Monday, December 20, 2010

Saving Eliphante

Saving Eliphante
January 2011
The Noise
The Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts

Eliphante is unique in all the world, born from the pure creative well at the core of the human spirit, unhampered by regulations from without. As a result, it speaks to that place of creative power in each of us, and most people respond with both awe and excitement about the possibilities of really living by one's inner striving for beauty, really making it manifest, in all aspects of one's life.”
-Alna Laurel, director of Eliphante.

inside pipe dreams

Beginning around 1979, and continuing for the better part of three decades, Michael and Leda Kahn created a magical folk art installation along the sycamore and mesquite-lined banks of Oak Creek in Cornville, Arizona. The entire complex is known as “Eliphante”, named after the first structure created, which resembles, with its ear-side doors and river wood snout, an elephant of sorts. Several buildings followed: the “Hippodome”, “Pipe Dreams”, smaller houses, outdoor kitchen, amphitheater and assorted art installations. The structures and art spaces are all designed with native natural materials, sandstone, wood, salvaged glass, mylar, foil, tile and metal, and many years of creativity, love and hard work. With its faded astro-turf pathways, donated by a Sedona tennis club, it's like a surreal mixed-media miniature golf course. It’s an open-air museum of alternative possibilities. Eliphante is a dreamscape.

It is also currently endangered: threatened by decay, crumbling infrastructure, and sitting on land at risk of being sold and leveled.

eliphante entrance

Traveling from Provinceton, Massachussetts in a 1960 Ford truck they called “Botchi”, Michael and Leda Kahn arrived in the Sedona area in 1977, artistic visionaries looking for a new way of life. It was not long before the Kahns connected with the Croziers, the landowners of the acreage that includes Eliphante’s parcel. The Croziers were also transplants from “back east”, and soon the Kahns were invited to become caretakers of the property. . The Croziers are benevolent landlords, generous and philosophical. A dynamic relationship was developed.
“The property is at present still owned by the original owners who invited Mike and Leda as caretakers back in '79”, states Ms. Laurel, “They originally bought 120 acres as an active cattle ranch, not in operation for many years, and have sold some of it. They had owned it only a few years before Mike and Leda entered the picture.”

piano and secret natasha

The Kahns were sheltered at first in a truck-bed camper during the warm seasons. “As autumn came along, Mike felt moved to begin constructing a warmer winter shelter by digging into the hillside back of their camp, with earth insulation in mind,” explains Ms. Laurel,
“He gathered rocks from the hillside and from a dry wash half a mile back of the camp area, where he walked daily, both morning and evening, and brought back as many rocks as he could carry on his back in burlap sacks slung over his shoulder. Sometimes it would be two or three good-size stones. Other times, one would be all he could manage, it was so big. Usually he would get Leda to go along and carry her fair share as well.”

old ford with 1973 plate

“The building called Eliphante was built to be the home of Michael and Leda, but became in process such a work of art that it was never lived in. Though it served as stage for weekly music jams for many years, and also sheltered a few overnight guests on occasion, with or without the knowledge of Mike and Leda,” says Ms. Laurel, “This building with no straight lines or flat surfaces, made of found objects both natural and man-made, combining such disparate elements as driftwood and old auto windshields, manages to evoke the same high wonder and longing for what is true and pure and good as Tolkein's Elvenhome of Rivendell. Or at least the Hobbit homes of the Shire. A longing for times more innocent when creativity was unfettered by rules and unconfined by preconceived ideas of how things must be.”

hippodome interior

John Bianchini, a member of the Noise family (and former editor), is part of a small group of caretakers who currently inhabit Eliphante. An NAU journalism graduate originally from Salinas, California, Bianchini had the pleasure of meeting the Kahns in 2005, while taking photographs for a Noise feature written by Natasha Shealy. "Most who knew Michael cannot explain what Eliphante's intent was. It was never really an issue then. They do echo that Michael lived his life 'in-the-moment' and that he would just set-out and create these things whether or not people liked it or helped him.”

feeding the goat a handful of mesquite flour

Mr. Bianchini is actively involved in the preservation of Eliphante, and rousing folks to action on its behalf. “They call us ‘caretakers’, but I like to think of myself as ‘Guerrilla Outreach’ because I try more to get people involved to decide what should be done before going out and just doing it.”
"For many people, Eliphante reflects individual perceptions of where we are mentally. While a few have been put-off by its poverty and ruggedness, most see it as a magical land just short of gnomes and fairies”, says Mr. Bianchini, "Living in art is a way-of-life; something most people yearn for. Americans don't have much art in their daily lives and that might be the reason for the decline of American civilization.”

In 1994, the Smithsonian American Art Museum catalogued Eliphante into its “SOS-Save Our Sculpture” public awareness project, a growing list of U.S. public sculptural art to be documented, and conserved.

Michael Kahn of Eliphante, Paolo Soleri of Arconsanti and renowned Arizona sculptor John Waddell were all friends, and are considered to be artistic contemporaries because, according to Mr. Waddell, they “all sought to create something that could change society,” and they were “the rare few with the training and skill, willing and able and disciplined enough to follow their vision despite the obstacles that would hold most people back.”
Verde Valley resident Waddell is fond of Eliphante and what it represents.
"Michael was a man who had a vision of a completely non-commercial form of art,” says Mr. Waddell, “That in of itself was the motivation and satisfaction that it was made not for the market but for the total being of heart, soul and mind."

Waddell believes Kahn's unique nature had roots in art history. Michael Kahn started as a conventional painter and gradually became non-objective in his handling of materials. This transferred into building of structures that were in a sense non-objective. "At Eliphante you have an account of his day to day experience of putting objects together in an interesting way...'The uniqueness of configuration' is a cohesive construct where he had the impulse to put these found materials together."
The sculptor thinks Eliphante hints at a different way of life where the normal impulse to earn money did not exist. In some cultures, money is not the primary value. “Anyone can be as creative as Michael was. If you can understand this then you are on a progression."

In 2008 Michael Kahn succumbed to Pick’s Disease, a form of Alzheimer’s. In his final years he lost the ability to communicate verbally, but this did not stop him from continuing his creative flourishes and projects at Eliphante.
After his death, Leda moved away, to Santa Fe, New Mexico,

eliphante outdoor kitchen

Alna Laurel is the director of Eliphante Ltd., a 501c3 art organization. Her working relationship with Eliphante began in the late 1990s, but her path to it started much earlier, in the mid-1970s, while camping with her father and sisters at the entrance to the old Sexton Ranch in Cornville. Her family camped in the location for years. “While there, my dad met a man who was buying property across the creek from our camp, and the two of them held many long discussions on spiritual and philosophic matters, to mutual satisfaction. When Dad decided to move on to other camping grounds, his friend expressed disappointment that the philosophizing days were to be over. But Dad assured him that someone else would come along to take Dad's place as a spiritual friend.”

wall of fame

Ms. Laurel grew up to lead a creative life unfettered by convention, yet full of travels, adventures, artistic pursuits, family, and continuing education. Fast forward to 1998. Ms. Laurel’s sister, Laurie, searched for their old camping grounds during a road trip through Arizona.
“Finding her way mostly by instinct to the general area she remembered as our home, my sister stopped to ask directions of someone who turned out to be Michael Kahn, out cleaning the culverts at the entrance to Eliphante. Mike said he did indeed know the man Laurie was looking for. He owned the land Mike was camping on. He invited Laurie to look around his camp, which she did with mounting enthusiasm and excitement about all the magical structures defying every common idea of what a building should be.”

hippodome exterior

“When she went on to meet our old friend who owned that land and had given Mike free reign to build according to his artistic spirit, he told her that Michael Kahn was the one who came along to take our Dad's place as a spiritual friend across the years. And the relationship had been mutually beneficial, the one providing a piece of land and the other a spiritual artistic vision and creative drive which together resulted in Eliphante, a magical inspiration to most who are lucky enough to visit it.

“Naturally, as soon as I could I went to see Eliphante as well, and fell in love with it like most people do who visit.” Ms. Laurel moved from Hawaii to Cornville, “But I didn't get much involved until near the end of Mike's life when his Pick's disease had progressed to the point of speechlessness on his part and plans to leave Eliphante on Leda's part.”
In 2008, Ms. Kahn was present to hear Leda Kahn’s lament about having no one to carry on Eliphante on after she left. “Moved by my love for the place, I boldly volunteered,” said Ms. Kahn, ”only to discover that I knew nothing whatsoever about how to carry it on! I didn't even know what a non-profit was, much less how to operate one.”

eliphante glass
Caretakers Ryan Matson and Tracy Schinagel arrived from Portland in 2010, and have called Eliphante home since August, along with their clever and handsome dancing goat, Midas, who nibbles away at weeds and provides manure for gardening. Matson and Schinagel are energetic and artistic; a good blend for Eliphante.

Ryan & Tracy, caretakers of Eliphante

“I have never had the pleasure to meet the Kahns”, says Ms. Schinagel, a charming Tuscon native with a broad smile, “I feel like they created Eliphante out of the desire to surround themselves by beauty and art. They wanted to create something practical with the limited amount of funding available to them. In order for Eliphante to own the land it sits on, it needs to raise enough money to buy the well. If we don't raise the money to buy Eliphante, the land could be put on the market and could be purchased by someone that doesn't have any interest in preserving it.”

photo by Ryan Matson

“When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect”, says Mr. Matson, who spent many of his younger years on the move, “Buildings seemed to be all of the world I could really shape. Then I grew up and went into college, trying my hand at piloting airplanes, civil and mechanical engineering, electronic engineering. I settled on community development with undergraduate studies in the College of Urban and Public Affairs at Portland State University.”

In addition to raising the estimated funds for purchasing the property, the director and caretakers are also actively involved in much of the politics and paperwork necessary to preserve Eliphante for the future. The organization estimates they need to raise $75,000 -$100,000 to buy the land where Eliphante sits.
Ms. Laurel says, “Secondarily, we need to repair the three main sculptural buildings: meaning, lots of materials, donated or about $30,000 to buy, and lots and lots of volunteer hours. Probably the primary danger right now is the deterioration of the sculptural buildings, the heart and soul of everything. Whether their repair comes about through funding and volunteerism raised by the 501c3 or through paid labor in case Eliphante becomes purchased by another entity, I am fairly certain the buildings will be repaired to a better quality than they were originally built, beginning 2011.”

Mr. Matson adds that further plans include establishing public access rights, so that they may have commercial activity to generate funds to preserve and restore the land and buildings. Smaller buildings are being patched against rodents and poor weather conditions. Solar showers, composting toilet system, and greywater gardens are also on the agenda. The roof at the Eliphante building is in dire need of repair.
“We are always looking for able-bodied spirits to volunteer at one of our workdays,” says Mr. Matson, his enthusiasm contagious to all who meet him, “We also need donors of money and materials and other long-term financial support. The community we share is the most important asset toward the vision's success. ”
“We would like for it to be a creative space or retreat for artists,” adds Ms. Schinagel, “We would also like to open it for tours to the public.”

2010 american gothic

Noise favorite Natasha Shealy has returned to the Verde Valley from her North Carolina home in order to participate in saving Eliphante. According to Ms. Shealy, “Eliphante needs to be protected and used to inspire. I struggled with this, feeling it might be best returned to the riverbank it came from. But I feel Eliphante needs to be identified as a community asset and international folk art treasure. Many in the international folk art world would be inspired and astounded.”

"We cannot live how Michael did,” says John Bianchini, “but we recognize its value and seek to reconcile the two forces. When a commercial operation can be established to bring in income for Eliphante, we plan to focus on Eliphante's immediate repairs while working to purchase some surrounding acreage if available then to create an artistic eco-village.”

There are many ways you can become involved in the preservation of Eliphante.
They have a weekly Sunday evening potluck, and work party sessions each Tuesday and Sunday, where volunteers can help create, build, restore, and repair.

Volunteer: call Alna Laurel at (928) 634- 4707,
or Ryan Matson, Tracy Schinagel, and John Bianchini at (928) 634- 2687.
To assist in repairing the roof of the original building, "Eliphante", contact volunteer coordinator: Michael Lanning at (928) 284- 8884

Donate: make check payable to “Eliphante Limited”, and mail to PO box 971,Cornville, AZ 86325

Online: Also be sure to join “Eliphante Village” on Facebook.

Other: Donating special knowledge or skills is also greatly needed and appreciated. In particular: non-profit legal advice, film-making for publicity and fund-raising, grant-writing, and special construction skills such as rock-work, roof-work, reinforcing of highly unusual post and beam connections, electrical engineering and plumbing work.Eliphante Ltd. is also seeking volunteers to organize and staff fund-raising events in January, February, and March 2011.

“Eliphante remains a place where one can go to feel re-inspired and have their sense of magical possibilities refreshed, and for this reason alone, it is worthy of preservation,” says Alna Laurel, “Add to that its potential as a venue for awakening people's creative spirit and teaching how to let it blossom, and it becomes an urgent need in the present state of chaos and banality much of our society is experiencing. Where the human spirit feels acknowledged and empowered, there hope and renewal are born and sustained.”

pipe dreams- windows and mosaic

Ellen Jo Roberts thinks Eliphante is the bees knees.
She lives in a historic home made of Verde River sand bricks in Clarkdale Arizona with
Bike Daddy Chad, Cool Clyde, “Five Pounds of Fury” Floyd, and Slobber Face Ivan. Read all about it at

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Beard Me!

Beard Me!
The Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts
December 2010

chad & me, stinson beach self portrait at arm's length

Beards are for hippies, beatniks, bikers, artists, academics, forest rangers, Santa Claus and the Amish.
They’ve been worn by presidents, paupers, hipsters, truck drivers and those practicing an orthodox religion.
A beard signifies masculinity, widsom, fearlessness, prestige, poverty, filthiness.
It keeps faces warm on ski slopes and on hockey rinks. It’s a handy place to stash snacks and smokes for later. A friend informed me a beard even comes in handy for Arizona problems like removing tiny prickly pear cactus thorns from your hand.
“All the great gods had beards,” said Cottonwood artist Rex Peters who has worn a beard since age 18.
“I’ve only shaved it off 3 or 4 times, but not in the past 10 years.”
“Why did you shave it off?” I asked. “To see what I looked like,” came the simple reply,
“In the mid-‘90s it was very long. I shaved it off one day, and walked into the Spirit Room where I’d been working a long time. I walked in and no one recognized me. Until I laughed.”
Peters first began his bearded lifestyle when he was young in order to look more mature,
“So I could buy beer.”

rex sipping punch

Many religions espouse facial hair, including Sikhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Jesus is always depicted with a beard. The Rastafari grow long dreadlocks and beards as part of their beliefs, following the Bible’s Leviticus verse 21:5 "They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh." In various times Catholicism has both allowed and prohibited facial hair. Hasidic Jews consider the beard to channel holy energy from heaven. Eastern Orthodox priests are identified by their facial hair. In ancient India the beard was valued as a commodity, and punishment for crimes could include its removal. In modern Amish and Hutterite cultures, young men remain smooth-faced until marriage, after which they cultivate beards they keep for the rest of their lives.

Beards were the dominant style for most world cultures up until the 1700s. In the United States their popularity bounced back in the mid-1800s as an emblem of courage, and leadership skills. Abraham Lincoln was the first bearded American president, and nearly every president to follow into the 20th century wore facial hair. Since William Howard Taft, however, all presidents have been beardless. Not even a well-groomed set of Mutton Chops! 20th century advertising and the advent of the disposable razor made a clean cut smooth-faced look the accepted norm. Politicians and industry leaders wore their hair short, and the faces shorn. Beards were usually limited to professors, the aged and certain Eastern Orthodox priests up until counterculture movements began in late ‘50s. Long hair on the head and face represented a new disdain for earlier social norms. Musicals like “Hair” sang praises to the long, fleecy, greasy, shiny, flaxen and waxen.

chad's room, dekalb, il. autumn 1993

When I first met my husband in college, he was a handsome clean-shaven lad of 21. Soon after and for most of our married life he’s been a furry-faced freak. It’s part of his identity, this big thick beard.
“When I was younger and more attractive,” he said, “and I was mountain biking with long hair and bare legs, growing a beard was a way to ward off unwelcome advances from the same sex.” Mistaken for a long-haired shapely-legged girl, his only defense was to grow a beard to indicate his manliness.

chad 1992 or '93

Every once in a while I wish he’d shave it off. I beg, plead, cajole. I argue that if I were a boy and could grow a beard I’d certainly mix it up now and then, for variety’s sake. A Fu Manchu one season , Chops the next. A big 1970s porn ‘stache. A goatee is always a classic. A dark smoky 5 O’Clock Shadow. Get creative.
“Why are you so attached to that beard?” I asked with escalating frustration.
He stroked his Billy Goat’s gruff a moment and replied, thoughtfully, “Because it’s attached to me.”
“How can I argue with that logic?” I laughed.
About 10 years ago he did shave it for me, as a birthday present. Seeing his fresh face, which had been long hidden, affected me in naughty ways. “Hubba hubba, it’s like I got a whole new husband!” I squealed. After about a year or so he let it grow back. Razors are expensive, and shaving daily is a commitment.

sexy chad

“The single most manly, and great thing a man can do. To have a beard is to be a true man. If you have a beard, show it off proudly, and enjoy the satisfaction of the envy in the eyes of people around you who don't have beards”.-

"The hair of the chin showed him to be a man" -St Clement of Alexandria

Do chicks dig dudes with beards?
I cannot vouch for other parts of the country, but in the crunchy wilds of Arizona, the survey says yes, with women responding to the inherent masculinity of facial hair. Many explain they don’t want their man to be better manicured than themselves.
Janyel Pitman, lovely mango-scented vintage-VW-driving hippie chick of the Flagstaff KOA, feels strongly about this issue. “I love beards! Hairy, burly, long gnarly mountain man beards. In fact I am usually only attracted to a man if he has one. There is something so comforting about them like a flannel shirt. When I see one, to me it says ‘I am a MAN. I'm too busy doing things outdoors, in the woods, on a bike, in my bus, on a tractor, to bother with something like shaving’. I love to tangle my fingers in them, and pull on ‘em, and see a toothy smile from under them. I love them!”

Artful tonsorial design can appeal to all who are attracted to men. The bristly “Bear” archetype is very a very popular subset of gay male, recognized by their burly build and hirsuite face. A beard can also provide a disguise from true identity. Another definition of the word refers to an opposite sex friend who frequently accompanies a homosexual, disguising their sexual preference under the guise of a heterosexual partnership. In more repressed times, beards disguised many a Hollywood leading man.
Conversely, modern day movie stars are rarely seen with facial hair, unless they are a). on hiatus, b). playing lead in a stranded-on-a-desert-island film, or c). Joaquin Phoenix staging an elaborate publicity hoax.

The World Beard and Moustache Championships, the premier event in the “international sport of bearding”, brings the owners of the world’s most elaborate facial hair together every two years to be judged by a panel of distinguished experts. The best of the best are chosen in a variety of categories ranging from the most delicate of moustaches to the elaborate anything-goes freestyle full beard.
The roots of this contest trace back to a celebration held the small German village of Höfen-Enz in the early 1990s. Competitors at the inaugural event represented several beard clubs concentrated in the Black Forest. Having invented the events and defined the categories, Germany long dominated the sport. In 2009, however, when the competition took place in Alaska, an upstart squad of Americans established the USA as the new facial hair world superpower!
The next world championship will take place in Trondheim, Norway in 2011, sponsored by the Norwegian Moustache Club. Start growing your masterpiece now.

don from jerome's gold king mine

While I am a fan of fuzzy faces, many are not. Some men just don’t look good in a beard, or have trouble growing them evenly. Mormonism decries facial hair. Many native tribes of North America are not predisposed to heavy beard growth. In our post 9-11 world, a beard in the airport rouses suspicion and earns you a second glance from the T.S.A. Many women prefer a clean look. A beard hides a lot of face. They can scratch and tickle. They catch food particles, milkshake, and snot from blown noses. They can look messy, wiry, and overgrown. Psycho killers often have crazy eyes and crazier beards.
“Barba” is the Spanish word for beard, and the Latin root for words like barbaric, and barbarian.
Jerome artist David Wilder generally sports a vintage western style on his winking smiling face,
“My chin whiskers are a compromise between hating to shave,” which he calls a “barbaric practice’ (pun intended I’m sure), “and not wanting to look too much look like an axe murderer. But that's just me.”

For more information:

Ellen Jo Roberts lives in Clarkdale Arizona with a bunch of hairy creatures.
Read all about it at

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Biggest Little Town in Arizona: Cottonwood's Wild & Woolly Past

"Biggest Little Town in the State of Arizona
Cottonwood’s Wild & Woolly Past"
The Noise, November 2010- The Outs

Ellen Jo Roberts

jail trail shadows and light

According to many old timers, Cottonwood was a tiny hamlet in 1960, no bigger than the palm of your hand. Truth is, the historic terrain of Cottonwood Arizona is wide reaching, and broad—as varied as its lush mix of rare riparian landscape, and sun-baked high desert chaparral. Rather than seek out the exponential ways the town has expanded since it was incorporated 50 years ago, let's discuss the common threads running through time into the present day. To me this is always the most interesting: the surviving old mixed in with the new.

The Beginning

The settlement was founded around 1879 along the Verde River, a silty ribbon running through the valley providing steady water for farm and ranch land. For a time the area was known simply as “Verde”, a stop along the trail between army camps Fort Verde and Fort Whipple, and between Flagstaff and Jerome. Just as Flagstaff was named for a Ponderosa Pine stripped bare to become a flagpole, Cottonwood was also named for an arboreal landmark. Cowboys running cattle between Oak Creek and Camp Verde frequently made camp along a stretch of river featuring a circle of 16 large Cottonwood trees. Referred to as “The Cottonwoods”, the name was made official when the post office was established in 1885. One of the early settlers, Charles Willard, is now known as The Father of Cottonwood. Much land is still owned by his descendents, and a main traffic artery, Willard Street, links Old Town with newer areas of the city. Evidence of the city’s bucolic pastoral origins still exist at every corner of the map, with historic ranches and farms still in operation, and open space nature conserved as city parks, state parks, and the Verde River Greenway. Cottonwood produce fed Jerome and Clarkdale, and soon businesses began to spring up to service other needs as well.

dead horse ranch state park- verde river

By 1925 there was not another town in the U.S. that could boast so many business houses for a population of 1,000. Cottonwood was known as ‘the Biggest Little Town in the State of Arizona’!”
-Karen Leff, local historian and storyteller, owner of the Cottonwood Hotel

vintage sheps -vintage camera

The Bootlegging
“Old Town” is the original Cottonwood, a short stretch of Main Street business district and storefronts. In its modern 21st Century incarnation, Old Town sustains a variety of exceptional restaurants, cafes, shops, galleries, taverns, and wine tasting rooms. It’s completely adorable, very lively… almost harkening back to a wild time during the 1910s and ‘20s when Old Town was the nerve center of a jumpin’ bootlegging industry.

Joe Hall, Cottonwood pool room owner, was bound under $1,000 bond for trial in federal court on charges arising out of a raid on his home last Saturday when 150 gallons of whiskey were found in his basement and another 50 gallons together with 100 gallons of wine were taken from a nearby garage.”
- Prescott Journal, August 2nd 1929

Built in 1924, Joe Hall’s house still stands in 2010, an unimposing little stucco bungalow at the corner of Cactus and Pinal Streets. The yard is generally full of children and dogs now, so it’s amusing to think the place was once chock stocked with jugs of “joy juice”.

joe hall home at pinal and cactus

A system of tunnels (many filled in by Cottonwood Public Works over the years, but many still in existence) linked Joe Hall’s home to his pool hall at 1004 N. Main. Hall was linked to Al Capone, who allegedly spent a night in the Old Town Jail. Two large fires swept through Old Town during the bootlegging era. The first fire happened in 1917, followed by a larger blaze in 1925. Both were caused by exploding stills and flammable booze from Joe Hall’s whiskey business.

old town cottonwood- old jail

With the repeal of Prohibition, bootlegging and booze brewing went out of vogue and Cottonwood returned to its rural peace and quiet. Because it was a “free town”, unlike neighboring mining company towns, Clemenceau and Clarkdale, there was a certain lawlessness, but also more acceptance of different ideas, entrepreneurialism, and ethnicities that were persecuted elsewhere.

Hollywood in Cottonwood

The Old Town Palace Theater, built in 1923 and formerly called the “Rialto”, was the United States’ “Oldest Operating Single Screen Theater” until it was burnt by fire in 1998. Rescued by the Jurisins of “Jerome Palace” (aka “The Haunted Hamburger”), and neighboring “Nic’s” fame, the structure was saved and reopened in 2005 as the Tavern Grille. Remnants of the movie theater forever captured in the scorched bare concrete walls may be spotted by keen eyed diners.

chevy rental car in old town

The mid-century popularity of western movies brought California film crews to Arizona’s picturesque Verde Valley. Most of these features and rushes were shot in Sedona, but Old Town Cottonwood played “stand in” for town scenes in many of these films. “Desert Fury”, a 1947 film starring Burt Lancaster, shows up now and again, on late night TV, and screened in local halls. I’ve seen it more than once. It’s kinda’ silly, and I sure don’t even remember the plot. Burt Lancaster spends an awful lot of time driving back and forth on 89A, in ways that we locals all know don’t add up to him getting anywhere. The female lead calls everyone “baby”, and smokes using a long skinny cigarette holder. Our favorite part: a car crash filmed at an old bridge that no longer exists in lower Clarkdale. Right into the Verde River with that big giant American post-war car.


Our Lady of Something or Other

“Stay Away Joe” was a 1968 Elvis vehicle, filmed in Sedona, and Cottonwood during 1967, before he gave up his acting career for his comeback to music. Legend has it that Elvis was so enchanted with this area he planned to relocate here from Memphis. (Of course that never happened, but one must wonder what the result would be had he stayed.)

In typically wacky Elvis movie style, Presley plays a Navajo (!) named Joe Lightcloud, and Burgess Meredith plays his pappy. There was some go-go dancing, some bull wrangling, and a whole lotta singing and smooching.

Old Town Cottonwood once again was called into duty, playing the role of “town”.

bing's-old town cottonwood, az

Elvis signed autographs outside the Cottonwood Hotel, after filming a scene on Main Street. The Cottonwood Hotel played hostelry to many a star filming on location, including Mae West, and John Wayne. Since 1917 the hotel has been Cottonwood’s oldest and longest standing business with the same name.

Cottonwood Inc.

Cottonwood remained unincorporated until 1960. The town’s 1,600 residents were mobilized to act after Clarkdale (incorporated in 1957) tried to annex Old Town Cottonwood. Incorporation was initially voted down in 1958, but proponents maintained that it could improve property values, provide better police, fire, and sanitation services, control growth, and increase tax benefits. In November of 1960, Cottonwood Arizona was incorporated, with 476 favorable petitions, just 9 over the required 66% of property taxpayers and residents, becoming Arizona’s 58th incorporated community.

This year’s 3rd annual “Walkin’ on Main” street-fest will pay tribute to Cottonwood’s 50th anniversary of incorporation. From 11:00am- 6:00pm on Saturday November 13th, Old Town’s Main Street Historic 89A will be blocked from traffic, and filled with art, vintage automobiles, open-air vendors, and live entertainment. Wine and olive oil tasting will highlight some of the new industry taking hold in the Verde Valley. In lieu of basement brewed whiskey, Cottonwood is now making its mark as part of the Verde Valley Wine Trail.

True to its roots, “The Biggest Little Town in Arizona” spins its 131 years of history into a modern community full of big city amenities.

Cheers to many more years of success, neighbor!

old town welcome!

For more information:

History, photos and a self-guided walking tour of Old Town Cottonwood

City of Cottonwood’s website

Ellen Jo Roberts has lived in the Verde Valley since 1997, and now she has a sudden urge for some bootleg local-brewed whiskey. Roberts shares a historic brick bungalow with Bike Daddy Chad, and an assortment of other ornery critters.Read all about it at

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Very Superstitious

Very Superstitious
October 2010 Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts

Everyone has a superstition. Even when folks profess not to, it always turns out they really do. A superstition is a belief in magic, in that somehow we control the how the workings of the world.
By dictionary definition a superstition is…
“1. a : a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation b : an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition
2. a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary.”

Religion is both simultaneously disdainful of and completely reliant on superstition. Religion succeeds because people are willing believe the unbelievable, and have faith in things that cannot be proven by fact. Totems, icons, and spirits all exhibit supernatural elements.
Many think that you must throw salt or knock on wood. It’s not very popular to open umbrellas indoors, or walk under ladders. Break a mirror? Rotten luck for 7 years! A black cat crosses your path? You are in trouble. The legendary fear of the number 13 (clinically called “triskaidekaphobia”) is the reason many skyscrapers go from the 12th floor directly to 14. It’s all around us, in fortune cookies, and lottery tickets, and myriad other neatly packaged disguises. I asked a bunch of folks what sort of things they were superstitious about, and got some interesting responses.

Black cats, the number 13, walking under ladders, full moons, broken mirrors, chain-letters, accidentally spilling salt, stepping on cracks … I don’t follow any of that hooey.”

I always pet black cats just in case they are witches in disguise and can grant your wishes.”

I don’t subscribe to most popular superstitions. Mine are very specific, and most are related to travel, perhaps because it is a time we feel more vulnerable to unknown catastrophes. For example, while traveling via airplane I always wear the same shoes on the return trip that I wore on the outbound trip. Same socks or stockings too, if I can. I also never change my watch to whatever time zone I’m visiting. I leave it on Arizona time at all times, despite the constant mathematics it involves, as some sort of assurance I’ll make it home safely. These codes are stringently followed for no real reason.

Every time I get on a plane, before I board it, I always lay my hands on the plane and knock 3 times on it, and that way it doesn’t crash. And I know that it works because I’ve never been involved in a plane crash.”

While driving in my car I NEVER play any song with the words like these: heat, hot, burn, fire, inferno, flame. I’ve not been able to listen to The Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” for over a decade. I’m confident this has contributed to the longevity of my automobile by keeping it running cool. Also, while topping off the gas, I try to come up with a dollar figure equivalent to something meaningful: the year I was born, my address number, my engine’s displacement in CCs, my brother’s birthday, or sometimes just the good ol’ “1-2-3-4”.

If I find a coin, it's good luck if it's heads up and I have to put in my shoe, heads up, opposite side of the hand I picked it up with. I think I'm having good luck if I look at a clock randomly and the numbers are something like 3:33, 5:05, 4:04, 9:06, 6:09 or 11:11 and similar combinations. I think I feel like I'm in sync with something. Also, I make wishes if I glance at the clock and it happens to be 11:11.”

My childhood was full of complicated superstitions as a fan of the Chicago Cubs. A highly random, ever-evolving collection of rules somehow helped the Cubs win, or, if not followed, caused them to lose. “The Cubs are on a 4 game winning streak. Each day they won, I picked a dandelion at the park. I’d better keep picking dandelions or they will lose.” This of course, is completely absurd, yet somehow provided a sense of comfort, like I was doing my part, contributing my energy towards the cause. My brother shares similar baseball superstitions.
“If the Cubs win a game when I am there, I will try to wear the same Cubs t-shirt the next time I go to the game,” he explained, “However, I usually try to force myself into realizing that the Cubs winning or losing logically has nothing to do with what underwear I am wearing, or what food I eat, or what gate I enter Wrigley Field. I try to not be superstitious. God knows none of it has worked yet.” The Cubs’ team history of failure is drenched deep in superstition, ever since Sam Sianis put a hex on them in the 1940s for not allowing his pet billy goat to attend a game. Professional sports are fraught with famous superstitions: playoff beards, rally caps, abstaining from sex and/or the changing of socks during a winning streak.

When I was a rodeo cowgirl I had a lucky shirt and a lucky pair of socks. I wore them until they were literally in tatters, because I felt like I had to have them on in order to perform well.”

Secret wishes on shooting stars, blowing out candles. These things are attempts to control the future by magic and sheer force of will. There is a power in the energy we create as humans.

I make a wish on all found eyelashes”

“ I make a wish on the first snow of the season”

“I always say ‘God Bless You’ when someone sneezes because I think when you sneeze your heart stops.”

“If a roadrunner crosses the road in front of me, I see it as a sign of good luck

I kiss my hand and then touch the roof of my car (on the inside) if a light turns yellow and I drive through it at an intersection. I've been doing that since I have had my license.”

St. Christopher is the saint of travel. They sell mini St. Christophers for your car dashboard. I have his medallion on my car keys and have since my first car. Makes me think of that old honkytonk truck driving tune refrain, “I don’t care of it rains or freezes, ‘long as I got my plastic Jesus, riding on the dashboard of my car.” In consulting with my many associates to see what magical little beliefs are a part of their daily lives, a rare few downplayed, rebelled against, or were simply unaware of having any superstitions.

“I think I have no superstitions. I don’t go to church and I’m not a member of any hocus pocus organizations, like the Masons or the Elks, Lions, Tigers or Bears. I am completely rational, like Spock, yet full of human emotions like love, hate and all in between, unlike Spock.

“I don't like being held hostage by superstitions so I break as many as I can.”

“I have NO superstitions that I can think of. Is that odd? Am I an anomaly?
I asked the girl who sits next to me if she has any superstitions and she said she has to put her left shoe on first. She doesn’t know why, though, she just does.”

“Murphy’s Law” is a national observation typically defined as “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Origins are attributed to American engineer, Edward A. Murphy (1918-1990). Murphy’s Law often contributes to a “we’ll all laugh about this someday” type mayhem. Fate is always listening, and ever watchful of being tempted.

“I try not to say ‘WHAT ELSE can happen?’ after a series of bad or unlucky things have happened to me or someone else. Because we may just find out WHAT ELSE can happen.”

“I never say ‘wow, the traffic seems really light today’, or else BLAMMO!”

“I have this feeling if things are going too well, something will happen to spoil it. I actually dread happy occasions ‘cause I know something bad is going to happen.”

“When I was a river guide in the Grand Canyon they used to tell me never sing the ‘Gilligan’s Island’ theme song while on a river trip.”

One time while driving 89A from Sedona to Cottonwood on a Friday the 13th
I made a huge mistake by saying, “It’s Friday the 13th, but nothing bad happened today.” Moments later, a gravel truck with an uncovered load drove past throwing gravel everywhere and breaking a dozen windshields including ours.

For some reason, railroad tracks, bridges, and cemeteries commonly play a role in superstitious rituals. Perhaps it is because they all represent a connection or transition from one place to another. A danger zone, a risky moment, purgatory.

When I go over railroad tracks I hold metal and say who I love. Weird, right? When I go thru viaducts I hold my breath and make a wish. I think of these superstitions as reminders of what's important daily.”

“I hold my breath driving past cemeteries.”

“I make the sign of the cross 3 times on my steering wheel with my right thumb while driving over railroad tracks”

Superstitions are all around us, in every facet of our lives. It’s not just gypsies tossing the evil eye. It’s on road signs and in skyscrapers, and horseshoes above doorways. It’s at the casino, and on the trinkets we carry in our pockets. It’s in our cars, our homes, it joins us on our travels, in our classrooms, houses of worship, and sports stadiums. It brings us victory, and protects us from misfortune. Knock on wood.

Ellen Jo Roberts lives in Clarkdale Arizona with Bike Daddy Chad, some famous pets, and assorted vintage Volkswagens. It is never bad luck if any of them cross your path. Well, except for that vicious Chihuahua. You might wanna steer clear of him.
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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

California Dreaming along Highway 1

California Dreaming
Coastal Campout Along Highway 1
The Outs- Ellen Jo Roberts
The Noise
September 2010

highway 1

California’s Highway 1 is just a road, just a narrow curving ribbon of macadam perched along the western edge of the USA. It’s also something legendary, lyrical, mythical, magical: from books, magazines, movies and commercials.
A National Scenic Byway, it’s been designated an “All American Road”.
We all dream of Highway 1, as part of our collective consciousness.

My husband and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary this summer, a milestone worthy of a special road trip celebration. We wanted to be part of the dream, so we planned a Highway 1 adventure. All year we poured over library books, maps, brochures, Google Earth, and the state park websites, plotting our journey, booking our reservations. For Chad, the planning part is sometimes even more exciting than the trip itself. For months he lay awake in bed at night, satellite imagery dancing in his head.

ellen and chad at mcway falls

We travelled on the cheap, loaded up with camping gear and a picnic basket full of dry goods. Our only “luxury” was renting a Toyota Prius for its excellent fuel economy (averaging 50+ mpg), lower environmental impact, and modern comforts like satellite radio, climate & cruise control. We do all our longer road trips like this. Renting a car conserves both our vintage Volkswagens and our marriage.
The scenic routes Chad chose were both more direct, and more time consuming. After our first 13 hours on the road, we arrived in San Luis Obispo County, in a seaside town called Avila Beach, where we set up our tent after dark, at an area campground. The next morning we were up early, making our first memories of Highway 1, via San Luis Obispo. “SLO” as the locals call it, is hopelessly adorable, chock full of tidy Mediterranean bungalows and well-groomed yards. It’s home to California Polytechnic State University (“Cal Poly”), and the delightfully tacky 1950s “Madonna Inn”, with its outsized pink sign, and crazy gingerbread flourishes.

madonna inn  san luis obispo ca- argus

sea lions on beach near gorda, ca

Highway 1 through the central California coast is one of the rare things that lives up to the hype. You fear a collision from gawking at the scenery. It’s also achingly slow moving, constantly curving, elevating, and bound to cause moments of nausea in even the sturdiest passenger. It is riddled with delightful pull-offs and scenic overlooks. The ocean on a cloudy day is grey, but when the fog lifts the water changes color to an unbelievable turquoise, with tangled forests of kelp floating offshore like vegetable soup.

Big Sur, from “El País Grande Del Sur” (big country to the south), a moniker given by Carmel’s early Spanish settlers, remains fairly remote and sparsely populated. Highway 1 wasn’t completed through the area until 1937, and electricity didn’t arrive until the 1950s. Vast stretches are unpopulated, and the mountainous terrain to the east is Los Padres National Forest. The area is historically wealthy with inspiration for photographers, artists , beatniks, poets, writers, and other free spirits escaping from large cities to the south and north.

McWay Falls from above

"McWay Falls” is an icon of Big Sur, a t-shirt emblem just like the Bixby Bridge further north. Located near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the waterfall tumbles west of Highway 1 onto a secluded seashore, sheltered in a stone cove. The only creatures on the beach below it were seagulls. It’s off limits to humans, though a boardwalk above allows views of the beautiful scene.

A few hours north on Highway 1, with every mile taking twice as long as we’d planned, we headed east to the quicker 101 to make up some speed to our next destination, San Francisco. It was nearly sunset by the time we arrived in the foggy city by the bay. Even the dreary weather couldn’t dim its loveliness, all vertical and cascading down hills in vintage perfection.

balboa cafe- chocolate polaroid night exposure

Cold in July, with everyone was wearing sweaters, coats and hats, I kept thinking of Mark Twain’s joke :” The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” Perhaps it was a culmination of a long day of driving, the maps strewn everywhere in the cramped car, Chad arguing with the GPS lady-- I dunno-- but I burst into tears driving down famously steep Russian Hill. I was so scared!
We’ve driven on some hair-raising mountain roads before, crawling boulders in the wilderness, but nothing has ever frightened me as much as Lombard Street in San Francisco. I’m no “Bullitt”.
There are stoplights at the top of a 45 degree hill. There are points where you cannot see the road above/ below you and you must just have faith there is nothing in your way as the light turns green. And if your car isn’t in great shape- if the engine is weak or the brakes are bad-- you’d better just go home.

lombard street looking down from russian hill

Our San Francisco night was spent at the Motel Capri, an inexpensive mid-century gem located in the Marina District, close walking distance to many interesting street scenes.

Floyd in San Francisco

Time in San Francisco was too short: just a night and part of the next morning-- not nearly enough to soak up this vibrant city. Hiking up the steep streets on a Sunday morning with all of my cameras clattering, I was grooving on the big city life, being just a face in the crowd, one of many. No one batted an eyelash at me (unlike in my own tiny town where I am a featured landmark.) San Francisco is a smart, wealthy city, beloved by many who’ve left their hearts there. The streets are so steep it’s a full-on cardio work out all the time. A friend of mine lived there for 7 years and says, “Try walking up and down those hills every day, yeesh! I ended up in Delaware - flat as a pancake. To paraphrase Tony Bennett ‘I Left My Girlish Figure in San Francisco.’"

lombard street-"the world's crookedest street"

From San Francisco we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge north to Marin County, to have lunch with a dear favorite friend, an Arizona ex-patriot. She and her surfer beau live in a cozy 1910 built "love shack" near the sea in tiny Stinson Beach, and invited us to stay.

Heidi and Michael

We cancelled our camping reservations at Manresa Beach State Park near Santa Cruz in favor of setting up tent in their garden amidst their surfboards, nestled between the fog-shrouded Mt. Tamalpais, “Birthplace of Mountain Biking”, and the cold grey waves of the Pacific.

where we camped- stinson beach

Marin County is notoriously suspicious of outsiders. Nearby Bolinas is famous for removing their city sign, to discourage tourists. Hanging with the locals we were instantly accepted as locals by proxy. Romping and running wild with our dogs on the beach was a thing of pure joy. Our friends cooked us a wonderful dinner, we drank wine, laughed, and told stories well after dark. It was a highlight of our trip and finally felt like the vacation had begun.

beach dogs- stinson beach 2

Highway 1 north of San Francisco is fragrant with eucalyptus. The giant groves of quick growing Australian trees are not native, and have their detractors for this reason. Despite this, the willowy giants have somehow become synonymous with California. The gold rush and railroads brought the species here in the 1850s, when the state government authorized and encouraged their quick growing establishment. The astringent smell of the eucalyptus fills our noses.
Suddenly we are in love with this part of California. My mind wanders back to the beautiful eucalyptus tree we already have, in our own Arizona front yard.

heidi moved from SF to Stinson Beach

Our next campsite was back down the coast at San Simeon State Park, followed by a night at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. We’d reserved all of our campsites months earlier, most of them at state parks for about $40 per night.
Pfeiffer Big Sur, a popular park since 1933, is a bit magical, nestled into the redwoods, and delineated by the clear grey green Big Sur River. There were swarms of ladybugs everywhere when we arrived. I wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see a unicorn.

pfeiffer big sur redwoods

Side note: They sell beer (!) at California State Parks. (Hey Arizona State Parks, ya’ listening?) After setting up tent it’s customary to take a dip in the Big Sur River. Hot, sunny, drinking beer in the river—just like home.

chad in big sur river 2

Chad led us on a sunset expedition to nearby Pfeiffer Beach. Amazing, framed by giant sea bound monoliths, and smooth purple sand, Pfeiffer Beach was blustery cold, full of photographers, picnickers sipping red wine, unruly dogs, and loud crashing waves.

pfeiffer beach at sunset- july 14th

Our final night on the Big Sur Coast was spent at Kirk Creek, a federal campground. There are world-class resorts all up and down Big Sur, each charging hundreds of dollars a night. None would compare to this $22.00 campsite. When we arrived, our jaws dropped. Site #11 at Kirk Creek was the best campsite we've ever had in our lives: big, beautiful, carpeted by soft grass, high on a bluff overlooking the sunny Pacific, surrounded by sweet scented wild fennel, sage, and yarrow. A steep trail leads down to the rocky shore below.

kirk creek dinner

fennel growing wild and smelling good

north of sand dollar beach 3

black tan green

Unpacking, setting up, breaking down, and repacking camp every day was hard work. The Prius was so small we basically had to unload the entire car, and reload the entire car every day. Thank God for Chad's engineering-style mind. The camping life is hard work, toting water, lifting gear, washing dishes outdoors, washing our hair in sinks—everything takes more time and energy.
And somehow, the food tastes better. The sleep in the tent is more restful.
The hard work makes everything more valuable somehow.

kirk creek trail begins at campground

kirk creek beach 7- 15 setting sun

highway 1 at night- long exposure

Without showers for days, we were kinda’ grungey, with our rock star hair and dirty feet like a couple of goddamn hippies. It didn’t bother me at all, until we took the dogs for a stroll through a field of tall dried thistle, just north of nearby Sand Dollar Beach. Headed to a special seashore Chad selected, I looked down at the dogs and noticed little dark dots all over them. Yanking my chihuahua up by his harness, my fears were confirmed. Ticks! The dogs are covered with ticks!! Panic sets in and a shriek wells in my throat. I start brushing them off of him frantically, brushing them off my bare legs, and looking for the nearest exit. Sitting on a barren bluff, high above the rocky beach, socked in with raging high tide, I managed to clear all the ticks off of Floyd, because they are easy to spot in his pale fur. Ivan, the Boston Terrier was not as lucky. We manage to find most of them in his dark brindley fur, but miss the final two until the next day.
That night I feel itchy all over, and wish for a shower.

north of sand dollar beach

north of sand dollar beach- scared protecting floyd from ticks

chicken dinners- broken neon

Away from the sea and back to the desert, we spent a night at a 1950s built motel in Palm Springs. San Francisco in July is cold enough for polar fleece. Palm Springs in July is like a blast furnace. It was still over 100 degrees when we rolled into town at 9pm, and already back up to 109 by 9am the next day.
Travel tip: Palm Springs motel rooms are cheap in July.

palm springs travel lodge

"Salvation Mountain", about 75 miles from the Coachella Valley in a remote sun-baked location near Niland, has been on my list of places to see for years. Our last day on the road, we head a lil’ bit out of our way down to see this amazing bit of folk art. The Colorado Desert sits below sea level, and is sparsely occupied during the summer. Bombay Beach along the Salton Sea is a 1960s resort town gone wrong, a post-apocalyptic paradise full of bombed out trailers and land locked boats.

bombay beach grounded boat

Further south is “the last free place”, Slab City, a transient community setting up camp on concrete slabs left behind from a World War 2 military installation.

slab city- the last free place

We arrive at Salvation Mountain, a massive bit of crazily colorful religious folk art created by Leonard Knight. Mr. Knight, 78, has spent decades carving and coating the side of a dirt hill with adobe, straw, thousands of gallons of donated paint, and various versions of “God is Love”, scripture, and testimony to Jesus.

salvation mountain-artist's chair and supplies

sun baked bible truck

Everything is fancifully painted: cars, trucks, bikes, boats. 113 degrees at high noon. I thought my Chuck Taylors might melt. Salvation Mountain was worth the many out-of-the-way miles. It is a true thing of beauty, and as important to American iconography as Highway 1.

for god so loved the world

Driving through the heat of day, we arrive back in our neighborhood by dusk.
The Verde Valley always looks really good after a long road trip, after driving through many random small towns of assorted quality.
“You know something, this place we live in is pretty damn good. It looks pretty great here.” Back at home we feel exhilarated, relaxed, as we pour over Polaroids, tip back cold California beers, and sit close to the eucalyptus tree.

Ellen Jo Roberts lives in a historic brick bungalow in Clarkdale Arizona, with Bike Daddy Chad, 2 small dogs, a cat, and a collection of vintage Volkswagens, none of which have cruise control, air conditioning or satellite radio.
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