I went into the desert to enjoy some peace, quiet and solitude. I quickly discovered I could survive in the bleak landscape without giving up a single latte, Big Mac, cell call or email on my Blackberry. That guy who said he’d “been through the desert on a horse with no name” clearly didn’t see the signs for Starbucks or the golden arches along Rte. 17 across the Sonoran Desert from Phoenix to Flagstaff. On this route, the cell phone towers sprout high next the saguaro cacti, and traffic is so congested in places it’s like Tysons at rush hour.
Phoenix was the spot for a business meeting I had to attend this week, and so on Saturday after the meetings I went out to explore the beautiful Arizona landscape. Surprisingly, the week was cold and rainy, and on my drive north to Sedona snow warnings lined the highway, and snow-capped peaks were clear in the distance. So much for the warm and toasty southwest!
But while the views are incredible, the crush of civilization threatens even this remote landscape. In the greater Phoenix area, the night sky is bright with millions of lights from homes that surge up the sides of impossibly high mesas. Somebody mentioned that more than 300 golf courses are in the Scottsdale area — who can play that many holes? — and the challenges of irrigation in the desert require increasingly long canals and more sophisticated systems to bring water so far to an area that’s naturally arid.
No where in the U.S. is the crush of civilization more apparent than in the desert southwest, where there is no vast tree cover like in the northeast to hide the human incursion into the wild. n the southwest, humanity trumpets its triumph of nature with vast green areas coaxed artificially from the beige desert surroundings. Humans cleverly disguise their myriad structures to look like desert rocks out here — but somehow the Wal-Mart stores still look like big boxes even when painted sandy beige.
The famous red rocks of Sedona were lovely today, as usual, and people jammed the roads to enjoy the sights while snapping up Indian jewelry and various tchotchkes in the fake adobe huts lining the roads into the village. I followed some back roads to less touristy spots, but even in the back country too many people have left too much evidence of civilization’s disrespect for nature. The rotting hulks of old trailers and pickup trucks scatter their metal bones across the landscape, and people pop-up unexpectedly in the most surprising places — see the man climbing “Bell Rock” without ropes in the photo to the right.
Wherever we look, we can see this ongoing tension between the expansive reach of civilization and the dramatic forces of nature. The need to find more harmony and balance in this sometimes-uneasy relationship becomes very clear when we can see the landscape itself transformed because of the presence of too many people. The pioneers who crossed these treacherous mountains and valleys in little more than horse-drawn wagons rejoiced when they found an occasional oasis. I wonder what they would make of the golden arches soaring above the desert expanse.