American Impressions, Chapter 42: Arizona
Edward Abbey has been dead 10 years, long enough for his bones to turn into “agatized rainbows,” as he once described petrified wood. But I needed a brief orientation on deserts before getting lost in them, and I needed it from the man who knew them best, and loved them most. Creative biography being in vogue these days, I just imagined myself an encounter with the old man, at his gravesite, somewhere in the Cabeza Prieta desert of southern Arizona.
When he wasn’t insulting people, Abbey spent as much time as he could far from life as we know it—in deserts, mostly, being a desert rat who “cannot breathe properly without at least a cubic mile of unshared space.” So his body was buried at his request far from roads, trails, power lines or any hint of a human presence, without a coffin, with little ceremony, and a good deal of celebrating afterward in cacti-spired Saguaro National Monument, across the range from Tucson. The celebration included much drinking, dancing, and a desert stew of “poached slow elk,” as Abbey’s recipe had it.
His 20 books of Thoreau-bred anarchism and naturism, most of them devoted to the preservation of America’s deserts, had left behind enemies and friends in roughly the same large proportions. Abbey, his intellect as rich and forbidding as the Mojave, could not be neatly cuddled or dismissed.
Being poorly read, I didn’t know of his existence until a few weeks ago when I happened by a copy of “Desert Solitaire,” the 1968 account of his seasons as a park ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument before the place was “developed” into a tourist parking lot. (“Why,” he once wondered, “is it that the destruction of something created by humans is called vandalism, yet the destruction of something created by God is called development?”) The book gave him the fame he craved and the fortune he didn’t mind. Seven years later, his political novel of anarchism in the desert, “The Monkey Wrench Gang” sold half a million copies.
He was just 62 when he died, too soon to convince enough people to see the desert his way—as a wilderness for its own sake rather than a vaster challenge for developers. As any glimpse of Tucson or Phoenix or anything in between indicates, Abbey’s world of left-alone desert is really becoming subdivided slabs and high-rise tombstones. Then I found his.
Edward Paul Abbey January 29, 1927-March 14, 1989 No Comment I was just past the boulder carved with that inscription when he appeared, more intifada- than Lazarus-like, throwing rocks and invectives in my direction. Accurately, too. He had mistaken me for the government agent who will inevitably appear at his burial site sooner or later, surveying crew in tow, to lay out a road, set up a “proper” monument with the proper interpretive center and gift shop and self-flushing toilets and sizeable parking space including plenty of room for RV’s and 14-day campground with full hook-ups. I told him that I was only here to plunder his mind for a while. He offered me codeine in apologies. He’d not kicked off the habit of a daily doze, picked up in the last year of his life when he was fighting, among other illnesses, acute pancreatitis.
I told him what I was planning to do—see as much of the Southwest deserts as I could. All four of them, although the Chihuahuan, the biggest of them, was already behind me. Which left Arizona’s Sonoran and Mojave, which also falls in California, and Nevada’s Great Basin. He asked me who was so generously funding so many years of expeditions. I told him I just had a few days. He told me to get lost (in the literal, rather than desertic, sense). It could be done, I told him naively. By car.
”You can’t see anything from a -------car,” he said, plagiarizing himself from something I’d read before. “You’ve got to get out of the contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.” He railed at any notions of intact deserts. They’ve become military playgrounds or testing sites for the leisure class’ SUVs. So many rivers have been dammed, diverted, dried up that it’s a wonder they still bother flowing instead of rebelling at the source. There isn’t anything left to preserve, much less to explore.
Then Abbey, the Great Exaggerator, sent me on my way.
--- A black-tailed rattlesnake. Coiled, embracing itself on a thin branch. Staring at me with a look of exasperation that seems to wonder why I keep wondering why it’s not rattling, hissing, attacking. It’s deadly if angered enough to bite, but the black-tailed is among the less aggressive of the rattlers, slow to anger. My nose is 10 inches from its nose, but only a quarter of an inch from a pane of glass that keeps me safe and bores him to death. Next to him, a diamondback rattler, just as placid, just as isolated by glass, and next to it that terror, the horned sidewinder.” It’s not fair to reptiles to look at them this way, filtered through the paned, caged and fenced security of a “protected” habitat (we visitors being the protected ones). Or to ocelots, black bears, mountain lions, prairie dogs, wolves, javelinas (those pig-like creatures that hate being likened to pigs).
But Abbey is right: Unless one is able to spend several seasons in a desert, it’s rare to impossible to see the variety of life that inhabits it, to realize how much a desert is anything but what its name implies—the Sonoran especially. At 10,000 years, it is America’s youngest and most populated by plants and animals. Humans, too, now that the Tucson-Phoenix corridor ranks among the fastest-growing areas of the country. In a 100 square mile area of undisturbed woodland I’d theoretically find 400 white-tailed deer, 150 turkeys, four mountain lions, 20 black bears, two Mexican wolves, a few traumatic sneaks of scorpions and snakes and harmless iguanas. If, that is, I had the time, the experience, the luck to cross paths with them on their turf. But where I am, samples of them have been herded together in a Sonoran Noah’s Arc. They are all ambling about or hiding from the noon sun within a 15 minute walk of where I stand, as generous with their presence as that horned rattler.
The Sonoran Desert Museum near Tucson is a short-cut to the desert’s census, a one-day steam-bath (without the steam) in an environment of life teeming in altered states of cold blood and vertical greens -- 300 animal species, 1,200 kinds of plants collected on 21 acres of managed desert. It’s the only way to be schooled in its diversity before taking the dive into the real thing. And how else would I so efficiently get my own fashion show of cacti in all their designer-named varieties—yucca, jumping cholla, teddy bear cholla, pencil cholla, desert Christmas cholla, cream pincushion, organ pipe, flapjack prickly pear, fendler’s hedgehog—each plant a supermodel of adaptation. Arizona has 68 species, their names as varied as Eskimos’ synonyms for snow.
The saguaro reigns—towers—above the lot, rising sometimes to 50 feet like a desert scraper, living up to 200 years if it can survive lightning strikes, the burrows of woodpeckers, the choppings of inhuman axes. The saguaro is Arizona’s state flower, the way the cedar is my native Lebanon’s national symbol. I could compare the two—how both grow in barren lands, more slowly than most organisms, living longer than most, inspiring centuries’ worth of myths and resilience.
But in terms of desert defiance, the comparison I’d rather make is between the saguaro and the Hoover Dam. I was overwhelmed by both for different reasons. Both are designed for the same purpose—to manage water—and both reflect the ingenuity, human or natural, of mastering the most hostile environment on the planet (polar regions aside). The saguaro’s columnar form gives it the lowest ratio of surface area to mass to reduce water loss, it has no leaves (which would “sweat” and lose water) but needles that absorb moisture like dripsticks, its rubbery, pleated skin can swell up to store water, it can shed excess limbs in droughts without dying, it can store up to 75 percent its weight in water (a saguaro can weigh up to two tons), and it can live a year on a single summer downpour.
Built in the early ‘30s to end the Colorado River’s cycles of floods and droughts and fuel the growth of the Southwest, the Hoover Dam is a concrete, colossal saguaro. It rises 726 feet across the late Black Canyon gorge, a creature of 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete weighing 6.6 million tons that holds back two years’ worth of river-flow in Lake Mead, and is designed to last 1,200 years. Just as each saguaro supports its own ecosystem of desert life—elf owls that nest in holes left behind by woodpeckers, coyotes, doves and squirrels that feed on its sweet red fruit, even Indians who have made wine from its fruit for ages—Hoover Dam has, as various inscriptions around the structure put it, made the desert bloom all the way to Los Angeles.
Like an eighth day of creation, the Hoover Dam has altered nature. It keeps 18 million people alive and California’s valley’s fertile. The voice-overs at the dam’s exhibit refer to the Colorado as “the unruly river,” “the untamed river,” “a natural menace” that “carried the threat of devastation” until the dam was built. It is as if the river were an age-old evil force until man came about and made its waters “forever tame and docile.” That’s where the Hoover Dam’s comparison with the saguaro no longer works. The saguaro adapted. The Hoover Dam, whatever its merits, assumed, then imposed.
Naturally, Edward Abbey did not like dams, even if they posed as world wonders.
--- The gray ground is as soft as plush carpeting, snoring underfoot as I walk between the creosote bushes. It reminds me of the loamy fields of the Great Plains right after being tilled, but this is the hot sandy soil of the Great Basin desert in Nevada, where corn would pop before sprouting the first root. The Great Basin is actually a series of 150 flat basins and 160 rugged ranges, one after another from California’s Sierras to Utah’s Great Salt Lake, streaking as far south as Tucson. Geologically speaking, the region is one of the world’s most active factories of mountain-building, although the factory floor is supremely silent, more arid, less biologically diverse than North America’s three other deserts. People who travel through it find it dull, repetitive. It is because they’re mostly traversing it by way of I-80, a high-speed, open-air tunnel. I’m several hundred miles south of the Interstate, on an untraveled state road. But I’ve left the hard-top and taken an unmarked dirt path through a basin for a few miles, guided only by Abbey’s suggestion finally to stop driving and crawl a little.
The flies are big, brazen. Grasshoppers rev around here and there. Otherwise: nothing. A deceptive emptiness, the desert museum having taught me that the desert floor is a giant chameleon of life dissimulated in its surroundings. It makes itself visible—venom primed, pincers cocked—only when upset. I walk tentatively between the bushes toward a low mountain, the van looking more and more distant. It’s amazing how quickly isolation breeds weariness, or prejudice. We’ve been conditioned to think of these places as desolate, but I wonder how a creosote bush would feel in a flower pot on Fifth Avenue. Cold, most likely, and lonely for its thornier buddies. I can’t put myself in a creosote’s brain, but I crouch next to one and look at what it would see if it had eyes: a million other bushes (blackbrush, saltbush, sagebrush) packed stadium-like on the basin floor from one mountain to another, with plenty of room to spare (it’s first-class root room). I see a lizard. A scampering black-tailed jack rabbit. That’s about it, although if I could telescopically look through the bush’s roots eight feet below us, I’d find 25 million year old horse teeth, beaver teeth, camel skeletons (camels evolved in the Southwest but died out 10,000 years ago), maybe even rhinoceros remnants. The place was once a zoo, lush as the Everglades. A shallow sea, too. If it gets too dry, the creosote’s roots can always tap into the past.
I start climbing the little mountain. A hill, really, but in Florida it would count as a mountain. As I go up, sand and bushes give way to pebbly soil and grass, then rocks, then, closer to the top, clusters of deep-brown boulders. I had climbed backward through geological time, from eroded, fine sand at the bottom to relatively young, muscular sandstone at the top. The natural flow from top to bottom had taken 12,000 to 75,000 years. It had taken me half an hour to climb. Geological wonders aside, the rock clusters were luxury condos to snakes and scorpions. No glass panes here. A rattler would outrun me faster than a six-foot tornado. But I had reached the top, where I could finally find “a sense of time enough to let thought and feeling range from here to the end of the world and back,” as Abbey put it. Here was “the discovery of something intimate—though impossible to name—in the remote.”
But still, not remote enough. The main road was a few miles away. It was daytime. Continuing my hunt for true isolation, I find it in Death Valley, at night, at the foot of another little mountain that looms, in the amplifying dark, like Devil’s Tower. Here’s desert Mojave-style, hotter than most places, below sea level, below the radar screen of most life forms, and surrounded by mountains layered with rocks that date back to the beginning of time.
Night’s darkness is total. So is my isolation. I hear three sounds: the faint tic-tic-tic of the van’s engine cooling down, the scratching of my pen (I’m handwriting my first draft in accordance with the primitive surroundings), and wind making owlish sounds. I didn’t scout out the site before nightfall. Coming to its strangeness now reminds me embarrassingly of how I used to be scared of the dark as a boy. I’ve slept in the middle of nowhere before—in Canada, in Montana, in Nebraska—but something familiar was always within sight, like the nuclear missile silo installation in Montana or the lights of houses across the lake in Nebraska. Here, nothing but the badland shapes of the hills cresting against the moonless sky. I think of Abbey, who managed three seasons in complete solitude, making friends of snakes and juniper trees, like a multinatural St. Francis of Assisi. I haven’t dared so much as walk more than three feet from the van, and that out of necessity—and to mark my territory the only way I knew how. Send the message to whatever beasts lay in wait that this is my corner of the Mojave, pals.
It took a while to bring myself to turn off the van’s pilot light. To step out. To look up at the sky, starrier than I’d ever seen it, but a sublime, perfect reflection of what was below. “And suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened and open,” not with dippers and centaurs or even Abbey, but with the clarity of Pablo Neruda, planets, palpitating plantations, shadow perforated, riddled with arrows, fire and flowers, the winding night, the universe.
And I, infinitesimal being, drunk with the great starry void, likeness, image of mystery, felt myself a pure part of the abyss, I wheeled with the stars, my heart broke free on the wind.
ARIZONA IN BRIEF
Total area: 114,006 sq. miles (rank: 6)
Population (1997): 4,554,966(rank: 21)
State capital: Phoenix
Economy: Tourism, mining, manufacturing, construction
Nickname & Motto: Grand Canyon State ; God enriches
Entered union: Feb. 14, 1912 (48 th).
Notable facts: Deserts cover 14 percent of the world’s surface, the biggest ones being—in order—Africa’s Sahara , followed by the Arabian Desert and the Australian. Iran’s, Turkestan’s and Mongolia’s Gobi deserts come next; then comes the North American desert, which is subdivided in four regions: The Chihuahuan is the largest at 175,000 square miles (two-thirds of which in Mexico); the Great Basin is the second largest at about 165,000 square miles; it is also the coldest, with half its precipitation falling as snow; then Sonoran is third (106,000), and the Mojave is fourth (54,000). It has been theorized that the Great Plains , whose aquifer is drying up, may eventually turn into a sea of sand dunes.
The desert in quotes: “Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flaura and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”—From “Desert Solitaire,” by Edward Abbey.
* Most of Edward Abbey’s 20 books are still in print and in paperback, most notably: “Desert Solitaire,” the story of his three seasons as a park ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument (before it became a national park); and other desert-related books such as “Abbey’s Road,” “The Journey Home” and “Down the River.”
* John McPhee’s “Basin and Range” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is an absorbing geological tale of the Great Basin in lay terms.
* Diana Kappel-Smith’s “Desert Time” ( University of Arizona Press ) is a whimsical series of vignettes on the Southwest.
* The National Audubon Society’s “Deserts,” part of its Nature Guides series, provides a workmanlike, illustrated—if somewhat arid—survey of the four great edserts’ wildflowers, birds, reptiles and insects.
* Edward Abbey site and links: www.utsidan.se/abbey/abbey.html
* North American deserts: www.desertusa.com
* Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum : www.desertmuseum.org
* Arizona tourism: www.arizonaguide.com