarettes in its place. Some kind of fair trade in his mind. One time I saw him eating flowers out of a planter on Route 66. He was enchanting. Alice asked to take his photo. "For 'The Winner's Circle'? Sure," he said. I'm not sure what the Winner's Circle was, but he for sure was in it, in his mind anyway, wrapped in flowers standing next to his favorite horse. We were also winners, because his image was forever captured for posterity. In the shadowy photo he is sleepy-faced, slightly crooked, with tilted posture, his eyes half closed, and his mouth half open because he of course he hadn't stopped talking the whole time. I wonder what ever happened to Grubbs. Maybe he is still around, playing the ponies now at the Museum Club, eating flowers along the roadside and trading for cigarettes. Maybe he drifted on to greener pastures, or was finally collected back up by his family far away. Maybe he had escaped and they'd been looking for him for years. I wonder if he had any children or was ever married. Maybe he finally made it to the Winner's Circle.

Despite my mom's best teachings I have a habit of talking to strangers, the stranger the better. It is because I know they will always share some nugget of wisdom, even though it may be cloaked in crazy talk and gibberish. I also know that most of us are only a few degrees removed from being hobos ourselves. You never know what is down that next road, and where those rails might take you.

Ellen Jo Roberts lives in the old railroad town of Clarkdale Arizona. She shares a 94 year old house with a 35 year old husband, and several pets of random ages. They are surrounded by assorted 1970s vintage Volkswagens. Read all about it at

Monday, July 20, 2009

Crazy Fun Weekend

This weekend was action packed. Even the furnace-like heat of Arizona mid-summer could not fizzle the whirlwind of activities.

Saturday afternoon, we headed off to the Verde River with an ambitious plan--- to float from Dead Horse Ranch, where Tavasci Marsh pours in, all the way to the River Front Park.

In distance this isn't very long, maybe 2 miles from point to point by road-- but the way the river meanders everything always takes longer down there. Time slows down. Long looping detours.

Chad, Tim, Ruth Ellen and I shuttled in the bus from their vehicle left at Riverfront Park, so we had cars at both ends.

Many problems with the overall plan Saturday. Sounded good in discussion, but the actual execution was a bit more complicated. I think we all imagined an easy float, a steady current, just kicking back in our tubes, sipping cans of beer. However, to call it a "float" would be a stretch. It was not like that. It was more like a "paddle/ struggle/ sink and slice". First off, the river wasn't moving much at any of these locations. To get anywhere we had to kick and paddle, or risk circling in the same spot all day. The occasional breeze was blowing against us, blowing us backwards.

We got "jackpotted" several times. Jackpotted is an expression my Grandpa used to use, often times in reference to traffic conditions, and most frequently when a CTA bus would pull out in front of him-- basically it means, getting stuck, thrown for a loop-- jackpotted. Sometimes the river would just disappear, change routes, dead end-- we'd ended up in some sub-channel of the Verde and needed to portage our our rafts to a new spot to relaunch. I preferred saying "portage" with a French accent for a humorous effect. Por-tajjjjj. Tim said, "What's with this French thing? If you say portage one more time I am going to punch you in the face."

They brought along a raft just for their picnic cooler--full of fruit, chips, garden grown veggies, beers and margarita mixed up in a jug. They tugged it along by a rope, like a pet, and named it "Boozer", as in "Come along, lil' Boozer..." It was pretty tricked out!

My boat had a slow leak the entire time. Like before we even left the house Chad noticed it--he patched it 4 times, but the patches kept falling off. Hearing a "glub glub glub" bubbling under me throughout the trip was a lil' bit disconcerting. Later, Ruth Ellen's raft started to spew out great bursts of bubbles.

I spent much of the last part of the trip swimming alongside my raft, my camera gear and our small cooler taking my place on the mesh seat. Kicking through the cold, fresh, green-smelling river, tangling my ankles in weeds and other things too dark to see at the bottom. There are some long sections of river that are over 6 feet deep, with cold ribbons of current running through like a wonderful treat on a 105 degree summer day.

We made note of these swimming holes for future adventures.

For some reason, there's an abundance of old cars lining the banks of the Verde. Very vintage--I've seen 1930s-1960s. Someone once told me that back in the day people frequently used them as some kind of ridiculous erosion control.

We never made it to Riverfront Park. After one last wicked portajjjjjj left us all sliced up with green reeds and weeds as sharp as paper cuts, we made an early exit near what we figured was the "Jail Trail" in Old Town. Exhausted, all of us. Bleery eyed, hot, sliced to bits. Not what we had expected, but so much fun anyway. An adventure!

Tim and Ruth made us a delicious dinner on the barbecue, and that night we all sleep like rocks.

Sunday. Flagstaff. Meredith said it got down to 72 degrees up there. I thought it was in the 80s. Whatever it was, it felt cool to us, and we were all happy to be away from the Verde Valley heat, if only for an afternoon.

The reason for the Flagstaff trip was a board meeting for the Noise.
Alpine Pizza, for free pizza and beer (-Charles' sales pitch to get us all to attend).
Here are a few of the fine folks that bring you the Noise...
Bobby Carlson, Kyle Boggs, Aaron Levy, Charles Seiverd, and Meredith Seiverd...standing on Leroux Street, downtown Flagstaff.

Chad didn't want to go to Flagstaff, so I carpooled with Kahlil in his zippy 1962 Beetle.
"40 horses and they're all running at once!"
We laughed and laughed. All the way there and all the way back. I met Kahlil in 1997 or 1998, so he and I go way back-- he was one of the first people to befriend me when we moved to Jerome.
Tangled up in my day to day life, I sometimes forget what an awesome and hilarious person he is, so it was fun to hang out with him and act goofy. We get the giggles. Laughing about crazy nonsense! He really is the heart of our Ghostwagens car club, and keeps everyone together, everything running smoothly.

After the meeting we walked around downtown. Someone conned me into buying this ridiculous $7.00 "gold" chain with a giant dollar $ign on it, from Incahoots. So obnoxious! We laughed about my bling all the rest of the afternoon, how I was gonna show up back in Clarkdale with it swinging from my neck, saying, "Yo Chad, check me out! I'm back from the big city!" Everyone was cracking up imagining what Chad's reaction would be.

The cold alpine air of the Colorado Plateau felt great- especially after a brief downpour--
The wet Ponderosa forest smell reminded me of August 1995 when Chad and I first arrived, and lived in the forest in our camper. A very sweet and lovely time, full of adventures.

A side trip up to see pals at the Flagstaff KOA, before we hit the road for the long ride back to the valley. Home by 7:30pm. Chad's reaction to my $ bling? Nothing more than a raised eyebrow.