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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Periodically, one will also encountered Joshua Trees, mountain ranges, and mesas.
Closer to Vegas, the landscape transitions to the Mojave Desert, which is sometimes even hotter, drier, and more baren than the Sonoran.
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.
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.
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.