Tucson: the Desert "Civilized"

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

We’ve been living in Tucson, Arizona, for nearly a year. We came in January to escape the winter, planning to stay for two or three months and then move somewhere else, maybe Boulder, Portland (for a second time), or Berkeley. But family matters forced us to stay in the desert. Tucson is a typical city in the arid southwest: a beautiful natural setting marred by barbarous human intervention. The city is surrounded by mountains—the Catalinas to the north, the Rincons in the east, the Tucsons in the west, and the Santa Ritas to the south. The flatter spaces in the middle, about 2,000 feet above sea level, used to be desert. Some of it still is. In 1933, the federal government established Saguaro National Monument in what is now the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park, to protect the saguaro cactus, the stately sentinels of the Sonoran Desert we all know from western movies. Decades of cattle ranching had threatened the survival of the cactus (even afer the Monument was set up, cattle were still allowed to graze on the public land and did so into the 1980s). The monument was designated a national park in 1994, and today it consists of the Rincon District, comprising 67,000 surprisingly green acres east of the city of Tucson, and the browner, drier Tucson Mountain District, made up of 24,000 acres to the west. Both parts of the park are worth visits. We’ve hiked many times in the Rincon District, enjoying the songs of the numerous bird species (I like the thrashers best), the gorgeous spring flowers, especially the blooming cacti, and the running water in the washes after winter rains. When you climb out of the desert floor and into the mountains, you are amazed at the changes in the terrain. The saguaro disappear at about 4,500 feet, replaced by pines, including the vanilla-smelling ponderosa, aspen, and oaks, among many others. A trip to Mt. Lemmon, in the Catalina Mountains, takes you from 2,000 to about 9,000 feet, and the effect in terms of ecological dynamics is the same as making a trip from the Mexican to the Canadian border.

                                                             012_15A.jpg picture by mikedjyates

                                                                           Saguaro Cactus             

Humans have lived in the Tucson area for thousands of years. Today the progeny of these ancient peoples are still here. There are several Indian groups, living in both reservations and towns, but few practice traditional ways. Tribes have sold land to developers and built a half-dozen depressing casinos. No doubt, they have good reasons. What would whites do if they had been robbed so thoroughly and for so long and suffered every imaginable malady and every kind of discrimination at the hands of beings who considered them subhuman? Some Indians do honor the old ways, though, and show a respect for the desert lost on most of the rest of us. They still gather the fruits from the tops of the saguaro, using long poles made from the ribs of dead cacti, and make jam, syrup, and wine, plus meal cake from the seeds. I read about the fruit-gathering ritual, and something in the article struck me:

“Sally has taught her grandchildren to show proper respect to saguaros. The first time a fruit is opened, they stop for a blessing, to thank the fruit for its existence and to ask it for another year of harvest. Children are taught never to poke or throw rocks at saguaros, even if the purpose is to knock off fruit. Perhaps some of this respect arises because saguaros, with their great ability to store water, produce food reliably whether the yearly rains have been good or not. In this land of little water, saguaros have adapted to living through droughts and have helped people survive here.” (

This reminded me of what Willa Cather said about Indians in New Mexico in her novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop:

“It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it. . . . [The Indians] seemed to have none of the European’s desire to “master” nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves. This was not so much from indolence . . . as from an inherited caution and respect. It was as if the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things not to antagonize and arouse. When they hunted, it was with the same discretion; an Indian hunt was never a slaughter. They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs. The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.”

A drive through Tucson today shows the complete absence of the Indian sensibility. What cattle and cowboys did to the land pales in comparison to what modern consumer culture has done. In this fragile, arid, and beautiful land, where a perennial stream makes you smile in amazement and where javelina, coyotes, jackrabbits, and mule deer, are never far away, commercial interests, politicians, and snowbirds looking for warm winter weather, have created a monument to sprawl and ugliness. The city’s population is about 525,000, but there are more than one million people living in the Greater Tucson area. Probably a million more will arrive in the next decade (two million are expected in the hundred mile stretch of harsh desert between Tucson and Phoenix, an area already environmentally wrecked and polluted). Everywhere you look in Tucson, there are housing developments and strip malls. There is no real downtown, just a few streets of Soviet-style office buildings and some shops, restaurants, and bars. Few people live downtown; there is not even a grocery store there. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent for a downtown development project called Rio Nuevo, but it has yet to get off the ground (though it has made a good many consultants rich). At night downtown Tucson is empty, except for the bars and the homeless. Interstate 10, under renovation for two years now, cuts the downtown in two and is an endless snarl of traffic and accidents. A fire in the 1970s appears to have taken much of the vibrancy from the central city, and it has not returned. There are some lively streets just west of the Interstate, close to the University of Arizona (which is a nice place to visit with excellent art and photography museums), but not enough to make you think you are in a real city. Instead the city spreads in all directions along pedestrian-unfriendly streets, with rushing traffic and at least a thousand strip malls. You want a good restaurant–it’s in a strip mall. A grocery store–in a strip mall. A bar–you guessed it. This is strip mall heaven. And as ugly and unpleasant as you can imagine. People live in developments for the most part. There are few true neighborhoods. The houses and lots get bigger as you travel toward the foothills of the mountains. But not more beautiful. What is more, there is seldom an easy way to get from one part of town to the other. Public transportation is a joke, and by car it takes easily more than an hour to get from one end of town to another. All the people and all the cars (and trucks–very big in the west) fill the air with noxious and visible chemicals, and the endless development throws up enough dust to occlude many a mountain vista. An added eyesore is the enormous Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which occupies 10 percent of the city’s land mass and is home to an airplane graveyard. Apparently the desert earth is so hard that the heavy planes can be stored there without sinking into the ground. A trip from our house to the airport takes us past the base, the plane bodies an eerie site on a dark night. The U.S. military loves our deserts. Troops can be trained; bombs can be dropped; the detritus of past wars can be stored; and the military retirees can stay on to spend their pensions and work in the prisons and on police forces. 

Like most places in the United States, Tucson is sharply polarized by class and race. More than one-quarter of all Hispanics and Indians live in poverty. Incomes and wealth are very unevenly divided. Well-to-do second-homers and retirees play golf and eat in upscale restaurants staffed by poorly paid Hispanic workers (immigrant-bashing isn’t as common in Tucson as in some other parts of Arizona, such as Phoenix, where the fascist sheriff Joe Arpaio has made a career out of humiliating prisoners and viciously oppressing immigrants). Resorts like the Canyon Ranch, which was recently found guilty of keeping its employees tips (, take their rich clientele on horse back rides–often in the National Park, where the horses ruin the trails like the cattle once destroyed the land–led by poorly paid cowboys. One day we witnessed a ranch staffer leading a group of hikers in stretching exercises; later he offered them “cool towels.” Those with money create enclaves in the desert where they expect life to go on the way it did wherever they were from. They seem not to realize, or care, that they are in a special place. They seem to believe that it is not necessary to respect a place’s past and try to improve its future. Karen and I got into a heated argument with two horse riders on a trail in the park. In reply to our lament that their horses were destroying the trails, one of them said that horses were a part of the western experience, implying that they had been here forever. She seemed surprised when I told her that horses came here on a few hundred years ago. The Indians had been here long before and respected the land a lot more than she and her companion did. “Well.” she replied, “they’re not here now.” No, indeed. Just the two of them and all the fools like them. Buying up the land poorer farmers and ranchers used to own. Boarding their horses and believing that they are a part of the mythical west.

Tucson isn’t an exciting place to be. The hiking is good, but daily life is boring here. We often wonder what people do all day, besides work. We have walked around our development, which unlike many others, has streets and many trees and flowers, hundreds of times, and seldom seen another persons. Sometimes it feels like we’re on the Truman Show. Maybe people come here to die. Maybe they’re not as bored as we’ve become. It doesn’t matter. Next month, we’re moving on.

On Interstate 10, as you approach Tucson from the north, there is a billboard that admonishes us to “Pray for Tucson.” I’ll do that. You should too. This place will need all the help it can get.

13 Responses to Tucson: the Desert "Civilized"

  1. sabocat December 23, 2008 at 2:53 pm #

    Thank you Michael for including info. on our lawsuit victory in your blog. I would like to update your readers on the latest news from the rarefied air of new age spa-world.

    The judge is set to sign off on the settlement sometime in mid-January.

    Meanwhile, Mel Z. and family (one of the owners of Canyon Ranch), have decamped from Lenox, expressing profound anger at the perceived betrayal of “their” workers. Talk about a slave owner mentality!

    Another family member who owns several retail shops in downtown Lenox has spoken publicly about his desire to find out the names of everyone involved in the lawsuit so he can kill them . “I want to kill them all”, he said recently to a friend of mine, a fellow bodyworker. Needless to say, we’re REALLY SCARED. Yeah, right.

    Most of the principals have already either left the ranch willingly or were previously fired, myself included. During my two year tenure there, I developed a distinct inability to control my tongue, so management slowly built a case against me, (mainly nitpicky guest complaints, such as yawning during a session or greeting a guest with a cup of tea in my hand), resulting in my dismissal last march. I recently received another 5 month extension on my unemployment. There are a few stalwart holdouts, but they’ll no doubt leave AFTER WE GET OUR MONEY BACK!

    Work has slowed considerably, as guest bookings hover around 50% of capacity, and already the owners have laid off 30 or so workers and managers since last october.

    I keep handing out copies of “Why Unions Matter”, as the grapevine informs me of certain formerly gung ho canyon ranchers who are now talking union, but most people are still too scared shitless about job security to organize anything substantial.

    anyway, thanks again for helping to get the word out.

  2. mike December 24, 2008 at 4:29 pm #

    Dear Sabocat,

    Thanks for the update. We have seen Canyon Ranch up close here in Tucson. Real dogs. Also, thanks for pushing Why Unions Matter!

    Michael Yates

  3. Sheldon January 11, 2009 at 7:59 pm #

    Speaking of Tucson,

    Hi Michael, Pay a visit to a coffee shop and book store called Revolutionary Grounds at 606 4th Ave. in Tucson. It is run by local activists. I dropped in to look for Monthly Review, they had it but were considering canceling it because it wasn’t selling. I bought to issues and encouraged them to keep it in stock. A friendly visit and chat from one of the editors might help.


  4. mike January 11, 2009 at 9:03 pm #

    Dear Sheldon,

    Thanks for the note. I’ll give them a call or make a visit.

    Michael Yates

  5. Bella January 27, 2009 at 9:42 am #

    Nice work! I’ll have to do a cross post on this one 😉

  6. Joy Soler February 25, 2009 at 10:20 pm #

    I do hope you stop by Revolutionary Grounds. We still carry the Monthly Review although it is still an inconsistent seller. Some things we keep on hand just because. We look forward to meeting you. Joy and Paul at RG

  7. CassieD May 16, 2009 at 5:59 am #

    I agree with a lot of your analysis, but the pervasive negativity in the latter part of the post strikes me as a little exaggerated, and fails to factor in the efforts of so many Tucson residents (native and transplants alike) who contribute to the city’s inimitable character (mostly, I am referring to the city’s interesting railroad character and overall weirdness). Also, many of these criticisms (strip malls, traffic, etc.) can be aimed at dozens of other American cities; these are not uniquely Tucson problems. It’s too late to re-engineer the city street plan, and the natural beauty of the desert flora and fauna has created a sort of catch-22, luring tourists and new residents, and thus leading to the overdevelopment noted here. But committed citizens willing to invest their talent and time are carving out niches of life, activity, and art in neighborhoods across Tucson. Life is surely challenging as we struggle to live with the trauma of a citified desert landscape, but I really don’t think it’s all doom and gloom, as indicated in this post. No need to pray for all of us who work at and enjoy this strange place that some of us have chosen to make our home indefinitely.

  8. mike May 16, 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    Dear Cassie D,

    Thanks for your note. I agree that lots of cities face similar problems, though I have never seen one as plagued with strip malls as Tucson. Bold and radical planning are needed in Tucson, but If the boondoggle of Rio Nuevo is what passes for planning in Tucson, I think you will need some prayers. And, my word, what is happening along Houghton Road in the eastern part of Tucson (even more sprawl, with thousands of planned houses and no services) does not bode at all well for any attempts to increase the livability of the area. Even the national park is a mess, with most of the trails ruined by horse traffic. Finally, what about the low-wage economy? Nothing will get better in Tucson until that changes.

  9. bill September 4, 2009 at 12:03 am #

    I really hope you kept moving to Berkley that is surely where you belong. Please stay the hell out of Tucson!

  10. mike September 4, 2009 at 1:42 am #


    I hope you’re not one of those horse riders ruining the desert. Or worse yet, a cattle rancher. Why did what I wrote upset you so much? I’ve written much more critical things about my home town.

    By the way, how’s that Rio Nuevo deal going?


  11. billybob January 6, 2010 at 8:22 am #

    I’m with Bill. Tucson’s already gone to shit though. Hell, even the 8th Congressional District is Democrat now! That’s why I’ve moved up by Kingman. Maybe there the liberals and other California bound nut-jobs won’t get snagged on their way west and ruin the pristine desert ranchland!

  12. Carl April 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    I just revisitd my hometown of Tucson on my annual spring pilgrimage. This webpage describes pretty accurately the uglification I see comparing the area to how it was when I last lived there, 1966. But there are neighborhoods, those I call by that name are known by the locls as barrios. The webpage doesn’t include these outposts of civilization – and there are problems in the barrios for sure. The worst devastation is to the natural environment . It is caused mainly by sprawl – something that was prevented here in Oregon by laws from the 1970s called land use laws. I remember my mother protesting at having her water rates go up so the rivch people in the foothills could have their water pumped up to them. Proposals for lift fees were repeatedly defeated.

    The bars on the windows of even the poorest shacks tell a sad tale of desperation in the desert. The sprawl makes long distance driving inevitable, further degrading the air quality. I go back out of nostalgia and I walk the Sonoran desert dreaming about my childhood. But it is not nearly the same. My friends and relatives all miss the way Tucson was back in the 1950s. The money makers, developers, speculators, capitalist gamblers all, were at work even then. I grew up withkids from the Mangels Realty family. They were doing a “land office” business back then. Ralph and Helen Mangles were hardly ever home as the business was 24/7.

    • mike April 12, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

      Carl, Thanks so much for the letter. It made us both sad. Places had some integrity once, but now only money matters. Have you followed the
      Rio Nuevo project. Over $200 million spent, or stolen might be a better way to put it, and nothing to show fir it. Now the FBI is investigating.

      Ironically, we are in Tucson now, to take care of some health problems. Tucson does have a lot of good doctors. This past fall, we were in
      Portland for two months. We lived there in 2003-04.

      Take care and thanks again for writing.

      michael yates

Leave a Reply