Let’s end where we began, in the car on the highway with a desert audience on both sides–saguaros wave, frizzy teddy bear cholla hunker down, ocotillos-in-bloom raise fiery red fists. On the two-lane road to Las Vegas, my girlfriend and I pull over to inspect the brass-inlaid signs at a gravel turnout informing us of another historic abandoned mining town. It’s hot and Rachael opts to sit in the air conditioned car as I jump out to investigate. She works the evening shift doing psych evaluations in a veterans’ ER and hates it. The ex-military men have eyes, mouths and hands that cause problems. Rachael wants to get out of town and take photographs. What people lived and worked here? I ask. Off in the distance, the haphazard skeletons of dry brown mining shacks, one with a roof missing, the other free-standing brick walls and the outline of a window.
Joni Tevis writes in her book The World Is On Fire that apocalypse is Greek for the unveiling. This ruin was always here waiting to be unmasked, the bust predated the boom, and so on. The relentless lights of Vegas are so close by and as Tevis writes, “there’s something about the [closeness of] glitter that feels exactly right. For me glitz and apocalypse go together.” I imagine the neon sign that might point travelers to inspect these mining ruins more closely: THE OLD NEW THING IS HERE.
We are on our way to visit the failed fantasy town, Santa Claus, Arizona along Route 93 between Kingman, Arizona and Las Vegas. In 1937, the “biggest real estate agent in California” a 300-pound woman, Nina Talbot, bought the Kit Carson guest house renaming it the Santa Claus Inn with an idea to create a St. Nick themed tourist attraction and resort town. The town never took off, remained only an idea and a rest stop for tourists making their way from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas. The town perhaps relied too heavy on fantasy—snow in the desert, Santa Claus year round, becoming a cartoon rather than a mirage, too far-fetched to breed any real sustained desire. The thought of the fake snow and felt-hatted elves make me laugh on this 100-degree day. In some sense, its failure makes Santa Claus the purest type of utopia, one that exists in plans and ruins alone, now a handful of fetishized remnants that echo across the internet. This is no place. An idea, a memory of something that was never there, a shadow on the wall cast by a miniscule puppet. Foucault argues in his 1967 article “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” that “heterotopias” function in two capacities. First, they create spaces of illusion that expose every other space as still more illusory. “Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.”
This morning Rachael and I awoke with limbs crisscrossed at a Motel 6 in Kingman, arriving late last night to a familiar cheap motel layout—laminate furniture, bright yellow bedspread, stained paisley carpet, to drink whiskey out of thin plastic cups. Too dirty to undress, we lay down a sleeping bag and push and pull through clothes. Gay marriage was just stamped by the Supreme Court and we joke about going to get gay married RIGHT NOW in Vegas. The glitter of a gay wedding pulls at our conversation. We imagine our suits and a gay Elvis soliciting vows.
I rehearse my hotel routine, after years of living in hotels while on union organizing campaigns. Perishable food goes in the fridge, clothes in the dresser, suitcases on the racks. Hotels function for me as a holding space, a no place, a time warp, both then and now at once. The bedspreads always scramble my thinking; the laminate tables induce a haze.
Grandpa’s Kitchen offers the best breakfast in Kingman served on card tables while we sit on folding chairs. Family photographs, paint-by-number landscapes and signst—“STRESSED is DESSERTS spelled backwards”t—crowd the walls. I order the biscuits and gravy and drink coffee from a cup with “60 AND BETTER THAN EVER” in purple bubble letters.
An older woman with white hair swallows scrambled eggs. She is nondescript, a half-smile on her face fading into the cluttered backdrop of photographs. We watch as a blonde woman dressed in a monotone fuchsia pink joins the white hair and her husband; she makes small talk so loud the whole restaurant joins in. This pink woman is a neon sign. A younger middle-aged couple sits at a nearby table, orders no breakfast, the son and daughter-in-law, I presume. Slowly, we realize that the pink woman is selling four cemetery plots. The daughter-in-law asks, “Can I go on top?” With all seriousness the pink woman replies, “Depends on who goes first.” Imagine it, these four lively bodies planning for a final group memorial, as close as they are now here in the restaurant, but supine in the dirt. As we walk back to the car, I see the pink woman jump into a large white S.U.V with magenta bumper stickers, every aspect of her look, coordinated glitter. Apocalypse and glitter, once again, strange bedfellows. Who will grieve these four lives in a shared grave? Who will remain? Will their lives be grievable?
When my grandmother died, my aunt became convinced to buy several adjacent plots for our family, although my uncle refused to claim his gravesite declaring it bad luck to pre-plan the body’s demise. We bought a bench for my grandmother’s gravestone so we might sit on her. The day of her death felt like a great quickening as she rattled and whimpered, a hypnotic machine. At the end, there was a rising noise and fast commotion. She opened her eyes wide and strained her neck forward looking around at us, her daughters and granddaughters and great-granddaughters, with a swimming pool in her lungs. She sputtered at the surface while we fiddled with towels, her tendons straining her loose skin like a muscle model for anatomy class. When she died she fell back as if someone pushed her, her body still moving ever so slightly up and down, and we weren't sure for a few moments. Then my cousin attempted to pry her diamond wedding ring off, which did not come easy, bracing herself as if extracting a cork out of a bottle. My grandmother's arm pulled up straight pointing across the room and her whole body lurched forward as my cousin yanked with her legs against the wall, the diamond glinting. They divorced thirty years prior. We held our breaths.
Leaving the restaurant, I’m thinking about the “art of commemoration” as political scientist Katherine Hite calls it in her 2011 book about memorials to political struggle in Latin America and Spain. She writes, “there is no doubt that memory profoundly informs how we understand the current juncture, and that our memories are a moving target in relation to an ever-changing present. There is a powerful dynamic between our memories and our identities. Traumatic memories deeply mark individuals and collectivities; traumatic events resonate well into the future.” She advocates that, “the fundamental challenge is to channel memory toward a global imaginary that eschews violence and builds solidarity and community. This is not to commodify memory, nor to relegate memory to some past condition, for memories are lived, ongoing social practices, ever in motion.” I’m interested in her distinction between monuments (masculinist and triumphant) and memorials (somber and questioning) and how the remnant directs my mourning. Abandoned strip malls make me weep. We drive right past Santa Claus the first time.
“That was it!” exclaims Rachael. We continue down the road to a cross-over and make our way back. The parched desert remnants suggest a warning or an ellipsis. Amid the rhythmic rush of traffic like ocean waves, the ruins of the failed enclave blister. Broken, diminutive, chipping, forgotten, Santa Claus, Arizona dilapidates behind a low barbed wire fence next to a junkyard piled with shiny metal car parts, old RVs and discarded signposts.
Playing into old Western frontier nostalgia, the real estate office (still) proclaims, “THIS IS IT! SANTA’S LAND OFFICE” where she sold single acre plots along Prancer Parkway and Donner Street. Although a popular stop for mid-century travellers heading to and from the Hoover Dam and along Route 66 to eat pie, the only residents of Santa Claus were ever the employees. I imagine the men and women dressed as elves sweeping the streets and serving pie and on their days off pulling all-nighters at the Golden Nugget casino on the slot machines with unshaven stubble on their chins.
Katherine Hite reminds me of what Susan Sontag argues in Regarding the Pain of Others, that “strictly speaking” there is “no such thing as collective memoryt—part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction.. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulation: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.” Some ruins lay like Santa Claus, untouched, unsigned, unadorned.
As I wander back behind the fence, I remember how living in Philadelphia in my early twenties, my punk-anarchist group of friends spent free time exploring urban ruins: an old grain factory, a smokestack accessible by underground tunnels, and our favorite, the discarded Gypsum factory in Southwest at the end of a carefully manicured botanical garden, in a family neighborhood populated by Philadelphians of the African diaspora. The irony of an abandoned drywall mill in the heart of a dilapidated city was not lost on me. Once I clambered to the top of a creaky old elevator in the central Gypsum cavern and found a giant box of folded paper airplanes, thousands of meticulously folded white doves. I sat at the edge and threw one after another into the abyss.
Rachael takes her turn behind the fence while I keep watch. I worry that someone might chase us out or call the cops. I watch her stoop and focus, camera in hand, poking the strange corners of decay.
Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, the suburbs, all tall tales that morph over centuries. The story goes that St. Nicholas, a Greek Bishop who lived in the third and fourth centuries, spent many years in prison defending Christianity before Constantine brought the religion into prominence for the empire. National Geographic pinpoints two stories from St. Nick’s life that may provide the seeds for the contemporary image of a rosy-cheeked, white bearded, jolly ambassador of capitalism: St. Nicholas brought bags of gold to the indebted father of three young women who were headed to a lifetime of sex work. The gold served as their dowries so the father could marry them off and avoid the shame of prostituting daughters. Secondly, the saint resurrected the murdered bodies of three small boys, dismembered and pickled in basement barrels of a wayward inn. Sex work and murdered children somehow became stockings full of candy, North Pole, and red-nosed reindeer.
Sontag writes that “Apocalypse is now a long-running serial: not ‘Apocalypse Now’ but ‘Apocalypse From Now On.’ Apocalypse has become an event that is happening and not happening.”
After an hour or so of wandering among the splinters of Santa Claus, Rachael and I get in the car and drive to a campground nestled up in the San Francisco Peaks where it snows all night: Christmas in summer. We have light sleeping bags and a summer tent, unable to imagine that it might be so cold up here when it is over 100 degrees in the desert. We spend the night half awake, holding each other for warmth, still shivering. The next day we hike to the inner basin for a view of the Painted Desert in the distance, passing through an Aspen grove where I feel small and fairy-tale like, disconnected from real life. In that moment, the trees so perfect, meticulous and well-arranged reveal to me the whole world, messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Jan Bindas-Tenney is a community organizer who writes essays. She coordinates the advocacy efforts for Preble Street in Portland, Maine. She recently finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at the University of Arizona. Find more of her writing in Gulf Coast, Orion, Arts & Letters, Guernica, and CutBank’s All Accounts and Mixture, among other places.
"A" mountain: not a mountain but the hill with a giant white A cobbled from many stones mortared in shape on top, right now painted purple for Prince, RIP. It’s the closest hike to home. We walk out the back door, over broken bottles, circle a man-made crater and look down on a mattress in the middle, poke our heads in a closet-sized cave. This is a trial ground for off-leashing our dogs. Will they return to the sound of our voices? Awhile ago one of our dogs scuffled with a debilitated coyote at noontime. It was a cloud of dust, blood, and screaming and then the coyote skulked away. This is where desert seasons shift on the spindly arms of ocotillos and brown pumice stones from a volcano rest underfoot. A volcano! Eons ago.