Category Archives: Arizona

48th State

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Arizona is the third most recent state to join the Union.  The only two states admitted more recently are Alaska and Hawaii.  This means that, when it comes to mainland U.S.A., this very much was the “final frontier”, an area that remained wild and unsettled for over a century while areas were being converted from frontier, to small villages, and eventually into powerhouses connected by networks of trails, ports, and railroads.

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The primary cultural image of Arizona is the “Old West”.  Cowboys roaming around wide open spaces.  Small isolated towns where outlaws and town sheriffs fight a continuous battle that resembles the internal conflict we all have between the innate desire for freedom and the desire for justice and order.  Crazy games of poker in whiskey salons that often end in guns being drawn.

Historically, it is correct that Arizona, like much of the west, is the site of many epic battles that often lead to gunfire.  This lead to places such as Tombstone, and Rawhide, being depicted in numerous Western themed movies and TV shows.  Tourists today can relive the experience of the wide open, unsettled, west by visiting these places.

However, movies and TV shows can frequently lead people to inaccurate perceptions.  Films and shows are designed for entertainment purposes, and therefore must focus on the interesting aspects of life in a specific place, like a shoot-out between two gangs.  Anyone that compares their lives to those of characters from TV and movies will often come out feeling that their life is uninteresting.  After all, no movie will show someone sitting at a cubicle for six hours, or doing laundry and ironing shirts.  They focus on the parts that will, well, entertain the people that watch them.

Recent studies have indicated that, while these high profile gunfights did occur in the old west, they were the exception rather than the rule.  Some studies (although not all) have even suggested that the western frontier of the later 19th century was actually a safer place than America today.  There is speculation as to why the “Old West” is depicted and thought of in the manner in which it is, leading some to entertain conspiracy theories.  Regardless of what the reality of what life in this time and place know as the “Old West” was truly like, it is encouraging to see people look at it statistically, as opposed to based on anecdotes and catch phrases.

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Arizona may have grown up late, but it grew up fast.  Based on the 2010 census, Arizona is now the fourth most populous state west of the Mississippi River.

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Growing up in the middle to late 20th century, Arizona grew up in a manner that is very car-centric.  Depictions of present day Arizona life, in movies like Bad Santa, commonly show life in car-centic suburbs, with winding subdivisions, malls and such.

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There is also no forgetting Arizona’s position along the famed Route 66, which took countless motorists between Chicago and Los Angeles during the middle part of the 20th century.  In popular culture, the Arizona stretch of this major historic thoroughfare is amongst the most celebrated, providing the inspiration for the setting of the Route 66 based movie Cars.

The most high profile destination in Arizona is the Grand Canyon.  After all, the state’s nickname, which is labelled on all Arizona license plates is “The Grand Canyon State”.  However, by taking a road trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas, one will traverse the landscapes that cover a much larger portion of the State.

Passing through the Sonoran Desert, which includes Phoenix and much of the surrounding  area, one will encounter hills covered in sagebrush and cactus plants.

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Periodically, one will also encountered Joshua Trees, mountain ranges, and mesas.

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Closer to Vegas, the landscape transitions to the Mojave Desert, which is sometimes even hotter, drier, and more baren than the Sonoran.

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Two developments made Arizona’s rapid expansion in population possible.  First, is the much discussed invention of, and subsequent proliferation of air conditioning.  This, of course, made living in places prone to hot weather more desirable.  The second is the creation of dams, canals, irrigation systems, and water pipelines, which facilitated supplying these dry regions with the water resources needed to sustain life.

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The Hoover Dam, located at the border of Arizona and Nevada, is one of many places throughout the west that diverts water resources from a major river (the Colorado River) to major metropolitan areas.

 

As is the case with the idealized image of the rugged individual of the “Old West”, present day life in Arizona, when discussed, elicits some divided responses, as well as some different interpretations.

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This is very much the image of standard life in Arizona.  A house in suburban looking neighborhood, a pool in the backyard, mountains, and, in many cases, golf.  Some love it.  Some see it as the natural culmination of the “American Dream”.  Some can’t wait to get away from the frigid winters many experienced in other parts of the country, move down here and enjoy the life.  Others, and particularly those concerned with the environment, feel it is irresponsible for so many people to be living comfortable lifestyles, with swimming pools, irrigated lawns, and golf courses in a climate this dry.  People here seem to adhere to the “haters gonna hate” mentality.  The knowledge that people in some distant land are disapproving of their living, eating, hiking, and golfing in the desert does not seem to phase them.

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Places of Questionable Significance

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In 1983, an incredibly drunk Ozzy Osborne made the mistake of deciding to relieve himself on the Alamo, a building of historical significance.  He was arrested (Isn’t public urination usually just a ticket?), and scorned by many, primarily due to the fact that the Alamo is an important symbol of pride amongst Texans.  However, to Ozzy, a British rock star, the building probably did not mean too terribly much.  While a sober Ozzy (if that existed in 1983) would probably have realized the building is significant due to the presence of tourists, he probably would not have felt the same affinity or pride when standing in front of the Alamo.

With the exception of a few wide eyed hippies that believe that every place is significant, and a few hard core cynics, that fail to see the significance in any place (or anything), the significance of most places is dependent on the person and the culture.  There is no better of an example of a place like this than Four Corners, U.S.A.

Four Corners is unique due to the fact that it is the only place in the United States where four states all border one another.  If one wanted to stand in five different states at one time, it would not be possible.  If one wanted to stand in four different states at once, there is only one place where it can be done; Four Corners Monument.

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The primary reason people visit this particular monument is to take silly pictures like this one.  Assuming the location of the four-state border is correctly marked (some question that is in the right place), in this picture I am in four states at once.

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However, in the absence of state borders, this particular spot would really actually be quite insignificant.  There is no natural demarcation point, or significant change in scenery.  Even on the Colorado side, the wide open landscape, periodic mesas, and sagebrush screams Arizona much more than Colorado.  This Arizona-like feel persists for over thirty miles into Colorado until the San Juan Mountains start to show up on the horizon somewhere east of Cortez.

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The significance of this place is further muddled by the fact that this point is not the border of four different jurisdictions.  The monument is actually on an Indian Reservation.  Thus, you do not even get the standard differences in policies and sales tax that usually accompany state borders.  An equal number of souvenir stands exists on all four sides of the monument.  I am not sure whether or not marijuana is legal on this particular reservation, but the policy is the same on all sides.  I did not observe all of the pot heads clustered in the Colorado quadrant of this monument.

In the absence of state borders (and people obsessed with exact points of latitude and longitude), the most significant site in this region is a rock formation a dozen or so miles away called Shiprock, which has cultural and religious significance to the Navajo people who have inhabited the region since well before the Spanish arrived.

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From a completely neutral standpoint, the rock formation definitely seems to stand out way more than any other feature in the area, which is mainly small mesas and creeks.  But that does not mean the wide open space where the monument should lack significance to all people.

For most likely a variety of neurological, sociological, and historical reasons, Western Culture associates wide open spaces like this one with freedom.  It’s the wild.  It’s the untamed.  It’s the place where you can yell as loud as you want, shoot any kind of weapon you want, and start a fight without anyone to break it up.  There is nobody to tell you where you can (and can’t) hike, climb, tie a rope to an arch or mesa to swing from it, or even try to catapult small rodents.  It’s the last refuge of people seeking to escape every single one of society’s restrictions and limitations.

But the one set of regulations that one can really never escape is the ones that exist only inside their own heads.  I often refer to these as the “invisible chain”.  And by this, I am referring to all of the anxiety, fear, and self-consciousness that often stop us from doing what we feel we should be doing.  It stops us from telling people what we really think.  It stops us from talking to that interesting and attractive stranger on the train.  It stops us from dancing when fun music comes on.  In some ways, it stops us from living.  And, millions of Americans are in the process of destroying their livers trying to reclaim it.  In these pictures of the free, wild, and untamed west, there are typically very few people, or buildings to indicate the presence of people.  There is nobody to judge you, and nobody to make you feel self-conscious about what you chose to wear, say, and do.  The fact that this is where we go to seek freedom indicates where we, as a people, believe most of our restrictions come from.

Therefore, if one could overcome this “invisible chain”, the restrictions placed upon us would be limited only to those officially legislated by some kind of governing body and effectively enforced by law enforcement personnel.  The few lucky individuals that manage this are able to find this greater level of freedom in places like London, Hong Kong, or New York City; places that provide the interaction with other human being that we all crave.

We often see the desire for community and human interaction as pulling us in one direction, while the desire for freedom and individuality pulling us in the opposite direction.  As an extrovert, I often struggle with the fear that asserting my individuality and refusing to conform, will cost me in the social realm.  Reflecting upon all of this in the wide open spaces of the desert southwest, I re-realized that being an individual and reducing that fear actually helps in the social realm.  Negative responses from those that fear non-conformity are more than outweighed by positive responses by those that appreciate authenticity and variety in nearly all circumstances.  The key is to understand that we all have freedom of choice, and not to allow any of the hate to translate into hatred towards others.  This applies even the people that have ridiculed me and caused me hurt.  They have the freedom say what they want.  The only way to truly overcome that ridicule is not to ridicule them back, or “defeat” them in an argument.  It is to not be affected by that ridicule and continue to be the way you are despite anything they say.

This is one of several lessons, I re-learned on this trip.  These re-realizations make this place significant to me, even if the official reason for the significance of any of these places is questionable.  Everyone has a different experience here, and it is completely understandable for someone to come to Four Corners, find out it is on a reservation, buy nothing at the souvenir stands, and leave seeing the place as pointless.  For me, however, this is where I got my mind off some of life’s frustrations, and got back on the path to becoming a better person.