The Hills Are Alive

I was kneeling over a stack of 10-cent records in the Salvation Army thrift store on South Central Avenue a few months ago, thumbing through the usual dog-eared copies of Herb Alpert albums that every American seems to have owned at one point and then given away--the scratched Christmas LPs, a few things by the Cars, Eddie Money, Billy Joel, Whitesnake; neglected artifacts from a different era.

And then there was something I'd not seen before.
A light blue record, water-damaged along the bottom, titled In an Arizona Town. On the front cover was a photograph of an A-frame building bearing a sign that said "U.S. Post Office Clay Springs Arizona 85923," and the names of the artists recorded within: Van Holyoak, Bunk Pettyjohn, Lois "Granny" Thomas, Tim Kizzar, Ralph Rogers, Don Goodman. Beneath each name were the song titles--"Way Back in the Hills," "Boil Them Cabbage Down," "Kickin' Mule," "Cowboy's Shirttail" and "Rubber Dolly," among others. In the lower corner, it said that this was a limited edition, copy number 377 of 500.

On the back cover there was absolutely nothing, apart from more water damage.

I stood up, removed a dime from my pocket, and gave it to the man.
When my phonograph needle met the vinyl, the mysterious populous of this Arizona town emerged from the stereo speakers.

They sang and they recited simple tales of life and horses and Dodge transmissions and government claims and minding your own business and grieving cowboys who quarrel with sweethearts who are taken by the Lord before their time, all in twangy voices accented with a variety of lisps and rasps and nasal honks. They played mandolins and guitars and sawed away at fiddles. They huffed harmonicas that sounded like harmonicas and picked banjos that sounded like sitars.

It was as if someone had turned on a tape recorder 100 years ago and captured the raw lyrical spirit of this unknown place.

I can't tell you the route Record No. 377 of In an Arizona Town took to a thrift store in an Arizona city, but I can tell you the route to Clay Springs. There are freeways and highways and two-lane roads that will lead you to the north and to the east, to where you turn at Spear's store and drive until the pavement runs out, and arrive at a place where a few years ago is still, in many ways, right now.

If you call the Clay Springs post office--the one in the picture on the record cover--a woman named Kathy Dejarnatt will answer the phone. She is the postmaster for this 315-person town where mail is not delivered, but picked up. She has been here for four years, and when she's not sorting mail and handing it over the counter, she's "fiddling with things" or simply "painting things."

Kathy knows everybody, and when I called her out of the blue asking about Van and Bunk and Granny and this water-damaged record, she did not act bewildered and hang up.

She started telling me about Van Holyoak, what a character he was, what a great storyteller he was. From what she was saying, I figured Van had just left the post office, mail in hand. No, she said, Van had died. Seventeen years ago, hit by the town school bus as he was out on the road, driving a sweeper for the highway department.

In fact, the only place to find the performers on the album is the Clay Springs cemetery. Don Goodman, he of "Turkey in the Straw" and "Walkin' John," was the last of the six; he passed away just two months ago.

But this is a town where ghosts linger on through the people who don't leave; children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren live in the same houses on the same land their parents called home. The local 196-page phone book (covering 31 towns from Alpine to Whiteriver) lists inches of nearly all of the same names that adorn the cover of In an Arizona Town. Of course, marriage has altered a few; almost everybody here is related in one way or another.

Finding Holyoaks and Kizzars and Thomases in this place is easy.
Finding the songs and stories that the elder Holyoaks, Kizzars and Thomases knew as entertainment, the stuff that became "folk heritage" on a limited-edition album recorded in the early '70s, is a whole different ball of wax.

"I'm afraid there may be some truth in that," says Keith Cunningham, an English professor and folklore expert at Northern Arizona University. He's the man responsible for producing In an Arizona Town and four other recordings of Clay Springs locals. All were distributed in editions of 300 to 500 to small pockets of folklorists around the country.

"In our culture in general--I think maybe because of the competition from television--musical traditions are perhaps not being carried on. There was some great music . . . they were just wonderful people and wonderful musicians."

And it takes more than a phone book to find what they've left.

Here are a few constants in the world of Clay Springs:
Nobody lives at a specific address. Ask someone where his house is, and it'll be around the corner from the firehouse (volunteer), after the road turns to dirt, and look for the light-green Ford pickup. House numbers are meaningless; even identifying intersections is a stretch. Often, directions begin with, "Well, you know where Maxine's place is?"

Also, every living room I entered had toys strewn about, and the walls were decorated with photographs of children, brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, etc., from stern, turn-of-the-century, black-and-white images in antique oval frames to three-dollar Sears portraits of grinning tots against backdrops of blue sky.

And there is always at least one picture of Jesus.
Family is an important thing here in this Mormon enclave, and the ones I met were warm, friendly and open, even to flatlanders such as myself. As opposed to the ridge runners that they all are, those that populate the dots of towns on the Mogollon Rim.

I learned this distinction from Clyde Holyoak, son of Van. He didn't even bother with directions to his 150-acre ranch, but met me one night at Spear's, wife Kris and two young kids in tow. I followed the taillights of his massive white pickup down the road to his front gate, from there through the pitch country black, up to the house that apparently was about 200 feet below every star in the sky.

Clyde, 37, is a Clay Springs boy. He can remember the town before it got electricity. He helped install indoor plumbing in a lot of the houses when he was a kid.

We all went into the place, where a dog whose name I didn't catch rolled over on his back so I could scratch his belly, and a cat named Pepe--"like Pepe Le Pew"--looked at me and ran off.

Clyde didn't have a copy of the record I'd found, though he had other albums his father had done. Of all the performers, Van Holyoak had achieved the most renown, ultimately traveling to folk festivals around the country just before his death. Clyde popped open a soda, Kris leaned against a wall, the kids downed Pixie Stix, and the son began his father's story with his father's father.

"My granddad was just an old cowboy, and they didn't have electricity. The electric company come in and they put telephone poles up and ran guide wires down. And he was on a long run on his horse to catch a cow and the guide wire went between him and the horse and jerked his leg out of the socket. Put him in a wheelchair.

"So Dad, he was in his late 30s, just started doing these old songs and stories that he knew as a kid, just to entertain him. Stuff that you'd think about from back in the horse-and-wagon days when they'd sit around the campfires. That kinda stuff. It all started then, and he wouldn't perform for nobody, he just done it for him. He used to say he never charged anyone for shoeing horses, he charged them for his poetry. We was shoeing on the average of 50 to 100 horses a week. We'd go to these riding stables, and these flatlanders would come in to ride these horses, and they'd start listening to his poems."

Here's how Van got a lot of his material.
"If he knew somebody had a poem he liked, he'd ask 'em," says Clyde. "Don Jackson [we'll meet him later] had a poem that Dad loved. We went over to his house one day, it was in the wintertime, we was talking about cows, and Dad says, 'Don, I want to hear that poem.' Ol' Don just recited it to him. We went on talking, and a little bit later, he says, 'Don, I need to hear that one more time.' So Don recited the poem to him again, and Dad says, 'Okay, I'm going to recite it back to you. Tell me if it's right.' So he recited it back to him and it was perfect. That's how he did it. He had a photographic memory. He could go on for days and you'd never hear the same one twice."

Clyde admits to having written "probably 60 to 100 poems. Ripped 'em up one day and threw 'em in the trash."

"I put a mental block up, to tell the truth," he admits. "What'd happened, Dad was pretty popular. Like when he got killed, it was on national news, it was a big deal. And people have a tendency of jumpin' on a bandwagon."

As Clyde speaks, I could swear he's getting a little choked up. Later he says he got congested when he had to go to Phoenix a couple days ago, and it's still with him.

"All of a sudden, he had millions of friends, people saying, 'I taught him this song, I taught him that one, he learned that from me,' and on and on. I was up in Nevada when it happened, and by the time I got moved back up here, everybody wanted us [Clyde and his brother Joe], no matter what was going on, we had to go do some of Dad's poetry. Then it just got to be, 'Well, why don't you wear your dad's clothes? Go put on one of his hats. You got the same mustache.' They started wanting me to be him, and I didn't want to take away from what he had done."

Van Holyoak is still a presence in this house. There's an oil portrait of him hanging up, and Clyde is quick to play a video copy of a documentary a Phoenix TV station did about Van before he died. Yet talking to Clyde (who no longer has the same mustache), it seems that Van's earthy talents became too big for a Clay Springs living room; instead of being handed down, they got handed out.

"It's fun when you just sit around and do it," Clyde offers, "but when people start making a big deal out of it . . . I guess no matter what you do, people expect more out of you. If you can do it, fine and dandy, but I don't expect anyone to be measured to anybody else. That's probably one reason I got plum out of it.

"Still, I don't think the heritage is going to die. It's actually up to people like me, our generation. There's some kids that have no respect for elderly people anymore. There's nothing in the world greater--you'll find out when you go and visit Don. You'll step back 50 years. And when Don's gone, that's it. He is the last of the cowboys."

The last of the cowboys looks like the last of the cowboys.
At 89, Don Jackson is tall and thin. He wears a weathered hat, checkered shirt, boots and button-fly Levi's. He will tell you that "a zipper is the sorriest thing they ever put on a pair of pants." He lives with his wife of 62 years in an adobe house he built with his dad in 1930, a house that has grown upon itself over the decades and maintains an open-door policy to multitudes of descendants. When I ask him how many great-grandchildren he has, Don can't remember. At one point, two little girls run up and wrap their arms around his wiry legs.

"Hello, Missy," he says to both of them.
Don worked most of his life for the U.S. Forest Service, building all kinds of trails and roads, crisscrossing the state by truck, car, helicopter and, mostly, on horseback.

"I don't think there's a ranger that knows Arizona better than I do," he says. Another thing he says is, "From here to Holbrook, I don't think there's a foot that can be rode on a horse that I wasn't over." As well as, "From the New Mexico line to the Coconino, I knew it as well as any man ever learned it."

A lot of things have happened to Don here in Arizona, from the mundane to the unusual.

"Well, I wouldn't call 'em unusual," he clarifies, "but most any kind of an experience, I've had it."

He knew everybody on the Arizona Town album, and, through this fellow, it's easy to see how all the stories and lore and whatnot were handed around.

He knows a lot of poetry, learned it from a book his mother had, "mostly cowboy stuff," he says. And though he knows plenty of songs, Don has always reserved those performances for the great outdoors.

"I used to sing to the stars around here all the time."
I ask to hear a poem, he tilts his head back and, without missing a beat, goes into a 10-minute soliloquy that was a staple of most Clay Springs cowboys' repertoire, "Lasca":

I want free life, I want fresh air;
And I long for the canter of the cattle,
The crack of the whip like a shot in battle,
The medley of horns and hoofs
and heads
That wars and wrangles and
scatters and spreads . . .

For verse after unfaltering verse, there is only the sound of Don's thin but constant voice, and the subtle, percussive clicking of his false teeth. He finishes, opens his eyes, and says, "Well, that's one of 'em."

When I show Don the Arizona Town album, he looks at it closely and points to names like he was going through an old yearbook.

"I knew all of these people," he says. "I knew Van ever since he was born, I knew his dad before that. Tim Kizzar, well, Tim, as far as I'm concerned, was as good a friend as I ever had. He sang songs and I listened to him, and he also had a little mill, made lumber. He was a good man.

"Bunk Pettyjohn, he was a little different. But I don't remember him too well. He used to sing all the time, he was good singer.

"Ralph Rogers' brother bought a ranch near right close to where we was at, and Ralph used to come up and sing to us all the time . . .

"On Saturdays when all the work was done, why, you'd gather together in different places, maybe the schoolhouse, nobody'd charge for anything, you'd tell stories, sing, whatever."

Then Don hands the record back to me.
Now Don's telling stories:
"I don't know if you'd call it a close call, but I remember one time I thought I heard a woman cry, like she was having a bad experience. I rode out there, that was up here about 10 miles, I rode out there and I spent an hour or two trying to locate her, and later somebody told me that the lions would cry that way to get you out where they can get you . . .

"I remember down here I was riding down through here one time and one of those big ol' African lions crossed the road. Evidently, he'd escaped from the circus . . .

"I just don't care for cities, period. I was down in Mesa in 1918 when they had a flood in the Salt River, and we watched that guy swim out there and get them two kids that was on an island, to gain his freedom from prison. They'd let him go free if he did it. That river was about 10 miles wide. He made it . . .

"Out here at the ranch one time I didn't have a rifle with me, I was riding down to the tank, it was about a half mile down there, and there was a native mountain lion right along ahead of me. He circled back, and ol' John Anderson, he had a ranch out here, the lion crossed the road going the other way and he killed him. He had him hanging there in the tree, and I found out something else I didn't know at that time--crows wouldn't eat that lion. Ordinarily, anything that's dead, they'll eat it. He hung there in the tree and just shriveled up . . .

"I think the last wolf that was seen in this part of the country I killed. He'd been seen two or three times about five or 10 miles from here. I heard he was running loose, started carrying a rifle, I saw him and I finished him. And I was reading in the paper a while back where they was trying to put them wolves back, and anybody that wants 'em back is crazy. That's completely crazy. You find a thousand-pound horse that's been hamstrung, about that much eaten out of one hind leg and just left alive and the wolf is gone. They're not like lions, they won't eat it up, they just take what they want and go hunt another one . . .

"I used to chase wild horses. Boy, that was the most fun anybody could ever have, chasing wild horses."

I ask the last cowboy what he liked so much about that.
"Oh, just the breeze," he says, "and to watch 'em run, I guess."

To get from Don's place to Leonard Kizzar's is easy. Down the road a ways, turn a couple corners, look for the house painted pink and brown. Can't miss it. I didn't.

I opened the front gate as the sun was setting, making the brown and pink look like a piece of old candy. Knocked on the door, and there was Leonard. At 65, he has a full head of white hair, and a pencil with a turquoise eraser sticking out of his shirt pocket. We sat down in the living room amid the toys and family photos. He didn't switch on any lights at first, and the room slowly turned from gold to amber to dark brown as he spoke.

"When I was about 6, we lived in a boxcar up by Standard [the local sawmill that burned down in '36]. This one here, it was sitting right on the railroad track on a siding. They'd haul logs by to McNary and there was two of these big black steam engines. When I'd see those locomotives go by, why, I said to myself, 'One of these days, I'd like to drive a locomotive.'"

That eventually came to pass; he's been piloting trains for Santa Fe since '64--"How lucky can you be?"

"When I was growing up, Dad taught us to play guitar," Leonard says. "I was about 10 or 11 when he taught me and my older brother, Jack. And he taught us to chord the banjo. He tried to teach me to play the fiddle, but I'm not much of a fiddle player.

"Dad played quite a bit. He'd get home from work in the evening and he'd say, 'Let's sit down and play a tune.' We'd entertain ourselves for three or four hours."

The Kizzar home is not lacking for musical instruments. Leonard has two guitars that his wife Sammy bought for him (one when they were married in '48, the other 20 years ago), a mandolin, his father's fiddle, and a couple harmonicas.

At this point, Sammy comes out of a back bedroom where she's been hibernating with a migraine, and their daughter Lana--which is pronounced Len-AY--joins us with her baby boy, Nathan. Lana's real name is Ethel, but Sammy says, "There were too many Ethels around here." Where did they get "Lana"? "I don't know," she shoots back. (Through tragic irony, 17 years ago, Lana was one of the children on the school bus that hit and killed Van Holyoak).

We all sit back and listen to Leonard talk some more.
"I really haven't had the time to play," he explains. "Until I got ready to retire, why, I was working 12, 14 hours a day. Eating, sleeping and going to work. I told my wife, 'Forty years ago, I could have got up and wouldn't have minded this. But I'm just getting tired of it.'"

Sammy takes baby Nathan, Lana leaves the room and returns with her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Todd, who is a little cranky as he had some intense dental work done today. He curls up in his mother's lap and looks at me sideways with interest, suspicion, pain and boredom.

Sammy holds Nathan against her chest, which is covered by a tee shirt that says "Bangkok." When I first called, she had been a little brusque over the phone, but in person, Sammy is tall and gracious and sassy. I like her a lot. But I can imagine a tongue-lashing from this woman would be horrific.

Leonard continues:
"One night I was sitting there on the couch there and I got to thinkin' about this. 'Why don't you just call up Social Security and tell 'em you're going to retire?' I really hadn't made up my mind when I made the call, said I just wanted to know what retirement would look like and what I could get, and they said, 'I can write you up right now.' Why not? In about three or four days, why, here come a retirement check. That was in '96. I'd actually like to get back into music, now I got the time."

As he says all this, Leonard is cradling his 12-string, the one Sammy got him 20 years ago. He puts it to use, moving with raspy throat and pure heart into the world of three-chord country tunes. Something called "Faded Love." Then "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," after that a tune by Jimmie Rogers, the legendary "Singing Brakeman."

He gets to a line that goes, "He let me off in Texas, a place I dearly love . . ." and stumbles over the rest of the words. Sammy, who has been nodding her head in time, whispers a prompt. Leonard picks up the verse on the downstroke, Nathan begins to wail a bit, Lana reaches over and pats his stomach, then begins to sing along so softly I have to look over to make sure she's doing it.

Outside it's dark and cold on the Mogollon Rim, but here in this pink and brown house, the front room is warm, three generations of Clay Springers are softly cobbling a piece of music together, and a certain flatlander with a little Japanese tape machine punched on "record" is sitting on the couch finding out what the soul of a certain thrift-shop album was all about.

So it is 1997. You are a young person in a small rural Arizona town who has just put in a full day at the lumber mill. You come home to the World Wide Web on your computer screen, a rack of CDs and a multidisc scramble option player in the living room, and Van Damme beamed in on cable instead of Van Holyoak dropping in from down the road.

Do you really want to sit around with your weary chums and pluck out "Turkey in the Straw" on a banjo that you actually have to spend time tuning?

Probably not.
As more than one Clay Springs resident told me, all that long-gone homespun creativity was maybe just a product of there being nothing else to do. Loners and cowpunchers are no longer moving from town to town, swapping stories around campfires, spreading songs around potbellied stoves. Clay Springs has indoor plumbing, Clay Springs has electricity, Clay Springs has everything everybody everywhere else has.

But Clay Springs also has a lot of wide open spaces and blood that still runs thick, and plenty of great-grandchildren of those asleep down Cemetery Road. Children who might grow up and find a way to listen to the past, and get on a horse some night and go sing to the stars.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >