From heartbroken Midwesterner to activist desert rat, in a mere 20 years

The 20th anniversary of the day I moved to Tucson passed last month, but I was way too busy to fire up the barbecue and mix margaritas for my friends like I had planned—which is a real shame, because I love artificial and meaningless temporal constructs.

Allow me to compensate by marking my milestone in this space.

I left cool, sodden Cleveland with my fiancée and her best friend on All Fool's Day 1990—on a fool's errand, my friends warned—and arrived in Tucson a week later at the end of a cloudless 80-degree day. The best friend was headed for grad school at the University of Arizona. My fiancée and I had no other purpose than escaping Cleveland, which placed us in a large cohort of migrants from the Midwest.

The trip was tough. Despite their tender ages, the women had lots of stuff, enough to require a 22-foot Ryder truck, a behemoth that they operated in tandem with little skill and great stress. I could easily fit everything I owned in my tiny gray Chevette. Less than two months after we arrived in Tucson, my fiancée realized that the difference in our respective material stocks was an undeniable indication that we wanted completely different lives, and broke up with me.

Broke up ugly. She insisted that I owed her $1,000 for the Ryder. I said, at best, I owed a pro-rated 4.3 percent, since that was the overall space my stuff occupied. Besides, right after we broke up, my Chevette threw its timing belt, and I had to find $400 for a valve job, which wasn't exactly fair, since I drove my car all the way across the country while hers bobbed along on a trailer behind the truck. I refused to pay her one slim dime, thereby alienating the only two people I knew in this town.

Thus began my Year of Living Miserably in Tucson.

Within a few weeks, the climatic perfection of April had evolved into one of the hottest Tucson summers ever. For a while, I was suffering daily nosebleeds—my Midwestern membranes were more acclimated to triple-digit relative humidity than triple-digit temperatures—and I marveled at how foolish I had been to leave home for a baptism by hellfire on the sunny side of Mercury.

Right around the time Tucson recorded its all-time high of 117 degrees, I read a story in the newspaper about the death of a woman who had passed out by the pool at dawn after a hard night of partying. Around noon, someone smelled her flesh literally cooking in the reflected heat of the concrete and discovered her body. After that, I wasn't just uncomfortable; I was scared. All I could do was click my heels together three times and repeat, "Any place but Cleveland ... ."

At first, I lived way out on the eastside and jumped to the conclusion that Tucson was all strip malls and soulless suburbia. Desperate for money, I took a job running a telemarketing sweatshop for Montgomery Ward. The owner of this creatively accounted, cash-fueled enterprise was a buzz-cut, chain-smoking Tin Man who reeked of Lagerfeld and wore a Rolex rip-off, polyester pants and white loafers. He gambled on anything that moved and taught me how to carry my savings account as a large wad of dirty bills wrapped with a rubber band. He also taught me a lot about how to manage myself, other people and just about any situation that arose. He and I nailed a fat superfecta at the dog track, and my split paid for the valve job.

A few months later, the papers reported the discovery of 100 greyhounds in various states of decay, bullets in their skulls, in the desert outside of Phoenix. I never bet on the dogs again, and eventually quit the job, too. In the next few years, I migrated steadily westward through Tucson's zip codes toward the university, where I finished my degree, became embroiled in nonprofit grassroots activism and bought into the fantasy that subversion of the dominant paradigm was not only possible, but imminent.

I've since disabused myself of that notion, and several others. I discovered downtown and realized that there is a heart and soul to this city, contrary to popular misconception. There are half-again as many people here now, and the northwest side looks more like Phoenix every day, but I've learned to see through the ozone haze to the true Tucson.

And, after many long days exploring the spectacular beauty and diversity of the Sonoran Desert and Sky Islands, even my membranes have evolved the tough inner layer of a proud desert rat.