Off-Broadway Spectacular

Let's say you are meandering down the rows of a vast junkyard in South Phoenix. On one side there is a porcelain graveyard of yawning toilets. On the other, the entire history of American ovens--Dixie, Roper, General Electric, Amana, Monterey--simmers quietly in the sun.

Walk toward the rear of the lot and there are a couple of ramshackle houses, the yards littered with cages filled with roosters trading shrieks and cackles. You and the roosters and the dust your boots kick up are pretty much the only things moving back here; it's serene, peaceful and a tiny bit surreal. It's kind of like going into a church on a Tuesday.

You look to your right and there's a lopsided, Cold War-vintage trailer; but what's that above it? Not above it, exactly, but sticking up behind it. Looks like the tip of a triangle, made of metal. You keep your eyes glued, watching it slowly rotate as you move down the path, out of the junkyard, around the trailer, to see what this thing is.

A pyramid is what this thing is.
Pointing up to God, it's covered with faded green-copper sheeting, black Roman numerals painted on one side, a cryptic time line on another, a small door and no windows at all. And, at the edge of the lot, a mailbox sits on a crooked post--No. 4222--like somebody lives here.

The pyramid is just sitting there in this otherwise empty lot, at the side of this dead-end dirt road that channels off Broadway. You might never drive down this dead-end dirt road. Almost nobody does. And you might never know that a large copper pyramid with a crooked mailbox out front exists there, minutes from downtown Phoenix, where people are late for work, standing in line for Suns tickets, parallel parking and ordering sushi to go.

At least, I didn't know when I happened upon this creation the other day. I walked back to the junkyard and asked the man what was the deal with that pyramid?

"Oh, this old man used to live there. Philosopher or something."
Is he still around?
"Oh, yeah. Go talk to John, he'll know where he is. He lives next door." To the pyramid.

Yes, John knew where the philosopher was, and, as his dogs barked at me and his roosters screamed at everything, he gave me a name and a number. "He was sort of a loner, but real easygoing," John told me. "Kind of religious, but he didn't push no religion on you; he'd just sit outside the pyramid and read the Bible and do his exercises. He got married and moved out."

I asked if there was anything else I should know.
"Well, he had a figure-eight track in back and he used to walk around it on his hands."

Which brings us to a house on the west side of Phoenix that is quite pleasant, but looks nothing like a pyramid. The front door opens, and there is . . . The Philosopher? The Loner? The Religious Scholar? The Man Who Walks on His Hands?

Yes. All of the above, though he no longer walks on his hands. His name is Milton R. Mitchell Jr.--call him Mitch. He will be 84 years old on October 16. He built his pyramid--13 by 13, 17 feet high, the same proportions as the one on the dollar bill--in 1950 and lived in it for 20 years.

How should I paint Mitch Mitchell for you?
Know this: He's a diminutive fellow with Technicolor-blue eyes, long hair and a beard (gone white now). It's a style he adopted in 1943: "I was such a curiosity that down on Washington Street, people'd go around the block and come around a second time to get another look."

In old pictures, he looks like a cross between Paul Newman and Walt Whitman. Mitchell is a man of religion who does not call himself a Mormon, but a Latter-day Saint. While in high school, he began questioning aspects of the current Mormon doctrine. Finally, he was "driven out" of Utah in 1943 for his beliefs, which adhere to the original teachings of founder Joseph Smith--teachings that include plural marriage.

He says he will leave his pyramid there until the arrival of Chief Joseph, a white Indian who, the Book of Mormon prophesies, will emerge from South America to save the believers.

In the '50s, Mitchell belonged to a folk-dancing club. Later he became an expert at shuffleboard. Mitchell is soft-spoken, and, though he's been happily married for 15 years, for most of his life the Latter-day Saint has been a loner by choice. Mitchell has worked low-level jobs--custodian at the Luhrs Building, yardworker, dishwasher--never making much money, but never wanting much, either. He lived the monastic life of a self-taught religious scholar down in his little lot off Broadway, reading his Bible, writing countless religious tracts and walking on his hands most mornings.

About those tracts. Whether you agree with Mitchell's opinions--opinions on the government, Roman Gentiles, Indian Jews, the coming of the Antichrist, the monetary system after Armageddon, presidents who have fallen from grace with God--they are meticulously created, surprisingly artful works put together by hand.

"I would give them away, but after years I gave it up because nobody was interested," he says. "I never had any desire to organize anybody."

He's not some crazed evangelist; there's nothing of the stereotypical, proselytizing fanatic in his makeup. If you need a label, a little eccentric might be the right one. Mitchell is simply a guy who wants space to practice his unique, personalized beliefs, a retiring man who used to live in a pyramid.

Now let's let Mitch Mitchell talk:
"I worked for the railroad in 1942, and I quit that and got a job as a lifeguard in the summer in Logan, Utah. Then I topped beets in the fall, and at night I didn't have anything to do, so I'd go home in the evenings and play solitaire. And one night, I opened the drawer where the cards were and they were stuck together and underneath was a pamphlet.

"The author didn't sign his name, but it had his address on it, and it was in Salt Lake City. I got on my bicycle [Mitchell doesn't drive] and pedaled down there about 50 miles. I found out that this man was a member of the church and he'd been excommunicated twice. After that he didn't go back, but he wrote tracts just like I'm doing here. So the cards were directing me down to this place.

"I got loaded up on the bicycle with these pamphlets and started distributing in my hometown, which was about 95 percent Mormon. That was where my trouble began. They were about to lock me up, but I escaped and came down here. I was 30 then."

Arriving in Phoenix with literally nothing, Mitchell found himself living in one room of a shared basement that "smelled foul," for three dollars a week.

"I thought, rather than live in a hole like this, I should buy a piece of land. I was offered a piece of land, enough to build on, for $200. I bought that in 1950 and started the pyramid on April 6, which was the day of the founding of the church," says Mitchell. "I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone; build a pyramid [to live in] and at the same time I'd build a monument to Chief Joseph."

I called the Mormon Visitors Center and asked a Sister Sloup about Chief Joseph. "No, I've never heard of him," she said. "Sounds like something somebody made up."

Mitch Mitchell is down for a visit to the pyramid. He's energized; you can tell the place has an effect on him. It says "Truth Hunters Welcome" above the low-slung door. "I printed [that] up there, and all these years nobody has ever got curious enough to ask about it," Mitchell says quietly. "I guess I waited 46 years for you to come along."

But he has had visitors over the years.
"I had some youngsters in here once, teenagers. I never saw them before, but they came by, they were curious, and I said, 'Do you want to come in and look?' So I brought 'em in and began explaining some things, and one of 'em said, 'This is weird, let's get out of here.' So off they went. I never saw them again."

Weird is all in the mind of the beholder; the pyramid is now open, its secrets to reveal. You feel as though you're walking into a huge work of folk art--because that's what it is, I suppose. The white walls are decorated in a precise, deliberate fashion with newspaper clippings, photographs of a daughter from a previous marriage, three pictures of Joseph Smith cut from magazines, a deck of playing cards splayed out to represent Mitchell's favored calendar of 13 months, 28 days per month, starting at the vernal equinox. Next to them is a portrait of an Indian, beneath it a drawing of a flag, done by Mitchell, on a patch of denim from a jumper he used to wear.

Boards fold down to become a table and bed; the top of the pyramid opens up, tepee-style, to pass air through to a vent in the floor. "It's always a few degrees cooler than it is outside," he says. "I have water running up to the door, a couple of sawhorses near the door, and I put a big tub on them, which I would bathe in. And, of course, I wired the place for electricity."

So that is the story of the pyramid I found next to a junkyard. Now you know who Mitch Mitchell is, and you know a little bit about his 83 years, 20 of which were spent in a dwelling whose blueprint came from the back of a dollar bill. It is a place that still waits patiently among the roosters and rusting hulks of discarded American metal for a white Indian to arrive. What can you say about that? Mitchell emerges from beneath "Truth Hunters Welcome," stands in the baked dirt, just sort of smiles as his blue eyes blaze away, righteous and proud. I think of something he said to me, something I like a lot: "I've always been considered rather peculiar.

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