The desert stretched for miles in every direction before yielding to grasslands and juniper forests. Behind me lay the vast, unchanging terrain of isolation and despair; ahead the close comfort and dynamic transience of the boomtown. The impossible openness was perfectly balanced by the burgeoning cul-de-sac, and in that moment came the rustling of an abandoned thought: I am home.
Fifteen years later and everything has changed, except for that essential harmony of contrasts. Foreboding and compelling all at once, the places and spaces of my adopted abode never cease to amaze me in their majesty and desolation alike. Every drop of rain is an inconvenient miracle, every beam of sunshine a double-edged sword, every intrusion a welcomed respite. This is still the Wild West, now rendered milder by high-end Sonoran stylings, but still no less romantic than in the picaresque days of lore.
The belief that we’ve tamed this land is pervasive here, even though we’re the ones who have been domesticated by our golf courses, air-conditioners, and subdivisions. We honor the natives (who we also take credit for taming) by consuming their wares and ignoring their impoverishment. At the same time, imported nativists are rewarded with high office by arguing that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get off the dole, all while they draw public salaries and subsidize their corporate cronies. The law is sacrosanct and must be upheld at all costs, even if those costs include good sense, constitutionality, and economic viability. All the better for the bootstraps crowd.
We do things differently here in Arizona. The state’s dominant libertarianism opens a space for individual expression and community experiments without the baggage of a smothering liberalism. Justice is a constantly negotiated process, not a foregone expectation; it is earned rather than mandated. Nothing is ever easy here, yet in that we are all rendered rough equals before nature’s indifferent gaze.
Our politics are quaintly and notoriously haywire, but until recently no one from outside seemed to care very much. Overt racism mixes with covert cross-pollination at every strip mall and burrito shop. Ranchers still hold sway over the land, except where a new urbanism sweeps in young hipsters and faux cowboys all at once. Developers are universally disdained but for city council members and consulting firms, as nouveau riche ticky-tacks sprawl across the windblown landscape. Here, there, and everywhere.
We sit atop stolen land, both north and south. To the east and west lay greener pastures, but none are grander than our canyons. Imagined hordes of marauding invaders and tales of relentless violence spilling over from the borderlands feed into a self-image of rugged adventurism. We protect this place from all dangers except ourselves, since we are the rightful exploiters of the land and its scarce bounty. If we could ban immigrants from California, too, that would be just fine for a lot of folks here.
We’re economically bankrupt and morally ambivalent. Government is a barely tolerated evil at best and a caucus of sanctimonious kooks at worst. People here agree on nothing, except that very notion in itself. Being principled earns a grudging respect even if it leads to consistently wrongheaded positions. In the desert, image is nothing and actions are everything, since the margin of survival is thinner than in most locales.
The topography matches the culture, and both are reciprocally reinforcing of the salient ethos: wide open, rough-and-tumble, mettle-testing, subtly diverse, beautiful, horrifying, unforgiving, colorful, awesome, deadly. From Tucson’s desert green to Flagstaff’s alpine sheen, with Phoenix’s absurd glare in between, our cities stand as loosely linked oases with nothing but sweet nothing in the interstices. Lowlands and mountaintops swirl together in a patchwork of micro-climates and unique ecosystems. Everyone and everything is an island — yet somehow, sin agua, we mutually stay afloat.
This is my Arizona. There’s a lot to ridicule here, and also a lot to admire. The next time you hear us mentioned as the butt of a late-night joke or in a caustic op-ed screed, take a moment to consider the complexities at work in this place. Reactionary forces do not represent our multifarious region, and they never have despite their historical dominance in local politics. Through the fomented fear and legislated hatred, we the people still live here. In the end, that might not be enough, but it does speak volumes.