Tag Archives: southwest

Reading Terry Tempest Williams in Zion

Zion 2This week, I had the pleasure of joining one of my best friends for a trip through parts of southern Utah, starting in Moab and ending in Zion National Park. We went for the usual reasons (viewing nature, camping, hiking, burning a dictionary and cooking quesadillas over it). After hiking the Wildcat Canyon Trail (a good ten miles of limb-crunching views), we went to our campsite and read our selected book in the fading light, both collections of short pieces on the Southwest and West, Getting Over the Color Green and Northern Lights.

In Northern Lights, I stumbled upon an essay by Terry Tempest Williams, “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” Williams grew up in Utah in the 1950s when fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada drifted beyond the test sites. As a result, many people downwind of the tests, including her family, suffered from radiation. Williams meditates in her essay on the many women (many in her family) downwind of the test sites who developed breast cancer from the radioactive fallout.

 

At the peak of the hike in Zion, I could see far, far out into the distance. I was surrounded by a place brimming with life; the whole area is a complexity of ecosystems overlapping, intertwined: red and tan oceans spotted green or lush with ponderosa and aspen or colored with sand and pale sunlight. Much of the Southwest doesn’t look alive to the untrained eye. Deserts play tricks on us by hiding their life, but life is always there. Overlooking Zion, I was overwhelmed and haunted by its history.

Zion

In the 1860s, Mormon pioneers founded a town near Zion, Springdale, and named the nearby canyon Zion. To Mormons, Zion refers to a gathering place for the faithful, and naming the canyon was an act of claiming the land for Mormon culture. But while pioneers were in the process of colonizing the area, the region was home to Southern Paiute communities pushed out by U.S. settlement. Like much of the Southwest, Zion is part of overlapping histories and state-sanctioned narrative revision.

The place was shaped by geologic hands, the fingers of rivers, a mind of clouds and rain, then engulfed with diverse flora and fauna, indigenous communities, overrun by Spanish colonization, Mexican statehood, Mormon expedition, and U.S. authority that ignored all previous layers by deeming the Southwest an absolute desert, a place so deserted they could safely test nuclear weapons there without harming anyone or anything worth mentioning. But Williams contests, as many do, that all of it is worth mentioning, worth respecting and preserving and revering.

After reading Williams’s essay, I stargazed with my friend in the desert where the stars are aggressively visible. The Southwest is misleading to those unfamiliar with it. The stars are brighter here, the air is heavier with scent, the land is rougher, and the going can be tough. Zion, a place of peace, a place of eternity, may be an apt name. The whole Southwest may be a kind of Zion, a refuge for wanderers and romantics. Its beauty is rare and atypical, taking on strange shapes and colors, rich sounds and haunting narratives. Its beauty is misfit and misleading, but in its presence it’s impossible to miss.

-jk

Reading at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference

In other news, I read some poetry at a big fancy academic conference.

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This week, scholars, musicians, writers, film critics, professors, fans of The Grateful Dead, zombie fanatics, pop culture critics and lovers (one in the same, here) flocked to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to discuss their ideas, share their theses, their creative works, their analysis of other people’s creative works, and generally enjoy the spirit of popular culture.

In one day alone, I’ve heard scholar/fans discuss the relationship between Rick and Morty in Rick and Morty, compare Jurassic World and the TV series Zoo, analyze countless horror movies (from Poltergeist to The Babadook), explore various media’s fixation with underage serial killers, give two different interpretations of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, explore the role of nature as a setting in The Walking Dead, critique consumer culture in prepper magazines and the capitalist frenzy to buy things before the coming apocalypse, and read a variety of poetry.

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Reading my own work for an audience was not entirely new to me; I’ve made use of open-mic nights and poetry slams now and again. This venue certainly was new to me, though, but I don’t want readers to assume that I think a conference is somehow better than a slam. Poetry is meant to be read out loud, and all venues are equally worthy and professional; poetry slams are just as important as big fancy academic conferences. But here, my audience differs, and the tone is more critical, more focused on poetry within popular culture rather than poetry alone. Where else can I backup a poem about the end of the world with information I’d heard half an hour before?

I’m centered in the academic world, and this is an academic pilgrimage that I’m honored to take. Reading in front of a live audience, of course, is terrifying, but also thrilling, and I hope to enjoy that thrill again soon.

There are still plenty of days left in the conference, and there is more to come.

-jk

 

Midwest by Northeast

The Map

For someone who grew up safe in the Southwest, the idea of the Midwest is just a scary story, no more real than werewolves or zombies or werezombies. But soon, all the stories may be proven true. I may wake up one day no longer a Southwesterner but a Midwesterner.

We’ve all heard tales of the Midwest. We’ve seen them in movies like A Christmas Story, Field of Dreams, even children’s movies like Fargo. We’ve heard Garrison Keillor’s weekly horror stories about allegedly growing up in the Midwest. I myself didn’t believe the stories, but soon I’ll immerse myself in the region, in the cornfields and endless piles of Lutherans.

I’ll have to disguise myself to fit in. I’m already quiet, so maybe they won’t recognize that I’m an Arizonan. I’ll have to start eating German and Scandinavian food instead of Mexican. But will I really become one of them? One of those smiling, dry-humor-loving, flat-land-roaming, hotdish-cooking huskers? I’m a fully-fledged American Westerner. My ancestors traversed the Rocky Mountains, settled in the potato fields of Idaho and the great Bitterroot Valley. I have family scattered across Arizona, Utah, Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Will I transmute into a Midwesterner? Or will I be like the lone survivor of a zombie apocalypse, wandering the fields among the throngs of polka-dancing tundra folk?

I’m sure I’ll end up enjoying life in the Midwest, even if resistance is futile and I start eating hotdish and corn. Or I’ll discover that the Midwest and Southwest aren’t that different, and I’ll fit in just fine, because as important as regional identity is, we should dismantle every wall we allow it to build between us. We’re all in this sinking ship together, after all, and life’s too short to let our differences confine us.

In any case, I’ve lived in Arizona for twenty years: Arizona is a dystopian oligarchy whose capital city, which is a violation of basic human rights by its very existence, is run by a deranged sheriff, and about thirty percent of the population qualifies as a heavily armed militia that wants to improve upon the concept of walls with barbed wire and snipers. If I can survive in Arizona, I can survive anywhere.

-jk

Ghosts of the West in Jerome’s Public History

Jerome Jerome, Arizona, is one of the oddest, most colorful towns in the state. Its history is rich, and its public history is thriving. Now a major tourist destination, as well as a small artists’ community, one can see Arizona history, and indeed U.S. history, in every corner. At a wine tasting one can see a passing motorcycle gang maneuver up the narrow streets, while a ghost tour marches downhill toward one of Jerome’s many historic sties. Jerome is itself a museum, an exercise in public history, but it is caught along the fault lines that make public history a contentious endeavor.

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Ruins of a primary school.

Many go to Jerome to see the Old West as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, John Ford, and others portrayed it. By the time How the West Was Won debuted in 1963, the Jerome Historical Society, founded a decade earlier, was already busying itself purchasing saloons, churches, mining equipment, and other property to advertize Jerome as a ghost town. Today, the Jerome Historical Society tends to dominate public history, and their goal from the beginning was to draw a crowd. Popularizing the town’s title, ghosts are now a prevalent motif. One can go on a ghost tour, visit a haunted hotel, then eat lunch at a ghost-themed restaurant. The Wild West narrative appears in the ruins of Jerome’s schools, jails, brothels, and saloons, and a past rife with outlaws, sheriffs, and western debauchery in a lawless city where anybody can make it big with the swing of a pickaxe.

The Cuban Queen

Entrance to an abandoned brothel, The Cuban Queen.

Jerome is haunted by this history, but by other histories as well. History is contentious, often snagged between fragmented political agendas. Today, several state legislatures want to change AP U.S. History curriculum to emphasize American Exceptionalism, a word that makes most historians cringe. Jerome may not be as fraught with politics, but the ghosts that haunt it are more than the usual characters in a typical western.

 

BenchThere is Charley Hong, who emigrated from China in 1880, two years before the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. He became a wealthy businessman, owner of the popular Bon Ton Restaurant (later the English Kitchen). Though a local celebrity in Jerome, the xenophobic climate in the west persisted, to the point that his restaurant was bombed in 1909. Miners haunt the town as well. Making it rich by mining may sound appealing, but the work was arduous, usually deadly, and compensation was minimal. To make matters worse, in 1917 corporate managers rounded up miners suspected of affiliating with workers’ rights organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), forced them onto cattle trains, and deported them out of town. Meanwhile, the local hospital witnessed approximately 9,000 deaths.

Ruins of a prison

Ruins of a prison

It is impossible to fully capture the diversity of Jerome’s history, and here I fail to do it justice. Public history, however, is an important venue for historical inquiry. The ghosts that haunt Jerome are more than just a handful of quirky characters. Jerome is haunted by the miners, the migrants, the unnamed lawbreakers, the women who worked in the town under challenging and dangerous conditions, the indigenous communities in the area. Jerome is indeed haunted, but most of its ghosts remain unheard. I intend to conduct more research, because for me history is about listening past the vast silence of time to let the old voices speak, and Jerome is shaking with eager voices.

Jerome Landscape