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June 2024
10min read

A city where the desert is everywhere, where sprawl into magnificent desolation is the main industry, whose oldest building is still its most beautiful, whose surrounding mountains are its soul: Lawrence W. Cheek explains why American Heritage’s Great American Place Award for the year 2000 goes to…

How, exactly, does one dispose of an owl in the living room—a live, wild great horned owl two feet long, armed with talons that look as if they could rip open an artery, staring defiantly from a perch on your ceiling fan? My friend Don, who had moved to Tucson from the gentler wilds of West Virginia, didn’t know, but he at least was smart enough not to try it himself.

The first animal-control officer to respond was baffled; he normally just handled rattlesnakes—and speak of the devil, he told Don, there’s one now, on your front steps. This called for a backup, and it took the two officers three hours to capture raptor and reptile. After all this they decided they probably should check Don’s house for any further guests, and in fact there was one. A tarantula was creeping through the open front door.

Welcome to Tucson.

No other city in North America has been blessed with such a dramatic, yet prickly natural environment. No other city braids itself into nature so intimately, albeit with a measure of friction. Certainly not rival Phoenix, a sprawling oasis obsessed with palm trees, golf, and power corridors of glass high-rises. Tucson is a city of the desert , italicized in cactus spines and borders of heroic mountains, economically poorer than Phoenix but proud of what it sees as its greater ecological integrity. There is a price, of course. One nearby canyon with a waterfall has claimed 31 lives since 1970, most of them in falls and flash floods. And each year the water table drops three to four feet, a silent reminder that building a city this size in the desert has been above all an unnatural act, a great upsurge of hubris, and that eventually owl, rattlesnake, and tarantula will reclaim their rightful land without opposition.


Real Tucsonans, we who know and cherish the place, feel little pain at the prospect.

To understand Tucson’s past, you could start with the nineteenth-century barrios of adobe row houses or back up another century to the manic baroque Spanish mission of San Xavier del Bac, completed at the end of the eighteenth century. But instead, you probably should drive west of town to what is now Saguaro National Park, climb a rocky mound called Signal Hill—watching for rattlers—and read the newspaper.

Which in this case is a clutter of petroglyphs pecked into the hilltop boulders by the Hohokam, who hunted, gathered, and farmed the Sonoran Desert from around B.C. 300 to 1450 A.D. These early Tucsonans were thoroughly at home in their natural world, as you can sense from the human and animal stick figures parading across the rocks. For more than a millennium, the Hohokam somehow scratched a living out of a skinflint desert that gave them maybe 12 inches of rain in a good year. Why their civilization evaporated is unknown. Theories include climate change, conflict, or—my favorite—eventually just having too many people for such a very fragile land to support.

The name Tucson first appeared on a map drawn in 1695 by the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino, locating a place that the native Pimans—who may have been remnants of the Hohokam culture—called chuk-son, “black spring.” In the 1770s it became a Spanish presidio, an adobe-walled fort intended for staging and supporting a Spanish foray into California. The Mexican flag replaced Spain’s through a revolution in 1821, and in 1854 southern Arizona passed into U.S. hands. Economically and culturally, however, Tucson remained a mostly Hispanic town until the Southern Pacific Railroad punched through in 1880.

Romantic images of territorial Tucson quickly get trampled under the historical record. A traveler arriving in Tucson, according to the writer J. Ross Browne, who passed through in 1864, “emerges to find himself on the verge of the most wonderful scatteration of human habitations his eye ever beheld—a city of mud-boxes, dingy and dilapidated, cracked and baked into a composite of dust and filth … barren of verdure, parched, naked, and grimly desolate in the glare of a southern sun.” Browne’s acid travelogue set the standard for a generation of gringo’s-eye views of Tucson. Part of it was that Anglo eyes just couldn’t accept adobe—sun-dried mud bricks—as the building blocks of civilization. But there is also no discounting the hardship, lawlessness, and savagery of the nineteenth-century desert frontier.


Until the 1870s, Tucson (along with most of Arizona) was locked in a guerrilla war with the Apaches that erupted like a sporadic pox in raids, ambushes, and atrocities. It all came to a head on a spring morning in 1871, when a vigilante regiment of Anglos, Mexicans, and Tohono O’odhams encircled an Apache camp on the Aravaipa Creek 50 miles northeast of Tucson. Intending to punish the Apaches for their raids, they turned the camp into a killing field, raping, shooting, clubbing, and hacking at least 125 Apaches to death, most of them women and children.

President Grant called the massacre “purely murder” and threatened Arizona with martial law if the killers were not brought to trial. More than a hundred were indicted and tried in Tucson, where a jury of their peers deliberated for 19 minutes and voted for acquittal. “The terrible truth,” writes the Arizona historian Thomas E. Sheridan, was that the nineteenth-century Southwest was “a land where the old order had collapsed and a new order had not yet been created. The result was a political vacuum where the worst instincts often ruled.”

No other city in North America has been blessed with such a dramatic yet prickly natural environment.

Paradoxically, an element of racial cooperation was shaping Tucson’s character in those territorial years. Spanish- and Englishspeakers lived among each other, fought Apaches together, forged business partnerships, and married. A Mexican middle class was firmly rooted, exemplified by Federico Ronstadt, who arrived from Mexico in 1882 and established a successful coachbuilding business and a community orchestra. Unlike in other Southwestern cities, the patrón-peón hierarchy never became firmly entrenched in Tucson. As the University of Arizona anthropologist James Officer once explained it, “How were you going to tell a Ronstadt that his kid can’t go to your school?” That could mean Linda Ronstadt, Federico’s granddaughter, who began her singing career in Tucson coffeehouses.

Tucsonans of Anglo background have long romanticized Hispanic culture, although they may not reach too deeply into it. Mexican food enjoys the status of a religion; I’ve engaged in heated arguments over which restaurant offers the best green chile enchiladas (for the record, Mi Nidito does). Latino and Anglo families alike mark summer’s end by making green corn tamales, an all-day affair of insane complication. The city’s twentieth-century architecture consists of waves of Hispanic revivalism: Mission Revival through 1915, Spanish Colonial Revival to the 1930s, a Taco Deco style that saw every strip shopping center in the 1970s encrusted with arches and bell towers, and, in the 1990s, a Mexican architectural color palette of startling yellows, pinks, purples, and greens.

Yet this apparent embrace of Hispanic culture may be largely superficial; in the quarter-century I lived in the city I saw some disturbing signs. In 1981 a Mexican delegation presented Tucson with a bronze equestrian statue of Pancho Villa and thus ignited a decade of controversy. A local anthropologist started an annual one-man protest, pounding 19 white crosses into the grass beside the statue to commemorate Americans killed by Villa. Hispanics then began turning out to protest his protest. “This was all our land,” one told reporters. “Your people stole it.” True in part, although this land has been changing title since Hohokam times, and probably before.


Four mountain ranges cradle Tucson, the tallest raking the sky at 9,453 feet, and it is impossible to overestimate the effect they have on the city’s character, psychology, and sometimes current events. I once asked Les Wallach, an architect and longtime Tucsonan, how he would describe the city’s soul. “It’s like a strange form of animal,” he said after a moment’s thought. “Its soul is its skeleton, and that skeleton is on the outside—the mountains.”

No one who has survived four seasons in Tucson would say climate isn’t a great part of its character, and the mountains have much to do with that. June is the cruel month: 110 degrees every day (or so the natives claim; in fact, the average June high is only 98.5), a cloudless sky bleached almost bone white, the heat exerting a palpable pressure on the body.

But July brings a shift in the prevailing winds, starting the two-month-long monsoon, when the mountains ambush the muggy summer breath of the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California to manufacture spectacular thunderstorms. The writer Edward Abbey once described the monsoon thunderclouds as “anvil-headed giants with glints of lightning in their depths.” He might have added, “and malice in their hearts.” As much as Tucson cherishes (and needs) the storms, they can make tragedy. In the summer of 1947, a monsoon-spiked flood took out a 30-foot bridge over a minor arroyo and laid down a sheet of water over the flat desert surrounding the wash, concealing the bridge’s demise. One by one, cars rolled like lemmings into the arroyo and were swept away. Eleven people died before the police were able to stop traffic.

Propped against the sky in each cardinal direction, the mountains compel Tucson to interact with its environment. The big rocks are too dramatic to ignore. For years I happily avoided writing every morning by hiking in any of several mountain canyons I could reach within half an hour’s walk from my front door.

Due east were Bear and Sabino Canyons, parallel rifts sliced into the flank of the 9,157-foot Santa Catalina range. Sabino has a paved road that’s ideal for scenic jogging, a creek that trickles or rages depending on the season’s whim, and a history of close calls. In 1937 the Army Corps of Engineers approved a plan to wall off the canyon with a 250-foot-high dam to make a recreational lake, but local government, mired in the Depression, couldn’t come up with its share of the cost. Instead the WPA paved a sightseers’ road that corkscrewed four miles into the canyon. Happily, the U.S. Forest Service closed it to private traffic in 1978. Tucson wasn’t born with an environmental conscience, and its dawning has taken a lot of political gnashing. But is any city different? Even if belatedly, Tucson has realized how much it has to lose.

Bear Canyon, lacking pavement, remains a pristine jewel. In the spring, melting snow from the Santa Catalinas becomes a seven-tiered cascade at the head of the canyon. It’s a bear to get there—you wade across a swift, icy creek seven times each way—but the reward is a waterfall gushing past ranks of saguaro cacti, the plunges forming a contrapuntal chamber symphony of several liquid instruments, each with its distinct timbre and melody.

Critters rule these canyons. In my years of casual hiking, I encountered coyotes, bobcats, mule deer, great blue herons, Gila monsters, assorted species of rattlesnakes (harmless unless you’re hiking too casually), and toothy wild peccaries called javelinas. Frequently, this wildlife, teased by Tucson’s proximity, interacts. One time a midtown homeowner awoke to frantic barking at 5:00 A.M. ; his dog had treed a black bear in his yard. Officials recognized the bear. It had been removed from one mountain range, where it had been pestering campers, to another on the far side of the city. Like a human exile, it was just trying to get home.

Because of the extravagance of the natural setting, and the potential for conflict with it of so many sorts, Tucson has inspired a remarkable community of environmental advocates and writers, among them Joseph Wood Krutch, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Charles Bowden, Barbara Kingsolver, and Alison Hawthorne Deming. Bowden once wrote, more in fascination than fatalism, “Here the land always makes promises of aching beauty and the people always fail the land.” Observing the process has created a rich literature—and, I sometimes think, mitigated the failures.

I moved to Tucson in 1973, for a job, foolishly. That is the worst reason to go there; the local truism “You get your pay in sunshine” has held for as long as anyone can remember. People with hard-core career ambitions—unless they’re tenured faculty at the University of Arizona, easily the best gig in town—soon scurry off to Phoenix or Los Angeles. I didn’t want to go to either of those places, but I had a hard time coming to terms with Tucson too. There was too much sunshine. The city didn’t seem to have great ambitions for itself; its most beautiful and distinctive building was also its oldest: San Xavier del Bac, dating from 1797. People weren’t coming to Tucson to build great neighborhoods or great institutions; they were coming to enjoy the environment and be left alone.

Sheer growth was and is Tucson’s main industry. In 1970 the metropolitan population was roughly 322,000; in 2000 it’s 834,000. When this many people funnel so fast into a fragile desert valley, ungodly things happen. Scores of housing developments are strewn carelessly across the land. Urban sprawl leaks even outside the natural boundaries of the mountains. And, worst of all, pretentious houses ratchet their way up the mountainsides.


When it finally came time for me to leave, nearly a quarter-century later (a career move for my wife), I felt as though I were ripping off a piece of my body. I had become one with the place. I had shed my career ambitions; now I just wanted to hike in the desert and mountains and, as a byproduct, maybe write a little more perceptively about them. I had come to appreciate Tucson exactly as it was, not curse it for failing the land.


There had been a turning point for me that, oddly, involved the ugliest street in America. That was Speedway, the 23-mile east-west road that tumbles out of the Tucson Mountains, becomes a six-lane feeder trough for sprawl, and eventually peters out among the grassy ranches at the foot of the Rincon Mountains. In 1970 Life magazine published a spread on America’s blighted streets, leading with a two-page photo of Speedway, compressed by a 1000mm lens into a ghastly jungle of car lots, drive-ins, and billboards. Life said Mayor Jim Corbett had called it the ugliest street in America, which Corbett later denied. No matter, Speedway was plenty ugly. We natives knew that, and we took a kind of perverse pride in showing it off to visitors.


By the early 1990s the city was working earnestly to improve Speedway’s landscaping, so I spent a week on the street with a photographer to produce a documentary for Arizona Highways magazine before its character got polished up too much. What we found amazed us. We met a Hispanic couple who had lived on Speedway for 50 years, starting out with a tent, four children, and the belief that “God will provide.” We sat in a toy-sized church with a congregation of some two dozen black Baptists and listened to their minister sing an hourlong sermon. We hung out with a bunch of balding car nuts who gathered ritually at Coach’s Deli every Friday night to talk camshaft profiles and distant memories. “I used to race Speedway, not cruise it,” said one, dripping contempt for the Gen- Xers parading their souped-up stereos. We checked out a production of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte , staged by university music students to raise money for their new performance hall. Speedway actually had more character than almost any other city’s vibrant, glittering downtown. It was Tucson’s downtown, tipped over on a side and stretched out to the horizon, a monument to cheap desert land and even cheaper gas.

And to human dreams. If the mountains are Tucson’s soul, then those dreams are its heart, enacted in countless small ways every day. This is, and has always been, a place where you can invent yourself, where nobody gives a whit where you came from or who your ancestors were. It cares little for convention or formality, and if it is unlikely to throw dollars at you, it is always happy to applaud your accomplishments. And living in this remarkable intersection of nature and civilization is itself a constant inspiration. Daily one sees environmental battles being fought, mistakes being made, humans muddling and struggling to reach an accommodation with something much greater than themselves, and, frequently enough, a coyote trotting through a dry arroyo in a midtown neighborhood, looking for a pet to eat. As Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Every day, Tucson affirms it.


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