Jun 20 2011

What Are You Doing?

Melissa Crytzer Fry

What are you doing? This is the rather direct question my husband was asked by a stubbly-faced fellow riding shotgun in a white Chevy Suburban this past weekend.

We were in the tiny mining town of Hayden, Ariz., – specifically so I could photograph this once-vibrant town nestled at the base of the Mescal Mountains. I was on the other side of the street, caught up in my own reverie as I snapped photos of an abandoned United Methodist Church that I was sure still held a lifetime of memories, sorrowful and joyful, both.

This church stands with many windows absent, open to the elements, and a “for rent” sign tacked to the front doors. Click to enlarge. Tab through all photos with forward button.

As I walked away from the church toward my husband, I heard the man continue his questioning. “Who are you? Why are you taking pictures?” he asked, rather defensively.

From across the street, I made out a few additional mumbles, as well as my husband’s response, “Well, I don’t know Dr. Wilkes. No, we don’t work for anyone.”

By the time I reached the side of the old truck, circa 1990, I saw the gangly, hollow-cheeked man who clutched a weekly circular in his hands and balanced a 12-pack of Fiesta soda in his lap. The driver next to him eyed us with suspicion before lighting his cigarette with a wooden match.

Apparently “Dr. Wilkes” owns all the abandoned buildings in the area, and our interrogator “works on them.”

Finally satisfied that hubby’s jean shorts, my running shorts and our t-shirts didn’t appear to be the attire of ‘official photographers’ or ‘inspectors’ of some sort, the men drove away. And I have to admit I was a little miffed by the intrusion. I was in an artistic mood and didn’t appreciate being shaken from it. It’s a free country. I can take pictures if I like, flittered through my head as I continued to photograph the desolate street.

This theater, which was once a match company (and later an indoor basketball court), had been renovated on the exterior at some point. A glimpse beyond the buildings shows a light aqua mass rising in the foreground of the mountains. It is actually a tailings pile from current mining operations. Click to enlarge.

With each photo I took, though, I started to think about the interaction with the men. These locals were simply proud of their little town, despite the abandoned buildings and the town’s freefall into economic decline. They felt a sense of ownership, maybe even a sense of kinship with their hard-knocks town.

Their pride – their overprotectiveness of this once-bustling main street that is now ghostly and empty – really hit me. One sweep of the eyes up and down this road illustrates their dedication to keeping it clean, nearly vandalism-free, and presentable. Maybe it’s also testament to their appreciation of the mining town’s tough history, its survival instincts.

And their actions, their reactions to us … well, they spoke the loudest of all. This was still their town.

This photo, taken in the 1920s, shows the town of Hayden during more prosperous times. Look closely at the mountain in the background and compare it to the “today” photo below.

My image is taken further up the street, but the same columned building on the left (in above photo) is the Police Department today. The building on the right in the vintage photo is the same building below that still stands (minus the balconies). Click to enlarge.

This now decaying building was once a commercial company during the town’s heyday (see vintage photo). Today it sits silently, stories buried in its crumbling walls. Click to enlarge.

For Writers: As writers, I think we can learn a lesson or two about pride and protectiveness. We must be equally protective of our writing projects, champions of our own cause. Proud. If we don’t believe in our words – and work at them, polishing them, cleaning them up, making them presentable, preserving their meaning – how do we expect to land an agent? Get a publishing contract  … tell our story? In what ways can you honor your own work? Do you think it’s important to do so?

NOTE: MORE PHOTOS AT RIGHT- I couldn’t fit all of the photos from this trip onto this post (without driving you batty). If you’re interested in seeing more, click the Twitpic box at right for additional photos of Hayden and nearby mining town, Winkleman.

P.S. I’m also guest posting at Brava this week, with the wonderfully generous New York Times bestselling author, Beth Hoffman (Saving CeeCee Honeycutt). Please stop by if you get a chance. My post focuses on using photos to ignite creativity in your writing!

Jun 13 2011

Shots Ring Out

Melissa Crytzer Fry

When I think of the remote desert southwest, which is my back yard, I think of these things, to name a few (and I smile):

This baby javelina posed outside the French doors at my home. Mama and sibling were nearby. Notice the bristly little back. Click to enlarge.

This wonderful desert ocotillo plant, about ready to bloom, stands in contrast to those beautiful blue Arizona skies and wispy clouds. Click to enlarge.

I feel blessed to have this train trestle right in our back yard (a remnant of the once-bustling copper mines in the area). In this photo, I am standing about a mile behind the trestle on a hill, looking toward our property. Click to enlarge.

As you can likely tell, the desert makes me happy. In fact, it keeps me creatively motivated and gives me a sense of peace I’ve never before experienced – even knowing that I risk chance encounters with rattlesnakes, coyotes and big cats. For whatever reason, I have always felt naturally at ease in this outdoor wonderland.

But last Friday, some of that tranquility was stolen from me. And, to put it mildly, I am pissed.

I was jogging my regular route, past the neighbor’s goat hill (you may recall my goat post) when I heard a couple of loud bangs. It registered, at first, as heavy objects falling upon one another up near Goat Hill House. I assumed the neighbors were doing some construction work, but in the back of my mind, a “gunfire” warning also sounded.

So, instead of running past the clearing along the railroad tracks that opened on to Goat Hill, I yelled, “Hello!” to make whomever know that I was passing by (in case they were shooting at some invisible animals/target that I couldn’t see). I obviously didn’t want to put myself in the direct path of potential gunfire.

I made it through the clearing without incident, and the banging sounds stopped.

This is Goat Hill. I assume the little trailers are storage areas for goat feed (as well as chicken feed for the nearby chicken coops). Click to enlarge.

But the story doesn’t end here.

As I reached a stout palo verde tree, the gunfire (yes, it was gunfire – likely a .22) started again. And this time, three shots were aimed in my direction. The whole time, I am screaming, “Stop! You’re shooting at me! Stop!” (I was still thinking this was a hunter or target shooter who didn’t see me, perhaps). After two bullets literally whizzed past my head – I could hear them go by, they were SO CLOSE – my instinct kicked in and told me to get the hell out of there as fast as I could.

I sprinted to the next bluff, which meant running in wide-open, unprotected spaces once more. And then, that was it. No more shots. I made it the quarter mile back home in record time, adrenaline as my aid.

I can’t even say fear pushed me forward during that last open stretch along the tracks. It was this crazy survivalist mentality that I’ve never experienced before (I know I sound melodramatic, but unless you’ve had bullets come that close to vital body parts, you simply can’t understand the ‘what if’ possibilities that present themselves to you once you feel ‘safe’ and begin to process the situation).

I think I was still in shock when I told my husband to call the sheriff’s office, the whistle-like buzz of bullets still rattling in my head. It’s a sound I will never forget.

(In case you’re wondering, Goat Hill neighbors told the sheriff that they, too, heard shooting toward the railroad tracks and denied playing any role – and that they’d had problems with someone shooting at their goats. This incident will always remain a mystery to me, I suppose. I don’t like to think that I was an intended target, though I also can’t justify why someone would shoot into a palo verde tree if they weren’t aiming for something behind it: in this case, me. Plus, I was wearing a bright royal blue tank that could be seen for miles against the desert’s drab earth-tone hues).

For Writers, For Everyone. So why am I pissed rather than scared? Because for months, I associated Goat Hill with fond memories. In fact, every time I ran by and a goat baah’ed at me, I’d smile. Goat Hill had become a positive symbol for me, a morning ritual. The elderly neighbors even waved emphatically as I jogged by.

And in much the same way, the desert and all its critters, hills and cacti had become a symbol to me. Of creativity. Of harsh reality, but stunning beauty. Of wonder. Of relaxation.

Now I feel like someone ruined that for me. I do not want to feel unsafe in an environment that has given me so much. I don’t want to be fearful instead of unencumbered and in sync with my surroundings. I don’t want to look over my shoulder and wonder if some lunatic goat and human sniper is wandering the desert.

So, yeah. I’m pissed.

But, you know what? I’m not going to let some a-hole take this from me. Maybe the first few weeks, I’ll avoid that route. But I’ll go back. I will run our acreage and enjoy it. What I won’t do is live in fear. I simply cannot let someone steal the gift I’ve been given by living in this rural-but-terrifically-inspiring part of Arizona.

Do you think I’m nuts? You might when I tell you that I did manage to find a writing lesson in all of this craziness… In hindsight, perhaps it’s my therapy; writing about it is helping me process the uncertainty and to take a stand.

The writing lesson? It all goes back to symbolism. What happens to your characters when you take something symbolically significant to them and turn it on its head? What if something with once-positive connotations suddenly turns into something painful (like my situation?) or, conversely, something once terrifying becomes electrifying? Consider: a piece of beloved jewelry becomes a weapon used against your character, a once-tranquil home becomes a crime site where your protagonist’s spouse is killed, or – on the flip side – a fear of heights is transformed into a love of skydiving ? Does that transformation, and grappling with it, not add a tremendous amount of emotional wallop to your storyline, to your characters’ trajectories, to their growth, to the plot?