In honor of the trip Joe and I are getting ready to embark upon, I decided to re-visit the story I wrote about going to Oak Creek with mama - the only time I went there with her other than when we all went for her funeral. I think I had to do some editing for publication in Arizona Highways but this is the original version. Oak Creek will always be a sacred place for me.
I always knew about Oak Creek, where my mother spent her summers as a child and where she took my daddy just after she married him, before he, in turn took her east to start their life in Georgia. For me, it has a mysterious, almost mythical allure. Of course, I knew only what I had heard from Mama and what I had seen in the sepia-tones photos stored in our attic.
In my mind, I saw Oak Creek as being from another time, a time when the west was still wild, a time when a little girl could grow up hunting, fishing and camping – real camping, not Winnebago camping. For me, a product of the 1950s, a child of the South, Mama’s stories of staying at Oak Creek in the 1930s and ‘40s were as foreign as if she had been raised by wolves. Perhaps she was. It could happen at Oak Creek.
It wan not until years later that I, as the mother of a daughter myself, yet still a daughter to my own mother, made the trip to the place that was so much a part of me, even though I had never been there. Three generations of females flew west from Atlanta in the spring of 1998. Mama, my 13-year-old daughter, Molly, and I all had different agendas. My mother wanted what might very well be her last visit to her home state, and I longed to know more about her early life. I wanted to find myself somewhere in her beginnings, to know the “Arizona part” of me. Molly came only because I wouldn’t let her stay home with her friends, even though she thought she was old enough.
The three of us traversed the circuit of my mother’s childhood, starting with Prescott, where she was born. Her family’s Victorian house still stands, now listed on the historic register, but in tawdry disrepair.
Next we went to Flagstaff and visited the University of Northern Arizona, where Mama earned her teaching degree. As we neared Oak Creek, our anticipation became palpable, at least for my mother and me. Molly was busy experimenting with different makeup looks in the back seat of the rental car, a Walkman firmly affixed to her ears.
Mama had saved the best for last. We were to stay in a motel on the edge of the enigmatic Oak Creek and would visit Sedona and take a day trip to Jerome, the played-out mining town where she had grown up, living on that portion of the mountain known as Cleopatra Hill. Throughout the week, as we took in the sights and mused over almost forgotten memories, Mama kept saying, “I just hope we can find where the Oak Creek cabin used to be. That’s what I want to see most.” I hoped so, too, mostly for her, but also for me.
The Oak Creek of Mama’s childhood was very different from today’s vacation and retirement mecca of Sedona. In the old days, it was a place of hardy locals mixed with folks, like my grandparents, who camped and built summer cabins on the edge of the creek, within view of the majestic red rocks. It seemed the place that defined her most. She and her daddy had helped to build their cabin on a site so pristine and beautiful, so geographically and aesthetically desirable that few could afford it today.
Mama knew the cabin had been torn down and the land returned to the state at the end of a 99-year lease, but she hoped for some sign that her life there had really happened, perhaps some proof for me.
Descending the winding road from Flagstaff, I thought this had to be the most beautiful place in the world, this land of Oak Creek. Mama couldn’t seem to take it all in. She kept craning her neck, looking for the place where the cabin had stood. “Maybe this is it. No, it doesn’t look right.” Small access roads, leading toward the creek, all looked the same to me. For her, it had just been too long and things had changed so much. No doubt some of Mama’s memories had been distorted by time. We stopped and asked, but no one could help us. The old-timers were gone.
The next day we stopped in Clarkdale for lunch and then headed up the mountain that was, and still is, Jerome. I saw the “J” at the top. Mama had told me how painting the inscription had been a high-school freshman class rite of passage. As I peered over the dash at the steep climb up to town, I remembered why Mama never learned to ride a bike as a child, finally mastering it as an adult in the flat marshlands of South Georgia. Bike-riding in Jerome was dangerous, if not impossible. After attempting to park the rental car on a downhill slant and close its door without losing my footing, I understood.
Mama’s daddy had been the city attorney in Jerome before moving to Phoenix to become an assistant state attorney general. I recalled the story of the jailhouse sliding down the mountain and remembered how I had surmised in my egocentric child-mind that my granddaddy probably had some “worthless varmints” incarcerated in the jail as it made its way to its new address. Learning in later life that my grandparents had already moved when the jailhouse made its way down Cleopatra Hill was a little disappointing, so I chose to remember it the other way. I also, as a little girl, possessed some primal narcissistic sense that Jerome’s slow descent down the mountain and its ultimate decline in population had to be connected in some way to my grandfather’s ascent up the ladder of success elsewhere. My family’s moving on had to have been the last straw, an abandonment with which the town just couldn’t cope.
I found Jerome to be interesting, yet felt sad that it had changed so much since my mother’s day. I was glad that the artists had utilized its charm, but couldn’t get past how difficult it would be to live in Jerome, forever canting one way or another, afraid of losing one’s grip, not only on reality but also on the Earth itself. I can see why Mama holds on so tightly to life and why Oak Creek became such a compelling resting place for her.
On our last morning, we awoke to a light snowfall. Although it was pretty and its arrival in mid-April a novelty to us Southern marsh hens, it also hinted at a disappointing final search for the bygone cabin at Oak Creek. I worried that the drive back to Phoenix would be difficult in the snow. Molly was having trouble with her lip liner. Mama asked that we look one last time.
Turning back toward Flagstaff, I feared that Mama would be terribly disappointed if we couldn’t locate the site. All I could see was snow, and driving in this kind of weather makes me tense. About a mile up from the motel, Mama pointed to a side road, more like a driveway. This was one of the places we looked earlier, one of the many that seemed almost right, but not quite.
We pulled over and got out of the car. I envisioned broken hips from falling in the snow and wondered how difficult it would be to get an ambulance up this slippery road. My mother carefully made her way over to a fence. “This has to be it. I just wish I could get closer.”
As she and I gazed forlornly over the frustrating barrier, trying to see what might have been vestiges of the cabin, Molly unfolded from the back seat and out of her adolescent self long enough to check a spot where the fence had collapsed. “Why don’t we just try that hole in the fence over there?”
It took just seconds to mull the repercussions of trespassing on state land and then for all of us to transcend the broken-down fence to Mama’s childhood – and my Arizona roots.
As soon as she reached the concrete slab just a few feet from sparkling Oak Creek, Mama knew she was home. Her faced wreathed in smiles, she cried, “This was the cabin’s foundation! This was the terrace!” It even looked right to me. It looked like the photographs from the attic. All the tableau needed was for my grandmother and my grandfather and my honeymooning father to join my mother in repose as they had in those pictures taken so long ago.
From there, we walked over to the waterwheel my mother and grandfather had built to generate electricity for the cabin. That’s when I knew, for sure, we were in the right place. I had heard about that waterwheel my entire life. It was surreal, actually being there, really touching it. Mama was surprised it had survived nearly 60 years, as the snow’s melting each spring had continually kept if flooded and in disrepair. When I saw it still standing, it seemed to me that its real purpose may not have been so much pragmatic as commemorative. We had found evidence that my mother’s Oak Creek was more than just a place in time. Oak Creek was basic to the woman she had become, the woman who loved my daddy and who bore my brother and me in a very different place and time.
Just before leaving, Mama pointed out the cliff cave on the other side of the creek that she, at 13, used as a refuge from a mother and father who simply didn’t understand, just as Molly’s parents currently didn’t. With that comparison, it became clear to me that the beat of my mother’s heart and the essence of what it takes to be a woman reverberated from her, through me, to Molly, and would most likely endure through other generations.
Dadding and Daddy
Mama, Dadding, and Daddy
Going back to Oak Creek that snowy spring was the right thing to do for my mother. She needed to remember all that endowed the girl she once was and the remarkable woman she grew into. The trip was, most definitely, the right thing for me. I needed to see how the creek water and the red rocks fed my Southern soul. It was also the right thing for Molly – although she doesn’t know it yet.
Mama, Molly, and me at lunch in Sedona - Spring of 1998
I can't believe Melissa found the spot on her family trip East. Georgia and Miles on the cabin foundation at Oak Creek. January 2012