Sedona Lit is a series by Dr. Elizabeth Oakes, an award winning poet and former Shakespeare professor. A Sedonian of three years, she will highlight the literature, written or performed, of Sedona, past and present.
By Elizabeth Oakes
(May 30, 2016)
In the 1930s Arizona was just becoming a tourist destination, and one who came to visit and stay was British novelist, playwright, critic, and wit J. B. Priestley, who lived on Remuda Ranch in Wickenburg for two years. In this, oh, so different climate and culture from England, he and his family found freedom, fun, enchantment, and even a different view of history and time.
Much better known in his own time than in ours, he (1894-1984) was the author of twenty-six novels, fourteen plays, seven books on society and politics, six autobiographies and essays, and a miscellaneous mix of screen plays and children’s books. While in the U.S., he also visited New York to discuss productions of his plays and Hollywood to talk about screenplays and films. Most photographs of him show the quintessential Englishman, with a tweed coat and a pipe, but Arizona changed him and left this most prolific writer at, he admitted, a loss for words.
Priestley wrote Midnight on the Desert not in his small writing hut on the ranch in Wickenburg but in what he had come to think of as cold, rainy England, missing the sun. In this memoir of his visit, he recounts a trip to the Grand Canyon that took him and his family through Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona:
“We filled two motor-cars, with a cowboy at each wheel. After leaving Prescott, we turned away from the main road, zigzagged fearfully among the mountains, and then dropped down into Oak Creek Canyon, where the storekeeper at Sedona was astonished to find his grocery counter suddenly besieged by six English children (all in tattered blue jeans), their parents and their nurse, and two grinning cowboys, demanding bread, butter, meat, cheese, fruit, chocolate, beer, and lemonade.”
“Oak Creek is Arizona turned idyllic. Here the mountains have married the desert, and their union has been most fruitful. At one moment you are among the firs and the ice-cold waterfalls, and the next moment you are looking down again on sand and cactus. It is said that on one forty-acre lot in Oak Creek you may find firs and figs, trout and cactus, mountain pines and tobacco plants, desert sand and roses. If you filmed the extravagant place, you would be accused of impudent and careless faking.”
“When we ate our lunch there, the valley was filled with an exquisitely soft gold sunshine. Around the floor of the canyon, very sharp and bright in the sunlight, were great twisted shapes of red sandstone, looking like ruined fairy-tale castles and mysterious monuments. It was all strangely beautiful, very remote but very friendly, like some place not quite in this world, a lost happy valley in some antique tale. I felt like saying that at last we had arrived in Avalon and must stay here forever, vanishing from the world that had known us.”
Ensconced in this wild landscape, so unlike the English manicured gardens he was used to, he found himself losing touch with his English roots: “The island no longer appeared to be the center of the universe. The newspapers that came to me regularly from England now seemed to me as full of quaint fusses and snobberies as they must do to the American reader.” Indeed, he and his family were fascinated with the cowboys and often dressed in southwestern outfits, although a photo of him at Remuda Ranch also shows him in his typical English gentleman’s attire. The children acclimated so well that other tourists often took them for Arizonians!
To Priestley, Arizona was both the “New World” and “the oldest country” he had ever seen. This coming from a citizen of a place so rife with ancient history that tourists become blasé about any site not at least, say, four hundred years old! It was “first cousin to the moon,” but yet there was “no history here. Turn back a page or two, and the Indians are raiding, the bad men are shooting up the towns, and the traveler whose horse has gone lame is dying of thirst.” (Yes, lamentably, he did not perceive the ancient ruins and petroglyphs as history.)
Priestley was interested in time beyond the old/new dichotomy of Arizona. He theorized that there were six dimensions, with three in space and three in time. One was just ordinary time as we experience it; another was what is generally called eternity, or timelessness; and the third something similar to parallel universes, that is, “the line of the actualization of other possibilities contained in any moment but not actualized in our Time.”
Some times, he believed, we enter the fifth dimension, and even, though “dimly in imagination,” the sixth. Priestley maintained that he did just that at the Grand Canyon, which he recognized from the most vivid dream he had ever had, in which he saw the vistas as an open, endless stage set. “I had – and have – no doubt about it,” he asserted. My dream self “moved along a Time dimension, not a spatial one, and went forward years in a second, to share with my future waking self one of the moments I would spend staring down on the Canyon.”
One of his witticisms is this – “a good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours” – and he certainly found that in Arizona. He never, and one can almost hear him sigh, wordsmith that he was, could put into words his fascination: “I declare,” he wrote, “that Arizona really is a wonderland. You ought to enter it by floating down a rabbit-hole.”