On The Hilltop

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There’s a hilltop in Bisbee, Arizona, just a few miles north of the Mexican border. It sits over Brewery Gulch, casting its shadow over the canyon homes. The last several months I lived in Bisbee I was in a deeply disturbing relationship and everything around me seemed to be in chaos, but I would hike up to the cross on the hill every morning with my dog and enjoy the quiet and the peace.

I’m not a religious man, but I believe in the power of intention. I’d heard stories about the man who built this shrine, decades ago, and about the effort it took, hauling concrete and materials, an armload at a time, from Tombstone Canyon up to the hilltop. In the years since the cross was erected, other people have added onto the shrine. The ashes of peoples’ loved ones have been spread there, piles of candles have been left on the backside of the hill where a shrine to the Guadalupe Virgin has been built. A mural of Jesus is painted on the side of the hill and a monument to the people who have died in the desert trying to cross into America has been established; at the site, people deposit items found in the desert, left behind by border crossers, from backpacks and worn-out shoes to tooth brushes and baby bottles.

My heart is still in the Mule Mountains, even if it’s no longer in Bisbee. I will never forget the brief moments, sitting on the hilltop on those silent mornings, watching the sun rise over the desert.

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The Walking Dead – “Not Tomorrow Yet”

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The most recent episode of “The Walking Dead” once again establishes a sense of peaceful domesticity for the citizens of Alexandria, this time focusing on Carol. It opens with her going through the food pantry, plucking cans from the rack, and gathering acorns in the forested area outside the town walls. The pleasant jaunty folk music doesn’t pause when Carol has to…to machete a walker who interrupts her errand. She sighs at the blood spray on her white blouse in a manner one might expect from tracking mud into the house; there’s a nonchalance, a sense of normality, a sense of frustrated routine.

What the episode establishes here, with it’s folk music & baking montage, is still relatively new. It’s contrasting Carol’s struggle with adapting to living a real life (as opposed to the life she and the group have been forced to live, trying to survive on the road). From the third-person omnipotence of our living-rooms, we already know that Rick and the group are on their way back to the community from The Hilltop. We know that the people of Alexandria are going to have to prepare for war. We know that Carol is going to have to put down the cookies. It’s going to be time to kill people – again.

Carol has her moment with Tobin, we see her smile for the first time in what seems like an eternity, but then the RV pulls up. Her peaceful moment comes to a halt. And these are the rhythms of “The Walking Dead.” As director Greg Nicotero explains: “It becomes ‘Die Hard’ from here on out.”

And he isn’t joking when he says that.

Rick rallies the troops and they plan their attack on Negan’s outpost. A lot happens in this episode, but we still get the feeling that the writers and show-runners are still just setting up all the chess pieces. Glenn loses his innocence by killing his first living human, an action that coincides with plot-points in the comic book. Does this loss of innocence put a target on Glenn’s head, or will the television series diverge from the events of the (already-published) graphic novels in order to keep the audience guessing and the narrative fresh? If so, this certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

And what of Abraham? Since the beginning of the season he’s been showing greater and greater signs of caving into survival stress. He appears unable to adapt to his environment, has private emotional fits, and struggles to understand how or why Glenn & Maggie would actually elect to have a child in this brave new world. There have been moments of drunkenness, abandon, and pathos, as well as moments of unnecessary risk-taking. There was also the PTSD fever-dream on the rooftop with the RPG-strapped walker (an encounter which ultimately saved his life during the encounter with Negan’s foot soldiers on the highway). The show reintroduced Abraham’s problems in last weeks’ episode, and we now see him turning his back on Rosita in a brutal, heartbreaking fashion. He’s a fighter, there’s no doubt, and certainly not a bad man. But the show has gone to great lengths to illustrate that he is a man slowly coming undone. My prediction is that we had all better start saying our goodbyes; he isn’t getting out of the season alive.

If you think I’m wrong, feel free to let me know what you think is going to happen in the comment section below.

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The Walking Dead – “Knots Untie”

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“Your world is about to get a lot bigger.”

These are the words of Jesus, the previous episode’s newest addition to “The Walking Dead.” And he isn’t joking. The world is about to expand for all of the Alexiandrians as news of other settlements is revealed. As the back-half of season six leaped forward in time, we’re also beginning to get the sense that the walkers are getting ready for a massive die-off. This is hinted at in the comic book series as well; most walkers were made during the initial wave at the beginning of the series, and a rotting body doesn’t last forever. Those who have carefully observed, each season has brought with it walkers in more and more advanced stages of decomposition. The walkers in season six are soft, sticky heaps of bone, showing evidence of butyric fermentation and advanced decay.

It can safely be assumed that walkers, while eminently dangerous, are becoming less of a threat. The more significant threat comes from other survivors, scrambling to organize, secure resources, and defend themselves. We already know how dangerous The Governor was, and we know what happened to the settlement at Terminus. The apocalypse appears to have polarized the survivors, splitting them into one of two distinct groups: weakened survivors (like the Alexandrians) and ruthless tyrants and bands of highwaymen (like the leadership at Woodbury, the cannibals at Terminus, and the raiders led by Negan). Rick and his group have managed to stay somewhere in-between these two extremes, and “The Walking Dead” is constantly examining the morale, and moral turpitude, of the group.

At the invitation of Jesus, Rick and his cohort embark to a community called “The Hilltop” with hopes of striking a trade agreement to solve their food shortage. With the threat of famine looming over them, they have little choice than to risk following their new acquaintance.

The roads aren’t swollen with walkers, but the group is wary that Jesus may be planning an ambush. Rick’s caution is understandable. In fact, the entire ‘Alexandria’ story arc of seasons five and six was intended to illustrate Rick’s developing instincts. We watched him become the capable alpha, a charge he is at first reluctant to assume over the coddled, frightened residents of Alexandria.

In “Knots Untie,” we see who Rick has really become. No longer wrestling with his morals, he is literally baptized in blood. It is perfectly natural for “The Walking Dead” to invite violence immediately upon the group’s arrival at a new sanctuary. The people of The Hilltop are cautious, weak survivors, not unlike how the people of Alexandria were. When one of The Hilltop’s scavengers attempts to assassinate their leader, Gregory, in exchange for the release of his brother (who has been kidnapped by Negan), it is Rick who swiftly intervenes. After knifing a hole into the man’s neck and a literal bloodbath – a spectacle of violence unfamiliar to the stunned villagers – Rick looks around, practically shrugging, and says, quite earnestly, “What?”

It’s a laugh-worthy moment, but a telling one, too. It explains exactly how Rick and his people view the world, from a firm black-and-white perspective: try to hurt me, I will kill you. Period.

The incident is off-putting to the people of The Hilltop; after all, Rick killed one of their people, even the man ultimately was a danger to the community. But this doesn’t prevent the two groups from coming to an agreement. Burdened with paying tribute to Negan in exchange for peace, The Hilltop has been existing under the thumbs of a tyrant. Rather than attempt to broker peace with the Negan and his gang, Rick accepts a kill mission. In fact, he is the chief architect of the kill mission.

“We’ve never had a problem with confrontation,” Rick says. And we know that’s true. The group has a base of operations, lethal skills, and an offer of protection for The Hilltop in exchange for foodstuffs. All-out war is on the horizon.

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The tension is building quickly. Abraham’s narrative begins to resurface – a thread that was dropped before the mid-season finale – and we’re reminded of his tenuous grasp with reality. Along with his irrational risk-taking while guiding the mega-herd away from Alexandria, we see him wearing that curious smile once again. As the bloodshed we expect from the season finale approaches, it wouldn’t be surprising to see our militant slugger marked for death.

We also see Maggie taking a leadership role, acting as the chief negotiator with the knife-wounded Gregory. She recognizes that The Hilltop’s leader, a lecherous coward of a man, has little leverage. She confronts him head-on, standing her ground, reminding us that despite being visibly pregnant, she is a force to be reckoned with.

The group is comfortable with violence. We know this. Combat with Negan and The Saviors is acceptable if it means forging lasting peace with The Hilltop. Establishing safe trade routes between farming communities is the next step toward long-term survival. But I think we all know that the group is underestimating how dangerous Negan really is.

Time will certainly tell.

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February 26 – Hilltop

02-26 Xavier Hilltop post“The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you have given away.”

~Marcus Aurelius

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This is my meditation spot, and this is certainly not the only photograph I’ve made of it. Up on the hill overlooking the San Xavier Mission outside of Tucson is a shrine to the Guadalupe Virgin and a large white cross. You can hear the faint whisper of the highway off in the distance, and you can see a cluster of Downtown Tucson buildings on the horizon.

This is the place to watch the sunset. This is the place to find one’s center. Just thinking about it, looking on the pictures I’ve made there with my Yashica TLR camera, I feel a calm washing over me. I look forward to going out there again. Soon.

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February 19 – Liberty

02-19 Liberty postOne of the little tricks film photographers sometimes employ is known as “cross processing,” in which slide film is developed using chemicals designed to for regular color film. The results vary, but are characterized by a dramatic color shift, with punched-out contrast and deep tonal saturation. These effects can be applied to digital images with relative ease using editing software like Photoshop; the film photographer, however, is forced to accept the final result rather than having the opportunity to endlessly tweak the effect in post production.

Basically, cross processing is controlled chaos. It’s a method of embracing “happy accidents.”

This photograph was made in Jerome, Arizona, a small mining town outside of Prescott Valley in the Black Hills of Yavapai County. The copper mining operation saw a huge boom in the 1920s, pushing the population to around ten thousand. Today there are only about five hundred people, but it gets a lot of traffic from Phoenix – it’s a wonderful weekend getaway. I’ve always enjoyed walking around and looking at the old buildings, the narrow alleys, and the wrecks of brick rotting on the hillsides. It is a quiet place with a rich history. If you’re lucky, you might even bump into Tool and Puscifer front-man Maynard James Keenan, who moved to Jerome to start a winery in the early 2000s.

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