A tribute to Tucson's urban washes—and the people who take care of them

Urban washes are interesting places. So interesting, in fact, that a lot of people I know would never set foot in one.

They're worried, I suppose, about the various urban outcasts, including coyotes and javelina and teenagers and street people, who move along these older corridors that underlie the familiar asphalt grid. Occasionally, my dog and I run into one of these outcasts on our walks, but not often. In fact, it's rare enough that when we do encounter another human, Fu is startled and a little offended. Our stretch of Arcadia Wash, in his view, belongs to us. And sometimes, right after a big rain, when ours are the first prints across stretches of damp sand, it does.

But there are usually signs that others have been there. The concrete section naturally attracts bikers, skateboarders and taggers, and the rough shelter of the bridges attracts people in search of shade. I am sorry to report that, from the evidence, these are groups with lamentable diets and an iffy sense of civic duty—beer bottles, giant soda cups, jerky wrappers and Cheetos bags tend to collect. (Along the bridges, though, a lot of the trash is undoubtedly the result of idiots just pitching it out of car windows. I hope they all die. Really.)

There's no excuse for any of it, but treating the washes like trashcans really becomes a problem when the garbage is big. Not long ago, someone dumped an entire mattress down the side of the wash, where it separated into three distinct masses of fabric and foam. Out with Fu one day, I slid partway down the bank and hauled the nearest mass up and left it next to an alley Dumpster. (I planned to get the rest on another trip—Fu finds cleanup to be a deeply boring interruption to his walk.) Three days later, it was right back where it had been. One of the homeowners along that stretch had apparently disliked having this admittedly unlovely object parked next to his Dumpster.

Fair enough. However, since the houses along that alley back onto the wash, they're vulnerable to flooding should the wash overflow—and massive junk being swept downstream and blocking the flow under bridges in a downpour is what could do it. You would think, therefore, that people who live along the wash might see that their interests are served by getting mattresses out of it.

Since I live on higher ground, my own interest was less-practical, but still pressing: I want to keep the city from doing flood prevention. A couple of summers ago, they came in and dumped tons of dirt into the shallows where the spadefoot toads were breeding so they could make a ramp to drive heavy machinery (part way) down the wash to (partly) clean it up. This drove me out of my mind with rage. I hate it when that happens.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I took our truck and spent a half-hour or so hauling out the complete mattress ensemble, plus a bunch of standard wash crap—several garbage bags full of fast-food trash, a broken shopping cart and various sections of dead palo verde. (Our friend the palo verde is a lovely plant. But really? As a tree, it's a joke.) I hauled it all back to my own alley, where I'm now gradually feeding it to the trash bin.

Doing this little chore gave me a great feeling. It's wonderful to feel solidarity with people in my 'hood who are the exact opposite of the jerks who make the messes. The guy who goes around painting out tags most weekends. The guy who keeps the picnic tables at the park looking sharp. The unknown heroes who, one day, dragged all six dead shopping carts out of the cart graveyard behind the apartments at Rosemont Boulevard and Fifth Street. (Do you have any idea how heavy a shopping cart is? Or how hard it is to get one up a near-vertical bank?) The people, whoever they are, who keep re-piling chunks of concrete to block vehicular access to the Bunny Hills—the big vacant lot behind Target where the kids ride their bikes. The guy who planted five mesquites at one corner of the lot, where, thanks to neighbors I do not know, dickheads cannot just drive in and dump their trash. Thank you.

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