A line in a guide to Saguaro National Park, written in the form of a Q and A: “Do I have to get out of my car? I just want to see it.”
I drive into the desert morning of Arizona from Las Vegas, where I’d landed in the glittering dark the evening before. I need something different, something entirely new, an environment I haven’t been to in a state whose a history I know only hazily. Before planning this trip, I’ve never given Arizona much thought. But once I started, I wanted to do everything, to go everywhere, to stand on the ground in places that looked, on Google Earth, like cracks in weathered wood and grey veins in brown skin, like ancient wrinkled paper spread flat again and pale marble with deep red streaks. I couldn’t see it all, of course, but any of it would be worth something.
As I drive, the November day gets hotter. The road signs warn of winds and dust storms. The towns are afterthoughts: Why; Surprise. The rivers are the absence of rivers, with names that recall early miseries. I later look up one called Calamity Wash, but can’t find whether anyone bothered to record how it got its name; there must have been so many calamities.
In Saguaro National Park, I follow a dirt loop through a cactus wonderland. They are preposterous and wonderful, like tall green tube people with irregular numbers of arms, some reaching out to others that have no arms at all. They are comical, natural cartoons, but then the whole state is like a cartoon, in the best way. I tend to fight against stereotypes and quick impressions of places, because they are so often false, but here they are real: the giant cacti, not just inside the borders of parks that have been drawn around them but anywhere and everywhere; the vast ranches with curving gates above their driveways; the impossibly slim man in jeans and cowboy boots crossing an empty street into a shadow.
I was not expecting downtown Tucson, a calm and surprisingly sophisticated city, dotted with palms and dappled with sunlight and shade. In the historic district called El Presidio, hidden within an area of more modern office buildings and wide avenues, adobe homes and inviting little businesses line quiet streets. It all feels very private, as if just walking here is a special privilege someone happened to grant me today, as if secret courtyards are hiding behind every corner. Greenery is everywhere, or maybe I just appreciate bursts of flowers more when they grow in the desert. A “You Are Welcome Here” sign in three languages is stuck in a potted cactus outside a stately front door. A RESIST bumper sticker decorates a parked car. A turquoise line on the sidewalk leads to landmarks, but they have underestimated my love of turquoise, because to me the line itself is notable enough.
In Tucson, threads of Southwestern history that I never studied in Northeastern schools braid together, or tangle: Mormons and Mexicans and Conquistadors, Pima and Apache, and a Civil War battle between Confederates and Californians. An elaborate turquoise dome, more Middle Eastern than Southwestern, stands atop an old courthouse, warm against the cool blue sky.
But despite the strangeness, there is a familiarity too. I remember that though I have adapted to the New England coast over the years, I am genetically built for dry lands with brown wrinkled mountains, covered by cacti and palms and heated by sunshine.
I drive through the welcome heat into the mountains; I never knew that parts of Arizona were so high. The narrow roads roll out straight ahead and then blur at the bases of impossibly steep and seemingly inhospitable peaks. Every time, I think, it must curve there and find another way around, but every time, it goes up. And I climb, feeling small and weak in my little rental car in all this space, rounding switchbacks as the air gets thinner. I never knew there was a range called the Mule Mountains. I never knew there were U.S. Border Control checkpoints not located at borders.
I end up in the Victorian mining town of Bisbee, where tightly packed houses perch alarmingly on the slope of a gorge like desert bighorn sheep. Downtown Bisbee is one of the oddest places I’ve ever been, though I can’t exactly pinpoint why. It’s not just the odd mix of tourists, grungy hipster musicians, and people who choose to live in houses stacked vertically above warrens of winding driveways. It’s not just the architecture, dainty and sturdy and quirky all at once, or the street names: OK, Ore, Commerce, and Main. It’s an intangible weirdness, a sense of not being what I anticipated, though I hadn’t particularly anticipated anything in the first place.
Just outside of town, a multi-colored gaping wound opens in the earth, a former copper mine. It is called the Lavender Pit, and like its name, it is both beautiful and ugly. Beyond that, a vintage ghost town called Lowell stands stopped in time, retro movie set and relic of departed industry, and perhaps if you distilled America down until it was small enough to fit into one block, this would be the result. I see no one, but a dog barks at me from deep inside a building as I pass by on the sidewalk. Arizona is like that, I decide prematurely, having seen only a sliver of the western and southern portions of the state, full of empty places that turn out to be anything but empty. And I wish I had the time to find them all.
Earlier – was it only yesterday, or the day before? – I drove south from Tucson, along bone-dry roads with signs warning of floods. I followed the markers to San Xavier del Bac, an imposing mission church that dwarfed everything around it, including the formidable dusty landscape. I joined dozens of other people congregating in front of the spectacular Spanish building, patiently waiting to stand in the best spot to take a picture. I didn’t know what made me decide to come here; I assumed all those other people had a better reason than I. But maybe not. Maybe we all just wanted to see it.