My visual, audio and literary stuff is free here, but my hold-in-your-hands books, prints, and CDs cost real money. If you want to buy something tactile from me, contact me at stujenks at gmail dot com, or message me on Facebook. If you simply want to look and read for free, that's fine too, but don't hesitate to send me your sofa change. My snail mail address is P.O. Box 161, Tucson, Arizona 85702. Keep those cards and letters coming. And sofa change too. Love and light, Stu.
[Pages from the uncorrected proof of the novel Step Zero. To purchase the limited illustrated hardbound edition of this novel go to The Stu Store at Squareup.com. To purchase the non-illustrated ebook, go to those places where ebooks are sold.]
Image: "The Death of Self, Emmerton, Virginia" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
William “Bill” Monroe Wednesday, March 4th, 2076: 8:15 p.m. Downtown Alano Club Tucson, Arizona.
What in GGATI’s name is that newcomer talking about? OK, Bill. Just calm down. Remember you’re here to help and be helped, not judge and be judged, and remember what Larry used to say to you: ‘All those newcomers going on and on, and not making any sense? Well, it may be what keeps them sober tonight.’ Yea, Larry, you were right, like you were so often. I miss you Larry. Rest in peace, brother. That girl’s kind of cute. Ain’t seen her before, and she looks around my age. Wonder if she’s a newcomer. Hope not. Maybe she’s a visitor who just got off the train. We do get some cute sober women traveling from California from time to time. Now, Bill, you ain’t here to get laid. You’re here to stay sober and help others to get sober. She is pretty though. God, I can’t remember the last time I made love to a woman. Good to see so many new faces tonight. Must be three new men and maybe that pretty woman if she ain’t visiting. I love my home group, the Wednesday night God/Not God group of Alcoholics Anonymous. I love these people. And there’s Michael and Craig chuckling over there, and Joy and Sammy holding hands, and Josh and Melissa by the door and Roy and Robbie, and Tony leading the meeting tonight. Oh my. I’m being such a judgmental prick. Newcomers never make sense. Did you, Bill? Hell no. You didn’t stop shaking for three days and all you did was scream about fucking jarheads for your first month. And what did these people do? They loved you, Bill. They loved you. So love them back. And there’s Artie, one of my sponsees. Good kid. I was too hard on him the other day. I need to make amends to him after the meeting. Tell him I wasn’t really angry at him going to California. I’m just scared for him is all. And he’s going to get his grandfather’s harmonium. That’s pretty cool. Well, maybe I’ll share next. Sweet God, those newcomers are so full of shit. Now, now, Bill. Love and tolerance of others is our code. Love and tolerance, Bill. Sounds like Roy is winding up. “Thanks for letting me share,” says Roy. “My name is Bill and I’m an alcoholic.” “Hi, Bill,” says the group. “It’s been over ten years since I’ve felt it necessary to take a drink and for that, I’m truly grateful. And if you’re new, keep coming back. I remember when I was new. I wanted this so bad, but I was so full of shit, I even scared myself.” Chuckles. “But that was OK,” I say. “I was here. I was sober. I went to a meeting every day. I got a sponsor on day three. My first sponsor, Larry. Many of you all remember Larry. He taught me a lot. He had me working the Steps immediately. ‘You think you’re an alcoholic,’ he asked me after my fourth or fifth meeting. ‘I know I am,’ I said. ‘Do you believe that a power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity?” he asked me? ‘I hope so,” I said. ‘Are you willing to turn your will and your life over to the care of God, as you understand him or her or it?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I said. Larry paused and then said with a big grin his face: ‘That’s OK.Two out of three ain’t bad’ Everyone laughs. “God, I miss that old son of a bitch,” I say. I can’t talk. I start to cry. I didn’t realize how much I still missed Larry. He’s been dead a year now. I don’t know if I can share anymore. Just one more thing. “Larry helped save my life,” I say through the tears. “If you’re new, let us help you get and stay sober, like Larry and many people did for me. We are rooting for you to live. We’re rooting for you. That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for letting me share.” “Thank you, Bill,” say many in the room. I look over at Artie. I see he’s crying too. He knew his grand-sponsor Larry. I smile at Artie. He smiles back. I wipe the tears from my eyes and look down at my hands. I look up. Other people are wiping away tears too. Larry was a hell of a man. His love saved my life.
Georgia “G” Swann Thursday, March 5th, 2076: a little after Midnight Her and Artie’s House Armory Park Tucson, Arizona
Artie’s sleeping but I can’t sleep. I hold a glass of iced tea in my hand. A slight breeze blows down our street. Tabitha, our cat, rubs against my leg. I’m worried about this trip and Artie too. Every since he decided to go, his nightmares have gotten worse, and just last night he yelled Bunny’s name in his sleep. He hasn’t done that since he got sober. Fucking Bunny. I take a sip of my tea. It’ll be OK or it won’t, like the Goddess says. And I’ll be going with him too. And we’ve got plenty of ammo. We’ll be fine or we won’t. Can’t let fear keep us from living. To the east, I see an Almost-Full-Moon rise over the Rincon Mountains. At least we’ll have the Moon with us. His granddad used to love these nights, or so Artie tells me. Artie too. Me, not so much. I like New Moon nights with the Milky Way shining overhead. Not Artie. He likes the bright nights before and after the Full Moon. He walks the streets on Full Moon nights. Must run in the family. I’m worried. He’s not walking with the Moon tonight. I hear a moan from inside. Must be having another dream. I rub Tabitha’s head then head back to bed.
Michael Dollaride Monday, March 9th, 2076: 7:51 a.m. San Agustin Train Station Downtown Tucson, Arizona
This may not be such a good idea, but I meditated on it and the GGATI inside of me said a single word. ‘Go.’ So I’m going. And Harold, my boss, said go too. Can’t argue with Harold or God. I know I should have borrowed a gun from somebody but I hate guns. If I have a gun, I’ll think about killing and I’ve done enough killing for this lifetime. And the next. Pause when agitated they say in the Meetings. I can do that if I’m unarmed. But I can’t if I’m packing. I’ve proven that. Got my ticket, my backpack and my Martin. Paper cup of coffee in my hand. Twenty people on the platform this morning for the Sunset Limited. The smell of coal and steam in the air. I love the smell of trains. There’s Artie and Georgia. They don’t know I’m coming. Won’t they be surprised. “Hey, guys,” I say. They smile at me, then see my backpack and guitar case. Artie’s smile broadens. Georgia’s mouth falls open. “You coming?” Artie asks. ‘I am,” I say. “Oh man,” he says, and all three of us hug. A nice group hug. “Thank you, Michael,” Georgia whispers in my ear.
Georgia “G” Swann Monday, March 9th, 2076: 8:21 a.m. On The Sunset Limited Near Picacho Peak, Arizona
The boys have broken out the instruments—Artie on uke, Michael on guitar. Michael’s singing an old Gillian Welch song. Strangest lyrics, about how “one monkey don’t stop the show.” I think the men like this song because it mentions slow freight trains and having a purpose. I’m looking out the window of our train car. The old Interstate 10 is vacant of any traffic, just a couple hundred feet west of the tracks. Hundreds of rusty cars, trucks and semis fill both lanes, some spilling onto the shoulder. Only the occasional Flex-truck weaves its way through the abandoned vehicles and they seem to be scavenging for parts and scrap. Every once in a while, I see a white human skull or a pile of bleached bones. I’ve seen this hundreds of times and it doesn’t bother me that much, but I’ve never really gotten used to it. Picacho Peak’s anvil summit rises out of the desert, the morning light hitting its sheer walls, making the mountain shine. Saguaros stand at attention at its base. A Red-tailed Hawk rides an updraft between the train and the Peak. The light’s just wonderful this morning. Goddess is healing the planet. She’s been good to me, to Artie, to Michael, to all our friends. I’m so grateful to Her. I open my handbag and take out a glass water bottle. I take a sip of Sun Tea, handing the bottle to Artie who shares it with Michael. They hand the bottle back to me. The boys are having a time. “You know how all those old-timers in A.A. used to say that behind every skirt there’s a slip?” say Michael. “That you need to not get into a relationship in your first year of sobriety?” “Yeah, I’ve heard Bill use the saying once or twice,” Artie says. “Well, I’ve been thinking. You know most women don’t even wear underwear anymore. So I guess, behind every skirt is...crack.” “You guys,” I admonish Michael. “It’s just a joke,” he says, laughing. “Yeah and not a very good one at that,” I say. I then elbow Artie in the ribs to stop him from laughing. He does and gives me a kiss on the cheek. “You better kiss me,” I say. “Ah, honey,” he says, giving me a squeeze too. “Don’t ‘ah, honey me’,” I say, but I’m just teasing him. Suddenly, Michael stops laughing. He’s looking over at I-10. Artie follows his gaze, as do I. Five men and two woman on horseback canter south toward Tucson on the shoulder of the Interstate. All seven wear the fire-engine red shirts of El Grupo. The last guy in line stops, letting the other six ride on. He turns his horse to face the train. He pull sout his shotgun from its holster beside his saddle, raises the gun above his head and shakes it at the train, smiling a manical grin the whole time. He then turns his horse, and catches up with his partners. “You brought your pistols with you, I assume,” Michael says. “Yep,” I say, craning to see the last of the riders as they disappear from view. “You?” Artie asks Michael. “I don’t own a gun anymore,” Michael says. “I forgot,” says Artie. Artie holds my hand for a while. Michael stares out the window. We don’t talk.
Deputy U. S. Marshal Magdalena “Mags” Gutierrez Monday, March 9th, 2076: 8:27 a.m. On The Sunset Limited near Picacho Peak, Arizona.
I’m fortunate to be a civil servant. I have a Sat-phone. Well, anyone can get a Sat-phone, but they cost a fortune. The Richie Riches and the Mormon Tea growers have Sat-phones of course, as do all government workers but most Americans only have Flex-phones, which are much cheaper but you can only get coverage in cities and big towns. Most people hate phones, texts, and computers. I need it for my job and lucky me, I got my mama an old out-of-date Sat-phone and we can talk and text each other. Speaking of the devil, it’s a text from my mother in New Mexico. Asks how Stephanie is. Says the river is high and the snow is melting. I miss the Rio Grande, but I don’t mind that they transferred me to Tucson two years ago. Tucson kind of reminds me of Albuquerque except hotter, but the people are just as friendly. But ABQ doesn’t have a huge Tea problem. Some Brigham, but not like here where they grow the damn stuff. No, I miss my family but this is where I need to be. Except today. The Chief is sending me to San Francisco to pick up a prisoner and transport him back to Tucson for trial. Not my favorite job. I could fly but I’m not. The train will add a few days on the trip but no sense using oil resources for some scumbug in the Tea trade. Plus I like trains. No, I love trains. My favorite thing to do is to sit in my backyard at night, drink some iced coffee, and listen to the trains whisper through town. Second favorite thing to do, actually. Favorite thing is to be kissing and touching Stephanie. I put away the Sat-phone and look out my window. Picacho Peak looks pretty this morning. And I get paid for this. Then I see them. Seven of them. Shit. Red shirts. What are they doing here? They’re not doing anything illegal that I can see, but damn. Well, look at that. I think that’s Bunny Ortiz at the head. There’s a warrant out for his arrest. Double murder. Damn it. I’m on this train and there’s no law enforcement on The Sunset Limited, except me and three railroad dicks. And what can I do? Stop the train and then run after them on foot? Well, they’re gone now. Just have to get Bunny when I get home. Like I wish. I open up my Sat-phone again and dictate a quick text to my mother. “Dear Momma,” I say into the phone, “I’m off to San Francisco for a few days to pick up a prisoner. You know I wish I was with you and Papa, looking at the Rio Grande flow, and eating your chile rellenos, but I’m a hard working woman these days. And if Stephanie was here she’d send her love. I gotta go. I love you Momma. Kiss Papa for me. Love, Magdalena.” I send the text and close the phone. I gaze out the window again at Picacho Peak. Then I think of Stephanie’s breasts. I shake my head. Stay frosty, Mags. No time to be thinking about having sex with your girlfriend.
Arthur “Artie” Saum Monday, March 9th, 2076: 10:10 a.m. On The Sunset Limited Outside of Casa Grande, Arizona.
Standing between cars, smoking a clove cigarette. I don’t smoke many. Can’t afford them, but seeing El Grupo messed me up. Actually, it was seeing Bunny for the first time since I got sober that did it. “Mind if I join you,” says Michael exiting his car. “Hey, Michael. Sure. Want a clove?” “Can’t stand ‘em, but thanks.” “I forgot,” I say. “You all right?” “Yeah, sure.” I say, looking at him and wonder why I’m lying. “No, I’m not,” I say. “That was Bunny back there.” “Yeah,” Michael says. I take a long drag off my clove. I need to quit these. “Don’t tell Georgia but I really want to use right now,” I say. “I can taste the Brigham in my mouth. That’s why I’m out here having a clove. I haven’t been this triggered in months. Jesus fuck.” My hand shakes as I bring the cigarette to my lips. “You prayed about it?” he asks. “About what?” “To have God Goddess All There Is remove the obsession to drink and use.” That brought a smile to my face. “I didn’t even think about that.,” I say. “Geez. Do I feel dumb.” “You’re not dumb, Artie,” says Michael. “You’re just an addict. I forget to pray all the time.” “But I bet you didn’t forget to pray when El Grupo rode by just now,” I say. Michael looks down at his feet, then looks out toward the desert barreling by. “No, I didn’t,” he says. “Didn’t think so,” I say. “You’re the most spiritual man I know.” “Well, I don’t know about that,” he says. “I just have a daily reprieve from my addictions, contingent on my spiritual condition or something like that. You too.” “I know,” I say. “Life still sucks sometimes,” says Michael. “I can’t be helped.” I exhale some clove smoke. “I’m glad you came out here,” I say. “I needed to talk with another addict, about how I just want to jump off this goddamned train, steal a horse in Casa Grande, catch up with Bunny, and completely ruin my whole fucking life.” “One addict helping another, and all that shit,” he says. “Yeah, all that shit,” I say. “I do feel better talking with you. Not a lot but a little.” “You’ve listened to me talk about all those murders so many times,” says Michael. “About time I listen to you talk about wanting to leap from a moving train, leaving the love of your life, so you can get high one more time.” “True,” I say. “You have killed a shit load of people, and listening to you talk about that, Michael, plum wore me out.” Michael punches me in the arm. I then grab his shoulder and give it a shake. “Seriously,” I say, “Thanks for coming to look for me.” I take a last drag of my clove, and flick it off the train. Damn it. I forgot to stub it out. I hope I don’t catch the desert on fire.
Jesus “Bunny” Ortiz Monday, March 9th, 2076: 10:15 a.m. On Interstate Ten Near Red Rock, Arizona.
“Chuckie, get your ass up here.” “What do you want, jefe?” says Chuckie, galloping up on his horse. “You fucking pendejo,” I say. “What the fuck were you thinking, shaking your rifle at that train?” “Nothing.” says Chuckie. “Just letting them know we owns this goddamned road.” “Really?” I say “So you were just fucking with them?” “Yea, pretty much, Bunny.” I pull out my .357 Smith and Wesson and shoot Chuckie in the head. He falls from his horse. “Roberto, grab the reins of his horse.” He does. I look down at Chuckie’s body. He’s missing the top of his head. Cool. “Chinga tu madre, asshole,” I say. I turn to the other five. “Let’s get off this road, so none of you find it necessary to screw with any more customers. We’re the good guys remember.” “OK, jefe,” I hear a couple of them mumble. We’re trying to win the hearts and minds of the people, goddamn it. And make some serious dinero for Christ’s sake. Mary save us. I need to get home to Santa Rosa. I look one more time at Chuckie’s body and shake my head. A waste of a perfectly good bullet. I should have just sliced his throat.
Deputy U. S. Marshal Magdalena “Mags” Gutierrez Monday, March 9th, 2076: 11:20 a.m. New Union Station Maricopa, Arizona
Good to stretch my legs, and get a cup of coffee. Interesting assortment of individuals on the platform. Old dirt-poor desert rats. Young people going to California. Of course, government officials, and some business men and women. Funny, you can always tell business people. They don’t wear sensible shoes. Looks like Marshal Piehole over there, from Phoenix. Or what’s left of Phoenix. Guess I’ll have to say hello. He’s such a jerk, always looking at my tits. “Hello, Marshal,” I say. “Why hello, Mags. How are you?” saying this directly to my breasts. “Good. What brings you down to the station?” I ask. “Business, says Piehole. Thanks for being specific. Jerk. “You?” he asks. “Going to California to pick up a convict. How’s life in The Valley of The Sun?” “Same old, same old. Protecting the farmers along the Salt River. Busting some Brigham dealers. The occasional murder.” “Anybody still living in Phoenix?” I ask. “Just a few crazies is all,” says Piehole “Most everyone else lives along the Salt and Gila Rivers you know. Growing corn and beans. Making babies. Making pots and furniture. Some damn fine Mesquite tables and beds being made along the river now.” “I have a Mesquite chair at home, made on the Gila,” I say. “It’s beautiful.” “They are pretty,” says Piehole. Then I see Artie Saum on the train platform. Well, I’ll be. “Got to run, Marshal,” I say. “I see one of my old wards over there. My love to the missus.” “Oh. OK, Mags,” he says. “Safe trip.” “You too.” Pompous ass. “Artie!” I yell. Artie turns his head to the sound of his name. He smiles. “Mags!” he says. He walks up to me and give me a hug before I even ask for one. “Artie, how’ve you been?” I ask. “It’s good to see you. “Thanks,” says Artie. “So who this?” I ask, looking at the pretty blond woman standing next to Artie. “This is Georgia Swann, a very girlfriend,” he says. “Georgia, this is Mags Gutierrez. The Fed who arrested me, and went to bat for me, so I didn’t go to prison. Mags also is a killer harp player. She came into the store just last week to buy two more Marine Bands. A and D, right?” “Good memory, Artie,” I say. “It’s my business,” he says. “Nice to meet you, Georgia,” I say, shaking her hand. “Pleasure’s mine,” she says “And this is Michael Dollaride.” Artie says. “Another good friend. He’s coming with us to California.” “California? What’s in California?” I ask. “My grandmother. My Dad’s mom. She’s in a nursing home in San Francisco. I’ve never met her. Talked on a Sat-phone with her twice and we’ve exchanged lots of letters, never laid eyes on her.” Artie pauses. A weird pause. “I think she is dying, Mags,” Artie says. He looks really sad. His face is so open now. He’s changed so much. “So I want to meet her while I can,” he says, “and she says she has my grand dad’s harmonium, and she wants to give it to me.” “No kidding, an old harmonium. Does it still play?” I ask. “I think so,” says Artie “And if it doesn’t, I can probably fix it. At least I hope so.” “And you’re going right to San Francisco proper?” I ask. “Yep, a little west of downtown in what’s called the Inner Sunset district.” I smile. “What?” Artie asks. “I’m going to the Federal complex, in Downtown San Francisco,” I say. “No shit.” says Artie. “Far out,” says Michael. “Thank God,” says Georgia. All three at the same time. “Yes, sir,” I say. “Hey, want to be one of our road dogs?” asks Michael. “Can we call it something else?” I say. “You can call it anything you like, Mags,” says Artie. “We’re just happy you’re on the train with us.” Georgia lightly places her hand on my arm. “Come sit with us,” she says. “We have some food, some Sun-Tea, and Michael brought his guitar,” she says. “Please tell me, Mags, you brought a few harps,” says Artie. “I did,” I say. Then Artie does a little dance right on the platform. Funny kid.
Michael Dollaride Monday, March 9th, 2076: 6:40 p.m. Grijalva Station Yuma, Arizona
“Yuma,” yells the conductor through the intercom. “Dinner break. We’ll be resting at the station for a couple of hours. Keep your tickets with you if you decide to get off, even though I’m pretty good with faces.” The conductor laughs, then coughs. Guy’s a comedian. “We’ll be leaving Yuma around 8:45 p.m.,” continues the conductor. “Arriving in San Bernardino around midnight. If you get off the train, be sure to be back in your seats by 8:30. Enjoy your visit to Yuma, the hottest town in Arizona. Temperature-wise, that is.” The conductor chuckles again and then clicks off the mic. Bet he’s used that joke a hundred times. “Want to hit a meeting?” I ask Artie. “Well, I was thinking of just staying on the train,” he says. “Go ahead, honey,” says Georgia to Artie. “I’m going to stay on the train and get to know Mags better. And maybe she’ll tell me some dirt about you guys, from back in the day.” “I won’t say a thing,” says Mags to Artie. “She already knows everything, Mags.” Artie says. “Everything?” I say. “Most everything,” Artie says, shrugging his shoulders. “Don’t worry, boys,” says the Marshal. “It’ll mostly be girl talk. Mostly.” Both women laugh. Wonder what the Marshal knows about my past? Christ, I’m being paranoid. I’m not that damn important. “Let’s hit that meeting,” I say to Artie. “OK,” he says. He gives Georgia a kiss. “Don’t forget. Be back on the train, a little after 8,” says Mags. “The train waits for no one.” “Time too,” I say. “Smart boy,” says Mags. Least she’s a law-woman with a sense of humor.
Grijalva Station is a weird wood and steel thing they built a few years back, since there was no train station left after the 41 Nights. It has an open lobby and new wooden benches, the windows have no glass, only shutters to ward off the sun and rain. A nice wraparound porch and tamale and taco vendors everywhere. It smells like home. Hotels and brothels and mixes of both. Then I see the new St. Paul’s Episcopal Church across the street. I pull out the Arizona M.T.A. schedule from my backpack. Yep. Meeting’s been going on since 6:30. As long as you make it for the prayer at the end, you aren’t late for a meeting. That’s what my sponsor used to say. “Meeting’s over there at the church,” I say. “Cool,” says Artie. A small ‘M.T.A. is here’ sign leans against a door jam to a classroom that faces the street. We walk in. “...I want my wife back, but my sponsor keeps telling me that I need to stay sober for myself. But I miss her so bad. And my kids. My mother-fucking kids...” A large Hispanic man talks. We find our seats. “...she’s a goddamned whore, fucking...” He starts to cry. Artie and I settle into our seats and pay attention. No one touches the man. No one says anything. He has all of our attention. It’s what we give. We give our attention. “...she’s not a whore. She’s a good mom,” continues the Hispanic man. “She just hates me, and for good reason. I was hanging out with El Grupo, running errands for them, making some good money, then I started spending all the money, and she left me and is back living with her mother. She doesn’t want to see me until I have a month clean. I have 15 days today.” A smattering of applause. Neither Artie and I clap. “...so I guess I have to make it 15 more days. Or just tonight. And then another day. One day at a time, right?” No one speaks. Many of us nod. “Yeah, one day at a time,” he says. “Thanks. That’s all I have to say.” “Thanks, Chuy,” a number of people say. About twenty of us in the room. I’ve never been to this meeting, but I feel welcome. It’s always that way. “My name is Sally, and I’m an addict.” “Hi, Sally,” says the room. “I’ve been sober almost a year now,” she says. “I came in here to get my kids back. I didn’t get them back. Jack took them to his folks in Blythe. He went too. I was three months sober when that happened. I miss them so much. I went to visit them around Christmas. It was great. His folks still don’t like me very much. I don’t know. Maybe it had to do with me, stealing their shit. I only did it once.” Laughter. “OK, twice.” Bigger laughs. “All right, three times.” The room erupts. “I gave it all back,” says Sally. “Well, some of it.” Chuckles. “Seriously, I don’t mind that they don’t trust me. I don’t fully trust myself. I only think about using about once a week now. And I pray to have Goddess remove the obsession, or I call my sponsor on the Flex, or I get to a meeting or all three. And it’s a hell of a lot better than it was when I came in. I thought about Mormon Tea all the time then. All the fucking time...” Ridden hard, hung up wet, with mad-dog blue eyes. Easy to love now. Hard to like when she was using. “So I have a good job at the food co-op, and I’m learning to play the banjo...” No one laughs at her learning the banjo. Music was fun before the shit hit the fan, the old timers say, but it wasn’t sacred back then. It’s holy to play an instrument now. “...I have a good teacher. Big Mike from A.A. Y’all know Big Mike? Been sober ten years, works for the Marshal Service as a computer mechanic. Good guy. Hell of a player. He’s teaching me on one of his old Gold Tone banjos. Teaching me now this sweet little old claw hammer tune called ‘More Bad Weather On The Way.’ by Steve Martin. Tells me if I stay sober a year, he’ll give me that old five string....” She starts to cry, not out of sadness or frustration like Chuy, but out of joy. “...I can’t tell you how much I feel GATTI when I play, and when I think about Tea, I just pick up that loaner from Mike, and practice my scales or just play something in G. I’m so grateful to be sober. And I kind of lied before. I think about Tea a lot.” A couple of chuckles. All smiles from us. All of us have tried to pretend we’re more sober, more sane than we actually are. “Yeah, I miss my kids just awful,” she says in the direction of Chuy, “but I have to get myself right, or at least righter than I am if I’m going to be any good to my kids. So I pray, and I talk with other addicts and alcoholics, and I come to meetings and I play that old five-string of Mike’s...” She cries through all of this. She transforms from a middle-aged woman who has been beaten down by about a half dozen things to one of the prettiest girls in the world. She just shines. Makes me smile. She’s my gift of sobriety tonight. “...so if you’re hurting just keep coming back. And maybe pick up the banjo. That’s all I have.” “Thanks, Sally,” says the room.
“That was a great meeting, wasn’t it?” say Artie as we walk back to the station. “That Sally woman talking about the Goddess and her banjo? That’s just how I feel when I play my old Martin, or when we play together. It’s so sacred. Like with each note, we are breathing a little more life into The Earth, that God Goddess All There Is grows with each tune we play. With each note I strum. We’ve talked about this. I know you feel it too.” “I do,” I say. “It’s better than booze, better than Brigham,” he says. “It is,” I say. “Almost better than sex,” Artie says. “I won’t say that,’ I say. “Then again, it’s been a long time since I’ve even kissed a girl.” Artie puts his arm around my shoulders as we walk back to the station. “Well, maybe we can change that on this trip.” “I ain’t looking to get laid, Artie,” I say. “And that’s just when you meet the girl of your dreams,” he says. “Or my nightmares,” I say. “Ah,” he says, and pushes me away.
"Sunset Crater Angel Ghosts, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
Everything you see here is on the digital RAW negative. No fancy Photoshop was done besides some color saturation changes. And the Angel Ghosts were drawn with a string of battery powered Christmas lights. Enjoy y'all.
"The Ghosts of the Gutierrez Family, The Sonoran Desert, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
Eduardo and Maria Gutierrez and their ten-month-old infant Jesus died ten years ago while making their way across the Sonoran Desert, walking to Eduardo’s cousin’s home in Phoenix, Arizona from Magdalena, Sonora. Authorities found their bodies not far from where this photograph was taken.
During this Holy Week, pray for their souls and for all the other undocumented immigrants, who make this dangerous crossing every year, looking for a better life for themselves and their families.
The canyon smells of dark musk and wet sand. It rained yesterday, which is uncommon for the Sonoran Desert in the springtime. Usually we’re without rain until July. This rich scent is three months early, but neither I nor the Palo Verde trees are complaining.
I’m rock-hopping up this anonymous canyon at the base of Mount Lemmon. The Full Moon's large and bright. I need no flashlight. There is no trail. It doesn't matter. I’m just winding my way up through the large granite boulders that sit in the trickling creek.
I find the angle pretty quickly. I've come with an idea, but then again, maybe I'll try something else. I have my Zippo, my Pentax and a 28 mm lens, for my idea is to create a wide angle flame spiral. But wait a minute. There's a small puddle of standing water in a depression on this boulder. Hmm. I do a practice drawing or two off to the right. This'll work.
I set up the angle and the shot, focus on a spot on the boulder. Then, with my index finger, I dip into the puddle of water and begin to draw a water spiral on the rock. It takes many passes back and forth from the puddle, but a wet spiral slowly appears. I return to the Pentax on its tripod and look through the viewfinder. Yeah, boy. I open the shutter, draw a flame spiral and wait ten minutes before closing the shutter. I then notice something I didn't expect. Over the ten minutes of exposure time, the water spiral has almost completely evaporated, leaving barely any wetness at all on the rock. I stare as the spiral disappears. I close the shutter at the end of ten.
I redraw the water spiral, open the shutter, do another Zippo pass, stepping out of the frame for another ten minutes. Cars pass far below on the Mount Lemmon Highway, cold air rushes down the high mountain wash, and the water spiral fades away. I don't have to be Buddha to recognize how this vanishing water spiral shows me that Life is temporal. That nothing is permanent. That everything changes. An old lesson that can't be taught enough to this Middle-Aged, American White Boy.
It's the Wednesday before Easter. I'm aware of a certain Christian energy, of a Holy Ghost that’s moving through this time of year. Yet this water spiral evaporating right before my eyes resonates far more with me than any image of a suffering Christ or thoughts of his final dinner of bread and wine among friends. This water spiral is my own personal Holy Ghost.
The Holy Ghost was always a cool thing to me as a kid. The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. Amen. I didn't trust God the Father all that much. My own Dad was a distant man who rarely praised me or my sister and often seemed to look at me with silent scorn. It was hard to wrap my arms around an image of a Loving God the Father with a Dad like mine. Also, I didn't know about the Son, Jesus. He seemed a little weird to me, getting himself crucified, and what was up with drinking his blood on Sunday? Ick, I thought as a child. But the Holy Ghost? Now that I could get behind as a six year old—mysterious and a little scary but I always had a feeling that the Holy Ghost was on my side. A wispy piece of God that was everywhere. A part of God that sort of liked me, like the Saturday morning cartoon character, Casper the Friendly Ghost, but bigger.
I can still get behind Casper. I feel him here tonight with my Zippo, and the little water spiral that keeps disappearing, and the musky green smell in the creek, and the cold mountain air that comes from above.
After a bit, I pack up and rock-hop back down to my truck. When I reach the road, I look back up the canyon and thank it for the good night and for the little bit of magic that it gave me. And also for the lesson that everything changes, that nothing stays the same.
A little lesson, perhaps, coming too, from Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Stony walked out of the whorehouse dissatisfied. He figured that might happen, but he went anyway. It’s just a little before midnight, and tomorrow is his 26th birthday. It’s been a good week at his claim. Good six months, actually. Anyway, he felt like giving himself a present and that present was Crystal. But while he was thrusting into her from behind, watching her breasts sway, he had a passing thought of Henrietta back home. He came quickly, gave Crystal a kiss on the cheek and paid her double her usual rate. Seemed rude that he had thought of Henrietta when he was inside of her. Crystal smiled and kissed him on the neck and told him to come back any time. She pinched him on the ass as he walked out the door.
He’d left Henrietta a year ago in the Valley of Virginia. She still lives with her widowed mother on those fifty-two acres they pretend is a farm. Singing in the church choir every Sunday, so said her letters. Wishing he would call for her, to board that train to Tucson, she written twice already. It just wasn’t time yet, he wrote back.
Henri turned every man’s head on the Saumsville Road when she took the wagon to town. The prettiest girl in the county. Top three at least. Bright smile and full lips, long blond hair the color of straw, cheeks like red apples, a body thin yet strong like a fence rail. The night before he left for Arizona he promised her that if he struck it rich, he’d send for her. They kissed each other long and hard on her front porch, their hands all over each other’s bodies, as if by touching everything, they would forget nothing. He’s made some good money now, but he hasn’t built a house yet. He needs to have that house built before he calls for her.
The muddy street’s filled with cowboys and miners, going from hotel to saloon, spending their week’s earnings on whores, poker and whiskey. The Full Moon’s almost directly overheard. He stops in the street and gazes up at the Moon, thinking about Henri and thinking all he really wants in the world, right now, was a hot bath. He turns and as he’s walking across the street toward the Chinese bathhouse, he hears his name called.
“Stony! Hey, Stony!”
He turns. It’s Merle Johnson. The luckiest, stupidest man in town. He’s also his best friend.
“Hey, Merle. How are you doing this evening?”
“Mighty fine. Hey, are you going to the The Grand tonight, to play cards?” Merle seems a bit agitated.
“I wasn’t planning on it,” says Stony.
Merle looks a little disappointed, then bites his lower lip. He does that when he’s thinking hard. What’s the big deal? He usually only goes to The Grand a couple times a week at most, not every night.
“Can I find someway to persuade you to come play poker with me tonight?” Merle asks.
“Merle, what going on?”
“Hell, Stony. Just come over to fucking Grand tonight, OK?”
“Just tell me what the fuck is going on. I need to get a bath and then I was thinking of turning in. Unless you got something special planned, I think I’ll pass.”
Merle bit his lower lip again, then smiled to himself and shook his head.
“Just like you, Stony, to spoil the fucking surprise. A bunch of us are waiting for you over there. Tomorrow is your fucking birthday, as if you didn’t know, and we thought we’d throw you a little surprise party. Both Bobbys are there, young Bobby Christiansen and old Bobby Lopez! Mexican Bobby came all the way from Fronteras, Stony, to celebrate your goddamn birthday.”
“Bobby Lopez is here in Tombstone?”
“Do I fucking lisp? Yes, Bobby Lopez is here. And Charlie McLean left his claim in Charleston for the night, to raise a drink to you, too.”
Stony’s mouth dropped open.
“Charlie came to town?” Charlie only came to town when he is down to his last pound of flour and his last jug of shine. “Yes, yes, yes, you dumb cocksucker. Charlie’s here and Harry Wood has even closed up shop at the newspaper to see your birthday come in, and he’s brought Millie Benjamin with him too. And Karl Eisenfelder and his wife are there as well. God damn it, Stony! We’ve been waiting a fucking hour for you to come out of Madame Clarice’s.”
Merle bites his lip again.
“I suppose we could invite Crystal, couldn’t we? She is a whore but I don’t that hold against her, and I know you like her a lot,” says Merle.
Stony stood dead still in the middle of the thoroughfare. He looked at the bathhouse. He looked at the whorehouse. He looks down the street toward The Grand Hotel. Bobby Lopez stood on the front stoop of the hotel, his arms crossed, his sombrero silhouetted against the golden light coming from the hotel bar. Stony felt his eyes mist up. He smiled. I’ll be God damned. Bobby’s here. He started walking toward the hotel when he heard a clap of thunder. Little late in the year for a monsoon. Then he stopped walking. He felt short of breath, and oddly warm and wet. He grabbed Merle’s shoulder to steady himself. He then looked down and saw the large red hole that was his stomach. He collapsed in the mud.
Next to the last thing he saw were the tears in Merle and Bobby’s eyes, as they looked down at him in the muddy thoroughfare. The Full Moon shone above their heads.
Then he saw a beautiful ball of purple light being born out of the Moon. The purple ball seemed to come down Fremont Street and surround him, engulf him in its light. He no longer saw Merle or Bobby’s faces. He no longer saw anything or anyone. He felt just fine. Fine for the first time in a long time. Then, suddenly, he was above Tombstone, flying in the night sky, heading fast and true, due east, toward the Valley of Virginia.
"The Labyrinth Walk, Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Tucson, Arizona" (c) 1997, 2016 Stu Jenks
(From my hardbound book, Flame Spirals. Also available as an e-book, wherever they are sold.)
The sexton was nice enough to put up an extension ladder. I climbed onto the roof of the Parish Hall, that overlooks the maze. The Sun’s going down fast. Gordon and Judy, the two priests at Grace St. Paul's, have OK'd my shooting the Thursday Evening Labyrinth Walk. The parishioners have just arrived, about ten in all. From the roof, I tell the walkers I'm going to shoot their meditation this evening.
"And don't worry if you're shy and don't like your picture taken," I say. "I'm using real long shutter speeds so everyone will be a blur. That OK?"
"Sure that's fine," one woman says, others nodding their approval. But one woman walks to the side.
"Really, you can walk the Labyrinth. No one will know who you are," I say.
She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t return to the circle until much later.
Judy, the facilitator of the Walk, explains to the congregation how this works.
"One by one, we'll enter the labyrinth and begin to walk," she says. "You can have a prayer or a question in your mind, or you can just empty your mind. You can walk it fast or slow. There is no right or wrong way. I would just suggest that you stay as much in the moment as you can. Just be in the Labyrinth. And when you reach the center, stop for as long as you like, and then walk back out. And don't worry about bumping into each other or passing each other in the Labyrinth. It's really easy to pass and it’s OK to touch each other."
Some people chuckle.
"Also, I suggest you walk silently. All right, let's start."
Judy presses play on a nearby boom box and Gregorian Chants come from its small speakers. One at a time, the participants enter the labyrinth.
A little history about the Church and me:
I was born and raised in the Episcopal Church. Baptized, confirmed, the whole nine yards. My mother Mary is what I affectionately call a member of the Episcopal Mafia: A member of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Virginia, music director and a vestry woman at her parish in Lively, Virginia, and active in the Church since she was a child. Dad was Senior Warden for a time and designed the Memorial Garden at his home church of St. Mary's Whitechapel. He rarely goes to church in his retirement years. He doesn’t believe in God, much less Jesus, but he is still a cradle to grave Episcopalian. My sister is a member of the choir at St. Mark's Episcopal in Raleigh, North Carolina, but by her own admission, she goes to church to cover my bets just in case there’s a heaven. My guess is her church and the St. Mark’s community mean much more to her than she willing to share.
I rarely go to church. Christmas. Maundy Thursday. Maybe Good Friday. Not Easter. Funerals, yes. Weddings, when they happen. That's about it. I'm not a Christian. I don't believe in the Risen Christ. I do believe they basically fucked up the faith after the Nicene Convention in the third century AD, when they took out the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene and minimized the Sacredness of Women in the Church. Plus I believe in Reincarnation, the validity of all of the world's religions and the sanctity of the mystic's individual journey to God. Some would say that shouldn't exclude me from attending Grace St. Paul's, a very progressive, liberal, reconciliation church, but it does. Not in the minds of the congregation or the clergy, but in my mind.
When I do, on those rare occasions, attend a service at Grace St. Paul's, I add and take out words from the liturgy so I don't feel like a hypocrite. You'll often hear me say, “Though Jesus Christ and others” instead of “Through Jesus Christ our Lord,” and when the congregation is reading the Nicene Creed, there are whole sections during which I stand mute.
But my roots, both ancestral and personal, are in the Anglican/Episcopal church and to deny that would be, for me, like a Jew who doesn't go to temple, denying that he is a Jew at all. And I do like the ceremony of Holy Communion, a good non-shaming sermon from the pulpit, and strong loud music from a big pipe organ. I go to midnight service on Christmas Eve, primarily to sing “Silent Night” and, on the outside chance, to sing “In the Bleak Midwinter.” And even though I don't go to Easter services, I can easily hum the refrains from “Hail Thee, Festival Day” and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”
The Church is in my DNA and in my muscle memory, whether I like it or not, and I believe it's important to honor the spiritual practices of my ancestors, living and dead, regardless of whether or not I practice them myself.
And even though I don’t believe that Jesus was the only Son of God, I do believe in a number of his teachings, most important in my mind: That we, as human beings, have a moral obligation to help those who are poor in body, mind and spirit; that God is Love and Love is God; that God is a mysteriously magical healing energy, and that He loves me, no matter what.
He loves me when I’m sober. He loved me when I was a drunk. He loves me when I eat too much. He loves me when I eat my vegetables. He loves me when I give a kind word to a friend. He loves me when I’m a judgmental asshole.
One of my jobs while I’m on the planet is to try and love myself a fraction as much as He loves me. By doing so, I’ll hopefully love others a whole lot more than if I was trying to do that alone.
The Labyrinth is full of people, perhaps a dozen now. Some are solemnly looking down as they walk. Others are joyously swinging their arms around the corners of the maze. A couple are sitting outside of the circle. Me? I'm on the roof grumbling about how I'm losing the last bit of sunlight. My exposures are up to 5 seconds now. It’s not the blurs I mind. I want them. I just need some light for a good dense negative. I'm a little flustered. Breathe, Stu, breathe. I relax and take a breath. I see my friend Beth make a sweeping move around a sharp corner of the labyrinth. I open and close the shutter. Nice. I watch the changing composition of people below in the ground glass of my twin lens reflex. I wait, then shoot again. Wait, then again.
After a few more minutes I'm done shooting, yet the parishioners are still walking the maze. I climb down the ladder and walk toward the entrance of the Labyrinth. I take a breath. Did I get the shot? I clear my head of that worry as best as I can and enter the maze, slowly passing someone who is coming out. I follow the path. I look at my feet as I walk. I take one of the hairpin curves a little fast, allow my arms to swing wide as I regain my balance. I smile. And for those few moments, I'm grateful to be a member of this Episcopalian Tribe.
"The Hoodoos of Coalmine Canyon, Arizona" (c) 2000, 2016 Stu Jenks.
(Excerpt from my book, Flame Spirals. Also available as an e-book, wherever they are sold.)
I’m driving cross-eyed to meet the dawn. It’s four a.m. I left Tucson seven hours ago. The sky is still black. I’m tired. North of Flagstaff, south of Tuba City, I’m listening to Bruce Cockburn, singing from the boom box that’s sitting next to me on the passenger seat of my 1985 Yellow Nissan King Cab truck. I bought the truck new, but it no longer has any power to speak of. Can’t even get it to pass emissions anymore. On my third carburetor now, with 300,000 plus miles on the odometer. I’ll have to sell it soon, but it still gets me to places like Coalmine Canyon. At least I hope it does today.
I left Flagstaff an hour ago with a full tank of gas, plenty of smokes and a cooler filled with Diet Coke. I just cruised past the Cameron Trading Post but didn’t stop. Maybe I’ll stop on the way home. I’m sipping on a cup of fake cappuccino I got at a Texaco station in Flag. Getting closer to Tuba now. Transmission humming a bit too loud. Nothing wrong with it. It’s just old.
“Apartheid in Arizona, slaughter in Brazil. If bullets don’t get good PR, there’s other ways to kill. Kidnap all the children, put ‘em in a foreign system. Bring them up in no man’s land where no one really wants them. It’s a stolen land,” sings Bruce.
The Hopi pretty much escaped the boarding school system, I've been told by friends, but that wasn't the case for the Navajo, whose reservation I just entered at Cameron. Many Whites took in the Navajos or rather took the children, changed their clothes, forbid their language, cut their hair and tried to make them into little white boys and girls. It didn't work, not in the long term. Just angered the Navajos and left an even greater divide between the Anglos and the Indians. Some hurt, resentment and sadness exists to this day.
The Hopi and the Navajo were traditional enemies. Hated each other hundreds of years ago, and there are still some sore feelings between some of the members of the tribes. From the Navajo perspective, they immigrated into this area and just wanted to have a little land to live on. From the Hopi perspective, the Navajo were uninvited guests, who attacked them on their mesas and felt entitled to land that wasn't theirs.
Now that's an oversimplification of things. Today, many traditional and modern Hopi and Navajo, together, fight Big Oil and Big Coal, trying to protect their rights and their lands. A good friend of mine who is Navajo has been battling the oil companies for a while now, along with his friends and members of his family. And God bless them for that. But people are people, and much like some of my Southern brethren who still see “Damn-Yankee” as one word and smart when they think about The War Between The States, to this day some Navajos still mess with some Hopis, and some Hopis still trick some Navajos.
Just a few years ago, the Rainbow People were looking for a place to have their annual Smoke Dope/Have Sex/Be Spiritual/& Dance Till Dawn event. A Navajo woman said to the organizers, “You could have your gathering on my land.” The Rainbowers were thrilled to have it on Native Land. Only problem was, after hundreds of them arrived and set up camp, the local sheriff informed them that they weren't on Navajo land but on Hopi land, and the Hopis rightly wanted them to leave. The White boys and girls left, but not until after they deposited a couple of days of shit in holes they had dug on the Hopi property.
It's a complicated thing, the relationships among Hopi, Navajo, and Whites. Some hold onto old resentments. Some forgive and let it go. Some go about their business and don't make no never mind of it. People are People. Whites and Natives alike.
Cockburn continues to sing. “You’ve been leading me beside strange waters. Streams of beautiful, lights in the night.” I’m approaching Tuba on U.S. 160. A line of dark gray is to the east. Just a hint of morning. It’s coming, but not for a while. The reds and purples of the Painted Desert aren’t visible yet, but soon they will glow. Now, the mesas are just deep black humps and lines against a slightly lighter black sky. I drive past a crudely painted sign pointing toward dinosaur tracks. I see the old laundromat that has unavoidable sand in its washers. I take a right at the Tuba City Truck Stop, which in any other little town would simply be a small breakfast café with a very big parking lot. The decaying carcass of a Rezzie dog lies off the shoulder at the crossroad. Many Navajos don’t talk of the dead, nor touch dead things, so dead dogs and cats often slowly rot along the side of the road and are eventually blown away by strong mesa winds.
The Hopi village of Moenkopi is off to the right, perched on the cliffs that overlook the cornfields below. No corn now. It’s early Winter, late in the growing year. Moenkopi is far away from the traditional three mesas of Hopiland. I’ve often wondered if the Hopi and the Navajo of Tuba City got along better, due to being forced to go to the same schools, the same Basha’s grocery store, the same Tribal Health Care Center.
The gray to the east is changing color to blue. Best beat feet if I’m going to get to Coalmine before dawn.
Coalmine Canyon—Coalmine for short—has been a sacred place for me since the mid-1980’s, when my friend Mike, who used to live in Tuba, told me about the place. At the time he asked me to promise not to tell just anyone about Coalmine, so if I’m a little vague on directions, that’s why. It’s not as if you can’t find it on a good Triple A Indian Land map, but you’ll have to do your own footwork. And be nice to the place, if you ever do go there.
Coalmine Canyon gets its name from a line of exposed strata, close to the top of the mesa, that consists of a very thin vein of coal. You can see parts of the canyon from the paved road if you look left at the right time, but the canyon doesn’t jump out at you. Coalmine is actually a number of smaller canyons falling off from a high mesa. It drops a good 800 to 1000 feet to the canyon floor. Its walls are pink, purple and white with a line of black, and the sandstone is so soft you can easily crush it under your feet. Neither traditional Hopi nor Navajo medicine men go to Coalmine Canyon for they believe it is haunted. It is said that on the night of a Full Moon you can see the Ghosts of Coalmine dancing on the pink walls. I’ve never seen the ghosts, but one time years ago when I hiked deep down into the canyon, I felt the energies of good and evil having a little battle. Maybe I was just too hungry or too tired or I just imagined the whole thing. Maybe not. I’ve definitely felt dead spots in there at times, and in those places I do not stay long. Whatever, the energies are strong at Coalmine, both positive and negative. For over fifteen years I’ve come here to pray, to shoot, to grieve, and to just be.
This morning I’m going to the eastern part of Coalmine, an area I’ve been going to for only the past five years or so. Attempting to find the little dirt road that goes down into this section of the canyon is as much about sensing the road as it is about seeing it. In the dark I slow to less than twenty miles an hour and continue to glance to the left, trying to sense a break in the fence along the road. The paved road is straight in front and behind for probably four miles either way. No traffic. No surprise. Always looking left, suddenly I see it and turn my truck onto the one-lane track.
Dirt roads on the Rez are subject to closure due to weather condition as the maps say. Translation: If it’s been raining or snowing, getting back to Grandma’s hogan can be quite an adventure. The weather is dry this morning, but out of habit, I stop, get out, and check the ground. It’s good and solid. The earth here is a mixture of sand and dirt. More sand, less dirt. I get back in my truck and put it into gear. I go slowly but not too slowly. Too slow and I may get stuck in the loamy soil. My truck is a 2 x 4, not a 4 x 4, so I have to keep my speed up, but not too much, for the shocks on my truck are just regular shocks. Plus my truck sounds like a box of rocks as it is. Knock it too much more and new rattles will appear. The current rattles drive me nuts as it is. Slow but not too slow, Stu, but not too fast. The middle automotive path.
The one lane track descends down from the first level of mesa to the next level, but not the bottom of Coalmine. That’s way down there and miles away. No horses or cows in sight. No living creatures at all which is normal. The cows tend to be on the floor of Coalmine and the horses come and go as they please. I turn off the boom box. The bouncing of the truck tends to make the tape sounds yowwy, and now I must be present, to say the least. The drop-off to my right isn’t a couple of feet but a hundred feet or more. Slowly, I bounce down the track.
I level off at the bottom of the hill, or rather the top of this next part of the mesa. Coalmine proper is off to my left, still dark but visible as a space in Space, a blacker dark, and off to the east, the color black has more blue in it than it did a few minutes ago. The sun is coming. Good. I’m almost there.
Coalmine Canyon is the bottom of an ancient sea. On one of my earlier trips into Coalmine, I was shocked to find prehistoric oyster shells. Breaking them apart with my hands, I could smell the faint hint of natural gas. On the high mesas surrounding Coalmine and on the canyon floor, small premature quartz crystals are scattered about, along with tiny black basalt balls ejected a thousand years ago from a volcano 40 miles south. Coalmine is part of the Colorado Plateau that covers parts of four states—Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. The Colorado Plateau is one of the greatest places in the world to see sedimentary rocks. And here at Coalmine, it’s as if the rocks were just born, so soft and fragile and easy to harm. Like infants that never grew up.
The sun is coming. The black to the East has gone blue, and there is orange now too. After a few more miles, I come to a place I can park on sturdy ground. I open the truck door, grab my tripod, Rollei, and pinhole camera, and walk toward the rim of the canyon. The ground is soft with powdery loam that makes little clouds as I walk. The baby crystals can be seen sparkling even in the dawn’s twilight.
White peninsulas of sandstone jut out into the canyon like the bows of old sailing ships. I step onto one bow of sandstone to walk to a special place a ways out. I’m careful with my feet, as much as to not disturb the rock, as to not fall 800 feet to the canyon floor. I reach my own personal prayer spot, set up the tripod and camera. I see the shot. I compose the shot. I stop, and pray. Little black Hoodoos, three inches tall, grow from the top of the white sandstone formation. [Hoodoos are rock towers that have more rock on top than at the bottom. Imagine a carrot sticking in the ground, big end up. That’s a Hoodoo.] I’ve placed the Hoodoos at the bottom of my composition. I now attach a number of red filters on the Zeiss lens. I think I’m ready.
Sun’s almost here. Lots of orange now in the eastern sky. My Zippo is in hand. I open the shutter and walk with a purpose to the Hoodoos, painting a flame spiral above the little towers. I return to my Rollei as quickly as I can and close the shutter—15-second exposure, tops. I advance the film, open the shutter again and walk back to the Hoodoos.
Suddenly, like a light switch being clicked on, the Sun rises above the mesa and cuts a bright yellow slice on the far western wall of Coalmine Canyon. I hurry to the Hoodoos and paint another spiral with the Zippo. I click the Zippo closed with a loud clack at the top of the spiral and move back to my Rollei and close the shutter. I pause, taking in the light and then repeat the process another couple of times. There. That should do it. The rising Sun could be visually too hot, for the flame spiral to show, but the sunlight in the canyon and on its walls, is glorious to see. And I do have a ton of red filtration on that lens. I smile, hope for the best.
I carefully stroll to the far bow of this ship of stone and sit. I sit for a long time. No photos. No Zippos. Just my eyes taking a picture for my soul to see.
I have a prayer I wrote for myself years ago, so I can get centered in the morning. Frankly I forget to pray in the morning as much as I remember, but on this morning, on the rim of Coalmine Canyon, I don’t forget.
To the East, God and Humanness, To the North, Courage and Vulnerability, To the West, Self-Awareness and Forgiveness, And to the South, Feelings and Wisdom, To the Sky and the Earth and All-There-Is, OK, God... Let’s do it!
It’s a cool Fall night in the Sonoran Desert. The Full Moon is just now peaking over an eastern ridge of the Catalina Mountains. A soft city-light spills over Pusch Ridge to the south. I hear coyotes yelping in the Canada Del Oro wash, beginning their evening hunt. [Note to city folk: Coyotes won’t hurt people. They’ll eat your cat or bushwhack your dog, but they will do you no harm. So if you are out in the desert at night and you hear a pack of coyotes, do not be afraid. I suggest you stop and listen and enjoy the song.] I recently quit my job as a counselor at a prison to go back to school and learn how to shoot and print black and white photographs. I’m in my second semester at Pima Community College, working on a series called Sacred Spaces, but it’s quickly becoming a series on Circles and Spirals instead. These two archetypal symbols seem to be coming up a lot in my work. Perhaps I love the Circle and the Spiral because they are present in all cultures, representing many ideas, be it the journey in and the journey out or a sense of completion and wholeness, or a moment of rest, or a holding of hands. Or maybe the Circle and the Spiral just show up because they do, like images in night dreams that make no logical sense but feel right to the dreamer. I really don’t know for sure, but I do know they are here, now, wholly present, in my work.
Carrying the old Rollei camera, my cheap lightweight tripod and some brand-new Ilford Delta 125 film, I walk from the parking lot at the entrance of Catalina State Park and move south toward Pusch Ridge and the C.D.O. wash. I have a new Zippo in my pocket for light-painting, and a rough idea of what I want to do. Not a firm plan. Just a crude outline. I’ve discovered that if I don’t listen to the land, the moonlight and the wind and just force my will on a place, I simply get contrived artistic crap. But if I move slowly, listen to the land, really see the moonlight, and feel the wind, then an idea of an image comes that harmonizes with the land and the sky, and we all become friends.
I walk toward the C.D.O. I stop, listen, and see. I wander through the lush mesquite trees. I can feel the shot, but it isn’t here. Then a quiet inner voice tells me to go back to an ant hill I walked by a few minutes ago. Not really an ant hill but an ant flat. Here in the desert, black ants can be brutal, killing the plants and grasses above their colonies. Here is just such a place with no grass, nothing but dirt in a rough circle of land about fifteen feet in diameter. I stop, listen and see. I nod. I then set up the Rollei on my tripod and compose the shot. I see what is there, and I see what isn’t there yet.
As I draw a spiral in the dirt with a stick, I see sluggish little black ants wander in and out of their holes. It’s cold tonight. I apologize to them as I block a couple of their holes with my stick drawing. I walk back to the camera, focus it on the far side of the dirt spiral and open the shutter. I walk to the ant flat and begin light-painting with my Zippo lighter. This time I’m using the spiral on the ground as a guide to the flame spiral in the air. First exposure, not right. I can feel it. Second take, I’m not sure, so I close the shutter and advance the film. Third shot feels just about right. I back out of the field of view, after making another flame spiral and look at my watch and then look at the full moon. Probably a twenty-minute exposure is what is needed. I wander around the flats near the wash for a while, mosey back to my truck, then stroll here and there among the trees. I can hear the coyotes singing their hunting song.
Surprisingly, I walk through an icy cold patch of air over the flats, not attached to a wash where air flows down from the high mountains or to the cool settled air that is sometimes under a tree at night. Just a large patch of chilly air out in the open flats. Strange yet wonderful.
The next day at school, I develop the negs and notice my light painting is too low and too squat. Damn it all. Well, I’ll have go back out tonight and re-shoot. The Moon will rise a little later tonight, but that'll be OK. Good news is the exposures of twenty minutes at F 5.6 seem good and rightly dense.
That night I return to the ant circle where I had shot and I find a bizarre development. In the 24 hours since I was here, the drawn dirt spiral is almost completely brushed away, not by the wind or the rain, but by the tiny legs of hundreds of black ants. I redraw the spiral and nod my approval to the slow cold ants.
I light-paint a spiral higher this time, use the exposure I remembered from last night, and take the shots. I leave, not knowing that I’ve gotten the image I want. That will happen tomorrow after I develop the negatives, but I have a good feeling about it. And I leave Catalina State Park with a new respect for black ants.
[Stu’s Fun Facts: “Catalina State Park, Arizona” got the nickname “The Ikon” from Steve Roach. Steve is an internationally known ambient musician who bought the limited rights to The Ikon, in 1999, to use as an album cover photo for his CD “Atmospheric Conditions.” One day on the phone, he just said of my image, “It’s the Icon, man!” and it kind of stuck. I added the “k” just as a postmodern joke. My ex-Marine Corps father when he listened to “Atmospheric Conditions” remarked, “It sounds like heavy breathing.” No argument there, old man, but I think it’s a great CD. Check it out on Steve’s website.
The Ikon has been one of my most popular images, and one that brings some of the most interesting responses from viewers. At the 1999 Tucson Museum of Art Biennial Show opening, a middle aged woman came up to me, pointed to The Ikon, and said, “It is so amazing that you were there when They Came.” I began to tell her that the only they there were the hundreds of black ants on the ground, but she put a finger to her lips, quietly shushed me, and slowly backed away.
In 2004, the Mythic Journeys Conference in Atlanta, Georgia bought the use of the Ikon as the logo of their conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of Joseph Campbell’s birth and the role of myths and spirit in our world. The powers that be flew me to Atlanta to create an art installation for the conference’s art show and put me up at the Hyatt to just be Stu. The Ikon was everywhere at the Hyatt, from large plasma screens behind the huge conference stage to the small Powerpoint screens in the smaller conference rooms; from a huge banner spanning the stairs to the cover of the brochure; from the front page of the Mythic Imagination website to even little square bumper stickers. The first day I was moved and proud to see The Ikon everywhere. By the fourth day, it just made me laugh. Dave Lewis, a friend and sculptor in Tucson at the Toole Shed, jokes with me sometimes, that there is too much Stu in Tucson, referring to a time a number of years ago when I was in a lot of local shows in a row. I felt like calling him from the lobby of the Hyatt saying “Dave, you ain’t seen Too Much Stu until you’ve come here.” I was joking with friends at the conference that we should put my ubiquitous image on prophylactics and call them I-Kondoms, but they didn’t get the joke. I forgot: Only folk in Tucson know it as The Ikon. I have to admit, when I got home to Tucson from the conference, I put an Ikon bumper sticker on the back of my Pathfinder. What can I say. In last five years, I’ve sold more prints of The Ikon than any of my other images. It’s really quite nice to have a photograph that takes such good care of me. ]
[Fun fact from February, 2016: "Catalina State Park, Arizona" is returning this Friday, to the Tucson Museum of Art as part of its "Into The Night" show. I'm very honored to have Julie Sasse invite me and this flame spiral image back to the TMA. Thanks, Julie.]