Arizona was supposed to be a place Nancy Elliott passed through on her way from Ohio to California. Barely out of high school at the time, she was heading west to work a seasonal job at the CA state park system.
But the desert spoke to her.
Not that she was surprised. Elliott has written poetry and stories since she could write, and since age 13 she has played the guitar and written her own songs. Many of her songs were inspired by the land around her, its history and inhabitants.
Now it was the Southwest’s turn to tell her its story.
“From the moment I entered Arizona, the Great Sonoran Desert tugged at my sleeve, demanding I pay attention and listen to what she had to say,” Elliott said. “It was easy to do as I was instantly smitten by her expansive views which pulled on my eyes, making me sit taller in an attempt to see what was beyond that mesa over there, or just how far flung were those huge boulders on either side of the Interstate. Saguaros, cholla, ocotillo and the rose-gold hills begged me to stop and take a closer look. Constantly turning my head to see out all of the windows and behind me in the mirrors, it was a pure miracle I did not wreck or cause a wreck.”
On her road trip, she had stopped at a long-abandoned adobe diner gas station to use the payphone (it was the 1970s) to call her parents Elliott imagined the diner in its heyday.
In her mind, she could hear the station bell alert the attendant as a car pulled up, and the ding of the pump at every gallon dispensed. Each time a patron swung the diner door, out spilled the smells of food, sounds of laughter, dishware clinking, music from the table side jukeboxes.
“The waitress’s name had to be Dot, or LaVerne, and she kept one pencil behind her ear with an extra one stuck in the tight twist of her thick hair bun. She knew every customer as ‘hon’ and she called the orders over her shoulder to the cook named Bernie.”
Clearly that short visit to the desert southwest left an impression on her. Elliott told her parents on the phone: “I’m coming back to Arizona.”
She was good on her word and returned in the 1990s, permanently. Immediately, she started exploring the local mountains and trails with her two daughters. Serendipitously, she landed a job with Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Services.
“The job with Parks was a gift from above to a person who loves the outdoors and whose soul is fed from being outside in God’s magnificent creation. Who would not want to get paid to hike?” she said.
At first she worked at the Ben Avery Shooting Range, occasionally assisting at other parks in the system. She worked building and obliterating trails, leading hikes, and as park interpreter, among many other duties.
As the County transitioned away from the range, she worked more at White Tanks, Estrella Mountain, Cave Creek and Usury Pass. At the White Tanks, she spent a lot of time at Goat Camp trail, which she explained has remnants of a rich history of shepherds and cowboys and long-ago hunters. The area held a special place in her heart.
“White Tank park quickly became my favorite, and the place you could find me on my days off,” she added. Elliott has so many memories of her time there.
Memories like the darling chipmunk that would appear as she opened her pack at her favorite resting spot. “He nearly has you trained to ignore the ‘don’t feed the animals’ rule.” Memories like a coyote choir bursting into song. The lizard doing push-ups. Deer watching from the brush.
As she quickly learned on the job and as a visitor, the White Tanks teaches visitors to respect its inhabitants, even those unseen.
“Imagine walking a canyon trail, walls high above you on all sides, and there on the path before you, larger than the span of your hand, is the paw-print of a mountain lion. Instantly, every fiber of your being is present and accounted for.”
And just like when she passed through Arizona the first time, now living here full-time, the land had more to say to her.
“’The Tanks’ has a palpable spirit unlike any other park I have experienced,” Elliott explained. “She holds fast to her geological beginnings—only a short, few steps along one of her trails and you leave the realm of high rises, traffic jams and constant noise. There is a quiet so deep you can hear the desert speak.”
So, what did the desert say? So much that she wrote a song and put it to music. Called “White Tanks,” the song tells the story of the land and what it has said to her over the years.
“The White Tanks kiss the sunset, out where the eagles fly,” as the chorus goes. “And her peaks blush rose in the morning light against a turquoise sky.” The words and music beautifully capture the feeling visitors get when they visit the area.
In the genre of her self-coined “Southwest Americana style,” the song, written and recorded almost twenty years ago, has been re-released on her latest album, also full of songs that pay homage to Elliott’s visits to various areas of the desert southwest. Places with stories to tell.
CLICK HERE to listen to the music and watch the music video.
Creating a Music Video
The White Tank Mountains hold a special place in many people’s hearts, including Boulder Creek High School student Stefanie Goldstein. Currently in her fourth year, aka “internship year” of a West-MEC satellite program in media production, she had been on the hunt for a meaningful way to spend her time.
Goldstein was encouraged by her mom to connect with the White Tank Mountains Conservancy, a group of volunteers focused on keeping the area wild. Her mom is a volunteer with the Conservancy.
Goldstein was excited at the idea. “The White Tank Mountains are one of my favorite places to explore and do nature photography. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the Valley,” she said.
As part of her internship, the conservancy’s social media manager asked Goldstein to make a music video with Elliott’s song, along with photos from local photographers.
She got to work weaving the words with images to showcase what the White Tanks meant to her and the song’s message.
“I listened to the song over and over and searched through the photos looking for the right photos to connect with Nancy’s lyrics and her song,” Goldstein said. “I wanted to create something special that would inspire people to protect the White Tank Mountains.”
As a teen herself, Goldstein said her biggest goal is to expand their audience to teens and young people through videos and graphics on TikTok and Instagram.
Photographing the White Tanks
Many of the photos used in the music video are from local photographer Neal Summerton. Another Ohio native, he moved to Arizona in the 1980s and currently lives in Surprise, mere minutes from White Tank Mountain Regional Park.
There are many reasons to visit the park, photography being just one of them, he said.
“The park is 10 minutes away, and you can walk 100 feet from your car and go back 100 years,” he explained. “I get there as much as I can. If I had more time, it would be a cheap gym membership.”
Although he’s been interested in photography for a long time, Summerton didn’t go all-in until 2016, when he bought an expensive camera to escape life’s stressors. He especially enjoyed photographing the beauty of Arizona that surrounded him.
“Landscape is much easier. Mountains don’t care about their double chin. Saguaros don’t have wrinkled clothes or are picky on the editing,” Summerton said.
He has generously shared his images for use by the Conservancy for a while now, in turn helping to promote keeping the White Tanks “wild” and conserving the treasure that is the White Tanks.
“They (the conservancy) have shared my images on their social media sites and have certainly helped my presence on social media that I am happy to share the beauty that is so close to so many of us on the west side of Phoenix.”
As for having his images in the music video? Summerton said that he typically doesn’t listen to that style of music, but he really enjoys Elliott’s song and the video Goldstein created. “The White Tanks song resonates with me because of the words. When I hear it, I envision a campfire with her singing that song, and again, it could be a 100 years ago.”