How I Got Over My East Coast Snobbery and Learned to Love Southwestern Knickknacks

Wind chimes hang in front of the Mudslinger Pottery in Goldfield.EXPAND
Wind chimes hang in front of the Mudslinger Pottery in Goldfield.
Robert Isenberg

So there I am, gazing at some ceramic wind chimes. They hang from an awning and twirl in the morning breeze. Each piece looks like a clay pendant and is glazed a different color. Dozens of them dangle in a line, and they tinkle delightfully.

“These are awesome,” I proclaim to my wife.

“Your parents would love them,” she proclaims back.

“So would my uncle. Do you think my brother could hang them from his fire escape?”

“Maybe. Or he could just hang them indoors?”

“Actually,” I say, scratching my chin, “do we want one, too?”

We are standing in the middle of Goldfield, the reconstructed cowboy town at the foot of the Superstition Mountains. Goldfield is a pleasant little tourist trap, perfect for the parents of a 2-year-old. There are shops and restaurants. You can dress in old-time costumes and have your face stuck on a wanted poster. A small train loops around the premises, and a replicated mine shaft shows visitors the trials of digging for gold.

It’s sort of like Westworld, actually, including actors who dress as cowboys and initiate gunfights every hour.

But as Christmas looms close, Goldfield is also a goldmine for gifts: leather cowboy hats, wrought-metal napkin rings, scorpions trapped in fake amber, sterling silver jewelry, and every kind of rock and railroad spike imaginable.

I feel a familiar rush of excitement: Wouldn’t my niece just love a kachina doll? Shouldn’t everyone in my family have at least one Mexican blanket? Is any foyer complete without a hat rack made of horseshoes?

We settle for a handful of items and bring them inside. An ornery potter swipes my card and doesn’t bother with a receipt. When I ask him about the view from his studio – a breathtaking vista of the cragged desert hills – he just shrugs and grumbles, “You don’t even notice it after a while.”

But I’m content. I have stocking-stuffers for everyone. They’re peculiar. They’re unique. They’re Southwestern.

If you had told me two years ago that I would come to love Southwestern knickknacks, I would have cackled a snobby Northeastern cackle. Never in my life did I think I would embrace the Southwestern aesthetic. Living in Phoenix has completely reprogrammed me. Walls covered in wooden crosses? Totally! Hammered copper bracelets? Sure! Watercolors of distant mesas? Yee-haw!

This is a complete 180 for me.

Many years ago, I moved into a grungy Pittsburgh apartment with my friend Josh. I owned no furniture, but Josh had a connection: His father was a pastor at a nearby mission, which ran a secondhand store. When he heard about our barren new home, Josh’s father offered us a bunch of items, including a sofa.

We were broke and grateful, but I frowned at the rugged old couch. The cushions were made of scruffy fabric. The frame was long, and I wasn’t sure we could fit it through our stairway. Worst of all, the sofa was hideous: the surface was a mix of red, yellow, and lime-green stripes.

“I don’t know about the couch,” I whispered to Josh. “It looks so …” I tried to think of the right word. “It’s so Southwestern.”

Coming from rural New England, I always frowned at Southwestern décor. It all looked like kitsch. I balked at Grand Canyon paintings. I scoffed at bronze statuettes of bucking broncos. I cringed at carved wooden busts of Native American chiefs. Did people really hang cow skulls in their houses? Yes, apparently, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

I also rolled my eyes at Southwestern fashion. When I met people with turquoise rings or dream-catcher earrings, I struggled to take them seriously. I sneered at fringe jackets and bolo ties. I could accept any kind of ink or piercing, but a Kokopelli tattoo was the height of tackiness.

(Not that I knew what Kokopelli was. To me, it was just “that weird stick-figure guy with the dreads and the clarinet.”)

Keep in mind, I know how many Southwestern artists despise these kinds of crafts. The mass-produced Navajo sand paintings you find at a roadside souvenir shop were likely manufactured in Taiwan, especially if they double as refrigerator magnets. Most Arizona natives are ambivalent about woven ponchos and feathered earrings, no matter how much these objects drive the local economy.

But it wasn’t just the kitsch. It was the entire Southwestern “look.” I had never pictured myself living in the desert, and I had rarely even seen a cactus firsthand. I came from a land of foggy green hills and weathered red barns. I could glance at any Winslow Homer painting and knowingly smile. But show me a Frederic Remington portrait and I’d be completely lost, even though these artists’ styles are practically identical.

Then, one day, I changed my mind.

My conversion was sudden and complete: My wife and I were driving through Moab, Utah. We had only lived in Phoenix for a couple of months, and we’d decided to drive around and explore our new region. We found a motel on Moab’s main drag, then strolled the row of shops and eateries.

We didn’t have much furniture – a running theme in my life – so we stepped into a small emporium for Southwestern décor. We saw blankets and tapestries hanging from the walls. We saw mission-style mirrors and tables arranged on the floors.

“Hey,” I whispered, pointing to a massive chest. “What about this one?”

The chest was made of old wood. The paint was old and chipped, but the box retained its pastel-colored veneer. It was a striking antique, or at least a new chest designed to look like an antique. I could imagine rummaging through a ghost town in the middle of the Sonoran Desert and finding this very strongbox at the foot of an old bed.

“That is beautiful,” my wife agreed. “How much is it?”

I was thunderstruck. I could actually imagine this thing in our apartment. As I looked around, I could imagine dozens of other items as well. My skepticism lifted like a fog. Suddenly I could imagine our bed covered in a Navajo blanket, or a cow skin rug thrown across our floor. Leather lampshades and copper picture frames made perfect sense.

The Southwestern look has enchanted me ever since. Turquoise is so much more appealing in a landscape of endless blue sky. Copper is far more attractive in the yellow hills where the ore is actually mined. In a state of honest-to-goodness cowboys, I can see why a moonshine jug would make a quaint little flowerpot. I once saw adobe houses with visible beams and felt they looked unfinished; now I admire their stark simplicity.

I’m still not wearing a bolo tie. I was smitten to hear that they may have been invented in Kingman. But I have to draw the line somewhere.


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