Desert Still Life
Chapter 3 - A sample from 'Montezuma's Well', Part two of The North Star Road Trilogy'
- by inanga (based on three months in the Arizona Desert).
3 - Terra Incognita
It remains unclear whether the East Coast and West Coast groups both entered the same alternate world, or two different or similar worlds. Communication between the two outposts has so far proved impossible because, as it happens, the Egg will not transport non-sentient matter. Travellers arrive Over There birth-naked in a Stone Age world - no airplanes, no radio, no clothes... no fire and no tools! Only the Egg, like a diamond Faberge Easter gift designed by Dali, alone in the midst of 'nature nurturing'. Balcombe includes a dim out-of-focus photo of an Egg, and claims that the machine is part computer but also partly-living crystal, like virus or DNA, and also partly naked 'quantum-stuff'.
Precis of part of Harold S Balcombe's Escape from Earth Prime! INCUNABULA, page 8, catalogue entry #15
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
William Blake, upon arrival in Albion II, 13 August 1827 (published first in his Auguries of Innocence).
Out on the road to nowhere with which we all torture ourselves with from time to time. The road from Clarkdale to Jerome, State Highway 89A, winds tortuously up the right hand side of Walnut Canyon. As you get more elevation an incredible vista unfolds in the rear view mirror. Its kaleidoscopic impact gnaws at you to stop, get out of your vehicle and to go to the very edge of the abyss to observe. Below and surrounding Tuzigoot are the river flats of the Verde River, various industrial monstrosities, the towns of Cottonwood and Clarkdale, and the sparse, denuded lands of the Yavapai Apache Reservation. Beyond the cliffs that isolated the river from the plain you could discern the Red Rocks of Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, and beyond them, the majesty of the Hopi's sacred San Francisco mountains, the Katchina peaks where the spirits of the Hopi resided until they returned to the villages of the three mesa for important ceremonies. An eagle soared overhead and its aura almost grabbed at you and begged you to take the plunge into the abyss below.
Jerome, a collection of mainly wooden dwellings, was arrayed out on several steppes on the slopes of the Black Mountains. It is, perhaps, the most preserved ghost town in Arizona, appearing much as it did in its heyday as a boom copper town. A big white 'J', fashioned from painted boulders, lies on the prominent, nearby buffalo-shaped hill, seemingly atop the uppermost dwellings, announcing to all that are ascending from below that they are approaching J for Jerome. Out to the western side is a huge ravine choked with the impedimenta and waste of the mining process. Beyond this a conspicuous white building houses an information centre and museum. It was once the family home of the mining magnates, the Douglas's, who built their personal monetary fortunes on the extraction of copper from beneath this most sacred tract of land. It was like a magnet, and after resisting the eagle's imploring for me to jump, I turned off on the road that led there.
Jerome is strange, the strangest of towns. It is a vortex and has the power to hold you within its clutches for what seems an instant but it is in fact an eternity. It transcends time, and weaves its magic upon even the most streetwise of travellers. All my years with Travel Dreams, through which passage I became blasé about the true lessons of travel, never prepared me for the entanglement, the labyrinth of mystery and imagination that was to follow.
The ostentatious entrance to the magnate's house, the now museum, was flanked by two bushes. It was yellow mistletoe, technically known as Loranthus. This plant was so rare, so very rare, and its transplanting here in the slag heaps of a man-made volcano threw me. Loranthus was 'heal all', the most sacred of the Druidic plants. The plant the Druids harvested at the correct phase of the moon, at a very specific time, with a golden sickle. This was the sacred mistletoe that grew on the oaks that were the site of the ancient ceremonies. 'Heal all'.
My awareness of the ancient secrets, the circles, the vortexes, the old mysteries, was further shocked into acceleration. I was fast learning that there was a Proustian 'a la recherche de temps perdue', a remembrance of things past. In all the ancient writings there were mysteries, greater mysteries and then the inner mysteries. The inner mysteries were only being released to Druidic initiates at this time. All it needed was a trigger of some sort, some surreptitiously innocent bushes at the entrance of a house, to release repressed archetypes - those first described by Carl Jung - into a personal mind expanding pathway.
Loranthus, yellow mistletoe, was the only plant in nature that reflected both the cycle of the moon and the cycle of the woman, the goddess on this earth in this reality. In twenty-eight days it underwent a change from male to female. Its viscous, milky seeds issued a sap that the Druids once used to 'heal all'. Here, in front of me, was the cure for all the afflictions of the modern world. A cure for arthritis, cancer, AIDS, insomnia, sleeping sickness, bulimia, piles, acne, Ebola, thrombosis, sinusitis, haemophilia, neuroses, tenosynovitis, attention deficit disorder, pain and all other possible afflictions. In other words, if a person's time was not yet over in this incarnation in this tiny speck of the time-line of the cosmos, then there was always a way to ease their passage to the next transcendence.
Here in Jerome was an ancient answer. I could hear the resonance of the hills surrounding me with a harmonic of 1.618, here above the once greenest of valleys. Chemists for hundreds of years had delved into the alkaloidal properties of 'heal all', yellow mistletoe, but they had completely missed the point. The point being that magic and faith, two essential elements of the inner mysteries, had to be homoeopathically interwoven into the alchemical, Druidic mix, in order for a mere plant to reveal its truest of natures. But there is always darkness in the ways of revelation, and Mother Earth would shield the truer meanings of this plant from me for some time.
Opposite the Loranthus bushes there are several chinaberry trees - another hermetic clue for those that delve into the inner mysteries. Again, I was not to be shown their secret usage until much later in my initiation. The auctioneer's hammer fell on my consciousness, stunning me into reality. Are all bids final, finished, this is a magnificent piece of history for free… Behind the museum cum magnate's house was a haunted hotel. Everyone was to tell me that it was haunted, and at night, for all intents and purposes, it was lit up like the most illuminated of Transylvanian nightmares. It had been bought and sold many times over the years since the town was almost washed down the slag pile of stagnation. And each of its respective tenants were scared out of their wits, forced out by fears, or just couldn't take it any longer. Some resorted to drink but that added to their demons, some killed themselves or did they? Many people just took one look at it and left with their tails between their legs.
I spoke with the lady at the desk for some time and she meticulously went through her files looking for information on the various plants. She was curious as to why I wanted to know so much about the plants that grew around the magnate's residence. I fibbed a little knowing that one of my daily maxims was to never lie. I just didn't think she would understand.
'I have found a correlation between the plants that are traditionally planted in mining areas. Many of them are from the country of origin of the miners. The miners knew of their special properties, especially the Welsh and the Cornish. These plants are common to all countries where the miners passed through.'
It was an untruth because I wasn't sure that these plants were common to such areas at all. But to mention the Druidic associations would have only earned me some form of bureaucratic derision.
I took a cursory glance around the stately mansion realising that its splendour was enjoyed by the magnate and his family at the expense of the well-being of the miners that slaved in their mining pits. It had all the trimmings - huge dining table, a means of summoning servants, grand entrance, drawing room, billiard room, a centrally located vacuuming system (well ahead of its time), and extensive views. A huge contrast to the shanties that lined the side of the hill, mixed in with grog houses, brothels and the waste from the mining process. The photographs were interesting and the captions revealed that the miners had come to this part of Arizona from several western and eastern European locations. There were familiar faces, and not surprisingly, a repetition of names that I had seen throughout New Zealand and Australia.
The van wove its way between the hillside buildings of Jerome proper, seemingly drawn into the town by some inexplicable magnetic attraction. I loved this place instantly. It was the frontier town par excellence of my wildest imaginings. The main street happened over three snake-like levels, and the shops, pubs and cafes oozed age, moss and ivy over the narrow, hill-clinging streets. My nose, after many years of travel, had become accustomed to sniffing out ale dispensing houses of all different characters. As I turned into the second tier of streets I spotted Paul & Jerry's. Thirst and tiredness overcame my resolve and I parked directly outside, across from the fire station and the police station (just in case I needed assistance later).
Inside was the saloon of my dreams. A huge bar with stools set along it, a buxom barmaid, photographs of the mining operations along the wall, a well-selected jukebox, intimate snug drinking booths, a smattering of variegated clientele, huge mirrors behind the bar, a large photograph of who I assumed was the proprietor at central bar, and just a hint of ghostliness.
'Gidday, what is your best ale?'
The pretty barmaid, complete with cowboy hat and silver-buckled belt, answered:
'Where ay yoo far-om?'
'You are a long way from home.'
'No, I live here now-a. I love it. What'd you like?'
'A Sam Adams.'
'Good choice! What brings you to Jerome. Are you a tourist?'
'Yes, in a fashion. I am a travel writer by trade but I am just travelling around Arizona at the moment for personal reasons.'
'Chasing the spirit, the same spirit that dragged me down from my croupier's job in Vegas.'
'How do you mean?'
'The spirit, it drags many of us people in here. We just arrive and we stay.'
'Good choice' I said in reply to an earlier comment to match hers concerning the beer.
'Oh there is a lot going on in this town that the rest of America just doesn't see. You have to look inside and, fortoon-ate-ly most just stop for a minute and then drive all the way through town to Prescott or Clarkdale. Only those meant to, stop here a whiles.'
Crystal was charming and we talked for at least half an hour in between the ebb and surge of regular customers.
'Have you met Dan?'
'No', I replied.
'He's an Australian like you. An Ozzie.'
'I am actually a Kiwi, but it just goes that I have an Aussie accent after living there for so long...'
'A Kiwi and and Aussie. I have met many of each in Vegas. All seem like nice people.'
With a hint of conceit I added:
Then it hit me. As I stared into the expanse of the huge bar mirror I pushed my hair back with both hands. I then glanced up at the photograph of the proprietor on the wall. He stared back at me with anything but the vacant eyes of a black and white image. It was a picture of me, now only obvious after arranging my hair in similar fashion.
I stuttered to Crystal:
'Who, who's that on the wall?'
'Oh that's Jerry. He was the proprietor of this place. He died a while back. He was one of the few miners to get out of the hell o' those mines with some money, just afore they closed 'em down. Come to think of it, I jus' noticed, you look a hell of a lot like him.'
She glanced up at the photograph, but even in the dim light of the bar, she discerned the striking resemblance.
'My God, that is you, aint it?'
I was still gob smacked and only half-mumbled, still reeling from the identical nature of our faces.
'Yeh, very similar.'
'This is Dan, the Ozzie.'
I turned round to see a gaunt character in typical mid-western overalls, ill-fitting boots, a Hill Billy hat rounded at its top and sporting a generous beard. He was my idea of the Ozarks not Arizona. It turned out that Dan was born in the USA but had an Australian father. It was his brother Marty that was an Australian by birth. He wasn't far behind, and soon our conversation was locked into a discussion of the merits or otherwise of Australian Rules Football, rugby union, rugby league and cricket, all immediate points of common interest.
Someone from another booth called out to Dan:
'What time is it?'
Dan answered laughing:
A group of people got up from the bar and headed out the door. Dan and Marty got up to leave also, and invited me to come with them.
'Whaddya mean by 420. It is actually eight thirty pm.'
'Oh, you don't know' Dan retorted.
'It's time for a joint. Marijuana. Part of our culture up here… 420 is the call sign of the police when they arrest someone for smoking marijuana. You know...'
And he imitated a highway patrolman radioing back to base, holding an imaginary microphone up to his lips.
'Calling all cars, there is a 420 in progress. Jerome, at the corner of... hell there are no corners up here... wait, I'll find out. Several suspects involved. Bring in backup. Suspects may be armed and dangerous.'
Everyone left the saloon and wandered down to the park, just out of view of the police station. It seemed that the two local cops turned a blind eye to the locals imbibing the filthy substance, concentrating more on out-of-towners such as the many bikers who drifted up here on weekends. Jerome was appearing to me to be more like a fun place and I decided there and then to spend some time here. I half imagined that if the local police turned up in this park at this time, 4:20, then they would be pelted with crab apples.
We all returned to Paul & Jerry's, and after smoking outside with a few of the guys and gals, I was introduced all round. One by one the characters of this very unique town unfolded. Each of these people were non-moneyed individuals, each having eschewed the traditional greedy views and mores of middle America, each having a point of view, but willing to listen to another. Many were artists, struggling artists but doing what they loved. They would sell their art but only to the extent that they could survive in the horribly, atavistic money-hungriness of what had become America. The presidential elections still hung in the balance. Gore versus Bush-Junior, Gore just making it in Jerome as being slightly better than the worst.
Most Jeromites hated the pettiness and power playing of American politics. They knew from history that the democratic ideal died soon after the constitution was drawn up. But that hideous clone of his father Bush, Bush Junior in all senses of the word, looked like sneaking in to power by bending the rules. A Texan and a Republican and a Hawkish warmonger like his Gulf-War-at-any-price father. For him to succeed would be anathema to everyone in Jerome at this time, because in spite of their relative insularity, they had to endure the day to day bullshit that emanated from Washington, DC. No George Bush Jnr, all said in that humble bar, would be in power for a short time and then he would do something silly, on any pretext, like bomb Afghanistan or Iran, looking for an excuse to grease the wheels of the military-industrial complex.
Two girls, who I was informed by one drinker were lesbians, packed their equipment in and began to sing. Songs somewhere between Faith Hill and Alanis Morrisette, only performed much better, and most of which were original. They fitted in here amidst the smoky atmosphere, laughter and conversation that you wouldn't find in most typical American bars. And those who couldn't seem to stand their next drink just seemed to drink on regardless. When the table pitcher ran out someone would always seem to fill it, brushing off their good nature with a comment about them just coming into a few dollars through the sale of some of their art.
I kept staring at my likeness in the photograph and for just an instant I thought I heard it utter:
'Told you that you would end up here.'
The discussion at the bar moved to the haunted nature of the building and then ended with us heading up the derelict stairs to the upper floor where a number of guests and permanents had mysteriously died over the years. The rooms were dank, dark and only small areas were illuminated by the streetlights. Of my exploring companions, only two remained looking around at the fittings, wallpaper and remaining wall hangings. The others left, having been 'spooked out'.
'What do you think?' Marty asked.
'Definitely haunted, but these ghosts are not going to do any harm. I can sense that.'
'It's a long story, but I have had quite a bit of practice.'
'Then you must know that this whole town is haunted, eh?'
'Seems that way.'
Marty worked in a pharmaceutical laboratory and was far more pragmatic and rational than most of the other people I had met at the bar. When I met him he was still in work clothes and it was obvious that he had just removed his tie. He spoke with a curious blend of Aussie and Southwest US twangs, and on occasion I had to listen really carefully to his strange inflections and elisions to work out exactly what he was saying.
'And what brings you to Jerome. You are no tourist just having a look around are you?'
'No. I was drawn here.'
'Like a giant magnet, or even larger dragnet, eh?'
'Seems that way. But I get he feeling the spirits have wasted such a big net on such a small fish.'
'Have you met Mod Bob or Dr Ron yet?'
'No, should I?'
'They come to you when the time is right. I am sure if you are here long enough you will. What about Stella?'
'No, likewise as I said before.'
'Well it is time to. She is in the bar. The dark-haired lady with the scarf around her hat and tied under her chin. All girl witches round here pay her homage. Let's go and meet her.'
Stella was holding court with a group of much younger woman. She was the archetypal witch in appearance - that popularised by the rival churches at the time of the Burnings. With due deference, Marty approached her and whispered in her ear, inaudible to the now suspicious group that sat at the round, centrally located table. As the whispering went on, Stella would eye me with a steel gaze, tinged with further suspicion and internal, mind-analysis. Marty went to the bar and ordered her a drink. When he returned she was removing her scarf from around her hat. She meticulously placed the scarf first over the back of her chair. Then she removed her black felt hat, and placed that on the table near her glass of beer. The other girls, four of them, sat there in silence staring directly at me. There were two with jet-black hair, one mousy blond and a full blond. They were motionless but you could sense that their minds were working overtime. One got up to get a seat for me, and after a few minutes' extra silence, Stella motioned me to sit down next to her. She was a woman of antiquity but had presence and dignity.
'Marty tells me that you are interested in the old mysteries, the old ways and the religions of a time well past. So are we. That is why we are here. Where do you come from?'
'New Zealand originally, from the West Coast of the South Island...'
'A Kiwi. That's interesting. Not an Aussie but a Kiwi.'
'I consider myself both really, having lived in each place for roughly the same amount of time.'
'What do you know about Kenya. You have been there haven't you?'
I was surprised by her question, totally out of sequence with a usual line of questioning. Why such a direct question about a place that had not yet been mentioned. But I knew better than to ask her why she had asked it. I had met several people in my journeying that seemed to know about my past just by simply reading my mind. I decided not to even feign surprise.
'Yes, I spent three months there some years ago. 1991 I seem to remember. Just after the Gulf War started. I was climbing there on Mt Kenya. It was the first time that I had climbed in Africa, on equatorial ice. I climbed with three others to the Gates of the Mist between Batian and Nelion, the two sacred peaks of the Kikuyu, which lie above the Diamond Couloir...'
'A'hem, impressive, yes impressive… Do you know Lake Naivasha?'
'Yes, I have been there a couple of times. You will probably know of the movie White Mischief, about the old aristocratic families that lived on the lakeshore smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine. I had a friend, Trinity, a fellow climber, whose family started off their Kenyan sojourn there. It seemed that many of the naughty sons and daughters of the rich, famous and aristocratic were sent out to Kenya. It was a dumping ground for many skeletons found in many a palace's closets...'
'You describe it well. I was one of those dope-smoking, snorting exiles. Rather my husband was the exile, and I was exiled with him.'
A smile, a remembering nostalgic smile, appeared across her normally stony face, revealing teeth that would keep a dentist busy for some days.
'Yes, I see you have seen my teeth. Chew on too many of the tough dinners of life. I have been meaning to get them fixed...'
One of the girls interjected with an admiring tone:
'Stella gives everything she has got away. She may have a few dollars at times, but not for long. One of the children will need some paints, a book, or something, and she just leaves it on their doorstep.'
A girl who started into the conversation by telling us she was Stephanie added:
'Yeh, Stella gives it all away. Except her hat and scarf, she has always had those.'
Stella was becoming exasperated with her admiration society and, through a veil of minor embarrassment, gently roared:
'Oh hush up you girls. Enough. I do what I like. And you, young traveller...'
'I am not that young.'
'Much younger than me, but enough about me, tell me more about Kenya, as I miss Africa, especially Naivasha. Have you been to the coast south of Mombasa?'
'Yes, on a couple occasions. Once on the Nairobbery to Mombasa overnight train. The one with the silver service and sleeping compartments.'
'Oh, how I loved travelling on that train. How I loved it. Do you know the lost city of Gedi?'
'I have been to the ruins. Of Swahili culture I think. I spent a day wandering around it. It had the most curious of smells.'
'It smells of the dead, the dearly and recently departed. Even after many centuries. Yes it is a city of ghosts, a city strangled by the creeping forest, much like Angkor Wat.'
'I haven't been to Angkor Wat, but I imagine so.'
'Mystical Gedi, it was once a place of learning. Much of the Sufi path that I understand, I learnt in those ruins with teachers. I called them time travellers. I didn't understand that concept then, but I am very much involved in all that now. Where else did you go?'
I sipped a mouthful of the cool beer, swallowed it methodically and then replied:
'All over, I suppose my favourite spot was Lake Bogoria, one of the 'natron' or salt lakes, known for its prolific bird-life and those pinkish skies of a million flamingos. Did you know Harmony, the bird woman of Lake Bogoria?'
'I knew of her. That reclusive Englishwoman who was determined to break the Guinness Book of Records number for the most species spotted in a day, in a twenty-four hour period. I heard a lot of her, and she was in Naivasha at one stage. But she was more interested in the birds than the mischief we were into. How do you know her.'
Stella raised her little finger in a gesture that suggested that she wished to be alone to talk to me. The girls quickly picked up their drinks and cigarettes and moved across to the booths, near Dan and Marty, and a lonely looking bearded guy who I was not to meet for some days.
'Well did she do it?'
'Break the record. And...' she paused. 'How did you meet her?'
'I'll answer the second question first. I was always interested in bird watching. It went with my job as a travel writer. You can always judge a country by how they treat their endemic species of birds, and also the visitors, like the migrant waders. In New Zealand for example, small as it is, they have a lousy track record. Many species are still threatened and for some it is far too late to save them. Scores more are on endangered lists. But the developers continue to forge ahead destroying their habitats, often with government sanction. It leaves me ambivalent at times, downright upset at others. Australia, as vast as it is, still destroys much of its eastern coastal habitat to build marinas and canal estates. Many species there are on the verge of extinction. Same for your east coast Chesapeake Bay, the spotted owl of Oregon. To cut a long sermon short, I write much about birding into my travelogues. So when I get to Kenya I meet up with Trinity who knows Harmony. Next thing we are heading up north from Limuru, the tea country to meet Harmony.
Harmony worked for the Bogoria Lodge taking well-heeled birders out on the lake and around its fringes. One day this guy turns up and commissions her for the whole day, twenty-four hours, to verify his attempt on the record. He well and truly breaks it, spotting three hundred and sixty five species in a day, one for each day of a year. So Harmony was there at the time, but just as a verifier.'
'What an interesting woman.'
'I stayed with her for several days, but more interestingly than the birds, I saw something far more elusive.'
'Spirit birds, firebirds, mythological rocs and phoenixes' she said with a grin.
'I only wish. No, it was a wingless anteater. It was the first time I had seen one in the wild, and the first time for Harmony and Trinity also. Harmony said it was a belief of the locals, who seldom ventured far beyond their villages or their firesides at night, that you only see one in a lifetime.'
'And you have seen yours.'
'Yes that it ticked up, I just hope the lifetime is not over.'
'Doesn't seem so yet. There’s a lot in store for you'.
'Would you like another beer?'
'Only if you are getting one too.'
I went to the bar and in the mirror I saw the four girls getting up to return one by one to Stella's table. Soon they were deep in conversation. I placed the beer in front of her and she looked up, paused from her current discussion, and said:
'Thanks. We'll continue this talk tomorrow. I want to know where else that you have been that I have been. And you enjoy your evening under Cleopatra Mountain this evening. I'll keep an eye out to see that the asp doesn't bite you. No milk baths heh!'
I spent another half hour in the bar with Dan, Marty and the lonely man I mentioned earlier, Dick. I waved goodbye to my mirror image on the wall and walked out into the crisp, high altitude cold air. The fog bound street with its imitation gas lamps and period buildings looked like a movie set for shooting a scene for Jack the Ripper.
Back in the van I started to think about the name Jerome. It was attributed to Eugene Jerome, Winston's Churchill's American grandfather, original financier of the mining operations around here. I was more interested in the old Jerome, the Catholic saint. It seemed strange that a town of ghosts, alternatives and witches would share the name of a pious Catholic.
The Jerome that I understood was a hermit who lived at Chalcis in the Syrian desert, and who died around 420; he was originally one Sophronius Eusebius Heironymous. No the 420 above was not the 420 code of the Az State Highway Patrol callsign nor the ratio 1:10 of 42, the answer to the search in 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', but 420 AD. He was a relatively intelligent man and the official Catholic Vulgate Bible was attributed to him. He was prepared to bend the truth whenever it was of benefit to the church, and is quoted as advocating such in the Veronese manuscript 'De Vilis Illustribus', of around 1734 to 1742. He was almost as good a fibber as St Augustine, and goodly Doctor of the Church. i then remembered St Augustine's quote on the nature of man and God and feel i am doing him a disservice here:
'If he loves a stone, he is a stone; if he loves a man he is a man; if he loves God - I dare not say more; for if I said that he would then be God, ye might stone me.'
Jerome himself got into trouble in Antioch, a little bit of a heresy struggle, as he had a liking for pagan literature in favour of the droll Christian teachings. A local bishop helped him to get out of he bind by sending him to Rome in 382 AD where he spent two decades revising the Old and New Testament manuscripts - the result was the Vulgate Bible. While in Rome, Jerome took to his favourite pastime with gusto, dressing up in women's clothing whenever he could to ease the boredom of translating. The transvestite garb of cross-dressing Jerome, resplendent red no less, became the outfit the Catholic cardinals wear today. No, the Catholic Jerome was far more interesting than Winston’s money-hungry granddaddy.