Memorial Day 2012 at Sunset in an Arizona Cemetery

Posted By Mike Padgett

May 29, 2012

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Near the middle of the cemetery, out among the rows of headstones and small flags, I see a woman alone in a folding chair. She sits with her head down. She wears a wide-brimmed hat, so I cannot tell if she is reading a book or focusing on memories.

I wanted to hear her story, but this isn’t the right time. Maybe another day.

Small flags and occasional flowers add Memorial Day sparkle to the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

When I entered the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona about an hour before closing on Memorial Day, I saw more visitors than I expected. Sunset was approaching. Everyone was walking slowly among the headstones. There were several couples, a few families and several people alone.

A sign outside the cemetery office reminds visitors that if they see a headstone without a flag on this holiday honoring veterans, replacements are available at the office.

A couple leaving the neat rows of headstones walk slowly to their van parked at the edge of the street. They stop for a kiss.

Walking among the headstones, I see tracks that probably are those of a wheelchair. The tracks stretch several rows in a straight line from the street to a specific headstone.

The sun is touching the horizon now. The day’s heat is fading into the night. Several rows away I see a couple kneeling. They are silent as they sweep dust off the name and dates on a headstone.

When I visit cemeteries and read the names and dates, I wonder about all those lives. I wonder about their achievements, their dreams and their legacies. I hope their final hours were in peace, not pain.

I hope this holiday’s meaning is remembered. Memorial Day is much more than a day off from work to enjoy hamburgers, cold drinks and shopping. In fact, the national holiday honoring our military veterans dates to 1868 when it began as Decoration Day.

The name was changed to Memorial Day later. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by Congress.

Today, at many national cemeteries, the special day means a flag at the headstone of every veteran, even if family and friends are unable to visit.

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May 29th, 2012
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Colorful Butterflies and Flowers, and the Pause Button

Posted By Mike Padgett

April 21, 2012

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Poets describe butterflies as flying flowers, or elusive happiness on wings that might find you if you hit your pause button.

I paused the other day. I made time to visit the Marshall Butterfly Pavilion at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Through May 13, hundreds of colorful butterflies each day will surround pavilion visitors. Garden workers and volunteers, protective of the winged splashes of color, stand at the pavilion’s entrance and exit. They open the doors cautiously and ask visitors to help prevent a butterfly’s escape.

Once inside the door, and then the plastic curtain, thoughts of my world faded into the shadows. These fragile creatures with life spans of a few weeks to several months captured my attention. The spring temperature approached 90 degrees, so the butterflies were very active. A great photo opportunity here, especially while they rested or fed on colorful flowers or slices of oranges in feeders.

I focused my camera on what appeared to be a Julia butterfly, or Dryas iulia, resting on a flower near the center of a bush. When a Zebra Longwing, or Heliconius charitonius, butterfly approached, the Julia appeared to take on a protective or territorial posture, as if to warn the approaching butterfly to stay away.

A Julia butterfly, or Dryas iulia, shown resting on a flower in the Marshall Butterfly Pavilion in Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Visitors are encouraged to watch where they step while walking the pavilion. Butterflies occasionally will land on the soil. One butterfly landed on my shirt. I think it was a Buckeye, or Junonia coenia. I nudged the creature of happiness gently, and it climbed onto my right hand. I carried it on my finger to the branch of a nearby bush, and the friendly butterfly stepped off my finger.

Seconds after the previous photo was captured, the resting Julia butterfly stretches into a protective posture at the approach of a Zebra Longwing butterfly, or Heliconius charitonius. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

I’m as distracted today by butterflies as when I was a young boy. I would stop whatever I was doing – such as riding my horse to move cattle from one pasture to another – to watch a fragile butterfly flitter by. Often, my horse would watch the tiny spot of color flying, in zigzag fashion, across our path.

A Buckeye butterfly, or Junonia coenia, shown feeding or resting on a flower. Copyright  © photo by Mike Padgett

Once, while walking with a girlfriend in junior high school, I reached out to two butterflies circling each other in our path. I caught them with one hand. She was surprised. (So was I. Wow.) I opened my cupped hands to show them to her before letting them fly away.

Next spring, I hope to have many more butterflies as guests. At my Best Friend’s suggestion, I sprinkled desert milkweed seeds around our home. Maybe, if the seeds sprout, wandering butterflies will lay their eggs on the milkweed. The eggs will hatch into caterpillars, which will molt a few times before entering the pupa or chrysalis stage. Under the right conditions, the pupa eventually transition into butterflies, which mature and lay more eggs.

A Gulf Fritillary butterfly, or Agraulis vanillae. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Mentions of butterflies are found throughout literature. French poet Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun wrote: “The butterfly is a flying flower, the flower a tethered butterfly.”

Equally appropriate are the words of American novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

One of the most powerful references hinting at butterflies is attributed to Helen Keller, considered one of the 20th Century’s leading humanitarians. She said, “One can never consent to creep, when one feels an impulse to soar.”

The cycle continues. To enjoy, all one has to do is pause.


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Apr 21st, 2012
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Advertising Writer Shifts From Carving Words to Crafting Woods

Posted By Mike Padgett

April 3, 2012

PHOENIX, Ariz. – When Richard Morris traded wordsmithing for woodworking, his creative energy shifted into high gear. He began stretching himself. He was on a new plateau of personal growth.

It was about a decade ago when Morris began his career transition away from writing advertising copy. Today, Morris designs and creates arts and crafts furniture from quartersawn white oak in his northwest Phoenix shop.

Both occupations are creative, he says, but the influence of advertising is temporary. On the other hand, the cabinets, chairs and other items Morris is making today could be treasured for generations.

“Part of what I have to sell is the hand of man,” Morris says. “It looks organic. It looks like something that someone has labored over.” Photo © copyright by Mike Padgett

Morris’ clients are scattered worldwide. Some are local. Others are in Chicago, New York and Europe. Morris recreated historic furniture for the Hubbell Trading Post and the Painted Desert Inn, both in northeastern Arizona. He also crafted furnishings for an Oak Park, Ill., home designed in the early 1900s by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Craftsman or Artist?

Morris was busy with a bathroom vanity when I visited him in his shop recently. Our paths crossed weeks ago, via email. I told him I write about people who have interesting stories to tell. He agreed to share his .

After our handshake, he grabs a hand broom and dusts off a drafting stool for my camera bag. I see an organized workplace. There are several power tools for his precision work. Wood clamps and hand tools are on racks within easy reach. His radio is tuned to National Public Radio.

My eyes wander to his planer, table saw, sander, and to lathe tools in a wall rack. Morris is wearing a worn leather apron. In its chest pockets are a pencil, an old pocketknife and a tiny gauge Morris uses to set his table saw blade.

Morris shows me a design for a tall-case clock he is starting for a client in San Diego. He recently shipped a similar clock to a Chicago client who hopes the clock will be in the family for generations.

“She is going to give it to her oldest son, who’s in turn going to give it to his oldest daughter,” Morris says. “And if there’s any justice at all, it’ll be there for several generations after that.”

On the white oak bathroom vanity he’s finishing, Morris shows me the dovetail joints. He marks and cuts the dovetails by hand. Dovetail joints, if you know woodworking, require skill and patience to make them tight, even and straight.

Richard Morris prepares a bathroom vanity for its door hinges. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

My appreciation for skilled woodworking kicks in. I imagine an artisan bent over the workbench, gluing together a table or chair. Adrenaline flows faster than glue dries. The artisan’s frown deepens. He rushes to tighten the clamps before the glue sets, adding pads between the wood and the clamps to avoid leaving dents in the wood.

In this arena, craft approaches art. It is a personal zone where magic is created by a good supply of patience, a love of craft and 10,000 hours of muscle memory.

Morris continues. “Once in a while, the little hairs on the back of my neck just stand up, it’s so satisfying. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it. It’s just profound satisfaction at having done a thing well.”

Clients Fall Silent

Morris knows he’s been successful when clients, arriving at his shop, fall silent the minute they see their commissioned furniture for the first time.

“Their eyes will close and they stroke it and I feel like I should walk away and give them some privacy,” Morris says. “It happens with some people. That’s one of the things about why I love what I do. I just put it together. The wood is beautiful on its own. All I do is not screw it up.

“It’s really gratifying,” he says. “I mean, it’s why I get such a big kick out of it. I can stand back at the end of the day and say, ‘I created that out of some sticks.’”

Collectors appreciate American antique furniture because of its beauty, the skill used in creating it, and because well-crafted furniture is functional decades after it was made. Properly cared for, wood antiques will achieve a unique beauty. They can become functional art. The skill of the hand of man becomes obvious.

Crosswords Before Sunrise

Morris says woodworking is his fulltime job, “and will be till I die.” During the summer months, to avoid the heat, he works tropical hours. That means he often arrives at his shop before sunrise.

“I love to come to work. Absolutely love to. I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and do a couple of crosswords and have breakfast, and I’m here.

“People talk about retirement and I say, ‘Retirement? This is my retirement.’”

Morris picks up a cabinet door he’s finishing for the vanity. I reach for my camera.

Morris steadies the cabinet door and grabs his cordless drill. I shoot a few photos of him at work. He drills pilot holes in the door and the cabinet frame for hinge screws. He picks up a tiny screw. It nearly disappears between his thumb and forefinger. He scrapes the screw back and forth on a small piece of soap. The soap will make it easier to twist the screw into the wood.

When Morris attaches and closes the doors, their fit is a little tight. The solution, he says, is sanding the thickness of a sheet of paper from the edges where the doors meet.

Writing Advertising Copy

Morris’ path to his shop started in the Midwest, where he worked a short time in radio while finishing college at the time. He eventually received two bachelor’s degrees – one in history with a philosophy minor, and the second in art with a French minor.

After college, he worked for an advertising agency where he wrote copy for radio commercials. That was followed by a stint in the Navy in the 1960s during the Vietnam era. He attended the U.S. military language school in Monterey, Calif., where his days were devoted to studying French.

After his military duty, he worked first for an advertising agency and then for a printing company, both in St. Louis. In the early 1980s, he relocated to Arizona where he worked for similar companies.

Over time, he developed an interest in woodworking. In about 2003, his hobby became a business. He started in his home workshop. At the time, he lived near the White Tank Mountains west of Phoenix.

Later, when he outgrew his workshop, he moved his woodworking business in 2007 into leased space in a light industrial area in northwest Phoenix. He now lives close enough to bicycle to work. He also launched a website,, on which he focuses all of his marketing.

Many of his clients are doctors, lawyers, college professors and accountants.

Morris focuses his energies on arts and crafts furniture, sometimes called Mission style. Many of his clients favor quartersawn white oak, often called “tiger oak” because of the unique golden rays created in the lumber by the quarter-sawing method. The arts and crafts designs, which date to the late 1800s, remain popular and functional.

“One, it’s easy to do,” Morris says. “B, I love the look of it, and C, there’s a considerable market for it. For which we can blame Barbra Streisand.”

It was at a Christie’s auction in 1988 when Streisand – by phone – offered the high bid of $363,000 “for an oak and wrought iron sideboard made by craftsman Gustav Stickley,” according to the Dec. 12, 1988, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Before the auction, the Columbus Avenue Sideboard – which once had been in Stickley’s home – was appraised at $90,000. Stickley, a major influence in the American Arts and Crafts furniture movement, died in 1942.

White oak was the furniture wood of choice during the arts and crafts era because of its beauty, its strength and because it was plentiful. Today, the price of the wood is increasing because oak forests are decreasing in size. Also competing for the wood are the bourbon whiskey manufacturers, who use it for their whiskey barrels.

Historic Furniture

It was on Morris’ new career path where he walked in the footsteps of some historical figures with high profiles in Southwest history. His company was commissioned to replicate office furniture to replace aging originals used in the Hubbell Trading Post on the Navajo Reservation. The trading post opened in the 1880s.

Desert Craftsmen also was commissioned by the National Park Service to replicate furniture for the original soda fountain in the historic Painted Desert Inn on the Petrified National Forest.

The Painted Desert Inn is about 25 miles east of Holbrook. It was built in the 1920s as a private retreat and a tourist stop by Holbrook businessman Herbert Lore, according to author Arnold Berke in his book, “Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest.” Berke writes that Lore originally called the building the “Stone Tree House” because blocks of petrified wood were used to construct much of the original building.

A flier from the Painted Desert Inn, which was closed in 1963. After it was reopened and renovated several years later, Richard Morris was hired to recreate furniture for the Inn’s lunchroom. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The National Park Service, as part of its expansion of the Painted Desert, bought Lore’s “Stone Tree House” in 1936. The NPS updated the structure from 1937 to 1940. Two years later, because of World War II, the Inn was closed. In 1947, the Fred Harvey Co. took over the concession contract at the Painted Desert Inn and brought in Colter to update the building’s interior. The Inn closed in 1963.

In the 1970s, when the Inn was considered for demolition, public support helped the Inn receive listing on the National Register of Historic Places. That was in 1975. In 1987, it achieved status as a national historic landmark.

Challenging Work

Morris said the major hurdle in his restoration of the Inn’s soda fountain was the lack of any original furniture. The room apparently had been gutted in preparation for demolition.

“All I had to work with were two black-and-white photographs and the original drawings of the fixtures and such – the counter and the booth and the tables – that sort of thing,” he says.

Morris made the replacement furnishings in his Phoenix shop. But in listening to him talk about the property, it was obvious he enjoyed the trips he made to the Inn to take measurements and photographs, and then finally to install the reproduced furniture.

“You can go there at the crack of dawn and sit and watch as the sun goes across. Everything out there changes color. The shadows change shape. It is just fascinating and well worth the trip if you’ve not been there.”

Full disclosure: I wrote about Richard Morris because he has an interesting story to share. After listening to his story and seeing his work, I commissioned Morris to recreate a small table for me. I paid Morris for the table. Never was there any discussion of me writing about Morris in exchange for the table.

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Apr 3rd, 2012
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Point Loma Lighthouse Offers More Than A Glimpse Into California History

Posted By Mike Padgett

March 31, 2012

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – We need to slow down. Every time we see a lighthouse in the distance, I’m on cruise control and my Best Friend/Navigator  is checking maps and voice mail. By the time my brain alerts my foot on the accelerator, those beacons of history standing guard at the edge of the Pacific Ocean are fading in the rear view mirror.

Until last month in San Diego. That’s when I told myself that the lighthouse, the beach and the tide pools at Point Loma deserve more of our attention. It is a good place to remember lost friends and delayed dreams.

The Point Loma Lighthouse and Museum are the main attractions in Cabrillo National Monument. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The historic lighthouse and museum are in the Cabrillo National Monument. For several hours spread out over two days, I wandered the property. The first day was cloudy and windy. Windbreaker weather. The next day, it was sunny. Admission to the national monument is $5 per vehicle. The ticket is good for seven days.

The cloudy day wasn’t good for exterior photos, so I drove down the hill to walk along the beach and check the tidal pools. It’s a steep walk down the sandy trails to the beach from parking lots. Visitor traffic was low during my visit.

Riding the swells of the Pacific on this grey day were eight surfers in their dark wetsuits – six in one group, two in the other. Seals, I thought, broke the water a few times close to the two surfers.

Later, on the National Park Service website, I learned the lighthouse began service in 1855. The site was selected in 1851, one year after California was granted statehood and several years before the Civil War.

However, the lighthouse location was doomed from its beginning. It is 422 above sea level, which made it vulnerable to fog and low clouds. When the coast was fogbound, the lighthouse keeper fired a shotgun to warn ships they were approaching the coast. The lighthouse was taken out of service in 1891, replaced by a new lighthouse constructed closer to sea level on the Point.

The spiral staircase in the Point Loma Lighthouse offers interesting photo opportunities, depending on the amount and the direction of exterior light entering the building. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The original lighthouse’s interior and spiral staircase have been restored by the National Park Service. The rooms, glassed off from visitors, show the austere life of the lighthouse keeper and his family.

From a distance, my Best Friend and I have spotted lighthouses several times while driving between San Francisco and Monterey, and between San Diego and Los Angeles. When she’s not checking our cell phones and laptop while I’m driving, she shares my fascination with these seashore sentinels. There are at least two on the Oregon coast we want to visit soon. One was fogbound when we passed it last year.

We’ve watched documentaries about these fascinating buildings from the past, when lighthouses functioned as the only warning to ships about dangerous shoals. I’ve read that some lighthouses have been converted into overnight accommodations. Maybe we’ll check in.

Today, GPS and the Internet have replaced lighthouses. They are historic reminders of how we found our way to where we are. Their histories offer a glimpse into the dedication and discipline of the lighthouse keepers and their families.

When it isn’t crowded, Point Loma is a perfect place for walking and reflecting and enjoying Nature’s gifts with a Best Friend. There is its history, its view of San Diego and the bay, and the ocean, and the ocean breezes. There is the absence of traffic noise and fumes. Turn off the iPod. If you carry a personal journal, make a new entry with your thoughts today.

Make time to walk along the nearby beach. Welcome positive energy. Listen to the sound of the surf. Enjoy the primordial feel of the environment and the visual treats of surfers challenging the ocean, and of pelicans flying in single file, skimming the water.

For more details about the Point Loma Lighthouse, visit the National Park Service web site:

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Mar 31st, 2012

Stories and Memories in a Garden of Stone Overlooking San Diego Bay

Posted By Mike Padgett

March 2, 2012

SAN DIEGO – Each time I drive away from Cabrillo National Monument and its view overlooking San Diego, the thousands of white headstones in neat rows capture my attention.

This time, for the first time, I pulled over and parked. This garden of stone on the Port Loma peninsula is the 77-acre Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. The military cemetery on gently rolling hills close to the historic lighthouse overlooks the Pacific Ocean to the west. To the east is San Diego Bay and Naval Base Coronado.

The rows of headstones on hills overlooking the ocean and the bay create a powerful landscape of beauty and sadness. On this day, a Friday, the sky was overcast. Tree branches swayed in a gentle breeze. When I returned the next day for more photos, the sky was clear.

The white headstones of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery contrast with the white sails of boats in San Diego Bay in the distance. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Military, historic and all-but-forgotten sacred grounds are interesting because of the history they represent. The people with names in stone were husbands or wives or sons or daughters. They were friends. They taught us and they continue to teach us, even in death.

One life in a few words

If headstone inscriptions are readable, they tell a story in two dates, a name and a few words. Several years ago, my Best Friend and I stood before headstones dating to the 1700s along Boston’s Freedom Trail.

In Atlanta years later, we wandered through a neglected cemetery in which soldiers from the Civil War in the 1860s are buried. We have since visited Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. and National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, where soldiers from wars in the 1900s and more recent conflicts are interred.

For feature stories, I interviewed managers of small cemeteries in Arizona and Washington State. The managers see the impact of death upon families. Their cemeteries’ occupants include pioneers who helped settle the two states.

Studying headstones is morbid? Not at all. Cemeteries are all around us. In life and in death, we touch many lives. As a journalist, I believe everyone has a story to share. However, many don’t get that chance.

Unknown uncle

Years ago, thanks to the Internet, I located the burial site of an uncle I never knew. He was one of my father’s brothers. He is buried in Italy, where he died in World War II. He lived and then died in a war before I was born. Who was he, really? All I know about him is his name and that his family mourned his death. What were his ambitions and goals? Did he enjoy laughter, woodworking and a good book? How did he die? Did he have a girlfriend waiting for him? If so, who was she?

A funeral procession entering Fort Rosecrans brought me back from daydreaming. A hearse led several vehicles. I watched them stop by the funeral site. Minutes later, I heard a 21-gun salute.

I wanted some photos of the headstones overlooking San Diego Bay. But a photographer near the funeral would have been painful for those in mourning. I can return later.

Friendly photographer

I walked through the vehicle entrance to the other side of the cemetery.

“Need room for your shots?” the man asked. He was bent slightly forward, holding his camera in front of his face, photographing the headstones. I was a little startled. Until he spoke, I hadn’t paid attention to him. He appeared ready to step aside if I wanted to shoot photos in his direction.

“No, thank you,” I said. Friendly Man resumed shooting photos. The landscape of souls was overpowering, with rows of white headstones on rolling terrain vanishing into the distance.

I studied the headstones. Friendly Man snapped a few more photos before stepping to his car, parked nearby. He drove off.

Yellow daffodils become a beacon in the rows of white headstones on a field of green. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

At midmorning on this cloudy day, a Friday, the coastal fog nearly was gone. But enough hung in the air to create an ethereal mood in the cemetery.

I walked along the rows of stones, reading some of the inscriptions. Precious Daughter. Loved Husband. For anyone interested enough to stop and read, the names and words from the heart are memorialized in stone. What is unanswered is how their lives ended. Did they die in combat or in a traffic accident? Was theirs a long and fruitful life? Did they stop to help others struggling in this Great Race?

Two cars turned into the cemetery entrance behind me. They moved slowly up the cemetery lane and vanished beyond the trees.

Names and memories

I found myself staring. A middle-aged man holding the elbow of a tiny elderly woman helped her as they walked slowly along the headstones. They stopped. She pointed to a name. Maybe the name prompted memories.

I walked on. Ahead of me was a bouquet of daffodils in a container leaning against a headstone. Someone who knows love – and loss – probably left the flowers. I snapped a few photos.

I whispered my apologies. I hoped the person who received the flowers didn’t mind.

The cemetery, which is part of a U.S. Navy installation, is on both sides of the road to the Cabrillo National Monument and the historic Point Loma lighthouse.

Loss and pain in grade school

Later, driving back to my hotel, I thought about my experiences as a child during funerals and other personal trauma.

When I was in grade school, one of my younger sisters died. It was leukemia. Then a classmate died from an accidental shooting. His rifle was similar to mine.

Odd, how one painful memory will revive others. I remembered my first experience as a victim of theft. I was in the third grade. My new coat, on the first day I wore it, was stolen from its hook in the classroom. My blue-collar parents had scrimped to buy the coat. My teacher, despite her best efforts, never located my coat.

Thieves and bullies

In the fifth grade, my geography homework vanished from my desk. The teacher found it in the hands of a classmate. He had failed to fully erase my name before writing his over it. My name still was readable.

Later that year, my parents moved us to another small town. There, the class bully and I were punished for fighting. The rest of the year, he was friendlier.

In the seventh grade, another bully – he was tall for his age – intimidated many of us.

I learned at an early age that in addition to good friends, loving families, digging for razor clams at the beach and the loyalty of a boy’s dog, our world includes death, loss and antisocial personalities.

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(This essay was updated since its original posting.)

Mar 2nd, 2012

Legacy of Long-Time Farming Family Includes New Homes With Unique Designs

Posted By Mike Padgett

Feb. 13, 2012

GILBERT, Ariz. – Cruise the tree-lined streets of Morrison Ranch with co-owner Howard Morrison, and he’ll likely tell you what crops grew here for generations before his family’s farms sprouted houses a few years ago.

And if he takes a short detour and stops next to his family’s four 80-foot-tall grain silos, Morrison can treat you to a short lesson in the history of his family’s farming in the East Valley. His grandfather, also named Howard, and then his father Marvin and uncle Kenneth have plowed this ground for cotton, corn and alfalfa east of Phoenix since the early 1930s. The new Morrison generation’s latest crops include neighborhoods.

Howard Morrison has many memories of growing up and working on the land surrounding his family’s grain silos. The silos – 80 feet high and in use until 2002 – are preserved as architectural centerpieces of Morrison Ranch. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

In March, the Morrison family plans to auction more of their farmland to homebuilders. The land to be sold is at the southeast corner of Recker and Elliot roads. A name for the new neighborhood is ready.

“This is where Elliot Groves will be, on this corn field that you see, 80 acres,” Morrison says from the driver’s seat of his Suburban. He grew up on this land.

Also this spring, possibly in March, Morrison expects an announcement for a multifamily development by P.B. Bell east of Recker and Elliot roads.

Crops give way to neighborhoods

Much has changed since the late 1990s when work first started on the 3,000-acre Morrison Ranch. For the next 15 years, homebuilders across the Valley saw annual increases in building permits and demand for new homes.

Then in about 2006, the homebuilding industry ran out of fuel. In most states, including Arizona, demand for new homes vaporized. Blame for the crashed economy and housing crisis was spread everywhere, from Wall Street to Main Street.

The financial pain was felt at all levels, from workers who lost their jobs, to cities, counties and states, which lost tax income from declining payroll, sales, property and corporate taxes. Many homebuilding companies went out of business or were merged into other corporations.

Those were painful years, Morrison says. “It was so crazy you couldn’t expect anything other than a crash. I mean a crash. We (the homebuilding industry) fell hard.”

At the metro Phoenix market’s peak in 2006, Morrison says, about 67,000 single-family home building permits were issued. Last year, there were maybe 7,000. A consensus of 13 metro Phoenix market analysts surveyed by Arizona State University estimates that 11,300 permits will be issued during 2012 and more than 18,000 permits in 2013.

Morrison says there were as many as 400 homebuilders, including many small mom-and-pop operations, during the high-octane years leading up to 2006. “Today, there are about 27 (builders) that are active,” he says.

Caution the new rule

Real estate analysts, after a few years of annual flubs in predicting a turnaround, in recent weeks began offering cautious estimates as to when (and how quickly) the stalled housing industry in metro Phoenix will rebound. They point to new and positive signs suggesting demand for new homes is returning.

Morrison turns his Suburban down a street lined with newer homes on large lots. Between the two one-way streets is a linear park about 40 feet wide. There is plenty of room for children and families to safely play football or enjoy picnics. The streets are lined with shade trees.

Before construction began, he says, “We’d be driving through an alfalfa field, Field 17.”

Despite operating in a struggling housing industry, Morrison Ranch in 2011 sold more homes than any other master-planned community of its type in Arizona and ranked 23rd in the nation. That announcement comes from John Burns Real Estate Consulting, a national housing analysis company in Irvine, Calif.

As farmers, the Morrison family knew they could coax higher yields from their fields by using improved farming methods.

In much the same way, the Morrisons held out for a better residential design in their planned community. They would sell land to builders if the builders’ designs set houses back from main arterials and included more shade trees, unique house plans, functional front porches, several miles of walking trails, and other family-friendly features.

Setting new houses in Morrison Ranch back from busy streets offers reduced traffic noise for homeowners as well as safer sidewalks. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

“We turned everything on its ear,” Morrison says. “Scott, my brother, likes to say, ‘You know, this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but if this is what you want, this is the only place in Phoenix you’ll find it.’”

Reclaimed water for green space

The master plan includes using reclaimed water for green space. That design meant adding a second piping system throughout the community to handle the needed irrigation water for grassy areas and the forest of 28,000 trees planted so far.

In addition, homebuilders interested in buying Morrison land would have to agree to input from the Morrisons on the quality of housing. Some builders balked.

“We ran into a lot of skepticism,” Morrison says. “And a few of them (builders) went on down the street so they could do something else. Because what they wanted is, they wanted the land and then they wanted to do what they wanted on their own.”

“And we said, ‘No, this is what we’re going to do,” he says. “So we’ve always been slow and many have referred to us as stubborn. Hopefully not in character but stubborn in holding to our principles.

“The magic behind this wasn’t one thing,” Morrison continues. “The magic was putting all of these things together in one place.”

Stewardship of the land

Morrison credits much of the family’s success to Don Tompkins, the planner and “executive coach” the Morrisons recruited from Southern California.

Maybe it was their family’s stewardship of the land over three generations that fueled their dreams. Or maybe it was simply daring for a better design that pushed the Morrison family to set the community development bar a little higher.

So far, about 2,300 residences have been completed on 1,560 acres in Morrison Ranch.

Commercial space evolving

Also in the master plan are sites for retail, office and commercial space. The Arizona Farm Bureau recently moved its headquarters from a site near Sky Harbor International Airport into 50,000 square feet of new office space at Morrison Ranch.

Near the Arizona Farm Bureau is Lakeview Village, a 17-acre neighborhood shopping center anchored by a Bashas’ store at Higley and Eliott roads. Unlike most other corner centers, the exterior design of this shopping center offers unique facades for almost every store.

Morrison believes that the builders who win the land auction in March will begin adding streets, sidewalks, water lines and other utilities later this year. If demand for new homes increases in coming months, construction of homes in Elliot Groves could begin in 2013. It will be the first phase of the fifth neighborhood in Morrison Ranch.

Builders active in Morrison Ranch include Ashton Woods Homes, Blandford Homes, Richmond American Homes, and Taylor Morrison.

The East Valley’s remaining farmland could vanish during the next wave or two of homebuilding. Already, plows and tractors are sitting idle longer. In the distance beyond the rusty plows are new homes. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Farming chapter ending

Study the Morrison Ranch silos and it’s hard to avoid thinking about the years they were surrounded by hard work and family bonding.

The Morrisons once farmed more than 3,000 acres in the East Valley. They still operate a dairy, Arizona Dairy Co., in east Mesa. They also have a large ranch, Windmill Ranch, in Verde Valley.

The Morrison family’s influence stretches beyond agriculture. Howard’s parents, Marvin and June Morrison, became the benefactors of Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. It was founded in 1982. Marvin Morrison died in 2007 at the age of 83.

The family name also graces the Morrison School of Agribusiness and Resource Management, a part of the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU.

Writer’s note: I grew up in another state caring for my family’s cattle and horses, and I worked part time on neighbors’ farms. My formative years were filled with repairing barbed wire fences, milking cows (by hand), feeding and vaccinating cattle, irrigation chores and driving farm equipment. After graduation from high school, I enlisted in the military. It was the Vietnam era. Today, I watch economics at work as Arizona farms evolve into homes, schools, grocery stores and high-tech centers.

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Feb 13th, 2012
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Birthday Plan: Hugs, Reading Twain and Channeling Clapton

Posted By Mike Padgett

Jan. 23, 2012

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – My birthday is approaching, so I expect to be asked about my plans for that day.

I’ll dodge the question by saying I haven’t decided. I know many like to celebrate birthdays, and that’s fine. My celebrations are low key. It’s not my nature to buy something new or otherwise splurge for anything. I prefer walks on the beach, hikes in the forest or watching grizzlies catch salmon.

I’m happy the way I am and with what I have. But that’s me.

I never stayed home from work on my birthday. It’s not my nature to feign a migraine or fall back on a company policy giving days off for birthdays. To me, work is the opposite of a four-letter word. Work is energy. It’s achievement. It’s teamwork. It helps others.

Until recent years, when I opted for early retirement from a rewarding newspaper career, I spent 33 of my latest birthdays doing what I loved – in a newsroom or at my desk at home, writing for approaching deadlines. I’m convinced my DNA contains a writing gene fueled by adrenaline and a drive to inform readers.

Breakfast, Sunrise and Hugs

I’ll wake up on my birthday feeling the same as the day before. If it’s my regular workout day, that will be my special activity for the day. If it’s not my regular workout day, maybe I’ll go anyway and treat myself.

I’ll check the dark eastern sky that morning, as usual. Arizona sunrises often begin with a kaleidoscope of color.

Then, while we’re sharing hugs before our coffee and tea, I’ll whisper to my Best Friend (she loves birthdays) what I say each day – “Good morning. It’s a grand new day.”

We are an awesome team, two Type A’s. Make that double-A’s – we are addicted to daily achievement.

Over breakfast, with a newspaper and dueling laptops, we’ll probably discuss schedules and dinner. We could decide on lasagna or chipotle burritos. Or barbecued salmon filets smoked with mesquite chips. We’ll probably have laundry or grocery shopping chores that day.

I’ll cruise the Internet, looking for story ideas for my blog. She has her duties. I’ll check various newspaper sites along with Twitter and several photographers’ Web sites. The Internet has spawned a new meaning to life-long learning.

Creative Cocktail: Twain and Clapton

I’ll likely struggle with an essay or feature while listening to classic rock ‘n’ roll or Eric Clapton blues as a magic carpet. With 20th Century Clapton channeling in the background, I could flip through the 19th Century words of Mark Twain. Clapton’s musical energy mixed with Twain’s literary humor make a potent creative cocktail.

Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910. Library of Congress image.

Or I could study the creativity of several prolific newspaper columnists. Their works have been compiled and published in book form over the years. Some of the authors are gone, but their words are alive and well in my bookshelves.

I could, just for my birthday, avoid watching political news. However, because of the rising levels of deception and untruths coming from today’s political candidates, ignoring the verbal poison from some officials is becoming more dangerous. Sorting through the increasing amount of political deception is like watching for dangerous critters – it’s important to know their locations.

Words of Wisdom

Listening to campaign promises today brings to mind a Thomas Jefferson quote: “An enemy generally says and believes what he wishes.”

And because I’m fond of truth, a quick search for a quote related to truth led me to these powerful words – “It does not require many words to speak the truth.” The speaker was Chief Joseph, leader of the peaceful Nez Percé nation that once lived in Idaho and northern Washington state.

In the shadow of a perpetual motion machine of campaign news, a quiet day of more learning and growing is likely for my birthday.

Tools I use to sort through the thickening fog of political untruths are and, among others. Moyers, who admits failing retirement after trying it for a few months, is back in the media arena at One of his recent works, an essay and a video focusing on the Occupy movement, is among his best. You can find it on his Web site.

Which is More Important – Voters or Candidates’ Promises

So another birthday is fast approaching. Obviously, I wish for many more and that the days between them are filled with continued health, love and happiness.

But I also wish for more cooperation and less antagonism among our local and national leaders. I am puzzled by the rising levels of deception and untruths that are so readily believed by so many, yet easy to disprove.

I suspect that our elected officials responsible for the untruths either have low opinions of voters, or high opinions of themselves.

Do you suppose they ever will learn? On the other hand, maybe our elected representatives have learned how to expertly game the campaign system. Maybe the more accurate question is, will we – the voters – ever learn?

(To avoid missing news, essays, features and photos on, sign up for convenient email alerts in the FeedBurner box in the right rail. Your email address will not be used for any other purpose.)

(Copyright Mike Padgett: All applicable U.S. and International copyright laws pertain to any and all content on this site. Downloading, hot-linking, copying, manipulating in any way and/or distribution by print, electronic media or other means is prohibited by law.)

(Please contact Mike Padgett if you are interested in purchasing prints or licensing images on this site, or if you wish to use any of the images on this site for noncommercial purposes.)

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Jan 23rd, 2012

Evict Arizona Legislature for ‘infighting, brawling,’ says Phoenix Attorney

Posted By Mike Padgett

Jan. 20, 2012

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Who says attorneys lack a sense of humor? I received the following email today from attorney Larry Lazarus, whose downtown Phoenix firm has represented land use and zoning cases for 30 years throughout Arizona.

Maybe Lazarus is on the right track when he suggests the eviction of the Arizona Legislature. Maybe booting out the state lawmakers is the first step to solving Arizona’s myriad problems.

First, some background, based on news accounts: In two sales in 2010, the state sold several state buildings, including the historic Capitol buildings, for slightly more than $1 billion. The proceeds were to be used to help the state solve its budget crisis. (How the money actually was used should be examined for future news stories.)

The sale of the state buildings included agreements allowing the state to lease the properties back from the buyers for 20 years and eventually regain ownership.

Now, to Lazarus’ email. I’m including his mailing address and phone number:

Larry Lazarus

Lazarus & Associates, P.C.

420 W. Roosevelt St.

Phoenix AZ 85003


I believe that the following notice should be served to the tenants of the State Capital (sic).

Larry Lazarus

Eviction Notice

To the Arizona State Legislature:

Whereas the State of Arizona sold the Capital (sic) building and the new owner leased the building back to the State of Arizona for the intended use of the Arizona State Legislature;

Whereas the tenant (the Arizona State Legislature) has violated the terms, conditions, and good faith intent of that lease;

Therefore, the owner hereby requests that the legislature vacate the premises within 30 days of this notice.

The violations are as follows:

  1. 1. There have been repeated reports of violence on and off the premises; that is, there have been continued evidence of infighting, brawling, accusations, consistent discord and total lack of civility among the residents. This has created a siuation of present and immediate danger to the citizens of Arizona.

  1. 2. Secondly, it has come to the owners attention that there is an inability of the tenants to create a sustainable economic model for the state which, in turn, affects the tenants own stability leaving the owner with the belief that the tenants will not be a good financial risk for the future.

The owner believes that there is an excellent possibility that the owner and citizens of Arizona could find more suitable tenants for the premises. For these and other reasons, the owner is sending this notice. If, however, the tenants are able to cure these breaches within this legislative session, the tenants may continue to occupy the premises.

Good luck.

It is the owner’s sincere hope that the tenants will work together on legislative issues and, specifically, work diligently to fix the existing economic and financial model that has poorly served the citizens of the State of Arizona.

Jan 20th, 2012

Arizona’s Child Homelessness Echoes National Increase

Posted By Mike Padgett

Jan. 14, 2012

TEMPE, Ariz. – Bright futures rarely shine on homeless children in Arizona.

The young runaways fleeing family anger and short tempers hear their own double-time footsteps. Echoing in their ears are their parents’ impatient words clouded with the stress of work, debts, alcohol or drugs.

Do your homework, say their sad-eyed parents, so you can get that diploma. Get a job with a pension. Start a 401k. Don’t end up like us.

Or like the brother or sister who slashed their wrists in desperation over a home foreclosure or failing college classes, sparking a family reunion in the emergency room.

Family troubles are a major factor in child homelessness, says Dr. Randal Christensen, who for the past decade has headed a medical team in the Crews ‘n Healthmobile program providing medical care to homeless youth in metro Phoenix.

Dr. Randal Christensen proposes to expand his program that provides medical care to homeless children and youth in metro Phoenix. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Christensen says a new national report showing a dramatic increase in child homelessness in America mirrors his medical team’s work. The national report says 1 in 45 children are homeless in a year. That, according to the national report, translates into “more than 30,000 children each week, and more than 4,400 each day” nationwide.

Yet, in the face of increasing numbers of homeless youth, there are hopeful signs. More than 20 formerly homeless youth treated by Christensen’s medical team are studying nursing or respiratory therapy.

Another former patient is nearing graduation with a degree in computer science. Christensen describes him as “scary smart now, talking about computer mathematics things I couldn’t even begin to understand.”

Christensen believes many more success stories are waiting to blossom among homeless youth. They walk the same streets as university students and business moguls, but the futures of the homeless are worlds away. Unless they find the door leading to another chance.

“Most of these kids don’t want to be on the streets,” Christensen says. “Most of these kids have to have some sort of help before they can lead those productive lives. Then they can be very productive, taxpaying citizens.”

Christensen is familiar with the new national report, America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010, released Dec. 13 by The National Center on Family Homelessness. The 124-page report, which updates the Center’s earlier study, says 1.6 million children in America are homeless annually.

“This represents an increase of 38 percent during the years impacted by the economic recession (2007 to 2010),” says the new report.

Best, Worst States

Of the 50 states, the National Center ranks Vermont in first place for programs designed to reduce child homelessness. The others in the Top 10 are Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Montana and Iowa.

The bottom ranked states are Georgia, Florida, Nevada, Louisiana, New Mexico, California, Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama.

“The recession has been a manmade disaster for vulnerable children,” Ellen L. Bassuk, MD, president and founder of the National Center and associate professor of psychiatry of Harvard Medical School, said in the report. “There are more homeless children today than after the natural disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which caused historic levels of homelessness in 2006.”

More Foreclosures Projected

The waves of home foreclosures are cited as a key factor in homelessness today in America. And that mortgage problem may be far from over. A story about Wall Street in the January-February 2012 issue of Money magazine suggests more home foreclosures are imminent. And with foreclosures come family displacement, which officials say can lead to homelessness.

The story about Wall Street quotes Laurie Goodman, a respected housing analyst and senior managing director at Amherst Securities, as saying more home foreclosures are expected. She is quoted as saying in addition to the 2.5 million homes that have been foreclosed upon in the current recession, “another 4.5 million mortgage holders have given up paying and are likely to lose their homes….”

The story says home prices are projected to fall a few more percentage points over the next 12 to 18 months. If this scenario occurs, declining home prices can trigger more foreclosures, and the economic forces create more stress on families living on the financial edge.

Many Causes of Homelessness

Christensen says foreclosures are only one falling domino contributing to homelessness. Other causes include joblessness, learning disabilities, insufficient education, and dysfunctional families torn by mental health issues involving a parent, the child, or both.

Despite their efforts to find and keep good jobs, Christensen said, some families become so financially strapped, they are one major car repair or medical emergency away from homelessness.

Since late 2000, Christensen has headed a medical team that offers medical services to homeless children in metro Phoenix.

The Crews’n Healthmobile program offers medical services to homeless youth. The program is a partnership between Phoenix Children’s Hospital and HomeBase Youth Services. Other support is offered by UMOM New Day Centers and Children’s Health Fund.

Christensen says the national study’s findings resemble his medical team’s latest report, completed Jan. 10. His newest annual report shows that his medical team had about 3,000 visits in 2009; 3,700 in 2010; and 4,749 in 2011. In earlier years, the medical team had 2,992 visits in 2008 and 2,273 visits in 2007.

Medical team proposes expansion

The Phoenix medical team’s numbers show that from 2007 to 2011, the number of visits by homeless youth has more than doubled. The ailments often are related to the weather. This time of year in metro Phoenix, they include colds, pneumonia, bronchitis and ear infections. Other sufferings include infected cuts, rashes and sexually transmitted diseases.

Christensen isn’t surprised by the noticeable increases detailed in the new national report. In metro Phoenix over the past year, he has received requests from school principals and superintendents, community representatives, nonprofit agencies and a couple of suburban mayors to visit their cities to provide medical services to homeless youth. Because of the requests for more services, Christensen’s team is proposing to expand the program with more staff and a second Crews’n Healthmobile.

Christensen says proposals to expand the existing medical care program include another medical doctor, another nurse, another case manager, support staff, and a second mobile clinic. Current donors include Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, Walgreen’s, Courtesy Chevrolet, and FedEx.

Christensen says the program’s expansion proposals will need $3.5 million over four years.

Homeless Patient Nearly Crushed

I last talked with Christensen and his team nearly three years ago. I shadowed them over three weekends that year for a story I wrote in April 2009.  Last month, five days before Christmas, I joined Christensen and his team in their mobile clinic for a follow-up interview. The medical team parked their mobile clinic – a 38-foot Winnebago converted into a medical van – near downtown Tempe. It was a Tuesday afternoon, their regular time at this location to treat homeless youth. Christmas was in the air. Business windows sparkled with holiday scenes and ribbons.

Over the next few hours, the medical team saw several homeless patients, ranging up to age 24, the maximum age to qualify for medical care. Between visits, Christensen recounted a young man’s recent story about sleeping in a dumpster and nearly being crushed.

The homeless patient sought treatment for an injured ankle. The patient said he had been looking for a place to sleep out of the rain. In an alley, he found a discarded loveseat next to a dumpster. The youth lifted the loveseat into the dumpster, climbed in, closed the lid and fell asleep. In the cold and rainy weather, the couch inside the dumpster was preferable to crashing in a recessed doorway or on a cardboard mattress.

“He said it was great because it was sort of warm and cozy in there and he was out of the rain, so no rain was coming in,” Christensen says.

Dangerous Awakening

But at sunrise, the homeless man was jarred awake. He felt the dumpster rising. It was going vertical, on the steel arms of a noisy garbage truck. The homeless man in the dumpster knew that within seconds, he and his cozy couch could be compacted.

“So of course he was scared to death, and he jumped,” Christensen says. “He either twisted his ankle or clipped his ankle or the lid closed and grabbed him, so he sort of fell straight down and twisted his ankle. And that’s why he was coming to see us.”

The young man told Christensen the garbage truck driver was equally surprised.

“He said the garbage guy was really nice about it. He jumps out, too. He was scared this guy came out of (the dumpster). So he came and helped him up off the ground and gave him a few bucks.”

How many times the homeless, seeking shelter from rain and cold, survive similar encounters with sanitation crews each day is unknown. What is known is the increase in numbers of homeless youth seeking medical care.

When most metro Phoenix workers either pack their lunches or flip a coin as to where they’ll grab a bite each work day, homeless children develop their own menu. They learn which restaurant garbage containers have the tastiest daily potluck. Christensen and his staff have heard all the gritty stories about dumpster diving.

And if that doesn’t work, these sidewalk souls – whose relationships with their parents turned dark, sour or dangerous – can rely on survival sex for a few bucks to pay for a meal.

Students ‘couch surf’ and sleep on porches

Christensen says school officials tell him about students who survive by sleeping on friends’ couches and porches. After school, the homeless children wander the streets. The homeless students risk being ostracized by their classmates if their homelessness is discovered. Wearing the same clothes every day could be a giveaway.

“You can imagine the stigma that carries, so they try not to tell anybody,” Christensen says. “But they start showing up in the same clothes, and teachers figure it out. They couch surf a lot, so they’ll spend a week with a friend and a week with another friend and a week living on a porch.

“So a lot of the kids we’re seeing here today are staying on somebody’s porch to stay out of the rain,” he says.

Family Feuds Sparked by Economics

Christensen introduced me to one of his older patients, who is 24. Because of the patient’s unique first name, I am withholding it to avoid identifying him. I’ll call him Mike. That isn’t his real name. Mike and I talked outside Christensen’s mobile clinic that day just before Christmas.

Mike says he’s living on the streets because he and his parents are incompatible, and because of the economy.

Mike says he is a high school graduate, with “a little bit of trade school.” He’s been on the streets for a few months. He worked for a short time at Home Depot, and later for Walmart. But because of the shrinking of the jobs market and the implosion of the housing market, Mike found himself among the nation’s jobless and homeless.

“I had a house and a couple cars. I had a house since I was 23. My parents are renting it to somebody at the moment. I got in a lot of fights with my parents about financial situations, jobs, work.”

Mike is well groomed and mannerly. He carries a bulging backpack he says is stuffed with his possessions.

“We fight all the time,” Mike says, referring to his parents. “I had the luxury and freedom I had that early, you know. I lived on my own. I had my own house. Didn’t have to answer to them. We fight over little things. They treat me like I’m 12 and I’m adult. We butt heads. We just can’t live together any more.”

Mike said his parents also are struggling. “Like, I mean they barely make enough money to keep the houses going. They’re renting the other one. They have trouble barely scraping by with enough money to feed the dogs, my brother, themselves, keep the cars going, the mortgage paid. They barely scrape by on the electricity bills. So it’s pretty rough.”

“….somewhere safe and quiet…..”

Mike says he keeps to himself on the streets, largely for personal safety. “I don’t like to get involved with too many other people. Safety, and then you kind of take on everyone else’s problems. Like, it’s hard enough for me to take care of myself right now.”

I asked Mike where he slept or spent the nights. “Wherever I can find somewhere safe and quiet and away from the police.”

“That safe place might be where?” I asked.

“In like a quiet alley or somewhere abandoned,” Mike said. “Stayed in a couple of parking garages. Somewhere generally quiet and where no one would notice you in there. I usually try to keep away from a lot of people at night.

“I’d rather not be around people with more problems,” Mike continued. “It’s like, I’ve got enough of my own.”

I asked Mike where he saw himself in the near future.

“Short term – with a steady job,” he said. “Maybe in an apartment. Get back into a house of my own. Rent a room from somebody. I could start going back to school, learn something, get a career.”

Homelessness Cycle

I thanked Mike for talking with me. He shouldered his backpack and headed down the sidewalk. His optimism was admirable. Back inside the mobile clinic, I asked Christensen about dysfunctional families.

“How do you put an end to this cycle?” I asked. “The kids you’re seeing now someday may have kids of their own.”

“Many of them do,” he said. “And their models of parents are what put them on the street to begin with.”

The cycle of dysfunctional families that can lead to child homelessness is hard to stop, says Dr. Randal Christensen. He and his medical team in their blue mobile home are well known among homeless youth in metro Phoenix. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

“Ask Me Why I Hurt”

Christensen’s experiences with homeless youth in metro Phoenix over the past decade are in his book, “Ask Me Why I Hurt,” first released in April 2011 in hardcover. This year, again in April, his book will be released in paperback. More information about Christensen’s book, his program and its staff can be found on Christensen’s Web site,

Click here to learn your state’s ranking in the new report on child homelessness.

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(Ideas for interesting news stories about Arizona residents and businesses are welcome. Please send ideas and suggestions to

Jan 14th, 2012

Holidays Renewed by Studying Historic Footsteps in California

Posted By Mike Padgett

Jan. 4, 2012

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – A few days before the end of 2011, we set out to study some of the footsteps of the first European pioneers in California. They were the Spanish padres.

We headed west out of Arizona on Interstate 8. Our goal was recharging during the holidays at two historic Catholic missions in San Diego County. The first was Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, called the “king of the missions” because it once covered several acres in what today is Oceanside.

The next day, Christmas Eve, we spent part of the day a few miles south in San Diego at Mission San Diego de Alcala. It’s nickname is “the mother of the missions” because it is considered the birthplace of Christianity in the far West. It was the first of the 21 missions founded, making it California’s first church.

The fountain in front of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside overlooks a peaceful valley in Southern California. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Neither of the two missions is more beautiful than the other. Each has unique characteristics, design and history.

When the missionaries began establishing the string of 21 Spanish missions, most of the Southwest – including California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah – was part of Mexico. Today, the missions are islands of quiet, whether they are in an urban core, in a small town, on a college campus, neglected, or surrounded by urbanization.

Step inside the historic missions and life’s complications slip away. Those jagged edges are polished by the soothing influences of beauty, artistry and history. The solitude inside cushions life’s noise outside. A historic site’s story, its heritage and its headstones have much to offer visitors.

If the missions’ walls and gardens and confessionals and holy water could talk, what stories and music and laughter – and heartache – they could share. Their walls and cemeteries, through many generations, eavesdropped on many words of sorrow and countless desperate prayers for rain and health and good fortune.

Spanish missions

San Luis Rey de Francia was founded in 1798. It was the 18th of the missions. We visited the mission twice during our weeklong adventure. Its location in Oceanside on a gentle south-facing slope makes it ideal for early morning and late evening photos.

San Luis Rey de Francia is decorated for the Christmas holidays in December 2011. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Our first visit to San Luis Rey de Francia was on a Friday, the afternoon before Christmas Eve. We passed adobe ruins of barracks that housed Spanish soldiers who protected the mission. Several colorful piñatas hang on a cable in the parking lot close to the church door. A donkey, a few sheep and some chickens are in shelters in front of the mission, next to the large fountain.

In the 1950s, the mission was the set for several episodes of one of my favorite childhood programs, the Walt Disney television series, “Zorro.”

Inside the church, we were greeted by the lector, who is a volunteer. He welcomes visitors and asks them to sign the register. I stopped at the donation box. The church is requesting donations to help pay for new construction upgrades needed to withstand earthquakes.

The pews at San Luis Rey de Francia will be filled by parishioners, their families and other guests celebrating Christmas. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The church was mostly empty. A woman and a man were busy around the altar, hustling to finish the holiday decorations. A photographer, with his camera on a tripod, waits patiently as visitors meander through his planned photos.

My Best Friend lights candles and offers prayers. I wander and capture photos. She waits for me in a pew near the altar. I read the mission pamphlet about the main altar: “To the left of San Luis Rey is the Archangel San Miguel or Saint Michael. To the right is the statue of San Raphael or Saint Raphael. Both statues are polychrome wooden sculptures dating from the mid-18th Century.”

It goes on to say the central crucifix is from Nicaragua and it dates to the 1700s. Overhead, the wooden dome and ceiling were replaced in the 1930s. On the right is a side altar with a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. The left side altar includes a sculpture that, according to the pamphlet, “depicts the suffering Christ just before his crucifixion.”

There is energy here. I imagine the dedication and beliefs of the holy men, their parishioners and the craftsmen involved in each mission’s founding, construction and painting.

A short time later, we leave the church to visit the mission museum and the gardens. We see the oldest pepper tree in California, planted by Father Antonio Peyri, who founded the mission. He received the seeds in 1830 from a sailor from Peru.

The pepper tree, framed by the arch, was planted from seeds received in 1830 from a Peruvian sailor. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

I slip into wander mode again, looking for more photo angles in the late afternoon sun. I head toward the cemetery gate, but then I stop. Ahead is a young couple helping an elderly man struggle with his walker from their car to the cemetery. His arms were straight on his walker. His head, sporting a ball cap, was bowed. He appeared focused on his feet. His slow and unsteady steps were the lengths of his shoes. Maybe he was struggling with age. Maybe he was recovering from knee surgery. I can wait.

Later, my Best Friend joins me. We enter the cemetery, where we pass a jovial man who says, “I’ve been coming here for 30 years, and nothing changes.” I suppose he was saying people live and people die, and in between we leave flowers by headstones.

Above the cemetery gate is a skull and crossbones design which, according to mission literature, often is found at Franciscan cemeteries. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

As we walk the cemeteries at the missions, we read some of the headstones. Some date to each mission’s earliest years. I wonder about the goals and achievements of those named on the headstones. I walk between the gravesites so I don’t disturb them.

San Luis Rey de Francia cemetery. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The sun was getting low in the sky. We walk the grounds, enjoying the quiet, the cemetery’s water features, and the cumulative history in the headstones. Our batteries were recharging.

Back at our hotel in Carlsbad, after downloading and studying my photos, I make plans to return to the mission to photograph angles I overlooked. We plan to wait until a day or two after Christmas for a second visit.

San Diego de Alcala is about 6 miles northeast of downtown San Diego. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

On the morning of Christmas Eve, we visited Mission San Diego de Alcala. The mission was founded in 1769 at a site overlooking San Diego Bay. Because of insufficient water for crops and because “the soil was not fertile enough and the American Indians were intimidated by the military,” the mission was moved a few miles to its present site in San Diego in 1774, according to the mission’s history on its Web site.

Over the years, we’ve visited several of the 21 Spanish missions in California. Admittedly, in some cases, history shows that church leadership sometimes was oppressive. I am hopeful that in most situations, religious leadership was respectful.

The interior of San Diego de Alcala. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

We’re attracted to the missions because of their historic importance and their religious significance. California’s known history began with the padres. We find balance in silent walks through history. We are two souls in awe, treading ancient clay tiles, admiring the American West heritage that dates to the 1700s and 1800s. In whispers, we point out the brush strokes in the mission paintings and the skills reflected in the woodwork, the iron hinges and latches, the tiny gardens, and the stone paths.

Gardens at the Spanish missions usually have flowers blooming, like this red star-shaped gem in the garden at Mission San Diego de Alcala. Be sure to carry a camera. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Through the years, we have enjoyed many regions of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington, from Taos and Canyon de Chelly to San Diego, Portland and Seattle. But there are so many more rainbows, beaches, trails, historic sites and seafood restaurants to enjoy.

When we travel, our itineraries remain fluid, like the spontaneity of jazz and blues. Each creative chord is at our fingertips and in our hearts, awaiting freedom.

And for those quiet sanctuaries we find along our way, whether in a sunbeam in the woods or in the afternoon shadows of a historic mission, we carry a book or two.

Long way home

Our return to Arizona offered a different view of California history. We planned a longer route back home, taking a detour from Carlsbad to Escondido and up the gentle mountain slope to Julian, a historic gold mining town.

The eastbound freeway from Carlsbad ends in Escondido. There, our route morphed into a two-lane state highway that, in places, reminded us of Arizona roads near Sedona, Globe or Oracle. The narrow California highway had a few hairpin curves where a rabbit could keep pace.

In Julian, we stopped for lunch at The Fajita Grill. It’s on Main Street. Google its name for more information. I ordered a chicken chimichanga. It was so hearty, I skipped dinner later that day. When you visit Julian, skip breakfast so you can indulge yourself at the restaurant.

Later, we tried to buy an apple pie in Julian at one of the pie shops, for which the old mining town has become famous. But the lines were too long. At one shop, the line was 30 deep.

It was time to head home. On slower roads, like the one east from Julian to Interstate 8, tree leaves and flowers were close enough to count. We saw livestock feeding at their troughs.

At Lake Cuyamaca, we saw people enjoying the day in rowboats and barbecuing on shore. Others sat in lawn chairs around RVs in the parking areas. The few parking spaces at the lakeside restaurant were full.

The sun set behind us as we headed east into Arizona on I-8. We saw that the stars still were aligned. Slower roads give us time to pause, to think about the stormy and smooth roads we’ve traveled, to continue admiring nature, to share more miles.

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Jan 4th, 2012
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