Friday, November 23, 2012

Check-In Time: A Fascination with Historic Hotels and Motels

Check-In Time:
A Fascination with Historic Hotels and Motels.
Ellen Jo Roberts
November 2012

"Ellen @ Monte Vista" ©10/96 Debbie Leavitt

el vista     

Check-In Time:

A Fascination with Historic Hotels and Motels.

Ellen Jo Roberts


      I have history with historic hotels. My first job upon arrival in Arizona was working the front desk day shift at Flagstaff’s famous Hotel Monte Vista. Affectionately known as The Monte V or simply The V in local vernacular, the massive brick structure has firmly shored up the city’s downtown since it first opened in January of 1927. There is something beautiful and sinister all at once about that grand ol’ dame. Heavy energy. Haunted, sure. Legendary stories oft-repeated, and many famous guests and wild nights adding to the intrigue. A crossroads of  European tourists, Navajo and Hopi, musicians, bar patrons, college students, hobos, old-time locals having daily breakfast in the cafe, off track bettors playing the ponies and average travelin’ folk made the hotel a colossal vortex of magic in my world.  The late night lounge scene and high lonesome train horns certainly added something to the mix.
flagstaff cocktails
Soon, the only surprise was a day when nothing surprising happened. The guests and their stories, a clash of randomness and coincidence. The hotel staff who alternated from being tightly-wrapped like family to hissing and spitting at each other like alley cats. I sometimes felt like an extra in a movie, orchestrating a concerto of check-outs and check-ins, decked in pencil skirts and pearls, playing 1940s tunes and Nuyorican jazz on cassette.  The rooms were mostly named after the famous guests who had slept there, including Michael Stipe and Bon Jovi, and each had their own quirk, angle, view, perks. Windows could be opened to access the mountain breeze above and the street sounds below. From my years spent in the cinematic lobby of a historic hotel I am forever stuck on vintage lodging. Such places always have the best neon signs. No fresh construction or easy parking for us. No anonymous chain motels. We prefer to share space with the memories of the thousands who slept there before us. Luckily, our region is chock full of historic accommodations both high and low brow.

the monte vista has never looked better than this photo

I always think of La Posada during the winter, as we spent one cozy Winslow Christmas there with friends and dogs, playing board games in the great room, warmed by the fireplace and whiskey-spiked egg nog.
la posada exterior 2
One of the few remaining Harvey House railroad hotels, La Posada was rescued from destruction by creative California couple Allan Affeldt and Tina Mion in the 1990s. Tearing away the false ceilings and walls, installed when the building was converted to office space for the Santa Fe Railway, bit by bit the architectural glory of Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter’s 1929 grand design was restored. The real appeal of La Posada is the wealth of public space both indoors and out: cozy reading nooks and seating areas, fine art, shelves full of coffee table books to borrow, and in recent years, lush gardens, broad lawns and al fresco hideaways.
la posada interior 2
Trains both freight and passenger cruise past regularly, punctuating your world class dinner at the hotel’s Turquoise Room. La Posada is like its own island, its own self-contained nation in a threadbare location. Winslow (once on track to become The Next Santa Fe before travel patterns changed from railroad to highway and airline) does become more interesting and artistic each year, expanding beyond The Eagles’ “Standin’ on a Corner” nostalgia. Travelers from all over the world visit La Posada, adding to the sophisticated atmosphere.
have you slept in a wigwam lately?

Have you slept in a Wigwam lately?

We have. It was slightly pointy and totally fantastic. From the 1930s ‘til the 1950s there were seven Wigwam Villages nationwide, each featuring a row of the same concrete tipi-shaped cabins, inspiration for the “Cozy Cones” of Disney’s “Cars”. Now only three villages remain: No. 2 in Cave City, Kentucky, No. 7 in Rialto, California, and Wigwam Village No. 6 in our very own Arizona. Route. 66, Holbrook.  Holbrook’s Wigwam Motel has been owned by the same family for six decades, and it’s consistently booked full, a popular overnight spot for Europeans touring the Mother Road.  The parking lot is decorated with sun-faded automotive relics parked at each wigwam, enhancing the sensation of time-travel. Holbrook is friendly, with a good archive of Route 66 artifacts and roadside dinosaurs, but there’s not much happening to keep the average city-slicker engaged beyond the nearby Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Parks. Onward east on 66, to New Mexico, and just over the border into Gallup.

holga pontiac wigwam

“The Charm of Yesterday and Convenience of Tomorrow” can be yours at Gallup’s El Rancho Hotel. Built in 1937 by the brother of the Hollywood director D.W. Griffith, the hotel served as base camp for movie crews and stars on location in New Mexico during the hey-day of western films. Its script neon sign is the only 20th century touch to the exterior, built to resemble a wealthy western rancho of stone, brick and Spanish tile. The rooms share some famous guests with the Monte Vista; Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart have their names emblazoned on doors, as do a lengthy collection of other midcentury celebrities, including Ronald Reagan.  On our most recent visit we stayed in the Betty Grable room, named after a 1940s actress most famous for her fantastic gams. 
at el rancho ellen and dogs

Like most of the hotels we visit, El Rancho is pet-friendly, so your dog is welcome to join you for no additional fee (though you do need to mention your pets when booking). An impressive two story lobby features a wishbone-shaped staircases wrapping around a stone hearth and is decorated with Navajo art, elk heads and hundreds of framed black and white autographed head shots of El Rancho’s famous visitors.
holga- el rancho lobby
A player piano entertains folks as they enjoy a card game and their iced-teas.  The upper deck opens to a front veranda, a vantage point to enjoy views of Route 66, Interstate 40 and the BNSF railroad passing by all at once. El Rancho is a real place, a beating heart of Gallup, and a favorite with the locals who utilize the restaurant and its adjoining 1960s-flavored Andalusian Room banquet hall for their special events. During our most recent stay, a large family celebrated a noisy Sweet 16 birthday party, dance music and balloons cascading out past the restaurant and tumbling into the lobby.
el rancho lobby desk
Gallup is somewhat lonely and the streets, even downtown, are empty most days, except for a regular flow of panhandlers. Route 66 beggars of the west are generally non-aggressive, but that’s counterbalanced by the sheer number of them. Often times they offer a very specific reason why they need your money…. “I need to get to Flagstaff.” “I need minutes for my phone.”  If you say no they don’t offer any resistance other than a pained expression and pleasantly walk on.
begging is illegal

Gallup is famed as a trading center for the bordering Navajo and Zuñi tribes. A visit to the Zuñi Pueblo is recommended for anyone in the vicinity. Thirty miles through sagebrush-scented landscape brings you to the compact pueblo. Adobe structures of varying vintages crowd the hilly community. A photography permit may be purchased at the visitor center for $10.00 per day, allowing you to snap images of the monolithic “Corn Mountain”, also known as the Zuñi stronghold Dowa Yalanne, and the adobe exterior of the old Zuñi Mission, a classic symbol of New Mexico-style Christianity. The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center is a wealth of information on the tribe, ranging from historic films to modern art and future goals.
greetings from floyd street zuni mission

The sunny southwest is a harsh climate, but history preserves well here.  A cruise along Arizona’s Highway 60 in any direction is a museum of sun-baked neon signage.  Classic cars fade from UV rays but not rust. Historic buildings are never damaged by hurricanes or earthquakes. If it’s built solidly, a desert structure can live on and remain useful for centuries. Locally, Jerome is home to several classic overnight options, including the 1898-built Connor Hotel, well-maintained and regularly restored, anchored on the corner by its popular Spirit Room bar. Though 21st century Jerome features a great variety of vintage lodging possibilities, the Connor may be its only remaining hotel originally built as a hotel. The oldest continuously-operating business in Cottonwood, since 1917, is Old Town’s Cottonwood Hotel, best known as a place where Elvis once rested his pompadour.
spirit room self portrait

Historic lodging is often times less expensive than modern chains, simply due to their lack of 21st century amenities and their propensity for hobo sightings in the lobby. They’re odd, sometimes spooky, and definitely native to their locations. You may have strange dreams. You can check out any time you like but you can never leave. A historic hotel is always a treasure, with its strange idiosyncrasies, rowdy cocktail lounge, ghosts and awkwardly-shaped bathrooms. A recurring character starring in much of the town’s history, celebrations and fame, it’s an important citizen of its community in its own right.

 ellen on the monte vista roof

Ellen Jo Roberts is a fan of 20th century automobiles, architecture, cameras, and husbands,

Read all about it at

Friday, September 21, 2012

Highway 89 Tales:
Hooked on Utah
The Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts
The Noise
October 2012

Back when we were flatlanders, our first dose of the west came in the form of Utah in its many brilliant southern incarnations. Slick rock. Slot canyons. Natural arches. Fragrant sagebrush. Abundant sunshine and fine dry air. Hypnotized by the big skies and postcard perfect scenery we soon plotted our escape west and by the following year we had Arizona drivers licenses and a Flagstaff P.O. Box.
            Visiting Utah always reminds me of those first enchanted days of our new life. In the early days, we used to spend more time north of the border, with frequent treks to the national forests and all of the park highlights: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, Cedar Breaks, the Grand Staircase. Back in the 20th century we often rented a sea kayak in Flagstaff, strapped it to the roof of our truck and headed up to Lake Powell, launching near Lone Rock to paddle and camp in secluded side canyons. But the spirits of Glen Canyon buried deep beneath the flood are too eerie and sad, and combined with a read of Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang we eventually lost any enthusiasm for the damned lake. For the natural places of Utah, however, high excitement remains.

It occurs to me on our most recent visit up Highway 89 that Utah was my gateway drug to the west. It hooked me on the high desert. It's far too easy to be enchanted by it, so over-the-top ridiculous in its bounty of natural beauty.

           Our most recent journey took us up 89 to the historic town of Panguitch and the vicinity of the infamous Butch Cassidy and his "Hole in the Wall Gang". Red Canyon, a junior Bryce complete with matching fantastic fairyland formations of the Paunsaugunt Plateau is seven miles from Panguitch, along Scenic Byway 12. Our goal was primitive camping in the Dixie National Forest. No motel, no reservations, no running water. Just sun and sky and campfire at night, alone under the stars, just like all those years we traveled on the fly and on the cheap.
    The eye-popping scenery begins on our side of 89, and its pretty little sister, 89A, slicing through the Verde Valley up into the Colorado Plateau like a heaping helping of amazing geography. Up through the alpine ecosystem of Flagstaff and back down into the piñons, junipers and painted desertscape of the Navajo Nation. Roadside craft stands punctuate long stretches of badlands and vast panoramas. Many of the lonely lean-to structures are now decorated with giant photographic wheatpastes of Navajo life created by Jetsonarama, (a.k.a. Chip Thomas) and his Painted Desert Project.
A stop at the historic Cameron Trading Post, adjacent to the Little Colorado River, always arrives at the perfect time, just when your legs were starting to need a stretch. Just far enough from home to feel like we were really on an adventure. Buses full of Asian and European tourists join you, as do river running excursions towing trailers full of kayaks and inflatables.

Continuing north you can take two routes into Kanab: stick on 89 through Page and past the Glen Canyon Dam, or detour via 89A up over a winding alpine pass, through Jacobs Lake, gateway to the Grand Canyon's North Rim. Overall, Highway 89 is quicker, but please beware the speed traps just inside the Utah border, between the weigh station and the entrance to Lone Rock Beach. I am not kidding when I say we have been pulled over nearly every time we've cruised that stretch of highway, by assorted law enforcement officials (DPS, National Park Ranger, Utah State Police, etc.) for infractions so minor it leaves us shaking our heads. License plate light burnt out. Going 65 in a 60. In the end they always wave us off with a warning, and we drive off chuckling about how silly it is. (On this most recent journey Chad was pulled over on the way up, and I was pulled over on the way back.) Kanab is a historic community filled with Hollywood lore and surrounded by red sandstone buttes. This city is perhaps now most famous for being the home of Best Friends Animal Society, a large-scale rescue sanctuary tucked into nearby Angel Canyon. Begun in Arizona in the 1970s to save animals from kill-shelters, the society moved its operation to Kanab in the early 1980s. Carmel Junction and the Thunderbird Café (“Home of the Ho-Made Pies”) signals your turn towards Zion National Park, if you’re so inclined, but it was not on our itinerary this trip. Following 89 north the road continues to entertain as it curves through canyons, high prairie and a smattering of small tidy towns that appear to have been forgotten somewhere in The Twilight Zone. Orderville, where all is in order, you betcha’. Glendale, where sun-baked classic cars forever sit in a sales lot, waiting for “or best offer”, and a young boy prays you’ll buy some of the orchard pears from his roadside stand. Soon the Sevier River appears alongside you, grey-green, glassy, impossibly tangled and loopy. The Sevier (pronounced  “severe”) is the longest river completely contained within the state of Utah. By the time you are in Panguitch, a cute little Mormon town with tidy brick architecture and a row of vintage motels lining 89 you feel both far from home and yet completely safe. There’s a small downtown with a couple of gas stations, a grocery, a few diners, antique shops, a thrift store and a movie theater. Nothing is open on Sundays so it took us forever to track down a can-opener (forgotten from our camping gear). Brianhead Ski Resort is not far from Panguitch, but not close either. I get the impression from the locals that the town pretty much shuts down between October and April.

In the Dixie National Forest, our campsite, at the base of bright red hoo-doos and our own secret canyon, was perfect and sparsely visited. Despite there not being much traffic or disturbance by other humans, there were tall ladders in all of the piñon trees surrounding the area of our camp. I'd never seen anything like it. Manning the ladders were migrant workers draped in sap-coated aprons, bandanas and desert-style head coverings. Later, upon chatting with them in Spanish, we found out that they were all from Arizona, imported from Phoenix by a company contracted to harvest the piñon nuts now at their fattest, ripest and stickiest. It had never occurred to me, while eating pasta, pesto or any other assorted dishes featuring pine nuts where those nuts might have originated. The harvest workers’ camp was apparently not far from ours, because one night we heard them serenading the full moon with Mexican lullabies.

     Red Canyon, a favorite place for many years, is a more pet-friendly, less crowded alternative to Bryce Canyon National Park. Lots of great trails, a nice visitor center, and a large, inexpensive public campground. Many of the trails throughout the area are technical, steep and challenging, but the views are a fair reward. We’d not been to Bryce, 14 miles further along Highway 12, in a number of years. As with many national parks, dogs are not usually allowed on most of the trails. During one visit to Bryce Canyon, back before we traveled with pets, we enjoyed hiking down into a deep bowl of hoodoos while surrounded by German tourists. They called out to each other in German, their echoing hollers of “Nicht so schnell!” imploring others to slow down on the precarious steps. Upon reaching the bottom I was startled to encounter a French lady in high-heeled espadrilles, languidly smoking a cigarette. Bryce Canyon, a national park since 1928, was named after Scottish immigrant, Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer who homesteaded nearby. Legend has it that Mr. Bryce said the unique weather-formed rock formations, complex red hot riddles of hoodoos and towering spires, was “a helluva place to lose a cow.”
(Perhaps an apocryphal tall tale, though still oft- repeated.)
     Ruby’s Inn, largest shopping area for 100 miles or more, sits just outside the park entrance. It’s a tourist city of sorts, where you can buy anything you ever needed, or never needed, including just about any kind of fancy beer. Hotels, laundromat, groceries, souvenirs, tours, fake western town. They even have a one-hour photo lab. Surrounded by a great variety of foreign languages, you can always recognize the Europeans before you can hear them speak. Their shoes are always just a bit futuristic. Let’s get out of here, back to our piñon pickers, back to our own canyon and secluded campsite. Our own private Utah.

Chad, the dogs and I spent several nights in the wilderness, cuddling sagebrush, heading off on daily adventures to explore trails, sipping on fancy IPAs and cooking dinner at the campfire, under the big sky full of stars. “This feels like home”, I’d say, “All of it. This is what brought me out west.” Favorite places like these across Utah makes me feel both young and old at the same time. Old tallying the past visits, and young remembering my first glimpses of this place as it if were yesterday.

For more information:

Ellen Jo Roberts arrived in Flagstaff in 1995. She and her husband lived in a vintage pop-top camper for a couple of months, until winter came. Read all about it at

Utah and the Pervasive Scent of Big Basin Sage.

In writing a new tale of a Utah adventure, I thought I should revisit the last story I wrote, published back in Nov. 2008...

Utah, and the Pervasive Scent of Big Basin Sage
November 2008
Ellen Jo Roberts
The Outs
The Noise

boulder utah horses- black & white

What to do when the economy is in the toilet, the stock market has taken a nosedive, and we’ve entered the next Great Depression? I’ll tell you what to do—take a road trip, that’s what. That’s what we do.

Why, back in the day when we barely even had jobs we managed to muster up enough gumption and funds to hop on the highway and head to unknown destinations, with only a map and a bedroll. We’d sleep in our vehicle, in forests, or in parking lots, showering at campgrounds, with no notion of our next meal.

We’d subsist on walnuts. We never knew where we’d end up. The Appalachian Trail during a winter blizzard? Sure! A Florida Keys biker bar? Why not? A field of fragrant Big Basin Sagebrush in Utah? Yes, my favorite. Life was simple then. All that mattered was the scenery, the next town, the postcards, some snap shots, and the road home. Nowadays we still travel on the cheap, focusing on the fundamentals of the journey rather than on high dollar accommodations or phony luxuries. The true luxuries are present in the rich scenes, sights, sounds, and scents of our country, in its myriad varieties.

Chad read an old “Desert” magazine from 1973 that advised “Septober” is the best season to visit Southern Utah, so all summer he’d had it written on the calendar as an extended weekend trip.

Early October is still summery hot in Arizona, but a few hours north, autumn was already taking place, bathing river valleys in golden foliage, and causing us to bundle up in jackets and sweaters we’d not donned for months. Though we are big fans of Zion and Bryce National Parks, our destination was farther, Escalante, and Boulder Utah, and the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the Grand Staircase encompasses 1.9 million acres of amazing natural features- vast slickrock, multi-hued canyons, mountains, valleys, rivers, important archaeological sites, and locations of major fossil records. It is considered a vital location for scientific study. However, Utahans were caught off guard by its protected designation back in ‘96--there was some bit of controversy about it, during Clinton’s re-election bid. Many felt that the amount of acreage protected was too huge, and others were upset it put the kibosh on a planned coal mine located within monument’s limits. However, upon seeing the region, one cannot help be nostalgic for an administration that had enough foresight to protect extremely beautiful and fragile areas for future generations.

hwy 12 in the rain

Highway 12 is insane! You could totally crash from gawking at the incredible scenery. The stretch between Escalante and Boulder is a marvel of engineering. Winding through Calf Creek Canyon, and then rising above it, some sections of the highway are only as wide as the road, with steep drop-offs on each side, leaving you staring down into crazy deep canyons and endless slickrock. A freak Pacific storm rolled in during our visit, sorta putting a damper on the promised Septober glory, but the rain could not diminish the natural beauty. In fact, saturated with rain, the colors of the rock were deeper, the brisk scents of Utah even more autumny. Or maybe that was just the handful of big basin sage crushed in my pocket. I have had a fondness for Big Basin Sage ever since first encountering it on a winter camping excursion to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. All twisty and shaggy-barked, tenacious, with its fragrant silver leaves flooding the hillsides. It grows throughout the high desert west, but in Arizona it is generally only found in the Kaibab National Forest, as it fades into Utah. One may purchase sagebrush at Clarkdale’s “Arizona Botanic Garden” greenhouse, to plant it in your yard, as we have, but, as it is not native to the Verde Valley, it never seems to thrive in the same way as it does in its homeland.

red canyon, utah

Gas station clerks in Southern Utah are not very friendly to people they perceive as "outsiders". They are somber and suspicious. Arizonans are far friendlier to strangers. I remember once asking a guy at a Moab mini-mart if I could use their restroom and he barked at me "It's not a shower!" They are cantankerous with tourists. A clerk at a small convenience store near the entrance to Zion was obviously aggravated when a large tour bus of French folk disembarked out front. It was also obvious when the escort greeted her by name that every bus from this particular tour company stops at this mini-mart prior to entering the national park. Trying to lighten her sour mood as we hurriedly paid for a tomato juice I said, “Wow, these buses stop here all day? That must sure keep you busy!” Barely looking up, she grunted, “Yeah. But most of em can’t even speak ENGLISH!” Yikes. As I popped the top off my juice I thought to myself, “As long as they speak the color of money, I dunno what she’s griping about.”

thunderbird- mt carmel junction, utah

We stayed at a cute 3 room motel called the “Circle Cliffs”, off of Highway 12, in Boulder. Boulder is very rolling and pastoral, with an abundance of livestock, and a distinct lack of traffic. The vintage motel is owned by a very sweet, friendly cattle-ranching family, and is surrounded by fields of horses, llamas, and an apple orchard. Across from our room were two mares, avidly panhandling for apples. I asked the owner if they saw lots of French and German visitors and he told me that most of their guests were foreign nationals. “They prefer this type of lodging. Americans seem to prefer the chain places, seem to be more comfortable at the Motel 6s”. The Circle Cliffs was not at all fancy. The TV only got the limited local channels, but there was a big bathroom with a tub. The room was well appointed, warm and cozy during the chilly all-night drizzle.

Boulder is quite small, population less than 200 residents, but is perhaps slightly famous for the Hells Backbone trail, and the eponymous Hells Backbone Grill, located at the wee Boulder Mountain Resort. Very highly regarded and reviewed, the restaurant is owned by Flagstaff ex-pats Blake Spalding and Jen Castle. Now in its eighth season, Hells Backbone grill has one of the highest Zagat ratings in Utah, and follows principles of sustainability, emphasizing use of locally raised organic heirloom fruits, vegetables and meats, and a commitment to the environment.

escalante to boulder 2

Escalante is a bigger town than Boulder, and home to the Fighting Moquis state champion basketball team. Many relics of Escalante’s Mormon heritage and settlement remain in the tidy little town, and most of the businesses are closed on Sundays, even the gas stations.

Peoples Exchange, Escalante, UT

Eleven years ago we camped at Calf Creek, with our pop-top camper backed up against the largest Big Basin Sagebrush I’d ever seen. As big as a tree, that sage, in bloom, and scenting my dreams. The Calf Creek Recreation Area features camping, picnicking, and access to the Lower Calf Creek Falls trail, a several mile long hike through a glorious and steep canyon, following the creek to the falls that feed it. Our attempt to revisit the falls was rained out, and our hike cut short, but we were pleased to shake hands with that colossal sagebrush again. It was still there, at our old campsite, and bigger than ever.

calf creek chad at our old campsite

The Burr Trail is a paved road where no paved road should be. It winds through a red canyon between Boulder and Bullfrog, at Lake Powell, where you can take a ferry across the lake for a shortcut back home. We took that ferry once. It was really cool. This time, though, we were just out for a stroll.

burr trail overview

We found a slot canyon off of the Burr Trail and came back for it. On an otherwise completely vacant road, on a completely vacant trail, in a completely vacant slot canyon, a pair of bozos arrived right behind us, and sidled up right next to us, snapping photos with a cellphone for their Facebook pages-- interrupting our slot canyon solitude, with their chatter and small talk, and with no notion whatsoever that their wilderness etiquette may be lacking. We attempted to wait them out, but they showed no sign of leaving. Instead it was us who were chased off. It reminded me of hiking the Narrows at Zion. The technical aspects of hiking in knee deep water and navigating submerged rocks paled to the challenges of negotiating the crowds of fellow hikers, like a downtown rush hour, the sound of “Excuse me, pardon me” echoing a thousand times against the canyon walls.

burr trail boston terrier

The landscape of Garfield County is dotted with half a dozen tidy little towns, somehow seeming foreign, as if we were driving across Sweden or Denmark. Entering Tropic, Utah, we looked over to see a young girl speeding through a field on a small motorbike, dwarfed by giant bundles of wheat. Red Canyon, a miniature introductory version of Bryce, features numerous pull-outs, trails, and a visitors’ center. The highways were smooth, but occasionally cluttered with rental RVs. Soon we had rejoined Highway 89, with glorious landscape leading us all the way home, flat glossy rivers, red maples, hoo doos, jagged mountains, and vintage motels. And the pervasive scent of Big Basin Sage, tickling our noses and bringing back memories of past adventures.
orderville, utah -parkway motel

Approaching Arizona, the sun came out for us, like a beacon showing us the way home. One last stop, on the Navajo Rez, on the bridge overlooking the Colorado River. Running so deep, quiet and green, contrasting with the oranges and reds of the terrain around it. We shed ourselves of autumn jackets and the Utah rain, and basked in the summery warmth, knowing it would be short lived. Autumn was following us in the rearview mirror.

big river

For more information:

Ellen Jo Roberts was born in 1972. Her house was built in 1914, and her car dates from 1973. She lives with a husband who graduated high school in 1990, and a few assorted pets that were born in the 2000s.

You can read all about it at

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dog Days of Summer

Dog Days of Summer

The Outs

The Noise

August 2012

Ellen Jo Roberts

       Dogs are loud. They're stinky. They roll in filth. They destroy your favorite possessions and frequently get into mischief. Dogs require lots of our time, attention and energy. In many ways they're just like children except they'll never need help with their algebra homework or ask to borrow the car. We love dogs, but perhaps not nearly as much as they love us.

"I really try, like the old quote goes, to live to be the person my dogs think I am. I fail, daily, but they do inspire me."
Now that we have three dogs at our house we are officially "Crazy Dog People". (The three of them are so small, however, that combined they only add up to one average-sized dog.)
The self-sufficient cat can be left home alone for days. The dogs cannot. Daily I am up at dawn to let them out for their morning constitutional, standing in the yard in my pajamas in all kinds of weather. When I come home for lunch they eat theirs before I do. They're a lot of work, these stinky, slobbery little critters, always needing food, water, exercise, health care. And treats.
Don't forget the treats. In exchange, the rewards are great. They charm us with their grace, affection, devotion and enthusiasm. I interviewed folks about their relationships with their canine companions and the ways they enrich our lives.

"Dogs teach us about unconditional love and make our lives better and more fun. They love just being with us and we love being with them. The sheer joy they exude reminds us every day to cherish the little things in life."

"They make me laugh. They keep me warm. They're very cuddly and sweet company."

"I can't imagine life without my dog. He's seen me through some sad times and never left my side. When I'm sick he races to me with, what I swear, is a look of concern. We sometimes call him Dr. Dog."

"Gosh, people have written books, screenplays, songs and poetry answering this question. In too many ways to count. They renew my faith in the universe several times a day. They give me more endorphins than I deserve. They entertain and amuse me -- and they give me someone to take care of, something I wasn't able to name or recognize until a pet saved and changed my life once when I desperately needed it."

"I look forward to seeing them everyday. I can't imagine my life without them. I am recently divorced. I would have given away anything just as long as I got to keep them."

"Dogs enrich my life by offering comic relief, enthusiasm for my existence and an easy route to happiness via tricks for treats. Simple."

"I have an early memory of being asked to leave a movie theatre with my mom as a toddler because I became hysterical watching 'Benji Come Home' -- at the point I realized Benji was lost from his family and being pursued by some 'bad men.' It's a oft-repeated family anecdote that sums up my lifelong bleeding-heart-for-animals personality."

     I have a similar story of overwhelming grief watching a Peanuts cartoon as a child. Snoopy lost in wintery woods, being chased by wolves. I was inconsolable. Dogs tug on our heart strings.
I cannot ever watch the pitiful pleading-eyed pooches on those ASPCA commercials without getting choked up.

        My father was a dog trainer in the U.S. Army, stationed in Korea in the 1960s. My first dog was a handsome German Shepherd named Goru, though we frequently called him "The Gripper" or "The Grip" for reasons unknown. He was born a year before me and famous in our neighborhood. Goru was a dog that commanded respect. Intelligent, regal and obedient, he guarded my young life until he expired at the ripe old age of 12. He had been assisted in his endeavors for a number of years by the Scottish Terrier, MacDuff (aka Duffy, Boo, and an assortment of other bizarre nicknames). Duffy died when I was in college and it wasn't until I was 31 that a dog lived in my home again, bred on a Cottonwood ranch and purchased on a whim at a local feed store after driving past a hand-painted sign advertising "Chihuahua Puppies 4 Sale". A tiny animal with an outsized personality, his acquisition was inspired by an admirable dog within our circle of friends. We named him Floyd, and in addition to encouraging art, photos and adventures our success with Floyd inspired bravery to add more to our pack. What I learned from Floyd is that wherever we go, he is at home as long as he is with us. Whether we are touring some strange city or camped in a tent in some far away wilderness, if we are with him he is home. We are his home.

"The dogs inspire me creatively and artistically, and I feel blessed to have such devoted little friends and companions."

    I sometimes look around at all of the pets scurrying around our house, usually bunched up in a traffic jam happening in the same room as us, and ask, "Why do we have these little animals living in our house with us?" Sometimes it seems so weird!

       "Man's Best Friend" may have very well domesticated itself, opportunistically lingering along the edges of prehistoric camps, trading scraps for affection or alerts. Many breeds of dogs were cultivated as favorites of royalty and signs of wealth. In some cultures dogs considered unclean and contact with them is taboo. In France, dogs allowed inside restaurants and aboard public transportation. By nature they are eager to work hard for a small rewards and provide endless service to mankind, working on ranches, chasing off bears, pulling sleds, assisting the physically impaired, working under the harshest conditions and during dangerous times of war. In more commonplace situations, it's a proven fact that pet ownership improves a human's health, soothing our anxiety, and encouraging us to exercise.

“I walk more, which is good... I never really knew my neighbors until I had a dog. Going outside twice a day for walks totally changed my connection to my neighborhood. My dogs calm me. How can you watch a sleeping dog and not feel more relaxed?"

We are constantly making accommodations to have dogs participate in our lives but we don't ever seem to notice it anymore. It's become second nature.

"I don’t really remember what it was like before dogs. They are part of our lifestyle and always will be."

       Planning ahead, searching for dog-friendly activities, hotels, hiking trails and restaurants with outdoor seating so we can take them along on adventures with us. Extra expenses, surcharges, fees, detours, supplies. Traveling great distances with our dogs tucked under our seats in the airplane cabin creates an added layer of anxiety to an already stressful mode of transport, but we've done it many times. The extra fun of having them along cancels out all of the hassles. We tailor the house to better suit them. We share our space. We know not to leave food unattended.

"I sleep at the edge of the bed. I've learned not to fall off during the night. Amazing how two small dogs can take up an entire queen-size bed."

"I've learned to turn over in bed without launching them across the room."

"They are always able to surprise me in how they find new and exciting ways to gross me out, get into stuff they shouldn't and tear up things you'd never think they could."

"I've learned to put away -- REALLY put away -- things that are precious or delicate, I've learned to roll with the punches of life from my dogs. I've learned to care more and less about things than I did before when it was appropriate, and I've purchased a whole lot of junk to make my car, home and stuff dog/cat-proof: water/stain-proof car seat covers, portable fold-up water bowls, baggies of dog treats ever-present in my purse, only staying at dog-friendly hotels."

"We won't leave them at home in their kennel for an extended amount of time. We take our responsibility very seriously, so we never leave them in the yard while we're gone. So we will leave a party early to get home to let the dogs out or make sure they get their dinner. So they definitely come first. We take it very seriously...Leaving a party to let your dogs out? People think it's a convenient excuse, but it's for real!"

"The biggest accommodation is finding good sitters when we want to leave town together. Sometimes we just don't go somewhere as a result."

   Our pets become a part of our families, always there wagging when the key turns in the lock.
And their lives are always far too brief. When a beloved pet dies its dozen years with us are taken away with it, ending an era and leaving us forever changed. That's why I treasure every little moment, squeezing in as much quality time as possible. When the dogs have taken their final breath, there will be no regrets because we operated at maximum capacity. Avid participants in nearly everything we do, they've been extensively catalogued in paintings, photos and words, forever immortalized in the art they inspired.

"I have lost three of my dogs in the past seven years, and to me it is like the loss of a child. They have such big, dramatic personalities, and love with such ferocity, that the void left by their passing is immense and devastating. People with kids are often insulted by this, but I don't have children and pour all of my maternal love and energy into my dogs."

"The little dogs, they're so fragile. I just want to wrap them in armor. It may be the closest I ever come to feeling what parents feel."

     There is something about the geographical location of our home that seems to be a magnet for stray dogs. I've found far more than my share, and helped most of them find their ways back home. The intuitive creatures must sense an inherent friendliness emanating from our vicinity. Many homeless dogs need to find proper owners; unwanted animals left to run loose, left behind in foreclosures, unexpected puppies with no place to go. The local shelters are consistently full.
Do you have a place for a canine companion in your life?

"I lived in an apartment that didn't allow dogs. Although the place was nice, I couldn't wait to move so I could have a dog. I even had a name picked out for future dog, just in case..."

Perhaps you don't have a place for a dog in your home, but still have a place for one in your heart? Humane Societies welcome donations of supplies, but also welcome donation of your time. You can volunteer to spend time with the animals.

"I would love for folks to do more research before they bring home a dog and be 1,000% sure you can commit the time, love, and money to keep your dogs healthy and happy. It's time well invested."

Ellen Jo Roberts lives in Clarkdale, Arizona, with Floyd, a 9 year old Chihuahua, Ivan, an 8 year old Boston Terrier, Hazel, a 9 month old Chihuahua mix, Ned, a one year old cat, and Chad, a 39 year old mongrel of mixed heritage. They all know how to give "high fives" and roll over.

Read all about it at

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

There's No Such Thing As The Perfect Couple (Publication Edit)

There’s No Such Thing as "The Perfect Couple"
The Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts
The Noise
July 2012

             "wedding day"

Drinking rum cocktails, watching the sun set over the high desert landscape, surrounded by adorable pets, fantastic climate and softly swaying wildflowers, we are keenly aware of what a great life we've got. My husband and I will celebrate our 17th anniversary on July 1st. Seventeen years, some more challenging than others, but each with a lesson. One thing I've learned over those years is that there's no such thing as "The Perfect Couple". Every duo I've thought to be "perfect" (charming at parties, sexy as hell, photogenic and fantastic) has crashed and burned up in tremendous flames, the combustion often causing lingering fall out over entire cities. The Perfect Couple is a figment, something concocted by Hollywood and Hallmark.

Chad and I are far from perfect, but we work at it. We frequently disagree and our methods of dealing with the world and its challenges are 180 degrees different. Astrologically speaking, we clash on every level. He is analytical, scientific, critical, sensitive and easily wounded. He sometimes gets teary-eyed at children's dance recitals and during heart-tugging films. At parties he hides along the fringes, communing with nature.

         I am light-hearted and jovial, never taking things personally. He is slow-moving and thoughtful. It's hard for him to jump in on frivolously witty banter. When he says something it is usually very memorable and meaningful because he's invested a great deal of thought into it. I am quick on my feet and quick to speak. I sometimes make foolish detours or neglect to read directions.

   He doesn't get angry quickly, but when he does it's a slow boil that lasts all day.
   I am quick to get mad, but cool off just as fast.
      My husband thinks he can circumvent anything bad ever happening simply by doing as much advance research as possible.   I am the opposite. List making drives me bonkers and too much planning steals chances for delightful surprises. You can never prepare for every possible variable that could happen so I prefer to ride the world as it rotates, taking it as it comes. As an artist I count on those "happy accidents": the things you didn't plan for that turn out far better than what you originally had in mind. I don’t need to always be in control of the details. I have faith in the universe.

He likes to have all of the proper tools laid out and everything organized in advance

         We are night and day, yin and yang. On paper, we're a disaster. But yet we remain committed to each other. This polarity magnetizes us. It attracts us to each other.
Our differences are complementary, making us more well-rounded and a stronger team in the long run. Chad has taught me valuable lessons- like, foremost, "Not everyone thinks like you do, Ellen". Everyone's mind works differently. I am not always right. I do not always know everything. Stop and read the directions. Enjoy the silence and the scenery. Sometimes being so different from each other is a huge hassle, but being the partner of Chad has made me a better person.

We were young when we got married. Carefree and foolhardy, packing up just our most precious possessions and heading to Arizona and the Great Unknown, with no jobs lined up, no place to stay. Just "living on love" and sleeping in the forest. Getting hitched was a lark. We met in college 19 years ago when we both lived in the same historic boarding house on College Avenue in DeKalb, Illinois. The first time we spoke, he winked at me. Within two years we were wed and moving west. In the 17 years we've been in Arizona, nearly every couple we've ever met has since disbanded. The exception is baby boomers currently celebrating their 25th, 30th, 40th wedding anniversaries, like Chad’s parents.

        My marriage model was far different. My father was killed in a car wreck when my brother and I were pre-school age and we were raised by a single mother. Marriage was no kind of commodity to me. I certainly never imagined I’d be hitched by age 23. My main notion of marriage came from my grandparents. Gram and Gramps spent 58 years bickering with each other, heels dug in tight for the long haul. Because that’s what their generation did. They’d survived the Great Depression and World War II and they weren’t gonna quit anything (even when maybe they should have). Their partnership may not have been affectionate or romantic, but it was well-managed and successful long term, like a good investment.

We sit in the yard sipping our lime-crushed rum, and wonder how it is we've survived the marriage minefield, littered with our peers crashing and burning to the left and the right of us. Couples more alike, more beautiful, more "together" than we've ever seemed to be.

Was their perfection just an act for the public? Behind closed doors was it something else entirely? Or did their unions collapse when the heat became too much to sustain?  If they couldn't make it, how the hell can we, the obviously imperfect, ever make it?

Navigating other people and their emotional grenades is one of life’s great challenges. And marriage is a tough gig. Anyone who signs up for it oughta realize. You'd like to think it's 50/50, but truth is a lot of times it's one person giving 100% and the other giving far less. Sometimes we take turns.

          A key to happiness occurred to me, while running along the river on a glorious spring day; the kind of day where the sprouting leaves are freshly green, the herons and hawks fly overhead right on cue and the world just seems impossibly awesome.

The key to happiness is that you've got to be able to make yourself happy. You cannot be reliant on someone else for your happiness. For one, you're bound to be disappointed. And two, it's just not fair to that other person. The key to happiness is to be happy alone, doing your own thing, generating your own good cheer. If you can do that you will be happy, I promise you. You'll also be a valuable asset to your loved ones. Such a self-contained source of happiness will provide endless delight with all the extra you'll have to share. If you rely on your spouse, your friends, your family or any other person to supply you your happiness it will end up a big mess.

Some of my friends are vintage auto aficionados and they’re always buying, selling, switching and searching for that next great project car, the next great screaming deal, and never quite satisfied with their current ride. Even after busting their knuckles, investing blood, sweat and tears, they’re always quick to trade off for something else. I've had the same automobile for the past 14 years and I love it just as much today as I did the first time I drove it, even when it gives me grief, misbehaves, or needs special care as any long term relationships does. I found my dream car and I’m sticking with it.

Ellen Jo Dahlberg married Chad Roberts at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois on a perfect July day in 1995. There's never been a dull moment since. They live in a historic brick bungalow in Clarkdale, Arizona which they share with Floyd, Ivan, Ned, Hazel and several vintage Volkswagens. Read more about it at

Monday, April 23, 2012

Baseball Fever

Baseball Fever
Ellen Jo Roberts
The Outs
The Noise
May 2012

      Nothing sounds more like summer than a baseball game broadcast over the radio. The tinny drone of the announcers calling the innings' events, punctuated by the fans’ jeers or cheers, sound like summer to me, like no other noise. At one time in my life I had a serious case of baseball fever. While the daily score no longer rules me, I still find the sport everywhere: the small historic baseball field across the street from my house, the faded vintage decal in my car window, the photographs of my nephews in their officially licensed Major League Baseball ® garb.


    We are surrounded by baseball, because it is often a used as metaphor for life in America. That’s why we root so strongly for the home team, the eternal champs and the ever-struggling underdogs alike. The energetic young rookie, starting fresh and learning hard-won lessons. The seasoned old-timer aiming for one last golden season. The homer in the gloamin’. Baseball unites people of vastly disparate age, education and socio-economic background who just so happen to live in the same area code. You may not agree on anything else outside of that baseball stadium, but while raising hands and voices to the home team you are united as one.

            Evolving from folk games played in Great Britain as far back as the 1600s, baseball shares similar traits with cricket, yet remains distinctly new world. Since the first pro team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, were created in 1869, organized baseball swiftly spread across the continent into every major city. The current roster of major league teams numbers 30, split into two leagues. The sport connects us over decades, generations and centuries. In my diehard fan days, from opening day to end of the season I lived and breathed by the daily score. Newspaper clippings of game photos decorated my bedroom hallway, my own sports “hall of fame”. I had crushes on outfielders and wrote summer poems during the winter months. Worthless baseball cards filled lovingly-decorated boxes, priceless to me only because of my own sentiments and allegiances, cheering on journeymen who had played most of their best years in some other city. My summers were spent in the bleachers, or huddled on steps, standing room only, my brother and I squinting to the outfield and keeping track with pencil and scorecard.

behind home plate

     Though I have appreciation for all of the great players and fabled legends of baseball, my team is the Chicago Cubs. Since moving out west and losing sight of WGN I’ve been blissfully removed from the heartbreak. Loving the Cubs is a special kind of penance, a sort of masochism that is passed on genetically. My family is mental for the Cubs, and if I call during game time I will only get distracted, perfunctory response to any attempted conversation. Notorious underdogs, the downtrodden Cubbies won their last World Series in 1908. Legend has it the team was cursed in the 1940s by Billy Sianis of Chicago’s famed Billy Goat Tavern, for disallowing his goat entry into the park. Despite their notorious lack of luck,  their diehard fans stay true blue, filling historic Wrigley Field year-round through good seasons and bad. The beautiful ballpark, with its ivy-lined bricks and hand-operated scoreboard, was built in 1916 and definitely inspired my enchantment with baseball. Planted smack dab in the middle of a bustling north-side neighborhood, Wrigley Field has always been the 10th player in the game and, for me, always the MVP.  Citizens United for Baseball in the Sunshine (C.U.B.S.) attempted to keep lights from the park, but in 1988 the neighborhood succumbed after threats of the team being moved to a new park in the 'burbs. Night games began, after 72 years of daylight baseball. The "Friendly Confines" remains, however, a portal to a different time, a well-manicured oasis steeped in history.

Lift the curse, Floyd!

My first major league baseball game took place 30 summers ago. I had no idea what was happening on the field, but the festivity of those seated around me, the sunshine and breeze on my face, the smells of beer and hot dogs and coconutty sun tan oil were all instantly captivating. The vendors hawking their treats. The rambunctious camaraderie and humor of the fans enchanted me as they chanted against opposing teams, taunting outfielders with rude rhymes and throwing back bad home run balls onto the field in disgust. Occasionally, during a lull in the game, the bleacher fans would comically chant against each other, "Right Field Sucks!"/ "Left Field Sucks!" jabbing the air and laughing 'til one side finally gave up. The first time I ever smelled the sweet, strange smoke of marijuana lingering in the air, was in the Wrigley Field bleachers as stock brokers and preppies passed a joint around a nearby bench. My Uncle was a White Sox fan and always dismissed the Cubs fans and their northside park as "yuppie" in contrast to his blue collar southside Comiskey Park crew, with their rowdy fireworks, disco demolitions and people brutishly being flung off the upper deck. Beloved promoter and baseball hall-of-famer Bill Veeck unites the history of the two otherwise disparate teams by being the creator of an icon in each park: he was responsible for both the "exploding scoreboard" at Sox Park, and planting the first sprigs of ivy on the walls at Cubs Park.

       To this day, "baseball movies" always kill me. I cannot tear myself away, and often times get choked up at classics like Field of Dreams, The Natural, and even silly ones like Fever Pitch and Major League rouse me to cheer, and sometimes to tears. If the Cubs win the World Series in my lifetime I imagine I will collapse in a sweaty heap of ectoplasmic goo.

          Small towns nationwide are home to local clubs, high school and college teams as well as farm teams for the bigs. The same enthusiasm and magic is generated from these small scale organizations. Clarkdale and Jerome were once homes to rivals, back in the days of the United Verde Mining Operations. The Muckers were Jerome's team and they battled the Clarkdale Wolves, until the mid-20th century. A more recent development in the local sports world is the Northern Arizona Baseball League, with teams in the Verde Valley, Prescott area tri-cities, Williams and Flagstaff, including the Cottonwood Toros, Paulden Diablos, Clarkdale Miners, Camp Verde Blue Sox, Prescott Brew Crew, Rimrock Lions, Williams Marineros, Prescott Valley West Siders and the Chino Valley Cougars.
        "Wood bat baseball at its finest, " says Carlos Godina, Clarkdale Miner and League President, referring to the participants as the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. "Well, maybe I am going overboard, but at least we have a baseball league. No more driving to Phoenix to play ball. Now your families can come watch you play locally. These are great days, men.”

Playing every Sunday afternoon March through June, with championship series in July, teams may be cheered on at various locations throughout Yavapai County: Yavapai College in Prescott, Bradshaw Mountain Middle School, Doug Davis Field at Camp Verde High School.

hey old style!

I've heard that the average baseball game generally offers only 10 minutes of actual action during 9 innings. Much of the game is spent waiting, watching, hoping, praying, fighting off pitches, brushing back base-runners. Foul balls, warm-ups, rude rhymes, the 7th inning stretch, warm sunshine and cold beer. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. It's a whole lot of anticipation. Just like life.

Ellen Jo Roberts grew up in Chicago in the 1980s.
She used to spend all of her babysitting money on baseball tickets.
She lives in Clarkdale Arizona with Bike Daddy Chad, Five Head Floyd, Super Spaz Ivan, Ned the Nut and Hazel Basil.
Read all about it at

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Local Character: Folk Artist Sallie Lou of Cottonwood, Arizona

Local Character:
Sallie Lou,
Folk Artist of Cottonwood, Arizona
The Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts
The Noise
April 2012

sallie lou and some of his art

Any person wandering Cottonwood’s Main Street in the past 20 years has seen the handiwork of an interesting fellow best known as “Sallie Lou.” Since the late 1980s a staple of Old Town, and more recently relocated a bit further down 89A, the artist is a soft-spoken and slow-moving figure, strikingly garbed in hand-painted hats, shoes and pants. Sallie Lou is a living treasure, a local historian and an eccentric genius.

Sallie Lou outside his home studio

His home studio and gallery is well-arranged, equal parts stark and cluttered and smelling faintly of dust and sandalwood. His space is utilitarian and his possessions are few : art, books and photo albums. He's a documentarian. Sallie Lou has many friends and fans both near and far. He shows me a large framed collage comprised of photographs of favorite people. Painting on any available material he can come by, he makes art from canvas, wood, pants, jackets, shoes, boots, purses, mannequins-- pretty much any thing he can get his hands on, reusing, recycling. He works in acrylic paints, colored pencil, and ink. Many of his paintings are two sided, with an image on each side. Animal figures carved from soft Cottonwood decorate the window sills.

Animal carvings made of Cottonwood

Subject matter tends towards historical, religious and abstract. He estimates he’s painted at least 35 Noah’s Arks. A large portion of his work is an extensive documentation of the daily life of Cottonwood, Arizona. Sallie Lou’s work also frequently features frank and playful nudity, saucy antics and an earthy sexuality. There are several paintings he calls “dirty”, gallantly shielding my eyes from viewing the bawdier canvases.

Art by Sallie Lou

Surrounded by new works gently swaying on the fence, he sits in a plastic chair along Main Street and draws the cars that drive the highway and park in nearby lots, pedestrians, passers-by, strange looking clouds. “One day the clouds looked like a quilt. I'd never seen anything like it. And here is one day when the clouds were real frizzy on one end," he explains as he shows me pages of recent sketches, "I like cars. Every day I sit out here and sketch. I even do things that aren’t here.”

Sallie Lou sketches life on 89A

Andrew Spannuth was born in Pennsylvania 76 years ago and grew up the middle boy of three in the railroad town of Reading. There was another brother, born in 1930, who died tragically while riding in a car with his parents to his baptism. The car hit a large rock in the road and the door flew open. “They were going to church on Christmas Eve, and the child flew out the door and hit the ground and was killed. He was only three days old,” explains Sallie Lou, “That’s why Christmas was never a big deal for our family, after that.” The Spannuth Family history is traced back in painstakingly documented genealogical books packed with vintage photos and diagrammed family trees connecting to Daniel Boone, who is Sallie Lou’s 4th cousin.
“Baumstown, Pennsylvania is the hometown of the Boone Family”, he says, correcting popular fallacy that the Boones originated in Kentucky. The family’s history is full of interesting characters. “My mother was the only member of her family to die before age 100,” he shares, explaining his vigor. “I was a psychic spiritualist medium. My mother’s mother was known as 'The Great White Witch of the West'. She lived in Santa Rosa, California.”

Young Andy became an artist early on in life. “Somewhere in this apartment are two drawings I did when I was two years old. I was doing these drawings on the porch of our house and a man said to my mother ‘Oh you’re going to have a famous artist for a son.'” In the family genealogy book there is a photo of Andrew Spannuth as a young man in the 1950s, wearing tight-rolled chinos on his husky frame, crew cut and standing a full head taller than his father. His large size was a source of teasing,
“I had a terrible time growing up. I was very depressed all the time. My mother would tell me every day what route to go to school to avoid people. I was bullied beyond belief”

1970s abstracts

He left Pennsylvania for NYC to begin his studies in art. After one year he moved to the west coast and the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design in San Francisco. “They gave me two years of college credit for one year of New York [schooling],” he says, “Because New York is so advanced of California. California is so slow.”
The 1960s were wild times, and by the early 1970s, Mr. Spannuth had joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s enjoyed 39 years of sobriety since. There’s an AA coin in his pocket and puts it in my hand for review, “When you get a coin in AA everyone passes it around. What you get is the vibration of all the alcoholics on the coin.” Entering a 28 day rehabilitation program at Pennsylvania’s “Chit Chat Farms” changed his life in more than one way, as it eventually led to his future arrival in Cottonwood, Arizona.

"For a long time, stairs were my favorite thing"

In the 1980s, the artist sold his work at a popular flea market in Kutztown, PA, frequented by New York art dealers. “I sold 350 paintings a year,” he said.
“That’s like one a day!,” I remark.
“Yeah, but I only sold them one day a week!”, he laughs.
Earlier artwork is abstract and intense, with bright colors, heavy shapes and architectural puzzles with intertwining staircases. “Stairs was my favorite thing,” he says, unrolling a favorite canvas with an Escher-like mystery of connecting staircases, all drawn freehand yet somehow looking ruler-straight. Soon he would venture in a new direction and a folk art style of whimsical narratives bustling with people.
He was told by his lawyer that in order to be a successful artist he had to create a separate name for his art persona. “When I went from being Andrew to Sallie Lou,” Mr. Spannuth explains, “I decided Sallie Lou would be a black woman.” His eyes twinkle as he recalls the birth of Sallie Lou, “My lawyer told me I had to have a story. So I’d say, ‘As the story goes, Sallie Lou was born in Texas.’ It was fun because somebody would come in and ask me a question. 'Does Sallie Lou have any brothers or sisters?' They’d ask questions and I’d say, ‘As the story continues…’”
As the years passed Sallie Lou's story became richer and more complex. She became a complete character, with many siblings (Tyrone, Canellia, Micki, Trische, Matt) and a self-portrait which depicts her as a buxom woman in an modestly cut, ocean-colored dress. The name Sallie Lou is an amalgam of two of Andrew’s friends’ names: Salvatore Bellone, and a woman named Louise he met in AA.

In the late 1980s, Sallie Lou’s “Negro History Series” featured important African American figures and Civil Rights events. Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Matt Henson at the North Pole, the Woolworth Luncheon Counter Sit In, and assorted tangles with the Ku Klux Klan are all highlighted in this series. The Archbishop of the Catholic Church of Washington DC bought 17 paintings from this series. “All of his parishioners were black,” said Sallie Lou, proudly.

Sallie Lou arrived in the Verde Valley in 1988 after an invitation from Claire Miller Burns, a New York English teacher he met at Chit Chat Farms.
“What was it like when you first arrived here?” I ask.
“I had long hair. I smoked. I was a smoker. I walked up the street to the gas station up the hill. Now it’s a restaurant. And a little girl walked up to me and she said, ‘Oh you’re Andy. You’re living in Claire’s house.’ And she was so friendly and welcoming. Then I saw two men walking towards me up ahead, so I crossed the street. And the two men crossed the street.” Uh oh, I think remembering how young Andy avoided street encounters with bullies. He continues, “They wanted to say hello. They’d heard of me and wanted to wish me well. In Pennsylvania you wouldn’t have that.”

“At that time Cottonwood was very clean. Not a cigarette in the gutter. Not a piece of paper in the gutter. It’s not like that any more.”

I ask him how Arizona life has changed his artwork.
“In Pennsylvania I was really into color, “ says Sallie Lou, “ but when I came out here they told me I couldn’t paint with the same colors I was using in Pennsylvania because they were too bright.”

20 years ago, Old Town Cottonwood was tumbleweed sleepy, a slow-down spot along the highway with a bar called The Buckaroo. There wasn't much going on in the neighborhood back then. But in the 21st Century things are quite different. It's become a vibrant street scene packed with boutiques, wine tasting rooms, cafes and restaurants, hotels, galleries and pedestrians. (The Buckaroo still thrives on the corner, though it's now known as Kactus Kate's.) In his early days in Arizona, Sallie Lou used to work at the old Shep's, under the sun-baked neon beacon of Old Town, selling his art and manning the counter at the mini-mart. In 2009 the faded sign was renovated with new neon by Ledbetter Law Firm when they moved their offices into the old motel court.
What used to say "Shep's LIQUORS" now says "Old Town WELCOME".

lighting of the sign
sheps 2- daytime

“What do you think of Old Town’s changes in the past 20 years?”, I ask.
He is a man with a close up view of its transformation.
“Oh yeah,” he responds quickly, “It’s much better.”

Boots in the window

One of Sallie Lou’s first western hits was creating art from cowboy boots.
I remember seeing the brightly painted boots on display outside of the old Shep’s back in the mid-1990s.
“I’ve painted so many cowboy boots. A couple from Texas bought 15 painted boots from me, and they sold them in Texas for $3,000-4,000 dollars a piece!” exclaims Sallie Lou. Makes me wonder why this fellow has never been swept up by some big city art dealers. He shakes his head at the thought. The shoe painting started for a practical reason, “When I lived in Pennsylvania I wore normal shoes. They were black and they’d get scuffed up. So I’d take acrylic paints and do an abstract design. And that’s how it started.”

sallie lou painted shoes

Up until two years ago Sallie Lou was a resident of the Sun Dial Motel in Old Town. Art sales were good there.
sallie lou sign

“I sold a lot at the Sun Dial. Not so much here.” Relocated to a small house along Historic 89A across the street from Nate’s Cowboy Café, Sallie Lou invites people to visit his studio any day. “I am always here,” he says. He has much art readily available for purchase at a great range of prices, and also is happy to create commissioned work. I commission him to create a small painting of my car for $20.

sallie lou pants

“Last year I had a couple from Canada come up and down the street asking everyone where I was and they sent them to me,” he says as he flips through a large photo album. He keeps photos of every happy customer who ever bought a piece of his artwork since he’s been in Cottonwood. He touches each photo from page to page, remembering tidbits about each person.

Though Sallie Lou maintains a solitary profile much of the time, you don’t get the impression that he is alone. He is friendly and welcoming to visitors, and his life is rich with people and beautiful memories.
He keeps busy creating every day, explaining, “That’s why I’m not lonely. Because I can make something out of anything all the time.”

sallie lou 2

Visitors are always welcome at Sallie Lou’s studio. If you see him sitting outside sketching, he’d love for you to park for a spell and have a chat. His home gallery is located at 209 S Main St. #3, in Cottonwood, across from Nate’s Cowboy Café. You may call him at 928-639-2088.
And coming soon, plan to see Sallie Lou at this summer's Farmer’s Market in Old Town Cottonwood.
Sounds like a perfect fit for this fellow who has spent so many years documenting life along Historic Highway 89A.

Sad foodnote. On June 25th, 2012 Andrew Spannuth died in Cottonwood, Arizona. He was a special person and his presence will be missed.
Ellen Jo Roberts lives in a historic brick bungalow in Clarkdale Arizona with a boy named Chad, a cat named Ned, and three dogs, Floyd, Ivan and Hazel. You can see her driving a yellow Karmann Ghia through town. Read more at