Havasu man’s rock art adds character to Pima Wash neighborhood

March 21, 2019

In a sleepy neighborhood along the fringes of downtown Lake Havasu City, John West has spent the past few months transforming a narrow strip of land into something magical.

The retired railroad man calls it a “Swirl of Smiles.”

By stacking rocks and creating patterns with stones, West has turned a berm along Pima Wash into a work of art that has become a conversation piece for those who pass by. Others, he said, find a bit of peace as they survey his handiwork.

He’s been caring for the narrow 160-foot space for a few years, long before the pathway along the wash was paved. West kept it clear of debris and planted a few trees. The rock garden is next to his Magnolia Drive home. It is populated with rocks he’s found during walks or drives in the desert. Other rocks, some with sentimental value, have been donated by people he’s met while constructing the garden.

“I’ve met more people while I’ve been doing this than I did in the whole 11 years I’ve lived in Havasu,” West said.

Thus, the “Swirl of Smiles” has become a symbolic bridge, connecting West with strangers. They in turn connect with each other as they stop to chat or simply enjoy the serene rock garden he has created. Some stop by regularly to monitor West’s progress, while others bring friends and family by to see the small marvel. The stone towers and patterns have also inspired others.

“One young man in the neighborhood who just survived cancer told me that when his girlfriend comes to visit, they don’t just sit inside on the couch. They take a walk to come see the garden,” West said. “And this older woman using a walker told me the garden gave her the incentive to walk that much farther. She can’t come this far every day, but she’s doing it more and more. On another day, a woman stood by quietly for about 20 minutes as I was working on it. She seemed kind of emotional. After a while, she told me, ‘I needed this today. Thank you.’”

For his part, West said he enjoys piecing together the rock garden, stone by stone. He explained his process.

“Doing this can silence your mind. I just put down a few rocks in an area, and the rocks start talking. They tell me how to arrange them,” he said.

As he looked over one part of the garden, West said that in caring for the space, he was just following his father’s advice.

“My dad always said to leave a place better than you found it, whether it was a campsite or a house you bought. That’s what I’m trying to do here.”

One of his most cherished comments was an observation that came from a young homeless man who occasionally passes through the area.

“He said to me, ‘Do you know what I like about rocks? They come in all shapes, sizes and colors and they all get along.’”

While rain and wind don’t disturb the designs, immature people can’t resist the temptation. West doesn’t like the vandalism, but he remains unruffled.

“Someone once asked me what I’d do if someone came through here and messed it up, and I said, ‘They already have.’ Some kids came through on bikes and tore up some of it,” he said. “I put it back together, but not the way it was before. But I’m not mad; I’m not judging them. You know what Deepak Chopra said: Judgment creates turbulence in our mind. I just put the garden back together in a new and different way. It’s OK.”

Pam Ashley can be reached at 928-453-4237, ext. 230 or pashley@havasunews.com.