Saturday, December 22, 2012

Zion in Winter

Life has a way of keeping us unexpectedly busy.  It also has a penchant for overtaking our free time, hence, my recent absence from blogging. I do, however, have some good photos to share, which will hopefully make up for the lack of words.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Zion National Park in Utah. Most hikers prefer to take on the trails during the summer months; I, however, love the winter. The snow, fog, and even the rain all offer extraordinarily unique scenes.  The barren trees pierce into the sky like skeletal fingers grasping for something just out of reach, and the fast moving clouds offer ever-changing sights that disappear just as quickly as they come into being.

The mountains of Zion offer spectacular views in any season. The peaks are only enhanced by the dark, stormy clouds. The variety of trees and foliage are so diverse that you may see evergreens intermingled with contrasting barren, leafless varieties.

Another advantage to the winter visit is the lack of tourists. In the summer, the trails are crowded, the prices in nearby Springdale are more than double the off season rates, and the heat is only slightly less intense than in Las Vegas. I much prefer the quiet, lonely trails of wintertime.

Angel's Landing

Canyon Overlook

Canyon Overlook

Weeping Rock

Off trail, along the Virgin River

Angel's Landing

Court of the Patriarchs

Weeping Rock

Weeping Rock

Weeping Rock

Sunday, November 18, 2012


Coffinwood is just the type of place you always expect to find in one of these little rural Nevada towns but never do. Well, if you are ever driving through Pahrump, you just might stumble upon it. Coffinwood is not only one of the only places you can still purchase a wooden coffin, made to fit, but also any other item you can conjure up can be made coffin shaped. Out of Coffinwood, Bryan and Dusty Schoening run a coffin making business called Coffin It Up.

Many of their clientele are Europeans who want a traditional burial. While coffins have fallen out of fashion here in the U.S. and have been replaced with caskets, across the pond, wooden coffins are still widely used. Considering the variety of different cultures on the continent, it is difficult to find a mass producer that can appeal to all of them. Coffin It Up has the advantage, as every one of their coffins is hand made and customized  to every customer’s tastes and preferences.

An example of a traditional Jewish coffin
made by the South Brooklyn Casket Company
They also serve the Jewish community of Nevada. According to Halakah, a Jew should be buried in a solid pine coffin, called an “Aron” (ארון), with holes drilled on the bottom to accelerate decomposition. The necessity of the coffin being made only of wood is derived from Genesis 3:8 “Adam and his wife hid themselves. . . amongst [literally, ‘within’] the trees of the garden."(2) Of course, there are kosher caskets available through most funeral homes, but if there is preference for a traditional coffin, Coffin It Up is the only place to get one in the entire state.

One thing that is emphasized at Coffinwood is the difference between a coffin and a casket.

Although these two words are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between a coffin and a casket.  A proper coffin is wider at the shoulder and tapers toward the feet.  This was felt to be a prudent saving of costly wood as there was no need for width all the way to the bottom.  This style is still to be found in Europe today. Coffins were sometimes very simple pine boxes, unlined and unadorned. Fancier models were lined, had a coffin plate of brass or silver with the deceased’s name and dates and sometimes a sentiment such as ‘Our Darling’ or ‘Beloved Wife’, and had three metal handles on each side for the six pallbearers to grasp on the way to the grave. Graves were sometimes lined with fir branches, and after the coffin was lowered, bricked over to discourage graverobbers or other disturbance.  It was not unusual for cabinet or furniture makers to do a brisk side trade in coffin making.                                                    -- Friends of Oak Grove Cemetery (1)

It is not surprising that Bryan was a carpenter prior to becoming a coffin maker and has even made custom coffin shaped cabinets for a Las Vegas client. He became intrigued with the coffin shape because of the challenge it presented. Although the shape is always the same, the actual angles are always different because they change according to the overall length of the coffin. Unlike a casket, each coffin is slightly different.

One tradition the Schoening's have started is to have a New Years celebration where they bury a small coffin their yard to commemorate the passing of the previous year. They, as well as any guest of the event, toss in the coffin one thing that they want to get over in the new year. This is a very ingenious alternative to the common New Years Resolution. The small tombstones in the above photo are the markers for these coffins.

 The Cemetery is divided into two parts. The first is a faux cemetery; no one is actually buried there. It consists of headstones made by Bryan with his favorite epitaphs (mostly humorous ones from Europe). There are also donated headstones from people who have replaced older stones of loved ones and needed a place for them. Bryan said that some locals have memorial markers here for loved ones who are buried out of state. This way they have a way of remembering them without having to travel long distances to do so. The second half is an active pet cemetery.

Bryan is primarily an artist. He does in fact create more than just coffins. He is creating a cave from imitation rock behind their house and has altered one of their numerous mannequins into a wind powered scarecrow. Transforming medical skeletons into unique zombie creatures is also one of his hobbies.

Dusty collects hearses also. They have restored a small fleet of them, many of which have been customized in the process. They now have a few very rare editions.

The above hearse is their most recent addition. It was being used as a chicken coop in nearby Sandy Valley and has not been completely restored yet. However, it looks like it has already come a long way, considering. As you may have guessed, the grey structure with the skull and coffins painted on, is Bryan's workshop.

I have noticed that the Schoening’s are frequently described as “death obsessed,” however, they insist that this is simply not the case. Dusty says it is just their lifestyle; they enjoy the eerie, morbid décor and atmosphere, but that is all. They are not devil worshipers or serial killers.

The day that I visited, they had just finished their newest addition to their yard: a coffin shaped greenhouse. This is likely the first and only coffin greenhouse anywhere on Earth.

Coffinwood is also home to The Church of the Coffin. That’s right, even religion can be shaped into a coffin. It is not an unreasonable idea either; their explanation is that all people can relate to the coffin as death is the great equalizer. The poor and rich, and the good and evil all die just the same, in the end. The coffin is a constant reminder of our mortality; what better memento mori than a coffin? They are a legally recognized church, so if you are looking for a unique wedding, they can certainly oblige. Their coffin-shaped gazebo is a popular choice for them.

Tours are by appointment only, so feel free to schedule one with the Schoening’s at:
Visit their website: Coffin It Up



Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Devastation of Cathedral Canyon and The Life of Queho

From my personal collection, 2012
“May the warm winds of heaven blow softly on this canyon and may the great spirit bless all who enter here.” -- From the sign over the entrance to Cathedral Canyon

A few miles outside of Pahrump and fifty miles from Las Vegas lies the remnants of what was once known as Cathedral Canyon. Twenty years ago, the sight of it would have been awe-inspiring; stained glass windows adorned the natural crevices in the canyon's walls, small statues blended in with mesquite trees, and the whole place was lit by Victorian style streetlamps. Now, after years of vandalism, looting, and neglect, only a few empty stone alcoves and a horribly desecrated, headless Christ are all that remain of it.

I first visited this sanctuary in the desert in the early 1990s in its heyday. My parents and a family friend decided to take me there one night on a whim. After driving for what seemed like forever through the pitch black desert, we pulled into a gravel parking lot. It was only then that the lights from inside the canyon became visible. A large wooden staircase led you down into the canyon; the Christ of the Andes statue was the first thing to greet you, and a guestbook was located at its feet at the bottom of the stairs. The ledger revealed that within the past few months, visitors from around the world had been there. Laminated placards were littered throughout the walkways with quotes from an assortment of spiritual leaders, philosophers, and world leaders. There were wooden benches to sit on while meditating, praying, or just to relax on in this Eden in the Desert. There were no night watchmen or entrance fees and it was open twenty four hours a day, three hundred sixty five days a year; Cathedral Canyon was a gift to the world, to be enjoyed by any and all alike.

The Staircase prior to its Destruction
As it Appears Today, From my personal collection, 2012

The Turnoff to Cathedral Canyon circa 1990
Today, From my personal collection, 2012

Another Stock Photo Showing its Original State
TodayFrom my personal collection, 2012

From my personal collection, 2012
From my personal collection, 2012

Cathedral Canyon was the dream of a man named Roland Wiley. Originally from Iowa, Wiley moved to Las Vegas in 1929 after obtaining a law degree two years prior. In 1936 he bought the 14,000 square foot ranch in Pahrump where the canyon would later be created. While the area looks flat and featureless, there are numerous small box canyons, mesas, and hills hidden throughout. This inspired him to rename the estate Hidden Hills Ranch.

In the 1960s Wiley began the transformation of one of these box canyons into the cathedral, opening it to the public in 1972. It is said that he conceived the idea in 1955 while traveling through Guatemala, where he saw a church that was devastated by an earthquake.

The Christ statue is a smaller replica of Christ the Redeemer of the Andes. The original is on the boarder of Argentina and Chile, high in the Andes mountains. It is visited by pilgrims from all nearby countries and has been declared a National Historic Monument of Argentina. This one, however, seems to be used primarily for target practice now; its torso is peppered with bullet holes and shotgun pellets. I have no doubt that the perpetrators call themselves “Christians,” and are likely completely ignorant of the irony of their actions.
Christ of the Andes at Cathedral Canyon Today, 
From my personal collection, 2012

Christ the Redeemer of the Andes

A 200 ft suspension bridge once stretched across the canyon, the first addition to the canyon by Wiley. It was modeled after the Golden Gate Bridge. This is the only trace left of it:

From my personal collection, 2012

At the east end of the canyon was a man made waterfall. Wiley installed a water pump to circulate the water from the small pond up to the top of the canyon where it would cascade back down, transforming the dry walls of the box canyon into a lush grotto. The homage to The Sermon On The Mound can still be made out. In the now dry pond, it appears that someone had made a small bonfire at some point; that was the only sign of altercation to that area, with the exception of natural erosion. I am slightly surprised, in a good way, that the paved walls were not spray painted with graffiti.

Detail of the Sermon on the Mound,
From my personal collection, 2012

The Waterfall, From my personal collection, 2012

I did not notice any trace of broken glass anywhere in the canyon. I hope that this is a sign that the stained glass was removed from the canyon and not simply smashed by vandals. One can only hope.

After Wiley’s death in 1994, his surviving family members did want to preserve the canyon, but due to a lack of funds were unable to. A caretaker was employed by the family for a few years, but that was not enough to prevent vandalism. The family did offer to sell the canyon to the Pahrump Valley Chamber of Commerce, but they did not have the funding to make the purchase.1

This small canyon was and is a templum in the truest sense of the word, a sacred place cut off from the world in honor of the universal, unnamed Spirit understood by all of humanity. While most of the symbolism was Christian, it was clear that there was no doctrine or specific religion being endorsed. It is a shame that future generations will never experience the wonder that was Cathedral Canyon.

From my personal collection, 2012
"Lest we forget, the true value of our coming to this place lies not in finding a new landscape but in having new eyes. It is my hope that this cathedral under the skies will give to you a set of new eyes, and a whole new way of seeing things." -- From a sign at Cathedral Canyon written by Roland Wiley 

The only thing not altered at Cathedral Canyon is the grave marker of Queho, The Last Renegade Indian. Queho (pronounced Key-Ho) is one of the most fascinating figures of Southern Nevada's history. His father was unknown and his mother died shortly after giving birth to him and his brother, Steve Tecope (Tecope is largely forgotten, as he was said to have lived a peaceful life. However, on July 27, 1931, he fatally shot a Japanese man near Searchlight, NV, and was sentenced to life in prison.2). Their mother is said to have committed suicide by jumping into the Colorado river. Their father was rumored to have been everything from a Mexican miner, a White soldier, to an Arapaho, or Paiute brave. Their mother was a Cocopah, and the only thing all of the rumors have in common is that their father was anything but a Cocopah tribesman. Queho was raised by his mother's relatives on the Las Vegas Paiute reservation.

From my personal collection, 2012
From my personal collection, 2012

One thing we know for sure is that Queho suffered from a foot deformity, probably clubfoot, that gave him a distinctive gait. This deformity was considered a bad omen by the Paiutes; his physical ailment coupled with his questionable lineage and possibly mixed blood caused him to be an outcast from early childhood.

He also had a stepbrother named Avote, or sometimes Ahvote, who was accused of “going on a rampage” and murdering some local Whites. Queho led the hunt for him and killed him. Queho was seventeen years old at the time. Two conflicting accounts say that Queho cut off either the hand (which was unique due to a missing finger, Avote’s most distinct feature) or head of Avote as proof that the fugitive was executed. It is interesting that both stepbrothers were distinguished for having malformed limbs (Queho’s foot and Avote’s finger), and both were wanted murderers.

It is said that Queho was an introverted and unhappy youth. Likely, this is how he got the name “Queho,” as in Spanish quejo translates as “complain.” It is unknown when he became known by this name, and his birth name is unknown, as well.

No one knows for sure when Queho was born, although he was still a fairly young man in 1910, when he is accused of his first murder. Over the next ten years, he was suspected of at least twenty-three murders and countless thefts, burglaries, and all around mischief. Law enforcement sent out a number of posses to catch Queho, who lived somewhere in the Eldorado Canyon area. All were fruitless. Queho’s name became synonymous with the boogeyman; mothers would use it to scare unruly children.

Essentially, any crime committed in Southern Nevada was blamed on him, despite a lack of evidence. Needless to say, he never received a trial for any of the crimes pinned on him, and many, then and now, are skeptical of his actual guilt. There is at least one recorded encounter with him that implies that he was not as evil as the newspapers would have us believe.

One afternoon, a local miner came into a clearing near Timber Mountain and there, seated on a rock, his .30-30 rifle across his lap, was the 'ignorant savage' himself. Fred Pine, who had known Queho in Las Vegas, greeted him in his most amiable tone of voice. Queho responded in kind, no animosity in his voice. So they did lunch. Pine dug out a bag of sandwiches, and passed some of them to Queho. When he had finished, Queho told Pine that he, too, wanted to share his lunch, and produced a dried rodent of some sort. Pine gracefully declined. After about a half-hour, he decided to try and make an exit. He said good-bye and walked away, expecting to be felled at any moment. He wasn't.
‘I guess he just wasn't in a killing mood that day,’ Pine later recalled. -- Las Vegas Review Journal 3

After 1919, he suddenly disappeared. Over the next twenty years, there was no trace of him. However, in February 1940, his mummified corpse was found in a cave in Black Canyon (near Hoover Dam) by two prospectors. He was estimated to have been dead about six months and had possibly died from a snakebite (one leg was wrapped with a strip of burlap, indicating first aid taken prior to death).

Taken at Quejo's Death cave
That’s when the story gets strange. The mummy was put on public display in a series of places. First, by the sheriff’s department, “for identification purposes,”  where anyone who wanted to could gawk at him, and then by Palm funeral home after his remains were eventually turned over to them (interesting side note: Roland Wiley is buried at the Palm Memorial Park). The funeral home put the remains into a glass coffin and stored it on site for about three years. Finally, the Elks Lodge ended up with the body and used it as a display in the annual Helldorado Days Parade. They would drive the mummy in the back of a convertible in the parade and then deposit it in a replica of the death cave, which included many of the actual artifacts from it.

After many years of this spectacle, the body and artifacts were stolen from the Elks Lodge and later found in a wash. The artifacts were never recovered. It has been suggested that the theft was a hoax and that the Elks Lodge wanted to get rid of the decomposing remains but did not want to spend the money on a real burial.

At this time, Roland Wiley, disgusted by the disrespect shown to Queho, bought the remains (now quite literally a bag of bones) for $100, and gave them a proper burial at Cathedral Canyon. But, according to locals, this is not his actual grave. Rumor has it that Wiley erected this memorial at the rim of the canyon, but secretly buried Queho at an undisclosed location elsewhere on his ranch. I am told that the site is marked, but difficult to find.

One detail I noticed was that the marker gives the year 1919 as the year of death. Initially, local law enforcement, in an attempt to save face, stated that Queho had been deceased since 1919 and simply lay undiscovered until 1940. We know this to be false. There were items in the cave with Queho's body that dated to the late 1930s, such as stolen blasting caps from the construction crew at Hoover Dam.

It is a tribute to Roland Wiley’s character that he gave Queho a final resting place, no matter where it is. Regardless of what crimes Queho did or did not commit during his life, he was still a human being and his remains deserved to be treated with common decency. The epitaph on the marker reads “He lived alone,” and I cannot think of anything more fitting for a man who lived what must have been a difficult and lonely life.

Despite the fact that Cathedral Canyon is now in ruins, an empty shell of what it once was, there are still many people who remember its former glory. Even though it is greatly changed, its spirit is untouched. The peacefulness of the canyon is undeniable; whether it naturally arises form the canyon or is just leftover from the goodwill and sacred trappings brought there by Wiley makes no difference. This is still a sacred place, and it will continue to be until the sun ceases to rise and the warm desert winds no longer carry the shifting sands of time.


I visited Cathedral Canyon again recently in August, 2015 at night and took a short video clip of it. I thought it looked kind of cool so I'll share it here for you're viewing pleasure:

In Memory of Roland H. Wiley 5/30/1904 - 8/15/1994
"Blessed Are Those Who Dream Dreams, and Make Them Come True"





Other Sources:

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Wendigo

Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” is not what I expected. Before going into the story, I knew the Wendigo was a werewolfesque creature of Native American mythology and expected that to be what the story was about. Having read Blackwood before, I should have known better. Instead, this is a deeply psychological journey into the dark recesses of the mind.

The tale begins with a group of four men going on a hunting trip in northern Canada. Simpson, the young protagonist, and his uncle, the wise psychologist, Dr. Cathcart, team up with Hank and Dfago as their guides into the backwoods. The trouble begins when they split up into two groups (the doctor and Hank in one, and Dfago and Simpson in the other) to cover more ground. After behaving strangely, Dfago disappears into the night, leaving Simpson to fend for himself.

No story better encompasses the dread of nature felt by the late Victorians than this novella. The ever rational, modern men of science are confronted with the unimaginable power of nature and, although Dr. Cathcart is able to explain away some of the events, even he is still left baffled by the end. It doesn’t take long for the Canadian wilderness to transform into a primordial realm where man is prey to shadowy undreamt of creatures. Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” comes to mind as a similar example.

When Simpson is alone, paranoia sets in. He begins imagining that he is being stalked by something in the woods, that it is peering from behind boulders as he passes, waiting for the right moment to strike. Perhaps it is just imagination, but who can say? It is easy to write off those feelings while safely surrounded by the city, but alone in the deep woods, the sun setting, those lines that separate the possible from the supernatural can become very blurry.

The Wendigo of Algonquian mythology was basically vampiric in nature. They appeared emaciated and always starving; no matter how much they consumed they wanted more. They were also closely associated with cannibalism; they fed on other people. The Wendigo gave off a distinct odor of decomposition, death, and corruption. Blackwood incorporated the odor as a key element in the story. One turned into a Wendigo by engaging in cannibalism, but you could also become possessed by a Wendigo spirit in a dream. Once turned, the victim would have an insatiable desire to eat human flesh.

It is easy to think that the Wendigo was simply a boogeyman to the Algonquian; however it was much more real to them than you may think. Wendigo Psychosis is a “culture-bound disorder formerly of the Algonquian tribes of North America which involves an intense craving for human flesh—even when other food sources are readily available—and the fear that one will turn into a cannibal. The condition has waned with urbanisation.”1 There have been a number of documented instances where a tribesman contracts this neurosis, usually resulting in the murder of his family.

One example is the case of Swift Runner. In 1879 he was hung at Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Canada, after killing and eating a total of nine people. These included his wife, mother, brother, and six children over the course of  the winter of 1878.

According to accounts, he wandered alone into the Catholic Mission in St. Albert in the spring of 1879, claiming to be the only member of his family who didn't starve to death over a particularly cold, bitter winter.
The priests became suspicious when they realized that Swift Runner, who weighed around 200 pounds, didn't seem malnourished at all and was plagued with screaming fits and nightmares as he slept. He told them he was being tormented by an evil spirit, called Windigo, but said little else about it.
They reported their misgivings to police, who took Swift Runner to his family campground in the woods northeast of Edmonton, where they made a horrific discovery - the site was littered with bones, bits of flesh and hair. Some accounts claim that the larger bones had even been snapped and the marrow sucked out.
He eventually confessed that he shot some of his family, bludgeoned others with an axe and even strangled one girl with a cord. In some accounts, Swift Runner said he fed one boy human flesh before he too was killed.2
Swift Runner, Taken Prior to His Execution

The Wendigo of Blackwood, however, preferred to consume men’s minds over their flesh. After seeing the Wendigo, the victim was left essentially brain dead, his mind completely gone; nothing but a shell of a person remained.

It is imperative to note that when reading literature from another era, it is important to remember not to judge it by modern standards and sensibilities. Blackwood presented the characters as they were, uncouth language and all. The character Hank does use the “N” word and the Native American cook has a derogatory sounding name, “Punk,” which was likely meant to be comic. This would, rightly so, be deemed offensive today, but in 1910 things were quite different. This story would not have raised any eyebrows and Blackwood was no racist for he merely used the language of his time.

The next time you go camping, be sure to bring a copy and read it with everyone gathered around a campfire.


1. Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.


~ The entire novella can be read for free online here: The Wendigo