Did My Arizona Childhood Make Me a Fiction Writer?
Can you imagine being sad when school ended on Friday afternoons? Or wishing there were no extra days off during holidays? That was me.
School meant books, learning, kids, softball and FUN!
Don’t get me wrong. It was awesome growing up on a ranch in the Arizona White Mountains. Nonetheless, those pretty mountains also meant no television or radio reception. Well, sometimes we got a little bit of night radio out of Oklahoma City.
Cable, satellite TV, computers, email, video games or cell phones hadn’t been invented yet. Imagine that!
Friends? Oh sure. Our community included a whole canvas of ranches just 20 or more miles away across highways and rutted roads and mini-Grand Canyons.
No friends nearby, or sisters, destined me to pretend Anna of Green Gables, or Princess of the Chickens, or anything else I wanted to pretend, by myself.
I had older brothers, but roping fence posts, cutting barbed wire off hay bales and tinkering with engines just wasn’t my idea of fun. The exciting cowboy stuff belonged exclusively to the men, with the exception of my mom. She being about the best cook in all of Arizona, they’d have been plumb stupid to leave her out of their shenanigans.
I’d get an urge to play ball, so I’d throw a ball over the DC electric line strung from the battery house and wind charger to the ranch house. I’d duck under the wire to quickly catch the ball on the other side of the wire.
I balanced broom handles in my palm. Such skill.
I decorated rocks with little pieces of glass using old brown glue. I leaped onto the Butane tank in the backyard and hung off the side like a trick rider.
I played Monopoly and Old Maid alone, actually jumping to the other side of the game board or to a line of dealt-out cards and pretending to be another person! Who won? I never knew. Pretty soon, I’d give up and go sing to the chickens. Or read. I read hundreds of books back then.
On one of my grandmother’s visits, she taught me how to embroider. That opened up a vibrant world. An empty cookie tin with a picture of the Blue Boy on top became my sewing tin. I filled it with needles and threads of every conceivable color and, of course, my work-in-progress . . . which was usually a tea towel or a dresser runner.
In the summertime, I carried my tin under my arm when I climbed up the ladder of the windmill and sat behind the water tank on top of the rock house. In previous years, the rock house had been used for ice but that was before my time. The windmill mostly belonged to me because I understood its lonely vocabulary of groans and creaks.
A fence made from crooked, skinned cedar posts covered in a vigorous wild Mustang grapevine connected the rock house to a corner of our corral system. The cool sand under the grapevine invited our wandering chickens to dust-bathe by scratching out a small hole. They whipped their wings furiously and made circles in the holes, laughing heartily the whole time.
I was the only one with the power to hear their strange cackles of mirth. I popped lots of sour unripe Mustang grapes into my mouth during those years and spit the seeds out for the chickens just to help them settle down.
The hens and I had a huge secret.
See, in a faraway land, I had been a princess and they had been my Ladies in Waiting. An evil wizard had transported all of us from our castle to the ranch in Arizona. The ladies . . . er, hens, and I discussed this outrageous state of affairs at length and sadly reminisced about the old days.
As far as I know, those hens never breathed a word of our secrets to anyone.
Walking from the ranch house in any direction, I stumbled into adventures. Native Americans who had lived there for hundreds of years left me signs as to where they were hiding. A shard of ancient pottery, a worked-over piece of flint not quite an arrowhead, a pitted lava rock—those were my clues.
I heard their laughter and tears on the wind, but I never found the people.
At times, a handsome young Native stole me away and took me to his tribe to live. I fought viciously to return home, until I became older and fell in love with him. Then I just forgot about the ranch and became an Indian princess. You might have read about me somewhere, or else I dreamed that I was mentioned in an important historical book or two.
Riding our ranch horses was always an experience. Let me say it in no way resembled the genteel equine lessons, excursions and shows of today. I had to ride Partner, an ornery buckskin who was sick to death of kids. Every time I put my left foot in the stirrup, he whirled around and kicked up with his left hind foot. That slung my little body around in a semi-circle because no way would I turn loose.
My heart hammered in my chest but I was going to ride that horse no matter what. He was cussed and rein slapped in the nose by one of the adults, which, in itself, was incorrect horse technique. But who knew? Diehard cowboys did it their way, and I respected them . . . then and now.
Eventually I was in the saddle and kicking my legs along Partner’s sides to coax him in the opposite direction of the hay and feed. When we were out of sight of the barn, he dropped his evil guise and became downright amiable.
He and I discussed life as we plodded to the White Rocks, a crazy stack of rocks about a half mile from our ranch house. The White Rocks were rich with history, tunnels and wind-y crawl spaces. I knew every crack and corner of them. Some of the rocks were blackened from ancient Anasazi fires. Others had petroglyphs. All of them were magical.
My favorite thing was to tether Partner to a cedar branch at the bottom of White Rocks and scurry to the top like a rock lizard. I was a fast climber and I talked aloud all the way to the top boulder. I had to—the stories were real and I was living them.
After climbing, crawling, singing and telling stories to the accompaniment of the constant Arizona wind, I’d sneak up on one of the sprawling red anthills at the foot of White Rocks. I never tired of watching the bulky ants toil to bring their treasures back to their mound. I found parts of old beads made from bone, little chips of arrowheads and other relics on the sides of their graveled hills.
Partner never complained when I swung back into the saddle to start home. Looking back, he was a pretty great partner for me, as I galloped the winds of my imagination through the canyons and arroyos of that cedar-drenched high country.
My childhood in the Arizona mountains was a little surreal. The question is—did it have anything to do with my becoming a fiction writer?
Hmm . . . you decide!
Jodi Lea Stewart was born in Texas and grew up in Apache County on a cattle ranch near Concho, Arizona. She left the University of Arizona in Tucson to move to San Francisco, where she learned about peace, love and exactly what she didn’t want to do with her life. Since then, Jodi graduated summa cum laude with a BS in Business Management, raised two children, worked as an electro-mechanical drafter, penned humor columns for a college periodical, wrote regional western articles and served as managing editor of a Fortune company newsletter. She currently resides in Texas and New Mexico with her husband, two Standard poodles, two rescue cats and numerous gigantic, bossy houseplants. Silki, the Girl of Many Scarves: SUMMER OF THE ANCIENT is her first novel. CANYON OF DOOM is her second novel in the Silki, the Girl of Many Scarves series.