During the 25 years I lived in Arizona, I saw pretty much every dusty corner of the state, either on assignment for my newspaper, or on my own. I came to love the state — warts and all. And it has warts: Arizona politics is dismaying, its inhabitants sometimes astonishingly parochial, its sense of itself as “special” endearing; I’ve lived in enough different places to know that they each think of themselves as special: You can outright choke on Seattle; North Carolina Public Television crowds out PBS programming with self-congratulatory programs on local history, local events, restaurants, the cult of barbecue, its exceptionally progressive foresight, and its sports heroes. The self-regard is truly cloying. Arizona hasn’t a patch on that, even counting Arizona Highways magazine.
And speaking of warts, the city of Phoenix is essentially Cleveland in the Desert: ugly with traffic, convenience stores and real-estate deals. But in Arizona, the land is essential: The desert is like nothing else.
Arizona has a particular difficulty because its image of itself is incredibly beautiful. It is the Grand Canyon State, and its landscape has filled more calendars and books than horsehair has filled sofa cushions. The Arizona Highways effect prettifies the state so to anyone with clear eyes, it is no longer recognizable. Arizona for most people is a fictional Arizona, a fantasy landscape drawn by John Ford’s Monument Valley, Ansel Adams’ Grand Canyon, or the “Tonto Rim” of Zane Grey. The landscape we mail out to the rest of the world is one of pristine wilderness and vast vistas. This is not, however, the Arizona I came to love. Quartzsite in the middle of winter is not part of this picture, neither is Apache Junction or Sacaton.
My Arizona has been worked over pretty thoroughly, by mining companies, by ranching conglomerates, by real-estate developers, by tract housing, road-building, tourist traps, warehouses and farm tractors. It is canals, cotton gins, interstates, gas stations and Circle-Ks. And since leaving the state four years ago for retirement in North Carolina, I have often grown homesick for my Arizona.
I actually love the forgotten places, the abandoned garages on the abandoned Route 66 that parallels Interstate 40. I love the grade crossings by the trash dumps near Mobile; the painted concrete dinosaurs that advertise eateries and tourist spots; the gravel roads across dry washes; the busted-out Gillespie Dam, choked with willows; the mountains of junked cars in South Phoenix wrecking yards; the eroded bentonite hills north of Cameron; the worked-out copper pits in Ajo and Bisbee — great gaping holes in the earth. I’ve been everywhere from San Luis to the Four Corners, from Hoover Dam to the Slaughter Ranch. How can you not love seeing the white expanse of the Wilcox Playa from a distance, knowing that when you get there, you can visit the statue of Rex Allen and have some great barbecue from Rodney’s hole-in-the-wall?
It isn’t that I don’t like the Grand Canyon. How can you not? But I love the North Rim, the 60-mile dirt road down to Toroweap, the beginning of the whole thing at Lees Ferry. Old apple trees and weathered wood buildings tell you about when old John Lee lived there and supervised the crossing of the Colorado River.
I began a few weeks ago collecting material for a potential book about this Arizona, as a kind of counterbalance to all the pretty-face calendar art that oozes from that quarter of the Southwest. Whether it ever actually turns into a book or not, I thought I might share a few of my images with my readers on the blog.
I have some 320 pictures filed for use in the book. I will post maybe 10 or 15 at a time for the blog. I hope they spark some of the same love for the real Arizona that I continue to feel from afar.
Click on any image to enlarge.