December 14 - December 20, 1995

Northwest Passage

By Lawrence W. Cheek

Illustrations by Michael Longstaff

THE COYOTES SANG again last night. Like soloists in a cantata, each individual served up a distinct melodic line and vocal timbre, and after several moments of lying awake and listening, I could distinguish the voices and connect them to imagined canid personalities. Anthropomorphism? Sure, but where's the harm?

I also took satisfaction in the sheer existence of the music, the fact that I could hear it at all. My part of town, next door to Sabino Canyon, is becoming so packed with people that one craves for the quiet of Cairo. Every square foot of desert that isn't arroyo is being bladed and gouged for frenzied human settlement, and yet the coyotes are still out here in force. Unlike us, they adapt their lives to the habitat at hand.

This issue of adapting is on my mind because I'm leaving Tucson. After 23 years of living here, learning the desert, bitching about the heat, writing about coyotes and cacti, architectural hokum and prehistoric Hohokam, I'm moving to Seattle.

pix Never expected this. I've quoted my colleague Charles Bowden in two of my books: "I have lived in the Sonoran Desert since I was a boy and unless I get unlucky, I will die here." I have the same sense of attachment, if not quite the bulk of years here, that Bowden has had. Life deals you opportunities and dirty tricks alike; I have no idea yet which this will prove to be. Some of both, probably.

I also never expected it to be so hard to go away.

I FIRST STARED at Southern Arizona in 1973 through a window of a 727 at 35,000 feet. I was flying from Des Moines for a job interview with the Tucson Daily Citizen, and what I still remember with startling clarity was a feeling of hollow, gnawing alienation. I thought: I won't take the job. I can't live in this place.

The land looked the color of sun-bleached cardboard. It appeared raked and furrowed by corrosive winds and bogus rivers that would flow, with luck, 10 days in a year. The mountains seemed equally desolate and hostile; from seven miles up I had no inkling of their heroic natural architecture nor the kaleidoscopic changes of the plant and animal environments on their slopes every few hundred feet. The entire Sonoran Desert landscape appeared to encourage no life, no interest, no promise.

Two days later I did turn down the job. I flew back to moist, green Iowa, where my wife, Patty, helped me sort through my feelings. She had been to Arizona as a child, and the place had fascinated her. Was I just afraid of exploring an exotic environment? If so, wasn't that a crippling tic in a journalist's emotional makeup? Finally we agreed we would try it. We would move to Tucson, spend a couple of years pumping up our résumés, then move on--preferably to California, where in those days even a reporter's salary might cop a house only a few freeway exits from the ocean.

California didn't work out, and so we stayed. But I resented being here for about the first five years. I hated sunblock, swamp coolers, Speedway, Fourth Avenue, downtown, the rodeo, slump-block houses, snakes, bats, bugs, my job, the drive to Phoenix, the heat, and especially Arizona's political landscape. Iowa had been conservative, but respectably so--its Republican officeholders, when they said something out loud, at least sounded like all their neurons were firing. In Arizona, it wasn't (still isn't) only a matter of party or philosophical tilt. Review our parade of governors since 1973: Jack Williams, Raul Castro, Wesley Bolin, Bruce Babbitt, Evan Mecham, Rose Mofford, Fife Symington. Spot the one viable life form in this septet.

In fact, my first stirrings of appreciation for Arizona came in 1975 when I profiled Babbitt, who'd been elected attorney general the previous year. Before this, the AG had always been a plaster statue, basically content to issue opinions on whether this or that state agency had the legal authority to do that or this. The new guy, to everyone's shock, affixed his constitutional bayonet and began prosecuting price-fixers and land pushers. One day a month he opened his office to any Arizona resident who wanted to come in and talk about legal problems, consumer problems, sometimes even personal problems. He invited me to sit at his right side for one of those long days, taking notes, as he absorbed a torrent of middle-class misery. Late in the afternoon, between visitors, he turned to me with hurt in his eyes and said, "These people's stories are straight out of Dickens." I sensed he was politically sharp, but also that he meant it.

pix For the first time I liked an Arizona political figure. I hear on the news today that he's helicoptering over Seattle to look at the flood damage. I miss his presence on the ground.

COMING TO TERMS with the desert took longer. I had grown up in the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas, and anyone who's ever spent much time there will understand how the concept of "desert" burns into the subconscious as a synonym for bleak, desolate, godforsaken. Though the high Chihuahuan and lower Sonoran landscapes are barely even distant cousins, at some level I couldn't help associating them. Both were hot and arid and bristling with malevolent cutlery posing as plant life, and that was enough.

My epiphany began one morning out at Saguaro National Monument (now National Park). I had started using the east unit's paved eight-mile road as exercise machine, cycling out there every Sunday and trying to beat the previous week's time around the loop. The desert scenery was an irrelevant blur beneath the sweat. Then one day on The Hill--anyone who's ever run or biked the loop needs no other descriptor--some inner voice told me to quit being so damned obsessed and stop for a moment of rest and contemplation. I did, and heard--


I scrambled down a steep slope a couple hundred feet into a canyon, and here was this runoff-season rivulet a couple of feet wide, trolling a path around boulders and cacti like a little boy dawdling on an errand. The scene stirred a long-dormant memory of a line in the Old Testament: "For in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert...." I went home and combed an unworn Bible until I found it in Isaiah 35. The chapter was as difficult as it was lyrical; Isaiah was writing in metaphor, not literally describing winter mountain runoff or a wash swilling monsoon rain. The last sentence of the chapter, though, coincided perfectly with what I had felt that morning: "They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."

pix I suddenly felt a little like John C. Van Dyke, the odd librarian/art historian from back East who rode into the Southwest's deserts in 1898 and five years later published a small book--The Desert--that stands as the first milestone of literary appreciation for this part of the continent. Until Van Dyke, the Southwest had been viewed essentially as a wasteland of rattlesnakes and aboriginals. He unexpectedly discovered profound beauty in the light, the mountains, the rare cameos of water, even in the war of prickly life. "There is...a struggle for existence going on here," he wrote, "that for ferocity is unparalleled elsewhere in nature....It is a show of teeth in bush and beast and reptile."

He also issued an injunction that would prove futile: "The desert should never be reclaimed!"

BECAUSE I BEGAN to subscribe to Van Dyke's sentiments, I took a very long time to make an uneasy emotional peace with Tucson. I got interested in architecture and urban development around 1976, treated myself to an education, and a couple of years later began writing about them--often with a show of teeth--for a variety of publications, including the Citizen, Architecture magazine and eventually the Tucson Weekly as well. The most telling thing I ever reported about the architecture of Tucson was not, dammit, my own observation but that of long-time local architect Jim Gresham: "Tucson is the only American city I know," he said, "where the oldest standing work of architecture is also the best." It was a rightful tribute to the mystery designer of San Xavier del Bac, but also a deep-biting indictment of 200 years of muddling that has followed.

Doesn't this landscape deserve better--just for a handful of examples--than that graceless high-rise hulk at 97 N. Stone propped up on concrete stilts and rotated 45 degrees to the north-south street grid so that two walls, not one, greet the summer afternoon sun; the rebarbative Harvill Building, worst of a still-spreading epidemic of student containers at the University of Arizona; the Tucson Police Department headquarters, which abuts Barrio Historico with a concrete sidewall that seems to say, "shove off, you old dirtbag, or I'll kick your ass"; or El Con Mall, a dyspeptic conglomeration that replaced the glorious Spanish Colonial Revival-style El Conquistador Hotel in the 1960s without a peep of local protest? (That last was before my time here, so I questioned a native about it. "We were so glad to get a mall, any mall," she sighed, "so Tucson would start to feel like a city and we wouldn't have to drive to Phoenix to shop.")

Yet a critic's fundamental job is not to condemn or praise, but to understand. Gradually I did. Tucson doesn't look the way it does because several generations of architects have been extracting revenge for something. It's a consequence of our peculiar economy and social makeup.

Face it: Ours is an overgrown branch-office town, a temporary campground for outfits like IBM, Hughes and the Colorado Rockies. The reason our meager huddle of downtown towers makes such a graceless profile is that nothing there is a corporate headquarters that anyone took pride in. Everything's either spec office space or mid-rise filing cabinets for government bureaucrats. Why don't we have a distinctive city hall or county building to serve as a city symbol, like Dallas or Boston or even Tempe? Because (a) we don't elect visionaries to office, and (b) even if we did, we wouldn't stand for their spending money like that. Most of us residents of Tucson are campers, too, or else folks who came here to make money or just be left alone to enjoy warm winter golf. Building a city worthy of its spectacular natural setting has never made the agenda.

I used to imagine what expletives the fastidiously literate Van Dyke would have sputtered if he could see how we've reclaimed the desert with Speedway--and then one day in 1993 my phone rang with an assignment from Arizona Highways on, of all things, Speedway. I'd done curious and problematic stories for the magazine before--a profile of Peoria, Arizona, springs quickly to mind--but this one seemed to call for hallucinogens. How could I write anything remotely positive about Speedway?

Once again, the answer came in getting to know the place--not its architecture; its people. Photographer Norma Jean Gargasz, who had hatched the idea, and I spent several weeks cruising the strip day and night, dropping in on places and watching and listening. We found a Hispanic couple who had lived on Speedway for 50 years, believing--appropriately, given their address--only that "God will provide." We sat with a tiny black church congregation of some two dozen people and listened, entranced, as the minister sang an hour-long sermon in a style that lodged midway between Bourbon Street and Italian operatic recitative. We met a bunch of middle-aged car nuts who gathered at Coach's Deli every Friday night to talk camshaft profiles and slowly cruise their restored '60s and '70s Corvettes and Firebirds along the strip, reconstructing (at low rpm) their high school days. "I used to race Speedway, not cruise it," one told us, failing to conceal his contempt. "Now the kids've changed the way they modify their cars. Today it's mostly hopped-up stereos." Sic transit gloria mundi.

What this taught me was that Speedway is simply Tucson's real downtown, distorted by the availability of cheap land into a seemingly endless and tacky strip, but one still pulsating with dreams, frenzies, and creative spirits. You just have to look behind the stucco.

TUCSON IS A great city in one respect besides its good luck at having sprouted in a spectacular natural environment: those dreams are affordable here, relatively easy to wrench into possibility and then reality. Nobody cares where you came from, how long you've been, or why you're here; if you have an idea--it doesn't even have to be a reasonable one--you can sell it. Five years after I moved here, for one example, I was a newspaper reporter with a frightening commission in hand to build a replica of an 18th-century French harpsichord for the university. My lone qualification: I knew what it was supposed to sound like.

The other side of the nickel of dreams is that it's easy to be careless about this place, and we have been. The frenzy is so urgent that we don't take the time to appreciate the environment before we change it--an impulse that's been around since the Franciscans dropped San Xavier onto a flock of surely bewildered Indians. (Tucson is the only American city I know where the oldest standing work of architecture is also the one that rides the landscape with such pompous arrogance.) Maybe we should be grateful in this century that we're such skinflints when grandiose ideas come around. In the 1930s the Army Corps of Engineers concocted a plan to build a 300-foot-high dam across Sabino Canyon and turn it into a lake. The cigars downtown loved the idea; it died only because Pima County couldn't come up with matching funds.

Building a big city in the desert is at best an unnatural act. Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Albuquerque, Las Vegas--they'd all empty out in a week if deprived of modern lifelines of food, water, power, wood and steel streaming in from the real world. These are fantasy cities, fun as they are, destined to bloom for a century or two in the sun, then join the Hohokam in the dustpan of history.

These are the lyrics I hear, at least, in the coyote cantata. In the end the desert will win. Deserts always do. At that, those of us who really love this place should feel no pain.

Lawrence W. Cheek has written six books about the Southwest, most recently Voices in the Desert (Harcourt Brace) and Santa Fe (Compass American Guides).

Copyright 1995

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December 14 - December 20, 1995

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