We just returned from spending spring break in Darwin, CA, the place where my sculpture mentor, Gordon Newell, lived and carved stone after the Sculpture Center of Monterey was torn down, the place where I journeyed on innumerable pilgrimages to carve and bask in the desert’s silence, the place where I brought Henry on our honeymoon, and the place where Henry and I lived the first two years of our marriage from 1984-1986. Back then, Darwin was largely unknown, a ghost town peopled with hippies and old miners, all of us teetering on the edge of civilization halfway between the highest point in the continental U.S. (Mt Whitney) and the lowest point (Badwater, in Death Valley). All this is the subject of my memoir Seeing Into Stone: A Sculptor’s Journey.
For some reason, on our way to Darwin from our new home here in the shadow of Mesa Verde—I think it was somewhere between Zion and St. George, Utah—Henry and I got a wild hair up our butts: we started fantasizing about moving back to Darwin.
Why not? We’re only in our sixties, still in good health, still living our lives with a good sense of adventure. Why else would we have just moved from Jaroso in the San Luis Valley, our home for nineteen years, to follow a pipe dream to live and work on a horse ranch near Mesa Verde? Never mind that that dream hasn’t worked out for us; although the physical work of moving not only a household but two studios was undoubtedly grueling and deeply uprooting to our psyches, we made the most of it.
Before moving, we sold a great deal of our artwork to friends and admirers during a fire sale, enough to fund our actual move and then some. We got rid of an equal amount of “bad” artwork in the Jaroso dump—that layer of colorful refuse will no doubt confound some future archaeologist. We sold or gave away an obscene amount of stuff: everything from junk, tools, and mementos to really cool objects like fern corals from the Caribbean. We emptied our attic almost completely—a herculean task—leaving only windows and construction supplies our buyers will no doubt make use of, and we vowed never to have an attic again. I even gave away my wedding dress—I mean, come on, it hadn’t fit me for years, and I haven’t got daughters or granddaughters, so who I am fooling? It’s always good to lighten your load, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, especially when you get older. We’re not taking any of it with us into the next world. So that part of moving was actually exhilarating.
Not to mention that we sold our place—outright for cash—to some great folks: artists/singers/songwriters/musicians/healers, people after our own hearts who already love Jaroso and fit right in. Whoever sells a place in Jaroso? I know it’s happened before, but this sale happened so effortlessly it was like a giant wave, the seventh wave in the seventh set, lifting all of us up and carrying us along, a huge nod of approval from the universe.
Then came the whole ranch story, a story I’m not ready to tell yet, not the long version anyway. The short version is that my cousin Kat is forging ahead with her vision for Cachuma Ranch, and Henry and I are going another direction, all of us wishing all of us well.
Meanwhile, we bought this little farm halfway between Dolores and Cortez, eight acres of field, orchard, and garden with an old doublewide, a pole barn, and a great garage we’ve turned into our studio. There’s room here for lots of possibilities, but mostly we’re glad to have pasture for Esperanza and Cinnamon, a sweet and peaceful home, and an outstanding studio space. Oh, and the little Kubota tractor that came with the place has been fun too. I’ve found work teaching at Southwest Colorado Community College in addition to my classes through ASU Extended Studies, and Henry will soon be teaching art to kids at risk through the Piñon Project. We have a tiny Aikido class going through Cortez Parks and Rec. Has it been hard to fit into a new place? Have we had a hard time finding paying work? Damn straight. It was a tough winter, but we’re starting to find work and community.
Then came this idea to visit Darwin over spring break. Gordon’s son, Hal Newell, has over the last couple of years, erected a memorial to Gordon, a kind of Stonehenge structure that one local Darwinian affectionately refers to as Hal-henge, although apparently Hal doesn’t like that term. I could see from photos that it’s quite an amazing structure. Underneath it and along its periphery, Hal has placed many of Gordon’s stone and bronze sculptures in a kind of year-long show. The photos on the Facebook page (Gordon Newell Sculptor that grandson Abe Newell has created) convinced Henry and me that we just had to see this for ourselves.
Okay, so now you have the back story, bringing us back to that part of the road between Zion and St George when we started allowing ourselves to fantasize in considerable detail about moving back to Darwin. I mean, really, WHAT A TERRIFIC STORY IT WOULD MAKE! I can see the headlines now: “Newlyweds return thirty years later to the cradle of their marriage.” “Artists “ix-nay” civilization and annoying practicality to devote their lives full time to art.” “Twenty-first century dropouts choose an out-back, scruffy lifestyle that presages how to live in a post-apocalyptic world.”
In my fantasy, Gordon and Eleanor’s old house, studio and sculpture yard, site of the Sculpture Center, would be waiting for us to buy and fix up. The Sculpture Center would be reborn, and I would take Gordon’s place as the wise and generous elder mentoring up and coming sculptors. The awe-inspiring terrain, the golden light, the granite wall of the Sierra Nevadas to the west, the surreal depths and breadth of Death Valley to the east, all of this would feed our souls. We’d find our place in the Darwin community, a mishmash of eccentrics, dropouts, misfits, geniuses, recluses, and just plain odd balls who choose to turn their backs on conspicuous consumption, who consider wage-earners slaves to the system, who aspire to a can-do, out-back, self-reliant, dirty-fingernail commitment to a hand-made life. Moving to Darwin would mean moving closer to our spirit selves, our artist selves, our true selves.
And we’d be closer to family and friends who live on the coast of California.
Never mind how incredibly impractical it would be to move, AGAIN, not to mention grueling and expensive. Never mind that we’re just beginning to figure out what our work is here in our new home. Never mind that we haven’t really given our little farm a chance to tell us what it wants us to do. Never mind that we’ve already set up a great studio. Never mind that I’m already planting a garden here and the fruit trees are blossoming and the bees have just arrived. And never mind what would happen to our horses. I couldn’t let myself think about that.
We didn’t want to remind each other that Darwin only gets four inches of rain a year, or that it’s thirty-six miles from a store and probably more than a hundred from the nearest college. We didn’t want to point out that internet connection is iffy, or that cell phone service is nonexistent. We didn’t mention that anything that’s left out in the sun—gloves, tools, clothes, tools, furniture, your own body—gets desiccated within a day. I didn’t want to remember that living in the desert is partially to blame for making my vision problem much worse.
Finally, after the impossibly long, brake-smoking descent into the depths of Death Valley, and the equally long, engine-whining ascent out of it, and the long, winding descent into Panamint Valley, and the long, winding ascent out of it, we are driving down the long hill into Darwin. There it is, just as I wrote about it in my memoir, “a jumble of tin-roofed, tar-papered and packrat-infested buildings scattered like thirsty seeds in an immense, dry, mount-rimmed bowl.” I feel hopeful that we’ll love what we see.
We park in front of Jim Hunolt’s place; he’s one of Gordon’s former students and colleagues who generously offered us use of his cabin and kitchen. Admiring the numerous sculptures Jim has set up in his yard, we unpack, settle in, and meet a couple of the locals. I see in their weather-worn faces that spark of creative defiance I have long associated with Darwin. The Darwin tradition, it appears, lives on.
We stretch our car-weary bodies by walking around town. First stop is Hal-henge, and it is truly magnificent in a particular Darwinian way. There’s no pretense, no excess, nothing slick or polished about it. Twelve enormous granite stones have been placed in a large circle, each upright and pinned to its own circular cement pad. The stones are quarry-scarred, rough, and seem to contain fossil tracks of some sort. I wish I knew what kind of granite they are, or where they were quarried. They stand like the twelve apostles or the twelve astrological signs, unsymmetrical yet balanced in the circle. The rusted pipes that have been drilled into them to hold up the tent-like canopy send streaks of russet brown down upon the dark gray stones. The spoked canopy is an amazing structure that seems to float above the stones. It’s made of long lengths of welded pipe: a large circular perimeter wider in diameter than the circle of stones; a small circular center; and twelve long spokes joining them together. Think of the structure of a yurt roof and you won’t be far off.
It’s the actual roofing that intrigues me the most. Although it casts some shade, I can see through it. I can see the clouds and the sky. I can almost look directly at the sun. I look closer. It’s made of fine rusted steel screening cut in pie shaped wedges, twelve of them, to fit from spoke to spoke. At the very center, they curl up to a point like the peak of a nomad’s tent, a surprise because it’s so delicate, so fine-pointed and precise compared to the industrial strength mining detritus, and the stones. Hal has created something wondrous; the airy roof is the perfect counterpoint to the massive weight of the stones. Gordon would have loved it.
Slowly I shift my attention from the structure of the memorial to Gordon’s sculptures which sit on their pedestals along the periphery, some in shade, some in full sun, some I remember well, some I have never seen. There are marbles and bronzes and sculptures made of unknown stone. They are polished and gleaming now, but exposure in this outdoor gallery will soon dull their sheen. Still, it’s better to have them here in the vast open, where they were created, where the old man lived and loved and worked, than under wraps in some shed. I run my hands along the simple, refined forms: birds, simple figures, spirals, piercings, hollows and swoops. “Concavities and convexities. Gordon was down to the essence of form,” I remember writing in my book. He respected the stone, what it did and did not want to do. He never imposed a vision upon it or pushed it just because, with machine in hand, he could. He knew that less was more. He knew how to let the stone speak.
I break my reverie and look up. Henry is ahead of me, walking down past Hal’s underground home. I remember watching Hal build it, collecting flat, colorful stones in the morning and setting them in concrete forms in the afternoon, a full day’s work, over and over again. Then the stout rafters, probably old mining timbers, and the roof, and then a dirt covering, so his house is almost invisible from upper Darwin, cool in the summer, warm in the winter with hardly any intervention. I love the rusted old pickup in his front yard, the sudden burst of greenery by his door, the miracle of water, a tiny desert oasis.
Now Henry is circling past our old place, Chico’s cabin where we lived the first two years of our marriage. When we visited Gordon the year before his death in 1998, we had walked by our old cabin and been appalled to see a huge gash in the wall, the old cook stove ripped out. I wrote that the place was “exposed to the elements…eviscerated not only of its hearth but also of its soul, hastening its crumble back into the desert.” Now it seems even worse. The studio I had built into the corner of the house appears gutted, windowless, drooping. I want to walk closer; even though I will probably feel even more horrified by the destruction, I want to come to terms with it, but there is a van parked by the place, and an old black dog walking around, and Henry says no when I step forward. “Someone’s living there.”
And so we walk back to town, past the familiar, rusting car carcasses, disintegrating corrugated shacks, tiny hovels tended by stooped old women, huge defunct satellite dishes, trashed out trailers with their fiberglass insulation blowing in the wind, and plastic bags caught like fluttering songbirds in wire mesh. It is all the same as it was thirty years ago, even a tiny green garden sprouting from an old toilet pressed into service as a planter. Darwin is just as funky as it was back then, only now there is a scattering of newer doublewides, an occasional solar panel or windmill, a decent-looking car whose paint isn’t yet sandblasted, a bright pink sweatshirt that isn’t yet faded.
I feel uncertain about where I can walk, where I am welcome, a feeling I never felt when I lived in Darwin. I am the stranger now, an unwanted interloper from civilization, a voyeur peering at this old ghost town as if it were a movie set.
Henry and I look at each other. I take a deep breath. “Do you still want to move here?” I ask.
“No,” he answers. “No way.”
I sigh. I know he’s right. I can feel it too.
Something has changed for us. We can’t see ourselves here anymore, not with Gordon gone, not with the Sculpture Center a rusted memory, not with what we know now that we didn’t know then, not with whatever work we are still meant to do waiting for us to find it, and do it. Darwin may still offer to some a chance to divest from the excesses of civilization, to live on the fringe, to heal a wound, to invent something ingenious with the junk at your feet, or to listen to what real silence sounds like, but our bodies say no, you can’t move back here, not to live, anyway; it’s not the same anymore, and you can’t go home again.
And just like that, the fantasy blows away, a tumbleweed rolling down the road.