Forgiving Winslow, Arizona – not just another Marfa


Winslow, Ariz. has been described as sad, depressed, quiet, dead and creepy. Buildings once housing bustling businesses were abandoned and not even secured, left to the pigeons. A local gas station reportedly had spelled out “God Hates Winslow” on its sign. That’s probably not fair: The reservation border town of 10,000, once the economic and social center of northern Arizona that lies at the low point along the rails between Gallup and Flagstaff, is simply a victim of the vagaries of transport, just another old railroad town bludgeoned by the Interstate and bled dry by the automobile. Were it not for the prison, a community college, the power plant down in Joseph City and the hotel and fast food chains serving I-40 motorists, the place might just blow away.

At least, that’s how it looked 19 years ago, the last time I spent any time in Winslow, an accidental visit that was traumatic enough to cause me to avoid the place ever since. These days you’ll still encounter rundown gas stations, a high unemployment rate, decaying motels and the detritus that tends to pile up in the liminal spaces of the West. But you can also find vast hallways filled with giant, haunting contemporary paintings in the restored La Posada Inn – built in 1929 to serve a slower, more elegant society. In a few of those once-abandoned buildings, a type of art unfettered by market considerations has replaced the pigeons. Later this month, the Station-to-Station art on rails project is stopping in Winslow, featuring Cat Power, Jackson Browne and Ed Ruscha’s cactus omelette. And don’t be too shocked if you encounter an icon of contemporary art a la Ruscha in the restaurant at La Posada, where the food rivals any you might find in Santa Fe.

Downtown Winslow on Route 66 and a photo of a crumbling Winslow wall superimposed in the background. Photos and composition by Jonathan Thompson.

Combined with a citywide effort to revitalize the town’s streetscapes and economy, Winslow’s in the midst of a renaissance of sorts, two decades in the making, with the help of art. One might even dare to say it’s becoming an art town, though it’s more than that, says Ann-Mary Lutzick, one of the owners of the Snowdrift Art Space and director of the local history museum.

“I don’t think Winslow will become an arts town,” Lutzick says, sitting on a sofa in the Snowdrift, a one-time department store where cozy living spaces are tucked among the huge storehouse of art, “because Winslow isn’t a dying town, really. It needs every diverse kind of growth it can get, including tourism, and that’s all the arts are in a town this size, anyway.”

Most of the people who experience Winslow do so from behind the windshield of their car, zipping past at 70 mph on the Interstate. If the passersby think of it at all, they may think of the Eagles’ song, "Take it Easy," in which a girl in a flatbed Ford slows down to look at the song’s narrator on a corner in Winslow. Some may even pull off to look for said Ford. It’s there, alright, only without the girl. Or they may wonder why on earth someone put a town here, of all places, in this particular non-descript section of desert. The easy answer would be the train – the town was founded by the railroad in the 1880s.

The railroad isn't what it used to be in Winslow, but the Amtrak does stop at La Posada every day. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Yet slow down and you’ll see this place is more than just the right location for a steam locomotive to take on water. In the 13th Century, the descendants of today’s Hopis built a pueblo now known as Homolovi here, perhaps drawn by the confluence of Clear Creek and the Little Colorado or the vibrant colors of the Little Painted Desert, and stayed for up to a century. In 1876, the Latter Day Saints, at the behest of Brigham Young, established a couple of United Order colonies next to the remains of Homolovi. It didn’t last long, but Brigham City’s ruins and Sunset’s cemetery are still apparent just north of present day Winslow.

Still, Winslow as we know it today is all about transit. It became a railroad hub and then an air hub with the construction, in 1929, of a Charles Lindbergh-designed Transcontinental Air Transport airport. That same year, hotelier Fred Harvey and architect Mary Colter built La Posada, “the last of the great railroad hotels,” on the edge of downtown Winslow between the tracks and Route 66 as a luxurious place for train passengers to stay. From there, tourists could travel by car up to Hopi or the Petrified Forest, to Cañon de Chelly or the Mogollon Rim. After World War II, as the automobile gained prominence over the rails, the hotel faltered. In 1957 the hotel went belly up, the railroad took over, gutted it and turned it into a regional headquarters and control station. That, too, became obsolete as train traffic dwindled, freight trains switched to diesel locomotives (which didn’t need to stop as frequently), and technology took over the rail-traffic control jobs from people. Winslow’s economy faded. When the I-40 bypass around Winslow was completed in the late 1970s, and Route 66 lost its status as the “Mother Road” a few years later, it was like a kick in the gut.

An old and empty Valentine Diner along Route 66 in Winslow. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Just over a decade later, in the autumn of 1994, I had my first, rather unfriendly encounter with Winslow. I had graduated from college that spring, and any hopes I might have had of getting a lucrative job with my prestigious degree – weighted down by a hefty student loan debt – had been dashed: I worked in a bike shop in my Colorado hometown, banging my knuckles against bikes that cost more than a few months’ wages, lived in my mom’s attic, and spent evenings at the local coffee joint scribbling out short stories and flirting with the baristas. Feeling the mid-20s itch to do something with our lives, my friend G. – who attended the same college and was a raft guide – and I loaded down his car with all of our belongings and followed the migratory path embedded in every educated, rural Westerner’s genes: Toward the coast and the cities and the lights and the people and a purportedly bigger future than we could find in our small town or the mountains we climbed or the canyons we roamed.

Impatience was our downfall. Having no desire to sightsee in the land we had both called our home for the entirety of our 20-something years, we took Interstate 40 toward L.A. rather than the back roads. High, steely grey clouds, tinted with the red of dirt and rock reflected up at them from below, blanketed the landscape as we sped along, through Gallup, past Holbrook and Joseph City, musing caustically about what it would be like to live in such bleak places. Just west of Winslow, I made some remark about the Great White Coyote (another story altogether). G., driving, looked at me in fake exasperation. The car drifted, ever so slightly, right into the rear wheels of a big rig moving along, like us, at 65 miles per hour. It was just a kiss, but a clumsy one – the kind that gives you a fat lip and a chipped tooth and, if you’re in a Honda Accord, sends you sliding uncontrolled across the pavement as though it were ice.

Time slows in such moments. My life did not flash before my eyes. I merely flailed about for something to hold onto as I listened to the calming sound of G.’s hands on the steering wheel and then him saying, as we slid sideways toward the ditch: “Hold on, Jonny. I think we’re going to crash.”

Seconds and several bounces across the brush and roadside debris later we hung upside down in our seatbelts, chunks of glass falling about us like uncut diamonds. The radio blared on as if nothing had happened. As always when driving out here, we had it tuned to the Navajo station, which, as always, was playing country. And as we turned in our inverted state we could see all of our belongings scattered across the desert between us and the Interstate, which was impossibly distant; we could see people running toward us; and, from the car speakers, we could hear Vince Gill sing the lyrics of a song that was popular back then: “Give me one more last chance before you say we’re through....”

After getting hassled by the state cop, the paramedics and the tow truck driver, we holed up in a hotel along Route 66 on the West side of town. Across the street from our hotel – next to a little place with no name, only a sign that read SAVE GAS BEER – was a rundown Chinese place. It had once been glamorous, its dance floor swarming and its lounge teeming with Don Draper types on just one of many stops for an Old Fashioned or a Martini before getting back behind the wheel for the slow drive along Route 66. The glamour had long been scraped off, replaced by sweet and sour pork and a grumpy waitress who wouldn’t serve us more than one beer each, despite all we had been through.

For every meal after that, we wandered down Route 66, past one broken down, boarded up bungalow after another, to a diner that either had a fifties theme or hadn’t been altered since the 1950s. The proprietor was a friendly, sanguine, silver-haired guy who wore t-shirts emblazoned with hot-rod graphics. He availed us with stories of his community’s woe, and of the promise of a new enterprise: Some sort of slot machine factory or repair place that would serve Indian casinos. Winslow’s only tourists seemed to be the accidental ones, like us. All the other patrons at the diner were stuck there, too, waiting for someone to come pick them up, or for a part for their car or maybe their destiny. I had the nagging sense that I was in a David Lynch flick, though sadly Isabella Rossellini never made an appearance nor, for that matter, did a porno film crew show up at our hotel to produce its next movie.

Between the hotel and the diner was a small used car lot, and we struck up a sort of friendship with the Navajo salesman there. Every time we passed by, he tried to talk us into buying the Lincoln Continental Mark IV sitting on the lot, all black and shiny, each door about the size of a small car. It was just $500, the vast trunk could have held all of our stuff and then some and it would have made quite the impression rolling into L.A. with a couple of scruffy hicks at the wheel. We didn’t buy it. Instead, our fathers came down from Cortez, Colorado, and picked us and G’s totaled car up and hauled us back to Durango. We never went to the coast, and on my internal map I drew a line around Winslow marking it as a place to avoid. Sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder what it would have been like had we continued Westward. Or for that matter, had we continued just a few more blocks Eastward, down Route 66, where we might have seen the crumbling La Posada and perhaps met another just-out-of-college guy named Dan Lutzick who, in September of that same year, had moved to Winslow into a dilapidated old post office to help fix up the old hotel.


Lutzick was a member of what I’ll call the La Posada quartet, led by Allan Affeldt, a graduate student at UC Irvine at the time, his wife, artist Tina Mion, and her brother Keith. They weren’t hoteliers or anything, just young, energetic, creative and apparently crazy enough to take on a massive project that no one else would touch.

The La Posada has been restored to its former glory and then some, and has become a major attraction for an international crowd. The iron work was done by artist John Suttman. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

By the early 1990s, the railroad was ready to be rid of the La Posada, even if that meant demolishing it or giving it away. The City of Winslow had no interest in such a money pit, so two locals applied for and got a $350,000 federal ISTEA grant to fix it up. The only problem: The grant required a $150,000 match, and no one in Winslow had that kind of cash. Affeldt, an academic, activist and entrepreneur , had heard about the hotel when the National Trust for Historic Preservation let the world know it was in danger, and was able to scrape up the cash for the match; he got the hotel, the grant and a lot of work for he and his three companions.

Lutzick, Affeldt’s friend from college, needed a change. After graduating he realized that being a ceramicist, without a university’s support and materials, was an expensive prospect. And Orange County’s polished sheen was less than inspiring to a young artist. Winslow, where the landscape and sky serve as light’s canvas, and where he could live for virtually free in one of the many abandoned buildings, was perfect. Besides, whereas Mission Viejo was trash-free, Winslow’s alleys were cluttered with various objects, raw materials for a starving sculptor.

“You move to Winslow not to become a famous artist and to show your work so much as to have an opportunity for space,” he says, as he shows my family around his vast storehouse of art, the Snowdrift Art Space in downtown Winslow, on a hot August day. “And maybe also to live in a real community. It has a rough edge that I liked, also.”

Dan Lutzick was one of the four who came from California to fix up the La Posada two decades ago. He is the hotel's general manager and, with his wife, owns the Snowdrift Art Space. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

When he wasn’t slinging a sledgehammer or pounding nails over at La Posada (work didn’t actually begin until 1997, after three years of negotiating and planning), Lutzick was combining roofing tar – he had a lot of it to try to fix his chronically leaky roof – with plywood, chicken wire and objects he found in the alleys and antique shops of Winslow to create his sculptures that range from giant Kachina-inspired mandalas to Day of the Dead shrines to a piece inspired by the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 that was supposed to prove the existence of ether, through which light traveled, but did just the opposite.

By 2005, La Posada was a hotel again, restored enough to actually start making money, giving Lutzick, who is now the hotel’s general manager, a bit more time to focus on his own project. He paid $2 for a big building on Route 66 that once housed the Babbitt Brothers department store, and had gone through a variety of iterations since, including grocery store and swap meet, and the entire rear end of the building was collapsing. Slowly, Lutzick brought it back to life. Now it’s the Snowdrift, home to him, his wife Ann-Mary, whom he met when she came through with the Smithsonian, their dogs and his art, including Sheldon, the race horse who died after getting stuck in quicksand down at the Little Colorado and is now immortalized as a skeleton on wheels with a glowing pink light ensconced inside its ribcage.

“It's like primitivism in Mondrian ... I love that sort of overlap,“ says Lutzick about his art, shown here at Snowdrift Art Space. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

The halls of La Posada, meanwhile, serve as a gallery for the work of Mion, who was already well-known, particularly for her offbeat take on presidential portraits, when she and Affeldt moved into the shell of the hotel in 1997. La Posada, in turn, along with Winslow’s location, has drawn other artists: The wrought iron gates and wishing well at the hotel were made by John Suttman, known nationally for his functional art and who’s rumored to be establishing a studio in Winslow. Ed Ruscha (pronounced Rooshay), the iconic L.A. artist, visits occasionally – he listed Winslow as one of his top 10 American towns, along with the likes of San Francisco and Rhyolite, Nev. – and his brother Paul has turned an old garage across the street from La Posada into a giant art studio with a 2,000 square foot glass house encased within the space. They’ve all joined together as the Winslow Arts Trust, and plan to turn the old depot, connected to La Posada, into yet another art space. On its roof will be a light installation built by James Turrell, who just had a major exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York. Winslow is likely to serve as the gateway to his Roden Crater, a giant light/land art project inside a collapsed volcano cinder in the Arizona desert that he’s been working on since the late 1970s.

The town of Winslow, inspired in part by the La Posada revival, which has been lauded by the national travel press, has been pushing its own renaissance. It put in new sidewalks, parks, and revamped its Standing on a Corner Park. Affeldt was elected mayor of Winslow in 2005, and served a very proactive two terms, bringing in more federal transportation grants and improving relations with the Hopi and Navajo tribes. Though many of the buildings along Route 66 remain empty, and real estate is a lot cheaper than other Western communities, the streets look a lot better. Some of the old houses have been fixed up, too. The line of boarded up bungalows I noticed two decades ago now seem to be occupied.

The landscape around Winslow is not as bleak as it appears to the passerby. Here, the author's daughter looks out at the Little Painted Desert. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

“The hotel really sort of anchored the preservation movement,” says Lutzick. “Things have improved dramatically, but it’s taken years.” Lutzick, a gregarious type who seems to genuinely enjoy talking about his art and his community, emphasizes the slowness of the transformation, and the fact that the arts scene has grown out of Winslow, not on top of it – he opens up the Snowdrift for community Day of the Dead celebrations, parties, movies and an annual model railroading convention that draws hobbyists from all over the region. La Posada also hosts all kinds of locals-oriented events. That has not only brought the "newcomers" together with the old-timers, but has also brought together different factions of the older community.

And that’s why Lutzick doesn’t like the comparisons to Marfa, which have grown louder since the Station-to-Station project announced it would stop at La Posada. Marfa is the small Texas town, with many a similarity to Winslow, that the late contemporary artist Donald Judd and his friends basically colonized with art beginning in the 1970s, not always to the delight of locals.

“The last thing we want to be is Marfa,” he says. “I like Donald Judd and his work, but it was like: Here’s this poor community that nobody cares about. Let’s go in and buy the whole thing up. The art is great, but it’s got nothing to do with the community.”

Art won't save Winslow. That's not how it works. Winslow and its contradictions -- its rough edges, its deep history and its modernist ruins -- spawns art, and that art, in turn, makes Winslow a better place to live and to visit. The challenge, as always, is to keep the new cachet from rubbing away too much of the roughness. As for me, Winslow's growing art scene has broken down the psychic barriers I had somewhat irrationally built around the town, thanks to that long ago experience. I'll never forget getting tossed around the desert like Fate's plaything, but I do forgive.

Graffiti and approaching storm, Little Painted Desert. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. Follow him on Twitter @jonnypeace.

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