Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Trail Leads Me to a Visit with Jerry and Lois Essary Jacka

The Arizona of my youth was a grand old lady:  gracious, aging but capable, much like the ranch wives who still peopled it. The people surrounding me then were mostly from elsewhere:  refugees from the snow of Illinois, the noise of New York, the traffic and anonymity of cities. They found something precious and charming in this beautiful state and although they planted the trees of home in their front yards, and missed their grassy lawns, they also cherished the unique nature of the desert.

Arizona then had its own distinctive sense of style. Many rebelled against it; I recall my Arizona-loving father's disdain for the then-popular song, "Arizona," as it mocked our clinging to our lovely past. But the true Zonie loved the innocence of the brushy Ted DeGrazia paintings of children that adorned everything from refrigerator magnets to Christmas ornaments.  We loved the kitschy scorpions-in-resin paperweights; the beautiful, Indian-made bola ties; the steakhouses decorated with old ranching implements and sawdust floors.  It wasn't an act for the bounty of tourists -- snowbirds, we called them, as they flocked to the streets during the winter and fled at the sight of that harsh glare of summer. It was our place, our culture, and we loved it.

I miss it. I miss the architecture that prevailed; the joy we took in discovering new and gorgeous rural roads; the cowboy hats that could be found on many the head in the single old terminal at Sky Harbor airport. The pride we had then in our state was evident in that airport:  the mural honoring Arizona's roots and culture on the terminal wall; the replica of the U.S.S. Arizona in the hallway; the gift shop selling small potted cactus, Kachina dolls and Indian-made pots, baskets, and jewelry.  Invariably, first-time visitors coming to stay with us -- because who wouldn't want to come to Arizona? -- brought us one of those pots of cactus, and we'd thank them profusely as we gazed out over our yard filled with native spiny things of vast variety.

Symbolic of our state pride was the glossy magazine, Arizona Highways. Produced by the Arizona  Department of Transportation, it was our favorite gift for out-of-state friends and business associates. Filled with utterly magnificent photos of our beautiful canyons, our native people, remnants of our history, modern day cowboys and ranchers -- it was exquisite.

It was in the pages of Arizona Highways I first saw the name Jerry Jacka. I grew up feasting on his photographs and seeing the state through his talented eyes. My mother, an artist, was no doubt inspired by his photographs in some of her still-life arrangements of Navajo and Hopi pottery and basketry.  Now, some 40 years later, I was surprised to learn Jerry and Lois Essary Jacka were among the original homesteader families here in New River -- and here I am, writing a book of New River history.

I can't do justice to describing the feeling of finally meeting someone I so admired for decades. My husband, Russ, and I drove up to the Jacka ranch near Heber, Arizona, last Sunday. The immediate warmth with which Jerry and Lois welcomed us transported me to that Arizona of my child-memory: the kinship and hospitality which was often shared with us when my father took us on jaunts around the state. Ranch houses with warm fires. Old, priceless saddles from the 1800's perched on loft railings. Mining  and ranching implements, long rusty and scarred with use, festooning the walls. Precious pottery and artifacts. I'm as enchanted by it all now as much as I was as that wide-eyed kid who wanted to grow up to be a distaff Louis L'Amour or Wyatt Earp.

And so I found myself spending several hours of sheer joy in conversation with Jerry Jacka and Lois Essary Jacka. We discussed the native tribes that left their mark on local mountaintops; names of local pioneers; the naming of landmarks; the importance of getting history right. Jerry, once a Maricopa County Sheriff's Deputy who'd moved into doing forensic photography, told me of getting his start in photography thanks to the encouragement of his high-school mentor and the big break in working for Arizona Highways.  As a retired police officer now pursuing my own other, more creative dreams, I appreciated that law enforcement kinship.  Lois, a long-time author who wrote five of the 15 Jacka books, showed me her writer's nest overlooking the ranch grounds.

We talked until Russ caught my eye and tapped his watch. I had no idea we'd talked for so long and I inwardly chided myself with "Bad guest!" for overstaying -- but so thankful to have done so. We pried ourselves away from that beautiful place with two so accomplished, fascinating and warm people.  In a few weeks, we'll meet again at their historic Sun-Up Ranch in New River, homesteaded by Jerry's father and mother.  Jerry recently published an outstanding history of the Sun-Up Ranch.  If you share my love of Arizona or western history, you can obtain a copy here:  Sun-Up Ranch  I also have a couple of extra copies of Jerry's book on hand.  Visit Jerry's website at: Jerry Jacka Photography.  Jerry's other books -- including his gorgeous editions of table-top books highlighting Arizona's landscapes and native crafts -- are available on his site.