Arid Arizona

Posted April 2nd, 2010 at 2:56 pm (UTC-4)

Let’s conclude our odyssey through the West with a look at dry yet surprisingly green Arizona.

Green, thanks to irrigation and irrigation alone. Without it, the bulk of Arizona would still be brown and barren. There’d be no Phoenix-to-Tucson mega-city, no spring “Cactus League” Major League baseball games, no farming to speak of.

The West is America’s driest, but also fastest-growing, region. Arizona, its most parched state, alone is crammed with an astounding 67 percent more people than lived there in 1990. For all of them, there’s been a stampede of new businesses, golfing resorts, and housing developments — especially those geared to retirees, who can’t seem to get to Arizona fast enough.

These people and enterprises use a whole lot more water than the roaming sheep, coyotes, and the mere 3.7 million people who lived in Arizona 20 years ago.

Thanks to modern engineering, Arizona cities can tap into precious river water and vast aquifers deep beneath the porous soil. A single rushing river, the Colorado, which formed and still courses through the Grand Canyon and then becomes the border between Arizona and neighboring California, supplies water to 40 million people in seven states. In 1922, those states signed a compact in which those in the upper reaches of the Colorado agreed to allow enough flow to supply hyper-growing states like Arizona to the south.

The Colorado (“Red” in Spanish) River gets its name from sediment washed from layers of nearby rock. So much over the centuries that — get this — it formed Mexico’s long Baja Peninsula, south of California.

Prolonged droughts have dramatically reduced water levels in reservoirs, including Arizona’s Lake Powell. “We live in a desert state and, some would say, in a state of denial,” Arizona Republic reporter Shaun McKinnon wrote in 2005. Because of all the irrigation needed to supply fertile farms, beautiful lawns and lush gardens where only cacti and red ants would normally be found; and the showers, toilets, and washing machines of Arizona’s boomtowns, he noted, the state’s 6.2 million people use the amount of water that would normally supply five times that many people.

In the five years since McKinnon’s article, the capital city of Phoenix alone has grown by 200,000 people. The 2010 Census, currently being conducted, will likely show that 1.65 million people live in this city where, 2,000 years ago, native people we call the Hohokam had to create 217 km (135 miles) of crude irrigation canals from the Gila and Salt rivers just to make the Sonoran Desert arable.

In modern times, farmers — who control many of the dams and reservoirs and canals — have become “emergency water bankers,” as reporter McKinnon calls them. They hold back water reserves to get them through dry times. “But as farms give way to subdivisions, the reserve is shrinking, and water once used in fields is now claimed by homes and businesses.”

And tensions over water are mounting. People in Arizona’s welter of subdivisions say that farmers are lavishing precious water on thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton. The farmers insist that they’re the frugal ones, and without their careful water conservation there’d be no array of new communities with catchy names like “Sun City” and “Surprise.” Arizona’s innumerable golf courses alone consume two-thirds of the state’s commercial water supply. Why do you think Arizona looks so green from the air?

Then there’s the intense evaporation toll exacted by Arizona’s nearly perpetual sunshine and legendary heat. One day 12 years ago, the mercury hit 53° (128° Farenheit) at Lake Havasu on the California border. On an average summer day in Phoenix, the temperature reaches 39° (102°).

One has to wonder what early Indians, two millennia before air conditioning, saw in such a place. In 1540, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition out of Mexico as far north as the Grand Canyon. He was searching for the legendary “Seven Cities of Cibola,” supposedly Zuni Indian strongholds full of riches. Finding only drab villages and hostile Zunis, Hopis, and Pueblos, he and his men moved on to what is now New Mexico, where he had no better luck.

Still later in Arizona, U.S. soldiers would mount costly campaigns against migratory Chirichaua Apache Indians, led by Cochise and then Geronimo. Unlike the Spaniards, the bluecoats persisted and prevailed. More than 5,000 soldiers and 500 scouts hunted down the feared Geronimo and his band. They were shipped to a fort in humid Florida on the distant East Coast, where many died of malaria or tuberculosis.

Geronimo himself was moved twice and eventually released, though never allowed to return to his Arizona homeland. Like some other Indian warriors and chiefs, he became a celebrity, appearing at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and even riding in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade a year later.

Geronimo, by the way, was not a skydiver. But the actor Chief Thundercloud (born Victor Daniels) playing him did yell Geronimo’s name when leaping off a cliff in the 1939 movie of the same name, and members of the 501st United States Parachute Division adopted the call for their freefalls: “Geroni . . . MO!!!” Some people jumping out of planes still do likewise, as do kids bouncing off diving boards into pools.

Except for missionary priests bent on converting native populations, the Spanish and Mexicans (after the latter’s independence from Spain in 1821) spent more time and energy in lovelier New Mexico than they did in scrawny Arizona.

The latter came under American control in two stages — the northern three-fourths as part of the large new territory of New Mexico after a victory over Mexico in a short war ending in 1848; and the remainder via the Gadsden Purchase five years later. The only reason the United States wanted that hot and desolate sliver south of the Gila River was to gain land for a transcontinental “southern route” railroad line.

It would be almost 60 years before New Mexico Territory was deemed worthy enough for full inclusion in the Union in 1912, as the separate states of New Mexico and Arizona. They were last among our contiguous “lower 48” states.

Irrigation — that word again — this time by Mormon settlers and federal dam-builders — pretty much explains the only reason Arizona grew much at all for awhile. Then between 1940 and 1960, its population doubled, and the boom was on. Why? Still more irrigation, air conditioning, and the discovery by many Americans that Arizona’s dry air ameliorated their allergies.

Tourism explains the population explosion, too. People came to see the Grand Canyon, amble among the giant saguaro cacti down around Tucson, take in some Spring Training games, or putter along what remained of historic U.S. Highway 66 on the northern edge of the state. Some of them fell in love with the rugged place and moved there.

Healthy, tree-sized saguaros — pronounced “su-WHAR-ohs” — whose night-blooming flowers are the Arizona state blossom, live for 75 years or more. With their single central column and uplifted “arms,” the saguaros are sometimes used to symbolize the entire Southwest, even though wild ones don’t grow outside Arizona. Woodpeckers and golden flickers drill holes in saguaros, and all sorts of birds, spiders, and scorpions move in. Unfortunately, other holes are created by yahoos who think it’s hilarious to use the spiny cacti for target practice.

Arizona boasts the longest portion of the original Route 66 still in use. Instead of just paving over and widening a lot of the road to create modern Interstate Highway 40 from New Mexico west to Nevada, engineers chose a whole new route, leaving much of the old, two-lane pavement intact but isolated.

Along it today, you’ll find delightful anachronisms from half a century ago, when people took carefree spins on the “Mother Road” between Chicago and Los Angeles. If you’re into old motels and gas stations with working neon or rusted remains, funky tourist attractions such the “Meteor City” trading post and a giant fiberglass rabbit, or lonely sections of road, a detour onto nostalgic Route 66 is worth the extra time.

One last historical reference that is not Arizona’s proudest moment: During the panic and paranoia following Imperial Japan’s sneak attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry removed from “war sensitive” areas” — broadly defined as the entire West Coast — as “disloyal Americans.”

Whole families, including American citizens, were uprooted and forced into internment camps, some of them in the brutally hot Arizona desert. Cherry Tsutsumida, a longtime federal health worker who became executive director of a memorial to the internees in Washington, D.C., later told me, “Some of our Chinese friends began to wear little tags that said, ‘We are not a Jap,’ which reinforced our isolation and our feeling of being guilty of something that we did not understand.”

President Roosevelt ordered the camps closed in 1944, and by war’s end in 1945, the interns had regained their freedom. But more than four decades would elapse before President Ronald Reagan signed legislation apologizing for the internment that, the bill stated, had been based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The government also paid internment survivors or their heirs $1.6 billion in reparations – a sum that worked out to about $20,000 per person.

There’s no logical transition that I can think of from that misguided episode to a Grand Canyon adventure, so let’s just abruptly refocus on America’s most popular national park.

About 5 million people visit the awesome, 1.6-kilometer (1-mile)-deep canyon each year. Most come by car, charter bus, motor home, or motorcycle, sit in long lines at the admission gates, and scramble to find a scarce parking space inside the park.

But there’s another way in that’s much more fun. It’s a 2½-hour ride aboard the Grand Canyon Railway, a scenic steam train out of Williams, Arizona — once a big maintenance center on the Santa Fe Railroad’s Chicago-to-Los Angeles route.

The railway made its first run up to the canyon in 1901. But the old rail line through the juniper forest stopped carrying passengers in 1968. It simply could not pry enough people from their cars to make a profit.

In 1989, though, Max Biegert, who made a fortune in the crop-dusting business of all things, bought the decrepit line and overhauled it. The engine of the train that Carol and I rode was sitting in a Michigan museum when Biegert bought it, and eight of the nine cars were what the crew called “rustbuckets,” abandoned and vandalized in a California scrapyard.

Onboard the richly appointed steam train nowadays, it sounds and feels like the Old West. The train lurches to an unexpected halt mid-route when “robbers” appear and shoot it out with railroad “guards,” to the delight of camera-toting passengers. Troubadours stroll the aisles. “If you listen carefully,” one of them tells the riders, “you’ll hear a train in the background.” And of course he’s right.

More than 120,000 people make the run up to the Grand Canyon’s 1906 log train station each year, theoretically displacing more than 40,000 cars from the park. Of course, other visitors’ vehicles quickly take their place.

What everybody who makes it to the canyon encounters is a spectacular, winding gorge that’s 450 kilometers (279 miles) long and almost 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) wide in spots that gives a stunning light and color show each sunny day — especially at sunset.

Carol and I were fortunate to hook up with an old friend, Tom Glatzmayer, a jolly Canadian who had moved to Grand Canyon Village and was leading bus tours along the South Rim. “Remember what they say: it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity that gets you down,” he reminded his boarding passengers on a stifling, 33-degree day. “There’s very low humidity up here, which means you won’t even notice that you’re sweating profusely!” That earned Tom the first of many laughs.

Once, Spanish explorers peered down at the canyon floor and thought the rushing Colorado River below was only three meters across, he told them. They got it wrong because the river is so far down that it’s hard to judge.

One reaches the canyon floor by foot or mule along narrow and steep trails, via boat from a point far upstream, or — in lifesaving emergencies only — by helicopter. Those who pick mule rides — some of which take half a day and include an overnight stay at a lodge down below — must be at least 1½ meters tall, weigh less than 90 kilos, not be visibly pregnant, and speak good English. Apparently the beasts don’t comprehend Slovakian or Thai, though you’d think they’d understand full-throated screams in any language. Nancy Smart, my former editor here at VOA, rode a mule down and back and said it was the scariest experience of her life. Once the mule starts down the steep paths along ledges an arm’s length from the abyss, there’s no turning back, and you’re staring straight into the canyon the whole time. Riding back up is apparently less frightening because the end of the ordeal is in view.

To date not a single one of the sure-footed mules is known to have tumbled over the cliff, with or without its rider. But you can buy a little book called Death in the Grand Canyon that will curl your hair. It describes the demise of foolish folks who stepped off the canyon rim while posing for photos or wandered into the wild ravine and lost their way.

Last year, too, following a fatal collision between a sightseeing helicopter and a small, fixed-wing plane over the Canyon — the latest of several such calamities over the years — officials banned flights below the rim and established specific corridors for tourist air excursions.

The Grand Canyon has existed for 40 million years, or what Tourmaster Tom called “an eyeblink of geological time.” It was formed when one great tectonic plate slid under another, forcing the land upward. The river then began cutting a path deep down to its old level. Boulders that fell into the Colorado produced the 160 rapids that make a rafting trip so hair-raising.

“A lot of people ask whether you can take a bus or car to the bottom of the canyon,” Tom Glatzmayer told his audience. “The answer is yes. But only once!”

As Tom — who, to our sadness, has since died — was loading his passengers into the bus for the return trip to Grand Canyon Village, he couldn’t resist one more wisecrack. Like most employees of his company and the National Park Service at the canyon, he lived inside the park, a rock’s throw from the South Rim.

He called it “living on the edge.”


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Ameliorate. To sooth or make something more bearable.

Arable. Suitable for farming or other cultivation.

Welter. A jumbled pile or collection of something.

Yahoo. Pronounced “YAY-hoo,” this is a rube or a fool who’s likely to behave stupidly.

6 responses to “Arid Arizona”

  1. Scho says:

    >The Grand Canyon would give me an imagination of what Mars look like especially her Valles Marineris. Our bodies are made for endurance. These days, humans' intelligences have created a lot of conveniences.

  2. Holly says:

    >I'm writing from Tucson, Arizona. I clicked on the link to VOA as suggested by my Geography (online) class to read about current news in Africa. Your blog caught my eye, on the right-hand side of the page so I let myself get distracted and it was well worth it. I really enjoyed reading this article. I also think it's great that you include vocabulary at the end. I learned a few new things. I enjoy learning so thank you for the newly aquired knowledge.I would like to friend you on facebook, but I'm writing through a school "portal" and what I do is recorded (at least I'm pretty sure) If you have the time please look for me and add me. I'm and I look forward to reading more of your intriguing work!

  3. Anonymous says:

    >Fun, enjoyable article! I've been a resident of Arizona since 1959, and love it. Sure has changed over the years. As a geologist, I would like to point out a small error in the article however, in that the Colorado River had nothing to do with the formation of the Baja Peninsula! Cheers!

  4. Rahman says:

    >This was a fascinating article. It was rich in both history and culture. However, I must say the last time I took a flight into Phoenix it was 108 degrees and it was dark. I don't care if it was humid or dry that's too hot.

  5. Ted says:

    >A few weeks back, someone wrote me from England with a query pertaining to a much earlier blog I had written about America's "National Road." Preparing to answer it, I inadvertently deleted the entire inquiry! If you're still following Ted Landphair's America and see this note, pls. send me the question again, and I'll get you an answer. Thanks.

  6. Ted says:

    >To "Anonymous" in Arizona. Thanks for you nice words and your correction about the origin of the Baja California land mass. This is an excellent example of the need to pay close attention when extrapolating information, particularly when I, in this case, am by no means a geologist.What I learned was the Colorado River forms the BORDER between a portion of the peninsula and a mainland Mexican state. Somehow everything after "border" vanished from my mind.There's another lesson, too. When writing what I did, it occurred to me that this must be quite a river to dump enough sediment to form a peninsula 1,220 kilometers (760 miles) long. Then I remembered the torrent that rushes through part of the Grand Canyon, eating away at the rocks that surround it, and thought, "Well, maybe over time such a thing was possible." Wrong! An old journalistic maxim should have applied here: When in doubt, check!

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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