Mine is beginning to become the classic American return home: a nighttime fall, fractured pelvis and wrist. Alone, a 78-year-old woman not ready to give up her sprawling home.
At 15,000 feet, I look down at the orgasmic addiction to backyard pools, Sonora Desert-chomping sprawl, and black-and-silver arteries clogged with shiny new SUVs and cars. All those metastasizing stucco developments and gargantuan retail spaces pummeling in gory fashion the unique but dwindling ecosystem of a robust desert.
The idea of delusional planning bubbles up as I study the endless canals of the Colorado River-sapping Central Arizona Project feeding non-native trees and the obscene green turf of abutting golf courses in a desert that sees less rain in a year than Seattle sees in a month.
It wasn't as if I hadn't seen this coming -- I had been a journalist and activist since my first year in college at the University of Arizona and later as a professional living throughout the Southwest. But my hypersensitivity was being generated in part by the past five years grappling with the profundity of our own issues: a stressed Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie aquifer and the mainlining developers and politicos who see the infinite caravans of newcomers as all positive for Spokane.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & ere I am, landing in Phoenix and readying myself for Tucson, my hometown, seeing Joan Didion's endlessly funny nose jobs driving Cadillac convertibles and listening to Sinatra on their way to one-arm bandits and poker tables. I'm dodging the battalions of RVers and boat-loving desert rats on their way to skin cancer-inducing weekends on artificial lakes, and I'm wondering: Nothing changes? Does it only gets worse?
I winnow back to Wallace Stegner and his constant drumbeat invoking the idea that the West -- anywhere for that matter -- is a place of diasporas and transplantations. Whether we are conceived and birthed in a place or if we stumble upon it, we need to make a deep connection to it as both a landscape and place of community. It can be made a lasting place only through a "slow accrual, like a coral reef," of meaningful decisions.
Thomas Wolfe's character, George Webber, in the novel, You Can't Go Home Again, found it necessary to eradicate his roots in order for "a man to win his ultimate freedom and not be plunged back into savagery and perish utterly from earth."
I'm not big on lopping off roots or ignoring heritage and origins, but the fact is that the entire project that is the American West is a glittering mess of botox narcissism and evangelical myopia. The warnings about growing too big in all the wrong places -- and with too much dependence on water and consumerism -- have been scoffed at by citizens, lawmakers and corporations in cities such as Las Vegas, Scottsdale, Ariz., Sun City, Ariz., and St. George, Utah.
Almost everything wrong with unchecked development hits me in the face as the jet plows through the late-June inversion and supercharged air of the greater Phoenix metropolis. The heat island effect of another 20 unnatural degrees, added to the thermometer thanks to Phoenix's affinity for endless pavement and concrete barriers, is drawing a slew of heat-seeking retirees and budding families into the 125-degree motorway hell.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he very idea that Spokane is part of the West and is embedded in the Sunbelt mentality may seem like a stretch, but given our longitude and latitude, we are part of the chunk of real estate west of the 100th Meridian and east of the Pacific coastal zone that receives less than 20 inches of rainfall a year.
Billings, Flagstaff, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, and Spokane have more in common with Tucson, Albuquerque, Denver, and El Paso than any town east of the Mississippi. In many ways, Spokane is a microcosm of things about to become dislodged and broken in the American West.
In Spokane, we have milder winters now and warmer nighttime temperatures than before, creating havoc with drainages and water, as well as with growing seasons. Hell, we can simply study 90-year-old photos of Spokane in December and January and see that the regular snowfalls of old were a lot deeper than what we have now. We have water problems -- depletion and pollution. We are part of the swath of geology that is affected by a decades-long Western drought.
Near Nature, Near Perfect is a funny jingle Spokane hawks as pseudo pop philosophy; however, in towns throughout Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and California, the same sorts of PR campaigns have unfolded. These, in turn, are pitting the needs of the Home Depot- and Wal-Mart-loving suburban dweller against the very ecosystems that supposedly draw the transplants out here to begin with.
Tucson is much like Spokane in many ways. The Sonoran Desert and our dry Ponderosa forest have comparisons: both are severely beautiful with little moisture for their respective ecosystems.
Like Spokane, Tucson has various university-based groups and neighborhood action committees fighting to stop the bulldozer and street paver from fracturing yet more habitats that are home to both big and small species. We have our moose and elk problem; Tucson has its coyote and cougar problem.
While the Sunbelt is a continuous escalator of older folk coming into it, the Inland Northwest's demographics belie a similar pattern with additional close-to-retirement-age folk coming in and settling down. Healthcare and medical facilities are two huge challenges that have to be met here and throughout the West.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he dichotomies, inequities and ironies come flooding at me as my three weeks in Arizona unfold. While I wait for my 78-year-old mother to go through rehab sessions at a well-appointed and fancy medical complex -- one that looks like a dude ranch or Santa Fe spa resort -- I hike the expanse of the gated communities that dot the canyons at the foot of the Catalinas.
I used to hike and camp here with my fellow biology students. Once wild and rough territory with black bears, javelina, rattlesnakes, kit foxes and an array of insects and flora found only in this part of the world, the foothills are now overdeveloped with multi-million-dollar homes set on two- and five-acre plots. Four- and five-star restaurants abound. Jack Nicholas-designed golf courses spread out through gullies and arroyos. All of it is reached by high-speed four- and six-lane roads. These doctors and software developers are living their 4,000-square-foot dreams away from the valley where almost a million people make up the Tucson metropolis. They wallow in their Taos-inspired architecture and drip irrigation systems for native drought-resistant plants.
Near the exercise pool at one of the dozens of retirement/medical-assisted facilities, where 20 gray-haired residents are learning aqua-aerobics and deep breathing exercises, I am standing at a table with a newspaper fluttering in the convection breeze -- the morning daily, The Arizona Daily Star. Once a cool mid-sized newspaper, referred to in the old days by Barry Goldwater reactionaries as the Arizona Red Star, it's now a shade or two on the conservative side. The crux of its copy could have been torn from the pages of our Spokane daily: & lt;ul & & lt;li & One neighborhood is fighting against Wal-Mart while another is petitioning for a box store (not Wal-Mart) to be built in their neighborhood for those low-wage jobs. & lt;/li & & lt;li & People rail against Mexicans, not even acknowledging their region's Mexican and Spanish roots. & lt;/li & & lt;li & A letter to the editor complains about unchecked growth, and then two harangue against "those environmentalists who want to take away our rights to trap vermin, to drive our four-wheel drives in useless desert and tell us what kind of plants we should have in our yards." & lt;/li & & lt;li & Historic preservationists fight the city and progressive developers against constructing a seven-story new urbanism-styled multi-use building downtown because it doesn't fit with the single-story adobe architecture of old (when Tucson had 5,000 residents). & lt;/li & & lt;/ul &
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & ere I am reading these stories while listening to construction hammers, saws and cement mixers, all manned by workers from Jalisco, Oaxaca, and so on. I'm standing in an area that was once open and undeveloped, full of mule deer, tortoises, raptors, Mexican free-tail bats, black racers and California king snakes. But all I can see are sleek SUVs and low-slung faux adobe homes, service workers tending to pools, Mexicans building walls and tending to landscaping.
I'm thinking about Spokane, its future, this entire Inland Northwest's future as the price of crude ratchets up, as more dissatisfied Californians and Arizonans head north for affordable second homes and all these lakes.
Yeah, Tucson and Spokane, sister cities. It all makes sense to me right there at the edge of the egg-frying blacktop where lizards wait for catastrophe to bring them home again.