“There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”
— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, 1968
A long stretch of the transcontinental bicycle route across the southern tier of states passes through the vast empty spaces of the desert Southwest. For more than 1,000 miles, from the high desert of California not far east of San Diego, through Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas, the towns will be few and far between and water a scarce commodity.
I’ve not had much experience with desert. I grew up in the usually well-watered Midwest. In Cairo, Ill., at the southern tip of my home state, where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi, you can watch the water from a third of the continental United States flow by on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico. When water is a problem, it usually is a matter of too much rather than too little — as in floods that can overwhelm the levees, sweep away houses and barns and destroy huge tracts of corn and soybeans and wheat.
So I’ve been reading up on deserts and what to expect during those long, lonely miles during the early part of the journey — through towns like Seeley, El Centro and Glamis in California; Quartzite, Hope and Aguila in Arizona; Buckhorn, Silver City and Hatch in New Mexico; and Sierra Blanca, Van Horn and Marathon in West Texas.
A good guide to the beauty and wonders of the desert is a book by Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Abbey tells of his time as a National Park Service ranger in the 1960s at Arches National Park in the canyonlands of southeastern Utah near Moab. Abbey writes beautifully of the desert, calling it “a vast world, an oceanic world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea.”
So in the middle of this vast desert sea, after passing through the Arizona Outback towns of Brenda, Wenden and Wickenburg, the eastbound cross-country bicycle traveler comes upon Phoenix, a metropolis of 1.5 million with its urban sprawl of congested roads, big-box stores, auto dealerships, fast-food franchises, irrigated golf courses and cheaply constructed housing developments.
I’ve not yet been to Phoenix, so I cannot judge. But I wonder if Edward Abbey had Phoenix in mind when he wrote of places and people “irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweaty scramble for profit and domination.”
Is Phoenix, for all its vibrancy and amoeba-like growth, “a city where no city should be”?