“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 esbablish a city where no city should be.”
— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, 1968
TEMPE, Ariz. — I don’t have much experience with deserts, except for the past eight days of riding a fully loaded touring bicycle from San Diego to Phoenix. But I’ve drawn one major conclusion: God must have been trying to send his people a message by making deserts as hot as Hades, as dry as old bones and generally unfit for human habitation.
Every day since we left San Diego on Sept. 20 to begin a transcontintenal bicycle trip to Florida, the temperature has been more than 100 degrees. On Sunday, the high in Phoenix/Tempe, where we have a full day of rest on Monday, was 107 degrees.
Sunday’s ride from Wickenburg, Ariz., to Tempe was 77.37 miles, including about eight extra miles as I wandered around several times in Phoenix like a lost pup because of confusing map instructions. Or perhaps my brain was addled by the heat.
As I passed a time and temperature sign at a bank in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise at 9:40 a.m., the temperature already was 100 degrees. Fortunately, the landscape during the early part of the ride had a downward tilt, which then flattened out as we rode through the urban sprawl to Tempe. We passed through tidy suburbs like Surprise, El Mirage, Sun City, Glendale and Peoria.
As I rode the last portion of Sunday’s ride into Tempe, I used a bicycle path along Tempe’s Town Lake, near the main campus of Arizona State University. Along the path were red signs that said: “Please be kind to this habitat. For your safety, stay on the concrete walkways at all times. Do not touch the animals or damage the plants that call this habitat home.”
That’s a nice sentiment, but it seemed too little too late. Within a few hundred yards of those signs, one can see traffic whizzing along Loop 202 around this metropolis in the desert. What about all the natural habitat displaced by a human agglomeration of 1.5 million?
Of course, a city of that size needs lots of water and energy to keep lawns and golf courses green and to maintain Arctic-like temperatures inside homes, restaurants and stores. Sunday night, as several of our bike-riding group had dinner in a sports bar called the Hail Mary, we were tempted to hike back to the Motel 6 to get our jackets because of the frigid temperature inside the bar.
Tempe Town Lake itself is an anomaly in the desert. It’s a reservoir that occupies a portion of the often dry riverbed of the Salt River as it passes through Tempe. It features sailing, kayaking, rowing and even a “beach” area. Of course, there’s no shortage of sand in these parts.
The water for Town Lake comes from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile-long canal that diverts water from the Colorado River into central and southern Arizona. Water started flowing into Tempe Town Lake on June 2, 1999. By July 14, the lake was declared full. On Nov. 7, 1999, Tempe Town Lake was opened to the public.
The Town Lake is a pretty sight, and totally unexpected in such a barren setting.
As I prepared for this journey, I knew that about 1,000 miles in the early stages would be across the desert Southwest: long, lonely miles through towns like Plaster City, Seeley 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 college student friend referred me to a classic book on the desert 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 Monument in the canyonlands of southeastern Utah near Moab. He 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, Salome, Wenden and Wickenburg, the eastbound transcontinental bicycle traveler comes upon Phoenix, with its urban sprawl of congested roads, freeway interchanges, big-box stores, fast-food franchises, skyscrapers, acres of parking lots and cheaply constructed housing developments.
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?