The following article is edited and re-published from California Desert Art, a doorway to the rich bohemian world of early desert artists.
My fascination with Norton Allen goes back to a hot afternoon years ago when I brought home a cardboard box of old Desert Magazines. The magazine, published from 1937 to 1985, offered an alternative to the Palm Springs of modernism and martinis, introducing me instead to an appealing world of mirages, ghost towns and lost treasure.
Then there were the maps.
In these maps, the land seemed to be alive, the mountains exploding like star dust, the trails wiggling over the lip of a ridge, always drawing you on. Sometimes it seemed the artist was in a helicopter, observing the Turtle Mountains or the Chuckawallas with 3-D glasses. The maps were sprinkled with notes as if the artist was talking directly to me and didn’t want me to get stuck or lost: “Good trail here.” “Very sandy.”
The mapmaker, Norton Allen, became my guide and guru to life in the desert. My fellow Desert Magazine fans speculated endlessly about this fellow and his 747 glorious maps, showing the way to geode beds, sandspikes, Indian trails and massacre sites. We all wanted to find out more.
“I’ve felt bad that someone with his talent didn’t receive more notice, but it sounds like it may have been by his own choice,” said Ruth Ann Smith, one of the Norton-seekers.
We kept coming back to the same clues. A few editor’s notes from the “Just between You and Me” column by Randall Henderson. Some books Norton illustrated, such as “Lost Desert Bonanzas” and “On Desert Trails.” We knew Norton was disabled and that his bride, a teacher from Brawley, wore a Zuni ring at their wedding. Beyond that, not much. Norton apparently had no surviving family. No one had even seen a photo of him.
One day I phoned Eugene Conrotto, a former editor of Desert Magazine. My hopes soared when he told me he had actually known Norton, but then he said he never really knew him that well. Norton was slight and quiet: “He never would have starred in adventure movies in Hollywood, let’s put it that way.”
Yet Conrotto said the elusive mapmaker was largely responsible for the success of the magazine. “His maps sang off the pages. He did those maps for a pittance,” Conrotto marveled. “I think the rate was $22.50 or $25 a map.”
After this conversation, the trail went cold again until I heard about a Phoenix bookseller, Mike Riley, who had purchased a trunk of 300 original Norton Allen maps at a bankruptcy auction. I made a mad dash to see the maps, accompanied by Hal Rover, a volunteer with the Historical Society of Palm Desert — Palm Desert being the ancestral home of Desert Magazine. Hal, too, was searching for Norton.
We sat at a table in Riley’s elegant bookshop and, finally, held the actual maps in our hands. The heavy paper was slightly browned and smelled like old wood. The maps were marked with creases and folds, correction tape and white-out. Here and there in pencil we’d see faint tracings of a river, or editor’s notes: “Reduce to 10”. “29 picas.”
We combed the maps for clues to Norton but came away only with disjointed koans from the artist’s hand: “Sand spikes and cauliflowers”…“Probable arsenal location”…”Ridge of yuha oysters (both halves found here.)”
Later, spurred by a random clue found online, I sent a note to Lynn Teague, former curator of archaeology for the Arizona State Museum. It was just another stab at the mystery. I had no way of knowing Norton’s story was about to break wide open. Not only had Teague known Norton, she knew Ethel, who as it turns out was still living in La Mesa, near San Diego.
Better yet, Teague told me, Ethel lived in the very house where Norton grew up. Allen’s life had unfolded just over the Santa Rosa Mountains from where I lived, and important parts of it were still in place.
The missing link, all along, had been archaeology. The Norton we loved as a mapmaker was known to others as a rock star amateur archaeologist who made major contributions to Southwestern archaeology—a man who only incidentally made maps.
Thanks to Norton’s admirers in the world of archaeology, much of his story was finally told in a special double issue of the Journal of the Southwest. Longtime friend Richard Schwartzlose rounded out his biography. Arizona State Museum Research Associate Alan Ferg and others illuminated his work with the Hohokam along the Gila River in Arizona, along with his refined sense of archaeological ethics. Norton never sold his artifacts, even when a collector offered him $40,000 for a jar.
From the time he was a boy growing up near La Mesa, Norton took off on months-long camping trips, exploring the Southwest and hunting artifacts with his parents, Ernest and Lenna. (Artifact collecting was popular and legal at the time; it is now against the law.) When Norton was 21, a fall in gym class triggered a rheumatic disease called ankylosing spondylitis. The illness would leave him disabled, his hips and spine fused. On his back for 105 days, he began a deep study of southwest history and archaeology.
“Norton knew a horrendous amount of history,” says Alan Ferg. His interests seemed to multiply the more he was confined. He became an avid photographer. At the time of his death, he owned 36 cameras, according to Schwartzlose. He sold postcards made from his photos and learned to repair Indian pottery, making paint from pigments he found in the desert.
He also drew hundreds of sketches and cartoons, doodling on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper. In stylized line drawings of landscapes, he perfected the ability to capture the sky or a mountain in a few lines — a skill that would serve him well in mapping. He drew epic narrative panels of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Donner Party journey and other events. He also exercised his sense of humor in cartoons. In one panel of imaginary artifacts, he invented a two-way pipe.
The maps, sketches and historical study were all a way of roaming, despite physical limitations. As bookseller Mike Riley said: “The man traveled relentlessly in his mind.”
Unable to sit down because of his fused joints, Norton ate his meals and drafted his maps standing up. He did field archaeology lying down on his belly or with a scoop attached to a crutch.
Concerned about the destruction of prehistoric sites due to farming, Norton and his family spent 40 winters at Gila Bend, Arizona, conferring often with the man known as the Dean of Southwestern Archaeology, University of Arizona professor Emil Haury. “He was never really in it for the pots. He was in it for preservation,” says Teague.
In 1937 Norton’s mother contacted Randall Henderson, editor of the then-new Desert Magazine, suggesting her son draw maps for the publication. It was the start of a brilliant partnership.
“From an editorial standpoint, our first lucky strike was Norton Allen, the artist,” wrote J. Wilson McKenney in his history of Desert Magazine, “Desert Editor.” In his 21 years at the magazine, McKenney was consistently awed by Norton’s knowledge of the land: “Literally millions of motorists and hikers have found their way unerringly to the destinations he mapped for them."
Another sterling partnership began when Ethel Louise Crane wandered by the Allen house one day on her way to the bus stop. Lenna had died by then, and Norton and his dad were living like bachelors, eating out of cans. Ethel, a potter, quilter and knitter, added a feminine presence and fit beautifully into their nomadic camping routine — winters in Gila Bend, summers in Utah and Colorado. In 1954, Ethel and Norton Allen were married.
Eventually, Desert Magazine had to cut back on publishing maps because the archaeological sites they depicted were being looted by pothunters. Norton Allen died at age 88 in 1997. His cremated remains were buried on the Tohono O’odham reservation cemetery near Gila Bend. His collection of pots went to Arizona State Museum, his baskets to the Riverside Metropolitan Museum.
On a September afternoon, Hal Rover and I whipped around the hilly, narrow streets of La Mesa in Hal’s compact truck, all the windows open to let in the hot wind. When we found the address of Ethel Allen’s home, we pulled off in a turnout where there was an old garage, but apparently no house. The only sign of habitation was the overgrown stone staircase leading steeply upward into a sort of jungle.
We climbed the steps and came to an ancient (for California) house that looked, at first, abandoned, like a magical cottage in a children’s fable. We climbed more stairs and knocked on the door. No answer. Pots and clay were heaped on the porch, as if a potter had been suddenly called away on an emergency. (Ethel is the potter.) Still looking for anyone home, we walked around back calling “Hello”. We stood in silent reverie for a moment when we discovered the out-building that was Norton’s boyhood “museum” of his artifacts.
Walking back down the steps, we prepared to leave, knowing no more than we had before. Then, as we were climbing into the overheated truck, a vehicle drove up. In the front seat were Richard and Phyllis Schwartzlose, long-time friends of the Allens. In the back was Ethel Allen, a lean, smiling woman who didn’t seem to mind strangers casing her house.
It was one of those rare moments when you know a long quest is at an end. We stood there on the driveway and talked. The conversation only lasted a short time. Ethel, then 90, told me that Norton always wanted his maps to be accurate because he knew tenderfeet were going out in the desert, guided by him alone.
She told of Norton laboring up sand dunes on his crutches, the tips sinking in at each step as he persevered in his search for a rare pot or bowl. Standing in the jungle shade, I clung to Ethel’s every word, willing myself to remember what she said. It just didn’t seem an occasion for tape recorders or note-taking.
Today there’s new interest in “creative cartography,” with books and exhibits dedicated to mapmaking as art. Once Norton Allen is discovered by this crowd, he’s sure to be a rock star again. His work shows, as clearly as anyone’s, that each map is a created world, reflecting what’s important to its maker. And, in Norton’s case, remolding the viewer's world, as well.
Since this article originally appeared eight years ago, Ethel Crane Allen, Richard Schwartzlose and Eugene Conrotto have passed away.
For more on Norton Allen's life and his work in archaeology, see Journal of the Southwest, Volume 52, No. 2/3, Norton Allen: The Legacy of a Southwestern Artist and Avocational Archaeologist.