Leaving Arizona

I last set foot on terra Arizona on April 29, 2010 at a rest area on Interstate 10 near the summit of Texas Canyon, between Benson and Willcox. Earlier that morning I had maneuvered our 26 foot Penske rental truck out our 175 foot driveway and onto a dirt road that led to pavement and a four-day journey to our new home in Ohio. Myrna and I had first seen that dirt road fifteen years earlier on a visit to Tucson. Enchanted by the Sonoran desert, we bought land, and later designed and built an adobe house in which we planned to live the rest of our lives. Now, twelve years after completing it, we were leaving Arizona. Ahead lay the East and our children and grandchildren. Behind us lay a life whose time had come and gone.

No, we weren’t fleeing Arizona’s toxic political culture, although it is a relief to have left it behind. Arizona has a notable concentration of right-wing political lunatics. Especially in the last year the crazies in the State Legislature have outdone themselves, passing or considering legislation to require Presidential candidates to submit birth certificates to prove their citizenship, deny cable TV, cigarettes, and other “niceties of life” to welfare recipients, forbid “animal-human hybrids,” and permit anybody to carry a concealed weapon without a permit (and if the gun were manufactured in Arizona, to acquire it without even a background check). The capstone of this year of dubious legislative accomplishment was the notorious immigration bill that requires local police and sheriffs to enforce Federal immigration law in whatever discriminatory way they choose. In a state with a substantial (and overwhelmingly legal) Mexican-American population, “breathing while brown” is now an offense.

We left for reasons more complicated and difficult to describe. When incredulous people ask why we sold a lovely adobe home on four acres of beautiful Sonoran desert to live in Columbus, Ohio, I tell them what I know they will understand: Grandchildren easily trump desert sunsets. And it is inconvenient to live fifteen miles from the nearest grocery store, twenty or more miles from the physicians you must increasingly visit, and two thousand miles from the children you love and on whom you will one day rely. At this point in my life, walking to the local branch library or the Columbus Park of Roses evokes more joy than the view from Gates Pass or the sight of a bobcat a few feet from my house. When I am old and in need of adult supervision, it will be closer to hand and more likely to be provided by my daughter than by a stranger. To everything there is a season.

But this isn’t the whole story. There are no “real reasons” why people do what they do, only circumstances as they perceive them and the motives they adduce afterward to explain their actions. People like Myrna and I abandon the homes of our retirement dreams, we say, “because” the prospect of living closer to family and the conveniences of an urban neighborhood are more appealing. And that is true enough. Yet people are scarcely aware of the myriad factors that shape their reactions to events and places — what attracts and what repels, what encourages fidelity to old dreams and what germinates new ones. When an Arizona state legislator seriously suggests that school teachers ought to carry weapons, your youngest grandson’s smile beckons even more brightly from Ohio. And listening on the car radio to the dim bulbs who represent Arizona in the United States Senate makes the twenty-five mile drive to the doctor’s office even more irritating.

What made Arizona seem so appealing to Myrna and I in 1995? Why, driving the half mile of dirt road to what would a year later become our land, did we so readily imagine living there? Perhaps it was because the tall saguaro cactuses contrasted so starkly with the lush green of the East. We had spent the previous 25 years in Amherst, Massachusetts and had wearied of its smug preciousness. It might have been sheer wanderlust, that quintessentially American feeling that when you can see the smoke from your neighbor’s chimney it is time to move on. Maybe it was the warmth of welcome by the bed and breakfast owner with whom we’d later become friends. Or the promise of milder winters and a base closer to other parts of the West. Or just the opportunity to design and build a house.

And what a house! A house made of dirt. Brick floors, wood beamed ceilings, a courtyard, colorful hand-painted Mexican sinks and tiled counter-tops, a hot tub, surrounded by over four acres of lush Sonoran desert. We drew and redrew our house-to-be so often and walked through it in our minds so much that there was no stumbling about to find our way when we awakened on the floor in our sleeping bags the first few mornings. We installed the kitchen cabinets and tiled the countertops and showers ourselves. And as we built and over the years refined our house, others built their homes in the neighborhood and we became a community. It was a good place to live.

Neither the house nor the neighborhood were perfect. The heat pump was noisy, and the expanding and contracting roof made strange cracking sounds as the heat of a late May day gave way to the relative coolness of the night. One had to be alert for large diamondback rattlesnakes on the patio during the warm months, for scorpions in the sink, and for pack rats with a penchant for chewing the wires on our Saab. The well water contained enough calcium to start a rock factory, or at least develop monster kidney stones. The dusty dirt roads were rough and needed grading every year. Still, these seemed minor inconveniences, outweighed by the joy of living in a house that was fully ours, and even more, fully us. We began to sink our roots in desert soil.

But there were portents almost from the start. After our first year in the house, a sabbatical year, we spent summers in Tucson until we could retire. Shortly after we returned for the summer of 2000, we learned that the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), was seeking permission to build a merchant power transmission line from the Palo Verde Nuclear plant west of Phoenix all the way to Mexico. Worse, if they got the route they wanted, its 120 foot towers would be within a few hundred feet of our house, starkly visible against the sky. In the few minutes it took to read a newspaper article and decipher its map, our space was transformed from a refuge to one vulnerable to the forces of development. It was that summer, or perhaps the following one, that felled two of our largest, multi-armed saguaros. We had named them our “guardians” when we bought the land, and we carefully cut our driveway to avoid damaging them. A 70 mile per hour wind during a severe monsoon storm brought them down in short order. Theirs was the first of several saguaros lost over the next decade.

The PNM episode was not without its benefits. Under Myrna’s tutelage I learned how to fight the power. I wrote legal briefs to the Department of Energy, spent endless hours on the telephone with government officials, and much to my astonishment hijacked a PNM public gathering by standing on a chair and making an impromptu, impassioned speech. We eventually won the battle —the company withdrew its application — and in the process I discovered a fighting spirit and ability I did not know I possessed. But the downside was the discovery that our small corner of the Sonoran desert was not invulnerable to change, and that the proximity of Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain County Park, and a federally owned wildlife corridor did not automatically immunize us against development efforts. A few years later, Si Schorr, a member of the State Transportation Board from Tucson and a loyal servant of development interests, spearheaded a drive to build an Interstate 10 bypass that would follow a similar route, blasting through the wildlife corridor and creating a permanent eyesore in the view shed (and ear shed) of the parks. I fought that with equal vigor, and my public activities, which made me anathema to the Transportation Board, also led to an appointment to the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission. The bypass will never be built, but the experience added to my sense of unease even while it nourished deeper roots in Tucson.

The impact of dying saguaros is perhaps more subtle. The neighborhood — Barrio Sapo we named it — is today a relatively healthy desert landscape, particularly when rains have been generous. There are plenty of saguaros, including quite a few remaining large ones and a goodly supply of young and middle-aged plants. The ironwoods and paloverde trees are plentiful, and the desert in bloom is a sight to behold. But the knowledge of saguaros lost was a constant reminder of change. Newcomers to the desert want it to remain as it was when they discovered its wonders. But it does not and will not and cannot. Trees die. Neighbors leave. Vacant land acquires houses and swimming pools. Things change.

Arizona has been in drought for a decade, and each dry winter or disappointing monsoon was a sign of just how fragile an environment the desert is. The drought (and Tucson’s rapid growth) gradually convinced me of what I already knew in my heart: large cities don’t belong in the desert. When I looked at the Central Arizona Project canal a few hundred feet from our house, I saw the Colorado River that supplied it. In 1922 The Colorado River Compact allocated rights to the southwestern states on the basis of flow rates during years of unusually high water. Sooner or later there will not be enough Colorado River water to supply the CAP, that tragic environmental mistake of the twentieth century on which Tucson increasingly depends. The well we shared with a neighbor almost certainly will not go dry, nor will other wells in the vicinity. Even in lean years rainfall replenishes what residents of this sparsely populated neighborhood remove from the aquifer. But sooner or later the urban southwest as a whole is going to be short of water.

For the first few years we lived there Tucson felt like an exciting and shiny new toy. Development was everywhere — new streets, new houses, new stores — and it was easy to be entranced by it. More important, the environment was and is stunning, with a lush and unique desert, numerous mountain ranges, exotic flora and fauna, awesome summer thunderstorms, and gentle winters. We loved it in the enthusiastic way newcomers do.

But over time our picture window view developed cracks. The economy of Arizona is driven by growth and development rather than by a firm manufacturing or technological base. Call centers do not make a solid economic foundation. Endless acres of new houses and shopping centers and roads widened to four and six lanes create jobs and spawn still more houses and stores and roads. But, at bottom, Arizona’s economy is shaky, dependent upon constant growth. Incomes are relatively low and economic disparities are large. In Tucson significant wealth is cloistered in gated communities and trophy houses in the foothills of the Santa Catalina and Tucson Mountains. But impoverishment and economic marginality inhabit endless tracts of tacky stick and stucco houses jammed cheek to jowl and mobile home parks that dot the landscape. Disparate wealth, a poorly educated workforce, low-paying jobs, and a weak educational system do not bode well for the future.

Sooner or later the now-burgeoning southwest will fall into decline. It may not become evident during my lifetime, but it will happen. Slowly. Over the long run. Water will be in shorter supply. The growth engine will falter. Indeed, the economic troubles of the past three years have already foreshadowed the future, with thousands of unsold and foreclosed homes and acres of arrested developments. During the housing boom, Arizona soared, and along with it the Babbitt-voiced promise of a vast Phoenix-to-Tucson megalopolis. (It’s Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, by the way, not the Arizona Babbitts, to whom I refer.) Now the endless desert spaces of Pinal County, along the I-10 corridor that connects the two cities, have an abundance of empty houses and a dearth of jobs. And in time, Arizona’s politically kooky culture will increasingly give pause to potential in-migrants, at first to the thoughtful and environmentally conscious and eventually even to those now drawn to the sun and the faux-freedom of the wild west. People like us will have second thoughts. The bloom will fall off the rose.

Ironically, the stunning desert environment may survive, although in degraded form. Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is a wonderful effort to preserve a unique environment in the face of developers who would otherwise blade the desert and thus mindlessly kill Tucson’s golden goose. To the extent that development falters, the plan is more likely to succeed.

The prospect of decline did not push us out of Arizona, for the pull of family was the controlling variable in our calculus. Still, it is something of a relief to return to a part of the country that has already largely paid the dues of industrial decline and where the only place to go is up. Growing up in Buffalo, New York during the 1950s I saw decline at first hand in the Riverside neighborhood where I lived as stores closed and houses deteriorated. In the decades that followed I watched it from a distance. The mechanisms there were different — the St. Lawrence Seaway erased Buffalo from the maritime map, manufacturing withered, and frightened whites fled to the suburbs. But whatever the cause, decline is not a pretty sight. It will be quite enough, thank you, to deal with my own decline in the remaining chapters of my life without living in a place whose fall is inevitable.

And there is something deeply reassuring about once again living in the verdant, humid East, where grass must be mowed and snow shoveled. I used to gloat over Tucson’s mild winters and the lack of snow and grass. But, truth be told, this feels more like home. Yes, there are urban noises to which one must become reacquainted — fire trucks and ambulances racing up and down High Street, the tornado warning sirens tested every Wednesday at noon, and the rumble and horns of diesel locomotives a mile or so away. But this morning I heard a barred owl, and hawks and herons regularly overfly us. And, sitting on my front porch wearing my Ohio State shirt (Go Bucks!) I can watch the passersby, chat with neighbors, and feel I have attained my angle of repose.