March 4, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
How a people as addicted to novelty as the modern American public can remain indifferent to an experience restricted to the last three or four of the thousands of human generations, drawing their airplane window shades to watch a movie or study an organizational chart, is–or ought to be–a subject of major interest to the psychological profession. Apparently the only way I will ever obtain an aerial view of the canyon wilderness that surrounds the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers in southeastern Utah is by hijacking a commercial flight from Tucson or Phoenix to Salt Lake City–nothing serious, just a cordial inducement to alter course by a few degrees so as to pass a hundred miles east of Bryce Canyon instead of directly above it on an unswerving northerly heading.
If there is a more thrilling experience than that of observing from 37,000 feet an area of remotely beautiful and inaccessible terrain already intimately experienced at ground level, then it must be something I haven’t tried yet, like bungee-cord jumping or gang warfare. The deserts of southern Utah and northern Arizona extend beneath an arctic sky in overthrusting shelves of rose-hued and rust-colored rock, broken by the dark whale-backed bulk of Navajo Mountain and fissured by the straitened gorge cut by the Green River below Glen Canyon Dam through uplands rising toward the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Presumably my seatmate, paging through a Morris Air publication called The Great American Bathroom Book that contains synopses of 25 or 30 great works of world literature from Don Quixote to The Old Man and the Sea, had never set foot on the wild, austere, ineffably beautiful springtime country below. Why should he care?
From the air, the American Southwest–most of it, anyway–appears still to belong to the Empty Quarter. Unfortunately, the appearance is as illusory as the photographs routinely transmitted by satellite cameras 250 miles above the surface of the earth that reveal no sign of human habitation, including even Los Angeles. The Southwest, Arizona in particular, is rapidly filling up, though it is not exactly being settled: More accurately, it is being consumed. In contemporary Arizona, any place that is not intolerably hot in season or intolerably cold (like the White Mountains in the east-central part of the state) is either the object of invasion and development by tens of thousands of disillusioned Californians, retired Minnesotans, and uncomfortable Phoenicians or at risk of becoming one. In the last 40 years, millions of people from all over the United States have transplanted themselves to Phoenix in order to be warm; in the last ten, many of these have been moving north out of the desert to the once-pleasant mountain communities of Prescott, Sedona, Cottonwood, and Flagstaff to cool off. Then, when the autumn snows arrive on the Mogollón Rim, they head for Phoenix again. Such has become the American way. The Pima Indians, too, led nomadic lives, but theirs were a lot less rough on the environment. In America, land ought to be listed in Patagonia, LL.Bean, and Orvis catalogues and sold from them. Perhaps one day it will be.
Somehow, Arizona remains a beautiful, scenically varied, and biologically diverse state in spite of massive urban and suburban sprawl, booming geriatric communities, trailer parks the size of Eastern counties, copper mines expiring amid cubic miles of spoil, military bases occupied by high-tech barbarians, Indian gambling casinos, the sandy tracks of once-living rivers rendered extinct to provide water for air-conditioning systems and asparagus farms, and artificial lakes quietly evolving into suppurating mudholes where sunken houseboats and drowned bass fishermen will eventually be memorialized in fossil form. From the headwaters of the Gila River on the New Mexico border to the Grand Canyon, the Mogollón Plateau–an upland region covered by low pine, scrub and live oak, and chaparral overshadowed by the White and San Francisco mountains blue with their forests of aspen and tall pine–divides the high northern and low southern deserts. The southeastern corner, strangely lush despite its blond meadows, purple volcanic tuff, and creosote plains sweeping between sharp blue ranges, is also mountainous. But Arizona has a desert heart, and so the best and most typical parts of it are desert: almost deserted–the Navajo Reservation (26 million acres) that fills in the northeastern corner, and Papago Land (home of the Tohono O’Odham and bigger than the state of Connecticut) southwest of Tucson.
Of course the tourists, second-home owners, and snowbirds are not here for the desert, or even for the less forbidding hill country. In fact, they have not come for Arizona at all. They are drawn by what they call The Climate, or what might more accurately be termed The End of Weather. During the three months I spent in Tucson the winter before last, the sky barely changed from a customary milky blue that prevailed across a wide spectrum of increasing and decreasing temperatures, as if an electric oven were being turned up or down. Pleasant enough in its way, of course, but also rather eerie and extremely monotonous. But the Blueheads, as the AARP crowd is known locally, seem not to notice. They want life at womb temperature and peace, not variety and excitement.
Late winter and early spring are my wandering time, less because I am weary of the northern snows than because the summers in Wyoming are so perfect and evanescent that I am unwilling to miss so much as a week of them. And the Southwest, lovely at all times of the year, is especially beautiful in March and April. In order to appreciate it, though, you need to get far away from the “seniors,” who–with their short pants and sneakers, discounted prices, unadulterated leisure, and general irresponsibility–give new meaning to the words “second childhood.” It’s the present generation of seniors (misnamed the Greatest Generation) that is chiefly responsible for the despoliation of the American landscape by suburbia, shopping malls, super highways, fastfood strips, and industrial parks to the point where almost no work of human hands in America today is worth any response beyond a violent retch. Nothing in Arizona approaches, from an aesthetic point of view, the beauty of a 2,000-foot wall of slickrock cliff, yet in Sedona–built at the outlet of Oak Creek Canyon, where Zane Grey (a remarkably sophisticated rhetorician compared not just to Louis L’Amour but to most “literary” novelists of the present day) lived, hunted catamounts, and wrote his horse operas–the Blueheads are hard at work, having retired from every other occupation, to bring the culture and beauty of Terre Haute, Indiana, to what was up until yesterday primeval wilderness. The proof of the failure of American civilization is these pathetic aged children, creators of the American Century and the richest and most fortunate generation in the history of the entire world, arrived at what is supposed to be the age of wisdom with nothing on their minds but golf and dessert and no weapon with which to confront their mortality beyond a wallet fat with credit cards.
In order to make an acquaintance with Arizona at any time of year, you have to get out on the back–meaning dirt–roads: disappear onto the Indian reservations; poke around on the Mexican border, where the two-bit smugglers scamper across carrying greasy backpacks stuffed with cocaine and the big fish, on horseback and armed with AK-47’s, lead their pack strings laden with bales of marijuana through steep dark canyons; and slip over into Mexico to attend the bullfights in Nogales, Sonora. In Agua Prieta, contiguous with the American city of Douglas (founded in the early 1900’s by the family of the late Supreme Court Justice), the Christmas decorations remain for Easter, and, if you tip the tabernero five bucks, he will call the cops and maybe even draw a knife in your defense when the other patrons look squint-eyed at you and mutter about getting the gringo. West of the town of Sells, capital city of the Tohono O’Odham, the Papago Indians are having their Spring Classic Rodeo, selling fry bread under ramadas covered by ocotillo poles while the musicians prepare for a Chicken Scratch dance in the evening. Near the crossroads hamlet of Why, north of Cabeza Prieta and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, not far from Edward Abbey’s secret grave, sluggish rattlesnakes awakening from their winter nap nip at your heels, and redtailed hawks fan your shoulders with their wings as you climb the hills among rotting cacti for a better view of misshapen iron mountains floating distantly on their wide alluvial pediments.
Four years ago, I bought a javelina license and went pig-hunting with Jim Rauen from Belen, New Mexico. We hunted long and hard in the Burro Mountains in southwestern New Mexico immediately east of the Arizona line and found nothing but torn-up prickly pear surrounded by the tiny heart-shaped tracks of these small desert swine to whom the mysterious disappearances of prospectors, desert rats, and mystical hippies have been attributed over the years. After season’s end, Jim returned to Belen while I proceeded into Arizona, made camp on the desert in view of the Chiricahua Mountains, and watched snow falling from black spring clouds above the golden valley at sunset. Ater a supper of leathery steak, beans and chile, and a bottle of red wine, I crawled into my bag and slept until two in the morning, when a pod of pigs rooting up cacti around the tent woke me. Still, the best place–the locale du jour–in late March and in April is not in Arizona at all but in southeastern Utah, on the verge of the canyon country where Grey set his Riders of the Purple Sage and which Edward Abbey later made legendary through his many books and essays, and perhaps even a few well-intentioned lies. Canyonlands National Park lies close to the heart of the region, but it is to be avoided if you are traveling by horseback and are addicted to cooking supper and warming yourself at a juniper-wood fire instead of huddling, as ideologically minded backpackers insist on doing, over a tiny stinking stove powered by white gas and manufactured by socialists in Sweden.
Lavender Canyon begins–rather, it ends–as a wide grassy valley booby-trapped by prickly pear and bisected by a sandy wash that in early spring carries a thin sheet of moving water. The right wall culminates in an imposing chimney called Sixshooter Peak; the left, a tall slickrock cliff, is interrupted at intervals by tree-grown ledges like Babylonian gardens. It is a 12-mile ride to camp over an imperceptible gradient, on a creek bed firm and smooth except for the sandiest places. The horses, fat and soft from a winter spent on the windy steppes of Wyoming at temperatures to 40 and 50 below zero, are encouraged by the warm sun and the cool water to a brisk trot that causes the tin pans and pots, the bottles of bourbon and brandy and wine, to chink cheerfully inside the packs strapped over the croup behind the saddle. As the canyon narrows, the meadow is invaded by juniper and cedar trees, and presently a riverine cottonwood, green as sea foam with spring, appears around a bend. Each year, it is the stopping place for lunch.
The rock walls close in around a funnel of cooling air moving down canyon as the sun declines and the watercourse enters a series of tight turns grown up in the swags with greasewood and sagebrush. The horses respond to the loosened rein by breaking to a lope, and abruptly the canyon opens to encompass a glade filled by slim cottonwoods, where it is joined by a box canyon screened by cedars and box elders concealing high red walls circling a grassy park. The indentation in the north wall, 50 feet above the canyon floor, is crowded by the nests of bats and cliff swallows and by broken rock; at one end a pair of granaries, built of carefully cut stone blocks, shows against the back wall of the cave, which six or seven hundred years ago was a village of Fremont Indians, cousins to the mysterious and long-departed Anasazi. We unload the horses and make camp directly below the cave, inside the overlip cut by floodwaters into the base of the cliff.
While my companion gathers wood for a fire, I strip to my shorts and race the horses bareback in the creek through sprays of cooling water. Later we uncork a bottle of red wine and sit by the russet flames listening to the young tree frogs sing from the leafing cottonwoods as a full moon rises over the canyon wall and above our heads the ghosts of the ancient Southwest murmur from their ruined home. Soon, it will be time to head north and contend for a month or so longer with the protracted winter that alone has protected Wyoming from the fate that is overtaking Arizona. But here and now, winter is finished, and we are in Paradise.
(This story was originally published in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.)