Archive

Tag Archives: Arizona

People hate speaking in public; it is often listed as the No. 1 fear — a nightmare of anxiety. It is a fear I never felt. I love speaking to an audience. Whether it is giving a lecture, sitting on a panel discussion or moderating an after-movie discussion, I am in my element. Over the years, I’ve spoken in public hundreds of times. It is exhilarating and leaves me pumped with energy. 

Yet, that comfort does not extend to acting. I cannot act my way out of a second-grade pageant (when I had my first onstage experience as a daisy in an Easter program.) The problem is two-fold. First, I have difficulty learning lines. I can’t memorize them. I can paraphrase them, extemporize them, but not repeat them word-for-word. In most plays, that is a problem.

Second, I am so firmly constructed of my own idiosyncratic personality — that ego is so well defined — that I can never leave it behind to assume the mask or persona of a distinct separate character. I am stuck with myself. 

Yet, there were two times over the years that I have trodden the boards. There is a theme to the twain. 

In high school, I took a speech and drama elective. As part of the class, the final was an assembly program in which we put on a series of one-act plays or skits. We were each required either to act in them or to write the scenes. I did not want to play-act on stage, so, I opted to write a play.

Three of us did that. One student was a natural for the stage, and he wrote a gripping dramatic scene built on the Kitty Genovese story. The second was an incredibly dumb James Bond parody. And mine was unbearably pretentious and literary. I had just read John Updike’s The Centaur and thought I might update, in like fashion, the Seven Against Thebes myth and set it in a modern high school. 

We were well into rehearsals when our principal, having been made aware that my play featured a suicide (Oh! The teenage angst!), outright banned the performance, which I was both miffed at and also puffed with pride over — I was banned! Just like Henry Miller or James Joyce. A point of pride. 

As a result of my cancellation, I was then coopted into acting in the James Bond parody. I was made an English bobby, shot in the first moments by the lead character, James Bomb. I was to remain motionless on the stage, an inert corpse, for the rest of the play. I had one line and then — bang-bang and then falls bobbie. 

The moment I died, James Bomb was supposed to realize his mistake (he shot me thinking I was the villain), and he walked cross-stage to me, grabbed a glass of water from a handy nearby table and splash it in my face to try to revive me. Well, I was wearing this heavy woolen bobby costume and in rehearsal, the wet wool stunk and irritated my skin horribly. I had to lie there for the rest of the play, stewing in the wet clothes. 

So, on performance day, just before the curtain rose, as we were all standing on our marks, I reached for the glass and drank the water. I was so clever. And as the scene played on and James Bomb came over to splash me, and finding no water in the glass, he improvised. I had failed to take account of the full pitcher sitting next to the empty glass on the table. Our hero then ignored the glass and poured the entire pitcher of water on me. 

As if that were not humiliation enough, imagine me splayed out in my soup on the stage floor, my bladder slowly filling to the uncomfortable water-balloon phase, having to hold it all in till the curtain finally came down, went up again for the curtain call, down again and I could finally run down the hall to the boys’ room and pee “for what seemed like forever, but in reality was only seven minutes.” 

(I can’t take credit for that line: It was written my my friend, Doug Nufer of Seattle.)

 My next appearance, not an Equity production, came in 2005 in Phoenix, Ariz., as a bit of stunt casting in a play about a notorious local restaurateur. 

If you are not from that city, you may not have heard about Jack Durant, who opened the smoky eatery, Durant’s, in 1950. Decorated in whore-house chic, it became the meeting place of politicians, lawyers, and visiting Hollywood celebrities. Everyone who was anyone met at Durant’s. There was an in-the-know air about the place. No one who was a regular ever came in the front door. If you had your wits about you, you came in through the kitchen. Many customers had regular tables. Many a legislative deal was cut in the dark corners of the place.

Durant’s

Durant, himself, was more of a personality than any of his celebrity guests. A former colleague of Bugsy Siegel, reputed to have once bumped off a mob rival, married three or five times — the stories varied — Durant was ringmaster at his restaurant. 

Such a colorful character made for many stories, some of them true. Durant died in 1987, leaving his house and an annual allowance of $50,000 to his dog, Humble. The restaurant is still there, running on the ghost of its founder. It is still dark; people still enter through the kitchen, and deals are still negotiated over a great big porterhouse steak. 

In 2005, playwright Terry Earp did the inevitable, and created a play about Durant, called In My Humble Opinion, ironically because Durant was never humble — only his dog was. 

 The play was set in the restaurant after closing, a year after Durant’s death. The man’s ghost sits at a table, recounting his life to a passed-out drunk at the bar. The drunk was played by a different local “celebrity” each night. I was one of them — the local art critic, and rather low down on the celebrity list, but of course, the play went on for a month, so they had to scrape the barrel-bottom at times. Others who played the role included former Phoenix Suns center Alvin Adams, local TV star Bill Thompson and rocker Alice Cooper. 

My part had no lines. It also had no motion. I was to sit there, head in my arms flat on the bar for the full hour of the play. Not twitching a muscle.

I don’t know if you have ever had to do that — like you are playing dead during a bear attack — but it is not easy. Muscles begin to scream at you: “Twitch. Twitch, damn you. Shake a leg. stretch your fingers.” But, no, you have to pretend you are carved from marble.

I managed it, but then came the curtain call. I had to unlimber my limbs and stand up from the barstool to acknowledge the acclaim of the audience. My joints had become riveted in their static positions and to stand up required a full course of physical therapy. I wobbled. I nearly fell over. I was half asleep from meditating quietly for the hour. I tried to smile for the crowd, but I’m pretty sure I could only manage a silly grin. I must have looked like the drunk I played. 

And thus, my life as a thespian came to its rightful conclusion. Two motionless parts, lying still for the duration. And I never got my Equity card. 

Where is home? I don’t mean where is your house, where do you sleep most nights, what is your address. But rather, where do you belong? 

For many of us, home is illusive. For most of my adult life, I have not lived in the same house for more than seven years at a time. I have lived in four corners of the nation, splitting my time from the Northeast, where I grew up; to the Southeast, where I went to school, got married and divorced; to the Northwest, where I went to recuperate; back to the South, where I got married again; to the Southwest, where I worked for 25 years; and now, back to the Southeast in retirement. But I cannot say, despite repeatedly returning, that I feel the South is home. 

It is where I feel comfortable, where I recognize the landscape on my skin, where I have found family. But there remains something alien about it. Something I can never be fully a part of. 

Certainly, part of this is political: The red state conditions are sometimes depressing. There is nativism, clannishness, religion, suspicion of outsiders, lingering racial division. There is a satisfaction of being Southern that can seem provincial. 

Yet, there is also a friendliness and helpfulness that I never found in any other corner of the U.S. When my wife, before we were married, was snowed in in the mountains of Ashe County, N.C., a neighbor she barely knew, walked a mile and a half through the knee-high accumulation to knock on her door and check on her, to make sure she had enough firewood to last out the imposed isolation, and to bring her a basket of food. Not in New Jersey. Not in Seattle. Not in Phoenix — although snow in Phoenix would be pretty much out of the question anyway. 

North Cascades

When I moved to Seattle, in 1978, before all the Starbucks and California immigration, I was agog over the Olympic Mountains I could see over Puget Sound to the West, and the towering Cascades to the east. When I went out hiking, it was through rain forests of Douglas fir and western red cedar. The ground was spongy underfoot and emerald green moss grew on decaying logs and stumps. Floating on the waters of the sound were goldeneye and cormorant. The air was soft with cool humidity. 

I certainly had planned to make Seattle my home, and I mean that —  not just a place to sleep at night, but I never felt like more than a traveler spending time in an exotic locale to soak up the ambience along with the rain.

And, compared with the East coast I grew up in, the nature was almost monotonous. When I lived in North Carolina, on the land around my house in Greensboro, I counted a hundred different species of tree and plant. I came to love them all. But there on Phinney Ridge in Seattle, there were two species of tree. Two. They were everywhere and they were prodigious and impressive. But two. I longed to return to the East. And so I did. 

Meat Camp, NC

But even then, I moved from Summerfield north of Greensboro, to Obids in the mountains, to Meat Camp just north of Boone — all in the space of two years. And then, to Virginia Beach, Va., to take up a job teaching. After six years there, when my wife was offered a teaching position in Arizona, we packed everything up into a Ryder truck and drove across the continent, without even having a house lined up where to unload the truck. We thought it would be fun to stay in the desert for a couple of years. It turned into a quarter of a century. 

I came to love the desert, but truth be told, I did not live in the desert, I lived in Phoenix, which is Cleveland in the desert, a characterless city of endless suburbs and strip malls in the valley of the Salt River — a river with no water in it. 

(The famous joke about Arizonans is they go to visit New York City and when they came back they were asked about it. “It was wonderful, huge skyscrapers, millions of people, and traffic like you wouldn’t believe.” “What about the Empire State Building?” “Yep, we went up to the top and you could see for miles around from river to river.” “The Hudson?” “Yep.” “What was the Hudson River like?” “Couldn’t tell, it was covered in water.”)

I loved my job, writing for the newspaper, and I loved my colleagues: I came to respect and value the really hard and dedicated work that journalists do. Over those 25 years, we moved four times. None of the houses was home. They were our quarters, but there were no roots. 

North Carolina called back after retirement, and I now live in Asheville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a blue city in a red state. And I have gotten old here, but it is not home. It is a residence. 

I don’t know if it is my New Jersey birth that has given me this sense of rootlessness. I spent the first 17 years of my life there, but I couldn’t wait to escape. Going off to college was liberation. New Jersey was banal, suburban, bourgeoise, dull, conventional, oppressive. I never felt I belonged. 

River Street, Madison, NC, in Rockingham County

I know from my wife and her family, that there is usually a deep sense of belonging that Southerners feel. A genuine love of the patch of ground where they grew up, a love like you feel for a parent. It is a love of where you were born that may not extend beyond the town or county and maybe the state. But for my wife, Rockingham County was where her father and grandfather were buried. That fact alone meant there was an unseverable umbilical connection to that omphalos, that tiny patch of piedmont, those trees, those creeks and rivers, those very weeds that crept over the edges of the crumbling pavement on the back roads. It is the feel of the red clay between your fingers, the blackbirds roosting by the hundreds in the oak tree. Home. 

I don’t know how widespread is this feeling I have, how many people share it, whether it is a symptom of the late 20th century, or whether it is confined to just me and my personal makeup. I believe I am not alone. 

I suspect many from my generation, growing up with the very real threat of nuclear annihilation and living through an adolescence and young adulthood of assassination, riots and revolutions, felt chucked out of Eden quite unceremoniously. 

If you come from Armenia or Poland or Vietnam or Tibet, you have a clear sense of identity, and an unbreakable bond with the land that gave you suckle. Certainly, most Southerners I have come to know have that feeling about their soil of origin. But there are many others, certainly from my generation, who share my sense of rootlessness, the sense that I can never be so comfortable in a place that I would long to be buried there. 

Perhaps it is because I have moved so often that I cannot share that sense of home. I have a residence on the earth, but not a home. 

I express all of this not so you should feel sorry for me. In fact, this homelessness has its advantages. I have had, in recompense, an ease and comfort anywhere in the world I find myself. I have been to three continents, and 14 countries, three oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, and never have I felt anything but at ease wherever I have gone. Being in a country where English is not spoken is as comfortable as being in a place where people eat mopane worms off the grill. 

Travel has felt such a part of my self-identity, that while others might feel distressed having to move to another state or country, torn roots and all from the soil they call home, I, in contrast, feel most myself when seeing some new terrain, hearing new accents or languages, eating new food, driving on different pavements and finding out about the sun-orbiting globe that, more than any single spot, feels like home to me. 

Big Baby

I have slighted a good deal of the state in these writings. So much is left out. I have barely mentioned the Navajo Reservation, an area the size of West Virginia. I have loved visiting the Rez, and the Hopi Reservation swallowed Jonah-like inside it. I have left out huge chunks of Arizona that I love and remember well: I scarcely nodded to Tucson, Aravaipa Canyon, Fort Huachuca, the Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Payson, Showlow, the Mogollon Rim — the list is too long to number here. All of it fascinating either for its geology, its history, its development, its politics, its beauty or its characteristic ugliness. Whatever it is that makes it memorable.

Little Colorado River, Holbrook

Little Colorado River, Holbrook

I feel bad for not being able to squeeze it all in.

Cottonwood bark

I began in Phoenix, drove south then southeast; then up north and across Interstate 40, making a grand spiral. If I followed that logic, this entry should begin at Hoover Dam and continue on a plumb line south to Yuma, where the excursion should end. But I have left out the middle portion of the state so far. And I should like to be able to mention such prodigies as the pile of rocks at Granite Dells, the prehistoric ruins at Tuzigoot, the Verde River valley and the sliding town of Jerome.

Jerome

Jerome

This imaginary roadtrip began because I was feeling homesick for the state I left four years ago. I have seen its distances in dreams, when I wake and only half-remember that my eyes now open in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. (When I lived in Phoenix, I often had this same homesickness for the Eastern forests and hills). The fact is, I want to engulf it all, sweep it all into my innards and swallow the map whole: I have loved travel more than anything in my six decades and eight years.

Verde River

Verde River

So, I finally recall the dusty streets of Kingman, the old road through Oatman, and the wastage south, through Spring Break Gomorrah (Lake Havasu City), and on to the remains of the internment camp at Poston, with its memorial (although more moving are the stumps of concrete foundations you can find throughout the area, where the barracks used to be that warehoused Japanese Americans), and Poston’s irrigation and farmland, all on the Indian reservation.

Poston

Poston

South of that, you follow the Colorado River to Yuma, where you can walk across the river most times of the year and hardly get your ankles wet. The green farmland along the river, all the way down to San Luis, remind you that so much of Arizona remains agricultural.

Crazy cactus

I have loved it all, and more: It has become a part of my inner landscape. Drop me anywhere — Burro Creek Canyon, Yarnell, Mormon Lake, Old Oraibi, Gila Bend — and I will know where I am instantly. I have soaked Arizona in like a sponge.

Yuma

Yuma

But I have lit out for the territories — in my case, that is returning to my past in the Blue Ridge, among the beech and oak and ash and dogwood, where bears scavenge my garbage and a pileated woodpecker knocks the old red maple in my front yard.

Quartzsite

Quartzsite

I have lived in the four corners of the continent: born in New Jersey, schooled in North Carolina, taught in Virginia, tested in Seattle and ripened in Arizona; visited every one of the contiguous 48 states at least a half-dozen times, not counting all the Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island, and I’ve internalized it all. Now that I am old, and driving long distances is torture on my knees, I can revisit the places I know by writing about them. I recommend the maneuver to everyone: Write — or draw, or dance, or sing — and reconnect with the life you have led, with the world you inhabit. Everything written is a new Genesis: the world is created once more, and the world needs to be reborn constantly.

Tacna

Tacna

Monument valley windows 2

We’ve all had the experience of revisiting some place that meant something to us when we were young, only to find it ruined by the passing years — the blight in tract homes where there had been woods we played in; the proliferation of 7-Elevens or Starbucks; the widening of roads we had ridden our bikes down and the concomitant soot-spewing storm of traffic. The divided-highway bypass and the Walmart near the exit. Time has not been good to the landscape we knew.

But I have always thought, there must be someone of a generation previous who looked at the landscape I bicycled down and thought, how much better it had been when the road was gravel and there were no houses — including the one I grew up in — lining that road.

The fact is, time is furious and eats up the land just as it eats up the remaining years of my life. “Panta Horein” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Everything changes.” Doubtless, there was someone before my elder who loved the same land when there was nothing but a footpath through the forest and thought it better for all that.

And no doubt there will be some future progeny who will look at the scene some 50 years hence and lament the loss of those same 7-Elevens, replaced by something even crasser and more demoralizing. To them, the land I now lament will have been Eden.

Holbrook, Arizona

Holbrook, Arizona

Too often we think of the land as something permanent through which plays the impermanence of our comings and goings — a static stage set for our dramas. Its pace may be slower than ours, but the land changes, also; it has its own drama. I particularly love to see the scars of those changes, the evidence of what used to be, the peeping out from under the macadam of the buried eyes of the past.

Along old 66 Signs and storm

One of the prizes I have is a Rand-McNally road atlas from the year I was born (1948). The map of Arizona has no interstates on it, and you can see that the very getting from Phoenix to Flagstaff was a detour, driving first through Wickenburg and up to Prescott before either heading north to Ash Fork and then east on U.S. 66 to Flag, or taking the more mountainous route up Alternate 89 over Mingus Mountain, down to the Verde Valley and then up the hill through Sedona and up the face of the Mogollon Rim to your destination.

Along old 66 Tumbleweed

Of course, there was a more direct route, through Dugas and Camp Verde, but the road was mostly dirt and rutted.

The thing is, that if you look for them, all those ruts are still there. You can, if you wish, and if your car is sturdy enough, drive those roads up through Bumble Bee, through Orme, through Skull Valley, Iron Springs or Happy Jack. Like Schliemann digging down through layers of Troy, the archeology of Arizona is there — or its fossils are.

West of Kingman

West of Kingman

All of which brings me to the slice of Arizona across its northern tier, now defined by Interstate 40. The interstate ate up what used to be U.S. 66 — Route 66 of legend — and takes the speediferous driver across the flatter parts of the Colorado Plateau, up through Flagstaff, and down through Williams, Kingman and on to California. “You’ll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona. Don’t forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino…”

Along old 66 Interstate 40

But, if you get off the interstate, right at the state line in Lupton, you can find the ghost road, mostly paralleling the freeway, and you can drive along it, at a steady 45 mph, watching for potholes, and see the scars of the past dug into the dry stony soil. The road is discontinuous — you will have to get back on the interstate for an exit or so, or ride over the tide of traffic to pick up the auxiliary road on the other side, where old 66 will start again. It is a ghost of itself, and along it are a few forgotten towns, many gutted old service stations with their paint peeled, their windows blown out and their driveways split by weeds busting through.

Along old 66 Minyard Feed Store

Time is fierce, it eats everything.

I admit to a weakness for these pentimenti, for the palimpsest of time, showing through the later “improvements.” They provide a glimpse of the process, of the metamorphosis — using Ovid’s word — of the constant writhing and seething of the planet and our place as people in the ferment and bubbling.

Along old 66 sunflowers

It comes in the shorter term, such as old Route 66 being devoured by grasses and crucifers, but it also comes in longer terms, such as the Anasazi ruins of Canyon de Chelly and Betatakin, the petroglyphs of Rio Puerco in the Petrified Forest National Park.

Rio Puerco Ruins

There are remaining parts of old Route 66, running through Seligman, and it is mined constantly for nostalgia. But it isn’t that I am feeding on, but the sense of sand sifting through my fingers, of time leaving. It comes out of some chthonic well and runs past us and dissipating in an ocean of we know not where. The old road is still there, and it will be there even when there are no cars — just as the wagon ruts can still be found along the Santa Fe Trail, sunk into the grasses of Kansas.

Old 66 to Seligman

I relish all the different tickings and tockings of the various clocks running their various races.

Sliding Rock Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

Sliding Rock Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

You stand at the rim of Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Reservation and look down to the braided stream at the bottom that scoured this great hole out of the sandstone and wonder how long it must have taken. Then you see the tiny Anasazi relics built into the walls of the rock and realize how long people have been living here, and then you see the sandstone itself an think about how much longer ago — exponentially longer — that ancient river deltas deposited the silt that later became that stone.

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

How much more do you sense these multiple time scales at this rift’s big brother, the Grand Canyon.

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon

If you want to have the planetary feeling without racing around the globe, you can get it standing still in Arizona: with your feet planted at the edge of the Grand Canyon. In that case, you stand stock-still and let the planet do the moving.

North Rim, Grand Canyon

North Rim, Grand Canyon

The first time I saw sunrise at the Grand Canyon, my wife and I were camping on the North Rim outside the National Park. We had arrived with the naive assumption we could wander in late in the afternoon and get a room at the lodge. Or failing that, we could get a slot at the campgrounds.

The desk clerk took pity on us and explained that although they were completely booked, lodge and campground, for the foreseeable future, we could find a dirt road just outside the park that would take us to a place in the National Forest where people often camped.

It was dark by the time we got to that road, and when we turned into an open place where two or three other tents were set up, it was already night.

We slept, we dreamed, and we woke before sunrise, when the earliest glow floated in through our tent flap. And when we got out to stretch and start up the camp stove, we gasped: We were about 15 feet from the rim of the canyon. It dropped out of sight below us.

If we had pulled forward just a little farther the night before in the blackness, it would have been Thelma-and-Louise time for us. We were hard on the edge.

But more impressive, the humid late-July weather had left the entire canyon as a gigantic dish of cotton. The clouds filled in the canyon-hollow like apples in a fruit bowl. A 215-mile long fruit bowl.

The mists swirled and wisped below us, over precipices and down canyonlets, in constant motion, rising and subsiding as the new-hatched sun warmed patches of the air the mist rode upon and the breezes wafted the veils.

Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon West

The Classical writer, Longinus, said that we enjoy the day-to-day things of our lives, but when it comes to awe, we get that only from the sublime. Hearth fires, he said, were nice, but erupting volcanoes make us consider a planet and cosmos larger than we are and well beyond our control. The sublime is beautiful, but it is also scary: It is the source of religious feeling.

You cannot avoid that at the Grand Canyon, with its stony layers of eons piled upon each other. The Canyon is a great wound in the Earth into which we can look and see its organs pulsating at a rate so slow as to make all of human history a mere blip on its EKG.

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is a clock. It has a big hand and a little hand.

The little hand moves very slowly, telling the time in geologic terms. To see the hand move, you must wait millions of years.

In that time, you would see continental oceans lay down sediments and tectonic forces push those layers upward, only to be eroded by a river, like a sand pile washed by a hose.Grand View Point, Grand Canyon NP Ariz

One stands at the rim now and looks back into the past, washed away eon by eon, stratum by stratum, until one’s eye stands on the Vishnu schist, the Precambrian footings of the Canyon.

You hardly can take in the vastness of it. It is an earthly reminder of eternity, that time beyond time that turns our lives into flyspecks.

But this geological clock has a fast-moving big hand, too. And it changes all 200 miles of the Canyon second by second. It can seem to the observer like time-lapse photography in real time as the sun jumps from the horizon and changes the shadowed blacks of the deep walls to a burning cherry ruddiness and on much too quickly to the weathered indigo blueness of noon.

Cycles and epicycles, wheels inside wheels, the turning of time on itself in all its speeds.

The first time I saw the Canyon, I got there before dawn. My wife and I had arrived late the previous night and wound up camping in the Kaibab National Forest outside the park. I set our alarm clock for 4 a.m., and when we got up, it was completely dark.

We drove to the overlook at Lipan Point, and I set up my camera in the blackness, out on a rocky ledge beyond the guardrail.

The tripod barely could find purchase on the narrow outcrop, and my wife warned me about taking chances, especially by the glow of a flashlight.

A little after 4, the horizon began to appear. It was July, but it was icy cold before the sun rose. The batteries of my light meter ceased to work in the cold.

Yet it was beginning to be possible, as the far edge of the Canyon contrasted with the blue-gray of the lightening sky, to focus my lens on the ground glass of the camera. And I saw there little more than that dividing line.

But down in the bottom of the Canyon, a mile below us, there was a snaky line of a reflecting light.

Dawn, Grand Canyon

It was the river, a white tube of neon cut off here and there by the mesas and buttes below us. At times, the rope of water actually seemed brighter than the sky.

I managed to take a two- or three-minute exposure of the nearly black landscape. The glow in the sky had begun to make some of the rock texture visible, but less so to the eye than to the camera.

Dawn, Grand Canyon NP Ariz 2

Moment by moment, the scene changed, a slow crescendo of light that began where the river disappeared in the northeast until the fire broke the horizon and the first sliver of sun appeared.

What is most surprising is the quickness of the change. If you were to take a photograph once a minute over the course of a day, you hardly would have two alike.

When the sun is on the horizon, you actually can see it move. And as it rose and sank its light deeper into the Canyon, what had been a charcoal mass of rock mazes became lighted at the top ends of the rocks, like the cherry end of a cigarette in the dawn.

You could see probably scores of miles down the Canyon to the west and see the angle of the sun on the edge of the rock.

Nothing is so like the Earth waking up.

Grand Canyon NP, with shadow

Looking toward the sun, the Canyon became a receding stage set of silhouettes, each lighter and grayer as it retreated toward the sunrise. Looking away from the sun, the rock faces became increasingly red, then orange, then brick, with layers of white and green thrown in.

The Grand Canyon is grandest in the dawn. Those willing to awaken early enough stare into the clock of the day playing on the stone and see their lives moving before them. If time is a stream, as Thoreau says, at the Grand Canyon you can see its rapids. The change continues all day. On most summer days, the midday hours are the least interesting. The hazy blueness of the distant rim seems steady from about 10 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. But if you stare with enough commitment, you can see the changes even then as the downward angle of the sunlight twists slowly from one side of the cliffs to the other.

Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon West

Later, when the sun’s angle lowers to day’s end, the changes accelerate once more, taking the rocks back from blue to red and into darkness.

There is no mistaking the Earth as a clock, turning with the sun as the hour marker, moving in orderly procession around the rim of the great circle we live on.

But the two clocks at the Canyon also remind of the conflicting realities of the place. On the one hand, the slow clock tells of the everlastingness of things, their physical endurance. On the other, how can you believe in reality if the same limestone that can be red at 8 a.m. can be blue by 9?

It reinforces your sense of rock-solid reality and undercuts your belief at the same time. To live in two times at once: This is the central message of all the world’s religions.

When people find spiritual meaning in the Canyon, perhaps it is these conflicting clocks more than anything else that create that sense. Certainly, the Canyon’s vast space is inspiring, but it is time that speaks of eternity and our place in it.

Snake infinityClick any image to enlarge

Miami, Arizona

Miami, Arizona

Many decades ago, when I first came through Arizona, I passed through a landscape so surreal that after I got home, I could not be sure, when I went back to my job in Virginia, that I had actually seen what I had seen: mountains and mountains of grayish-tan gravel, in a town so beaten down, so weathered, so spavined and dried out, that could not be sure that I had not dreamed the whole thing during a nap after an ill-advised meal of rarebit.

When we finally moved to Arizona, I rediscovered Miami-Claypool and it lost nothing of its Twilight Zone weirdness. To those of us not familiar with copper mining, the thought that humans could build cordilleras of utter waste — post-apocalyptic poetry — was hard to credit. Part of me wanted to live there. Nothing could possibly feel day-to-day, ordinary, or boring in such a nerve-frayed landscape.

Superior

Superior

If you drive east from Phoenix, out past Mesa, past Apache Junction, into the desert past Florence Junction and climb up into the hills, you will find a string of mining towns, mostly abandoned or dying, or hanging on by their fingernails, beginning with Superior. It was one of the locations for the 1997 Oliver Stone film, U Turn, and it feels like it could have been dreamed up by a Hollywood set designer. In 2005, a sci-fi film called Alien Invasion Arizona was filmed there. It isn’t quite a ghost town, but you could easily place a season of The Walking Dead there.

Superior Kellner Ave

Superior’s biography is like so many copper towns in Arizona part of a history that almost no one thinks about. It is an industrial history, full of smokestacks and labor disputes, and fills in the space between the six-gun Old West of popular mythology and the modern and often banal state of tourism and retirees.

Superior AZ Mission Cola

Unfortunately, it is an industry that cycles with the international market price of copper: The price plummets and Arizona mines lay off workers and shut down. If the price recovers sufficiently, the mines start up once more. Mine-worker families face an uncertain life.

Superior cliffs

Superior cliffs

The history of Arizona’s mining towns is generic. Whether it is Bisbee or Bagdad, Morenci or Globe, there is a familiar tale, altered only with variations on the tune.

For each, it begins in the 1860s or ’70s, when an army officer or a prospector picks up a rock and smiles, recognizing it as ore. Usually, they were looking for gold. Often what they got was copper. Then there is a period of individual prospecting, usually ending in bankruptcy all around. Then, financiers from New York or San Francisco add capital and mining picks up on an industrial basis. Towns spring up, usually shanty towns precariously perched on gravelly hillsides near the mines. During boom years, the towns grow. Wood is replaced by brick; large hotels are built and streets are paved.

One company buys out another until huge corporations are formed with names like Phelps Dodge  and Magma.  Ultimately they become multinationals with many interests beyond copper.

Between the wars, the underground mines are largely replaced by the great pit mines, man-made miniature Grand Canyons of ore-dig.

Morenci

Morenci

But then, after boom years and some bust years, the mines play out or are flooded or copper prices fall and the towns surrounding the mines die out.

Or, in a few cases, they persist, either as mining persists, as at Morenci, or as the towns find new purpose as tourist destinations, such as Bisbee, or county seats such as Globe.

But the past also persists, and those interested in this forgotten past of Arizona can still visit many of the best locations.

Mining hit Superior in 1870  when silver was discovered and the Silver King Mine  became one of the richest silver mines in Arizona history. But in 1912,  Boyce Thompson  bought the mine, formed Magma Copper and the area became one of the great copper mines. The smelter closed in 1971;  the mine remained in operation until 1982.  The mine has sporadically been worked since, depending on copper prices. But Superior, taking a cue from Bisbee and Jerome has tried to position itself as a tourist location. The wooing of Hollywood has been part of that resuscitation and the town has its own film board.

Hayden

Hayden

South of Superior, are mines at Mammoth and Kearny and Hayden, home to the ASARCO  smelter complex, which services several of that company’s state mines. It is rich in mining history, and union grumbling is still part of the town: One abandoned building has “Union Yes! Forever” painted on it, with one of the “Ns” in “Union” painted backward. The first parts of the plant were opened in 1912,  and now it covers 200 acres  with a smelter smokestack 1,000 feet  tall. Nearby Winkelman  and Kearny  are worth seeing, also, and the now-closed San Manuel  mine is several miles south near Mammoth.  The tell-tale tailings ridges run for miles.

ASARCO’s big open pit Ray Mine is 22 miles  south of Superior on Arizona 177.  The Ray Complex  covers 53,000 acres  and is the second largest copper mine in Arizona. There is an overlook off the highway that affords an unofficial peek at the mine.

But this is a detour. Back to Superior, and driving east up into Queen Creek Canyon and beyond to Miami-Claypool and its veritable Himalayas of detritus, where you will see what will be, depending on your esthetic sensibility, either a great warning of industrial environmental depredation, or an awesome visual wonderland, an eruption of surrealism in the middle of the quotidian.

Miami

Miami

The town looks like it was dropped as litter from some passing god’s chariot, scattered on the hillsides to either side of U.S. 60.  The smelter smokestack rises to the north, over the black drapings of slag across one tan tailings hill.

Bloody Tank Wash, Miami

Bloody Tank Wash, Miami

The town is younger than most of the mining towns in the state. In 1909  the Miami Copper Company  began operations on the hills beside Bloody Tanks Wash.  For a while, it was a rival to Globe, where the Old Dominion Mine  was one of the biggest producers. But Globe ceased being a mining power in 1931  when the mine flooded, and Miami became the center, not just of mining – several mines are nearby, including the Pinto Creek open pit – but the major smelting location for Phelps Dodge.

Now, the townsite, with its bridges over the wash looking like Venetian canal bridges gone terribly wrong, is home to many antiques stores. Unlike many old mining towns, the industry is in full swing, and the mines and processing plant prosper and wane with the price of copper.

San Carlos Lake

San Carlos Lake

Past Globe you enter the San Carlos Indian Reservation. Take a right down to Coolidge Dam and San Carlos Lake. Monuments to civilization are always so much more compelling when they are stuck in the middle of nowhere, like Shelley’s Ozymandias or Catherwood’s Palenque.

At least, that’s what comes to mind when you finally come upon Coolidge Dam, standing like a sentinel in the grass and hills of the Apache reservation.

Gila River from Coolidge Dam

Gila River from Coolidge Dam

Built in the late 1920s, it comes from that great era of dam building and dam architecture. Although it is much smaller than Hoover Dam on the Colorado, it shares an obvious family relationship, with its Art Deco details and horseshoe curvature. It looks like one of the great, archetypal dams.

It reaches a climax in two giant Deco eagle heads near its lip that watch over the downstream Gila River as it enters the Needles Eye Wilderness. They are eagles that pronounce the word “federal” with authority.

It was the Bureau of Indian Affairs that built the dam, to allow the San Carlos tribe to make use of the fluctuating water supply of the Gila. In 1994, the dam overflowed, with water released in such quantities through its spillways, that they had to be repaired. On the other hand, the lake has shrunk to practically nothing at least 20 times in its four-score years of life. In 1977, the lake got so low, there was a major fish kill, with an estimated 5 million fish going belly up. It took five years for the lake to recover.

At low water, the lake must look the way it did when the dam was dedicated in 1930, when humorist Will Rogers looked out at it during the ceremony and joked that, “If this were my lake, I’d mow it.”

By 2015, it could have used another good mowing, because the lake was down to about 5 percent of capacity, leaving most of the dam high and dry, exposing what is supposed to be under water. The current El Niño has raised the level once more.

Coolidge Dam

Coolidge Dam

Three great bulbous rounds of concrete make up the upstream part of the dam, and they are exfoliating sheets of concrete as they age, and looking more and more like a ruins in the making.

If you take the pilgrimage to see the dam, you might as well continue along Reservation Route 500 for 30 miles until it reunites with U.S. 70 at Bylas. Few drives in Arizona are as peaceful and solitary. Just watch out for the potholes.

Black Hills Back Country Byway

Black Hills Back Country Byway

Continue down U.S. 70 along the Gila River and farmland to Mt. Graham and Safford. From there you head toward Clifton and Morenci, up in the hills. There is a “short cut” — the 21-mile Black Hills Back Country Byway, which takes you through wilderness on a gravel road. This is what Arizona looked like when Geronimo hid in these canyons and arroyos. After you cross the Gila River on its Depression-era concrete bridge, you can see a parody “shining city on the hill,” Clifton, like a mirage.

"Shining city on the hill"

“Shining city on the hill”

If you really want to see the industrial power of Arizona, you can do no better than to visit Clifton-Morenci in Greenlee County.  The largest open pit copper mine in the nation has spread so many miles across, it actually ate up the original town of Morenci.

The Phelps Dodge mine can be viewed from an overlook on U.S. 191,  11 miles north of Clifton. It is a humbling experience: like looking at a manmade Grand Canyon, covered with trucks the size of five-story buildings busting dust up along the miles and miles of mine roads in the pit.

Morenci pit and road

One truck can haul 270 tons  of ore on tires 12 feet in diameter.  The biggest trucks carry 320 tons.

Morenci mine truck

Morenci is still a company town, the last in the state, where all the housing is company owned, and all the workers and families shop at the company store.

The mining potential of the area was discovered in 1865  by passing soldiers. The first mine opened in 1872,  but things took off when Phelps Dodge entered the picture in 1881.  The open pit was begun in 1937,  since then, 4.1 billion tons  of ore and rock have been dug out, leaving behind a hole big enough to see from outer space.

Morenci S-curve

The industrial complex is impressive. Miles of corrugated-metal processing plants and piles and piles of tailings and slag.

Morenci mine industry

Clifton, a few miles south, is practically a ghost town, but filled with the same kind of buildings that give Bisbee its period charm. Only in Clifton, they are rather more like Roman ruins.

Clifton

Clifton

Seeing these old mining towns, like Clifton, Miami or Winkelman, can leave you feeling quite conflicted. They are clearly evidence of monumental environmental destruction. Poison waters run off the tailings piles and nowadays have to be captured and treated, but in the past, just filtered down to the streams and water table. Whole mountains have been turned into holes in the ground. Ash heaps make new mountains. Lives are burned up, too. Miners attempting to find better conditions could find themselves dumped off a train in the emptiness of New Mexico and told not to return. Huge corporations buy up the hard work of the original prospectors and squeeze the profits out of the land, like water from a dishcloth. The land has been turned gray and dusty, and tire tracks the size of riverbeds gouge out the roadways. The air is heavy with dust and fumes, and men swarm over the desiccated heaps like ants on an ant hill.

Clifton

Clifton

"Picturesque"

“Picturesque”

Yet, it is hard not to be awed by the sublimity of such hugeness, vastness, even if vast destruction. One is left with two hearts.

In the 18th century, there was a fad for paintings of Classical ruins. Such paintings were called “picturesque,” and they depicted not merely the architecture of Rome and Greece, but the vines growing up the stones, and the peasants building cooking fires below the aqueducts. The cracked masonry, fallen blocks, glowing in a beautiful sunset, set 18th century sensibilities into a dither, fanning themselves in admiration of the beauty — a beauty that told of death and decay, of the falling of empires, and the persistence of life below the arches and gables. There is a sense of grandeur, even if we only live in reflection of it.

Clifton AZ bathtub

And while I cannot avoid seeing the landscape as some sort of movie set for a new Mad Max film, neither can I deny the grandeur of the landscape, the sense of loss that fuels the emotions, the sense of something larger, older, and more significant than myself alone.

Clifton

Clifton

Much of the mythology of Arizona revolves around cowboys and Indians, some fantasy version of the “Old West.” (Somehow, Scottsdale gets to call itself “the West’s most Western town,” while in reality being a commercial real-estate empire filled with shopping malls and freeways). The mythology is a commodity. Yet, there is real myth — the feeling in your psyche of the expansiveness of history and the world — in the union battles, corporate dealings, dying towns and Dante-esque pits into the earth.

Route 191 north of Morenci

Route 191 north of Morenci

As you head north out of Morenci, you enter the mountains and head to a completely different Arizona.

Patagonia

Patagonia

The area in Arizona west of Interstate 19 and south of Interstate 10 is a forgotten quadrant of the state, perhaps because it is so lightly populated, perhaps because it is so heterogeneous, and perhaps because it chooses to be. It is a place where retirees and the remnant of hippiedom are often the same people, where irrigated farms fill the flatter areas and the hills are riddled like Swiss cheese with tunnels, more often abandoned than not.

I went there often, partly because I like the less formalized regions in general, and in part because I had so many newspaper assignments there: wine country, the opening of Kartchner Caverns, the anniversary of filming Oklahoma! in the grassy fields of Patagonia, the Amerind Foundation in Dragoon, historic Fort Bowie, birding in Ramsey Canyon, a tour of copper mining in the state, a travel piece about the Chiricahua Mountains.

Fort Bowie

Fort Bowie

It is home to some of the most picturesque desert and mountain landscape in Arizona, and it is also home to the army-base squalor and mini-mall-and-tattoo-parlor congestion of Sierra Vista.

This part of southern Arizona is defined, more than anything else, by what is no longer there.

Kartchner Caverns

Kartchner Caverns

Dozens of townsites are now only blowing grass; whole mountains have been turned into empty, terraced holes in the ground.

Geronimo’s been captured; the ores are largely played out; and the railroad doesn’t stop here anymore.

Elgin, Arizona

Elgin, Arizona

Yet, everywhere you turn are reminders of how things used to be. Old land grants show up on maps along with mountain ranges named after Indians. Abandoned mines perforate the hills and tell of short but acute prosperity. Former railroad rights-of-way cut across river bottoms that used to be littered with bustling towns.

Ruby, Gleeson, Charleston and a score more towns like them are now only crumbling adobe, gray weathered boards and unhinged tin roofs banging in the wind.

Lopez Pool Hall, Patagonia

Lopez Pool Hall, Patagonia

The area south of Interstate 10 is a gigantic history museum, and that history is based largely on copper, cattle and crops and the water needed to exploit them.

Drive to Bisbee and see the Copper Queen Mine, or drive east of Douglas and see the John Slaughter ranch, or drive north in the Sulphur Springs Valley to the farming community of Kansas Settlement where the irrigation still coaxes green out of the brown dirt.

It is a history of hard-working people wrestling an existence out of the ground beneath them.

Adobe Patagonia

You can see it in the drawn faces that stare out of century-old photographs: the Cornish miners, the Mexican vaqueros and the Mormon farmers. They lived hard lives and when the mines played out, or the ranch lost out to urban encroachment, they moved on.

Warren pit head, Bisbee

Warren pit head, Bisbee

What they left behind more often than not, was the weathered bones of their existence, the frame houses, mine-shaft timbers and empty general stores.

The boom of the late 1800s died down. In 1882, Tombstone had an estimated 10,000 people and was the largest town in Arizona. By 1940, that number was just over 800. There were fewer people in Cochise County in 1950 than there were in 1910.

The first big wave of prospectors came to southern Arizona in the 1860s after the California gold rush. They came for gold and silver and found found what they were looking for.

In Tombstone, 5.8 million ounces of silver was mined in 1882 alone.

Dragoon

Dragoon

Dragoon cactusBut because the water needed to process the silver ore wasn’t to be had in Tombstone, a series of satellite communities were built along the San Pedro River, some 10 miles or so west of Tombstone, where Millville and Contention City gave rise to stamp mills that processed the ore that was hauled in in wagons.

Charleston and Fairbank arose to provide food and dry goods to the miners and mill workers. Fairbank became something of a shopping mall.

Built beside the railroad that followed the San Pedro, the town supplied Tombstone with its food and goods until well into this century. There were no groceries in Tombstone; residents had to ride the 10 miles down to the depot and the Fairbank Commercial Company. The town never had more than about 100 people, but it did have a hotel, and for a while, a Goldwater-owned store.

Texas Canyon

Texas Canyon

That all changed in 1884 when the Tombstone mines began flooding out. By 1888, the Contention City post office closed; other communities followed.

Fairbank lasted into the 1970s, with a population of 3 in 1971. Now there is only the volunteer site host for the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, living in a trailer near the back of the “town.” The store and post office — built in 1883 — are still standing, as is the schoolhouse built in 1920 and a couple of homes and outbuildings.

Where the Montezuma Hotel used to stand, there is now the asphalt of Arizona Route 82, which runs past the site.

The pattern of boom and bust played out all through the region. Claims were filed, mines opened, saloons opened, mines played out, people left to move on to the next new ore pit.

Bisbee

Bisbee

One town that has lasted longer than most is Bisbee. It owes its existence to copper, which was discovered in the surrounding Mule Mountains in 1875. Three years later, it was profitable enough to haul ore to the railhead in Benson and send it on to Pennsylvania for smelting. By 1901, smelting operations were moved to Douglas, only 25 miles to the east, when a railroad was built.

The Bisbee mines successfully produced copper and its related metals for 90 years. Over that time, miners extracted more than 8 billion pounds of copper, worth about $2 billion. The mines also yielded 3.9 million pounds of lead, 3.8 million pounds of zinc, 2.7 million ounces of gold and more than 1 million ounces of silver. In the process, some 2,000 miles of tunnels were drilled through the mountains.

Dragoon Spanish sword

By the turn of the century, it was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco, with 20,000 residents.  With Brewery Gulch and a red-light district, it had all the color you could as for, and after a major fire in 1908, the city rebuilt largely in brick.

Those buildings still survive, largely unchanged, giving visitors a peek at what life was like back then.

The mines thrived, copper prices went bust, the mines suffered. There was union activity. In 1917,  there were strikes at most of Arizona’s major mines; Bisbee’s answer was to round up 1,200 strikers, herd them into railroad cars and ship them east to New Mexico where they were dumped unceremoniously. This was the infamous Bisbee Deportation.

Lavender Pit, Bisbee

Lavender Pit, Bisbee

By then, new technology allowed the introduction of open pit mining and the face of Bisbee began changing forever. The most famous of these pits opened in 1951: The giant Lavender Pit mine operated by Phelps Dodge dug a monster hole into the ground just south of town. It eventually wound up some 900 feet deep by the time it closed in 1974.Dragoon tree

Bisbee itself might have closed down soon after, but its residents liked living on the mountainside and a host of retirees and later, artists and lingering hippies, now long of beard and wide of girth, joined in to keep the town alive.

Where once you would find a miner tossing down rotgut whisky, you are now more likely to find microbrew or a hazelnut latte.

My favorite vista in the quadrant is the Willcox Playa, a huge dry lakebed that functions as a landmark along I-10. You can see it from dozens of miles away, and when you are traveling west on the interstate, it is when you know you are back home in Arizona. In the summer, dust devils whip the white dust into mini-tornadoes of grit and sand. Sandhill Cranes roost in the area. The giant white circle in the flatness of the desert is so dry you know you have to find something to drink.

In Willcox, you can grab a soda at Rodney’s.

Wilcox Rodney's BBQRodney Brown has run his tiny eatery in Willcox for 20 years. It has a kitchen the size of a closet and no dining room at all — you find a seat out back at a picnic table.

“If you want an interesting place to eat, you should try Rodney’s,” says John Ware, director of the Amerind Foundation in Dragoon, about 20 miles to the west. “But it is kind of funky.”

It may be a measure of a traveler’s adventurousness to eat at Rodney’s. The building on Railroad Avenue, two doors down from the Rex Allen Museum, is barely large enough to qualify as real estate, and its walls are cracking.

“This crack in the concrete started only yesterday,” he says, pointing at the wall just outside the screen door to his backyard refectory.

Things are informal. If you want a drink, grab one from the ice-filled sports cooler on the floor.

There’s nary a vertical or perpendicular line in the building, which leans a bit, and the floor is wobbly at best. The screen door to the backyard doesn’t open all the way; it catches on the uneven ground.

Rodney stands behind the counter, taking your order, then spooning the dark, gooey barbecue into a tin pot to heat it up.

Wilcox Rodney fixing BBQ

The food is good. Lots of customers back up in the street at lunchtime, waiting for a chance to get inside and order.

Like a barber on caffeine, he keeps the conversation going, stirring your food, pointing to the signed picture on the wall: “To Rodney, all the best, Lorenzo Lamas,” it says.

Next to it is another celebrity photo that looks like Willie Nelson, but, says Rodney, “It’s not really. It’s a Willie Nelson impersonator. But he’s really good.”

Rodney moved to Willcox 20 years ago after working in Sierra Vista for 10 years. In Sierra Vista, he ran Rodney’s Southside BBQ.

Asked why he moved to Willcox, he says only, “We don’t know yet.”

Another freight train rumbles by across the street, rattling everything in the joint and drowning conversation. Rodney stops in midsentence, only to pick up again as the train passes and the dishes stop jumping.

“Ambience,” he says.

Sonoita vinyard

On the eastern side of the quadrant, you find the vinyards of Patagonia and Sonoita.

Sonoita wine barrel

East of Sonoita, the road weaves through more yellow grasslands, with the torso hills getting closer and closer to the road, finally coming together at a pass between the Mustang and Whetstone mountains and dipping then into the wishfully named Rain Valley.

Sonoita Creek

Sonoita Creek

The same road then continues down to the wooly bottomlands, thick with willow, along the San Pedro River. That’s San Peedro, if you want to fit in. All among the trees, the birds are thick as thieves and noisy as conventioneers. Looking down from the aging iron bridge into the water’s flow, you can see the green waterweeds individually pulled in direction of the current.

On a cold windy morning in spring, the blow twists the riverbank grasses the same way.

Patagonia Lake State Park

Patagonia Lake State Park

From there, the road goes south to Coronado National Memorial in the Huachuca Mountains. You gain altitude constantly from the river lowlands until you are under the mountain peaks. The pine trees are greenish black and burning in the late afternoon sun. When the pavement gives out, the switchbacks take you up Montezuma Canyon to the pass, where to the east you can see most of the San Pedro Valley and down into Mexico and to the west, you can see as far as Baboquivari and Nogales.

When the air is clear — and it is so more often than it is in Phoenix — the valleys below are straw yellow, lined with denim-blue mountain ranges.

On Ariz. 80 out of Douglas, you pass a misplaced corner of the Chihuahuan Desert in the San Bernardino Valley, a broad saucer of tawny grass and spiky lechuguilla and yucca. The sky near the horizon is the color of a robin’s egg; just below it, the distant mountains are dusky purple and below them, the grays and greens dotted with black trees. Nearer still are the chocolate brown hills and the bottomlands of yellow. It is all spread out like a geological rainbow.

The road is long, straight and smooth and you look at  the speedometer and are startled that you are doing 80. The horizon is always your destination.

The highway will take you, briefly into New Mexico, where you can turn back toward the Chiricahua Mountains.

Chiricahua Mountains

Chiricahua Mountains

Few Arizonans, I suspect, have ever crossed the backbone of the Chiricahuas from the east, but the drive through Portal into Cave Creek Canyon is a drive through a rocky portal into Paradise. The broad green canyon is lined with cliffs and pinnacles and could easily be mistaken for a scaled down Yosemite Valley.

Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument

Along the roadsides, the spring wildflowers dot the shoulders like stars in sparse constellations. They are not so thick this dry year as they have been, but the flowers are still there, lupine and brittlebush, penstemmon and globemallow. Each flowerhead pokes into the passerby’s awareness as individually beautiful and separately tenacious.

Benson

Benson

Perhaps that is why the desert attracts a certain kind of human, demanding their quirky individuality, no matter how bizarre or paranoid.

Click to enlarge any image

Mobile AZ graffiti

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the drive from Phoenix to Tucson along Interstate 10, is the most boring stretch of road anywhere in American experience, outside of the state of Texas.

After you pass the stucco hell of Chandler, you must endure the endless greasewood flats of the Gila Indian Reservation, passing the bridge over the Gila River — although I doubt many drivers note the fact, because the dry riverbed is nearly indistinguishable from the non-river that surrounds it: just more greasewood and a pulverous dust-and-gravel mix that can get whipped up into the air by dust devils during the sun-baked summer months, by which we mean any month except December and maybe the early weeks of January.

Mission church on Gila Reservation

Mission church on Gila Reservation

Past the reservation, you hit the sprawl of Casa Grande and the junction with Interstate 8, where, as your rise up on the overpass, you can spot on the distant horizon the spire of Picacho Peak, which is your beacon for the next 45 miles. There are the pecan forests of Eloy, and, as you drone past Picacho, the ostrich farm, which is about the only meaningful punctuation in your journey until you hit the Ina Road exit, which marks the slow relief you feel as you finally approach your destination. Tucson! That outpost of civilization in the desert.Irrigated farmland

When my job took me to Tucson, I tried to find alternate routes whenever I could. The interstate is tedious, but usually, you had to find the fastest way between cities — it may surprise denizens of America’s eastern climes that in Arizona, it was not considered unusual or beyond the call of duty to drive to Tucson for an opera or a concert and afterwards, drive home to Phoenix the same night — each way a distance of some 125 miles.

Mobile, Arizona

Mobile, Arizona

But when I could — when it was still daytime, or when I had already spent the night in a Tucson motel — I would find some other road. If I had the whole day, I would drive up the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, through Oracle Junction and along the Pima Pioneer Highway to Florence and then west through Apache Junction and back to Phoenix. It is a much more interesting drive, though considerably out of the way.

North Kinney Road, near Tucson

North Kinney Road, near Tucson

More often, in such circumstances, I would attempt to drive roads that paralleled Interstate 10, but entered the towns that the interstate bypassed, and looped widely through farm country and desert, giving a drive time to enjoy the exceptional Arizona landscape. The problem is that there are a couple of places where there is no alternative to the freeway, and for a few miles you have to hop back onto the mindless buzz and exhaust of the expressway before you can find an exit that lets you back into the reality of the land.Mobile Az train

I recommend the extra time it takes to take such a route. You see more of the state, partly because you are driving more slowly, but mostly because all the knobs and bosses on your map are wide of the I-10 right of way.

Casa Grande National Monument

Casa Grande National Monument

You can take 51st Avenue around the west end of South Mountain in Phoenix, and head into the Gila Reservation, and you can pass through Maricopa and Mobile — which began as an enclave for African-Americans when they were less than welcome in other towns — and you can see Sacaton.

I once committed a crime in Sacaton — breaking and entering. My wife and I culled our overwhelming book collection and came up with five or six boxes of books we decided to donate to the library in Sacaton. But when we got there, the old wooden library was closed. I broke into the building, picking the lock with my jackknife and leaving the boxes on the floor of the library with a note announcing “the midnight skulker” had left the books for the residents.

Several years later, we did the same thing again, except that the library had new deadbolt locks, increased security and a fence around the property. This time, we left the books on the front stoop, assuming that they would not be rained on as long as they were discovered before five months had passed.

Red Mesa

Red Mesa

You can drive through the pecans of Eloy, not past them.

Eloy pecans

Eloy pecans

And when you get to the land just north of Tucson, there is farmland and the old railroad, including the abandoned water tower of Red Mesa, just north of Marana. From Marana, you can drive through the east section of Saguaro National Park (nee Monument), and past the Sonoran Desert Museum, past the Old Tucson movie set, up over Gates Pass Road and down onto Speedway Boulevard and Tucson.

Pima Air Museum, Tucson

Pima Air Museum, Tucson

Saguaros TucsonIt used to be that Phoenix was the crass commercial center of the state, and Tucson was the cultural center, where you found the arts and the educated people. But as Phoenix grew, such institutions as the Arizona Theater Company and Arizona Opera migrated north to the bigger city and Tucson has its past to cling to. It is still a more livable city than Phoenix, though traffic on Speedway is getting to be as bad as that on Camelback Road.

But it is south of Tucson that things get interesting again. The corridor down Green Valley takes us past mission churches, artist colonies, copper mines and nuclear destruction.

The highlight is the church of San Xavier del Bac, built in the late 18th century and recently restored. Services are still held, and while tourists run through the nave on weekdays, it is best seen in action during Mass.

San Xavier del Bac

San Xavier del Bac

 

San Xavier del bac dog at door

 

San Xavier del bac interior dome

 

San Xavier del Bac interior man sittingOn tourist days, the plaza in front is often filled with crafts and jewelry for sale, and a food truck.

Asarco mine tailings

Asarco mine tailings

One thing that struck me, even the first time we drove through Arizona in 1980, was the prevalence of mountain ranges created by copper mines — the tailings piles that grew as large as the mountain ranges of New Jersey. They reach their Rocky Mountain stage further north, in the Miami-Claypool area, but you pass slightly newer and neater beside the roads as you head south from Tucson. The giant Asarco mines welcome visitors, and you can see a hole in the ground that makes you think someone is searching for Dante’s Inferno, having dug at least to the Malebolge. There are rings around the copper pit, just as Dante has his rings of Hell.Asarco mine 3

Perhaps a more literal hell is implied by the Titan Missile Museum next door, where you can see the implements of world destruction set out for you like a Disney attraction. Titan missile ArizFor those of us who grew up in the “duck-and-cover” 1950s, when nuclear annihilation seemed a palpable and immediate threat, the nose cone of the rocket seems a round pyramid of doom. Perhaps the mines are currently more immediate harbinger of doom, as the nuclear threat has stood down. For the moment.

Tubac

Tubac

South of that, the traffic really dwindles, and you find the isolated and happy community of Tubac, an artists colony, and beyond that, the ruins of the Tumacacori Mission Church, with its adobe outbuildings and its recollection of the conversion of heathen Indios, whether they wanted it or not.

Tumacacori

Tumacacori

At Tumacacori, an ancient woman demonstrated the making of flour tortillas. At Mexican restaurants, I always specify corn tortillas, because the flour version seems insipid and pointless. But at her side, my wife tried patting out the masa triga and made a mess. The old lady made perfect circles and plopped them down on her comal, flipped them once and offered them for us to eat. The mission church has not lost its touch: I was converted. A fresh flour tortilla, hot off the griddle, is a joy and a wonder. It is the commercial flour tortillas that are tasteless wads of paste. This version was a gustatory revelation and I will never think poorly of the flour tortilla any more — although unless it is made for me immediately off the tin-plate stove over a fire of wood ash, I will continue to avoid the store-bought variety.Tumacacori baptistry

Down the road from Tumacacori, you used to be able to drive along back roads, dirt roads, through old farms and river beds. The drug wars have ended that. So many roads are blockaded now. Freedom of movement in Southern Arizona is severely curtailed. So, you might as well just drive on to Nogales and get a meal there.

Click any photo to enlarge

Click any photo to enlarge