Whenever the weather gets good, and the winter clouds start to dissolve beneath the gathering strength of the spring sun, my mind turns to Arizona.
The spot where crooked Mexican oaks, pungent sycamores and wild raspberries are. Where roads are more often dirt than paved. Where Cochise fought to stave the onslaught of invasive Federal troops. Where I spent some of the best years of my life camping.
Some people would like to think all parts of Arizona are the same ? central, southwestern, southeastern ? all flat, all sandy, all hot. But that's not true. There are peaks and pines, lakes with trout, hundreds of black bear. And despite what stereotypes might have taught you, the only sand dunes in the whole state are on the extreme southwestern corner on the state border, and most of that dune field lies in California. We even get snow down there ? really, same white stuff they get in Maine and Colorado, just, thankfully, less of it.
See? I'm in one of those homesick moods right now, rambling and fantasizing and selling you on its properties like some dealer on a used car lot. But just because I'm currently drunk on Arizona doesn't mean I can visit anytime soon. I've got bank accounts as empty as Death Valley, vacation time to save up. So, like most literate Portlanders without cars or cable, I use books to treat my travel virus. And when it comes to Arizona books, the shelves are filled with 'em.
1) A Beautiful, Cruel Country
This is the detailed memoir of an octogenarian who spent her girlhood in frontier southeastern Arizona's Arivaca Valley. Granddaughter of a Harvard-educated physician who came to Arizona Territory in the 1860s, Eva was the firstborn child of a Mexican mother and Anglo father who instilled in her an appreciation for both cultures at a time when this semi-desert corner was homesteaded by both Anglo and Mexican settlers. Little ToÃ±a learned firsthand the responsibilities of ranching ? an education usually reserved for boys ? and also experienced the racial hostility that occurred during those final years before the Papago Indians were confined to a reservation.
Begun as a reminiscence to tell younger family members about their "rawhide tough and lonely" life at the turn of the century, Mrs. Wilbur-Cruce's book is rich with imagery and dialogue that brings the Arivaca area to life. Her story is built around the annual cycle of ranch life ? its spring and fall round-ups, planting and harvesting ? and features a cavalcade of border characters, anecdotes about folk medicine, and recollections of events that were most meaningful in a young girl's life. Eva Wilbur-Cruce describes memories as far back as when she was three, and her account constitutes a valuable primary source from a region about which nothing similar has been previously published. The reader has the added benefit of increasing his or her Spanish vocabulary that reflects the lifestyle in which Eva was raised.
For 60 million years, the Gila River, longer than the Hudson and the Delaware combined, has shaped the ecology of the Southwest from its source in New Mexico to its confluence with the Colorado River in Arizona. This richly documented history of the Gila from its geological origins to the present fills a gap in the regional literature by caputring the winding essence of one of the Southwest's most important rivers.
3) Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest
This is Sandra Day O'Connor's endearing memoir of growing up on the Lazy B ranch in southeastern Arizona. Sandra, the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and one of the most powerful women in America, matured among leather-skinned cowboys in the prickly Peloncillo Mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border.
This fascinating glimpse of life in the Southwest in the last century recounts an important time in American history, and a vanished American way of life, and provides an enduring portrait of an independent young woman on the brink of becoming one of our country's most prominent figures. Sandra and her brother, H. Alan Day, have taken all the themes of the conventional Western narrative ? the roundup, the wild horses, the cattle and cattle stampedes, the rattlesnakes, the natural disasters like flash floods, and the colorful figures of cowboys ? and transposed them from the usual narrative of the isolated, rootless male figure of the Western into the story of three generations of a family and their relationship to an arid and beautiful land. Laced throughout these stories are the lessons Sandra and Alan learned about the world, self-reliance, and survival, and how the land, people, and values of the Lazy B shaped them and what it takes to survive under extremes of drought and distance.
Best of all: we learn that Sandra was never able to ditch the childhood habit, even decades later in Washington DC, of checking her shoes every morning for scorpions.
4) Going Back to Bisbee
Author of such revered poetry books as The Bus to Veracruz, The Tattooed Desert, and Hohokam, this is Richard Shelton's first full-length prose work, and it won the 1992 Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.
Shelton, one of America's most distinguished poets, first came to southeastern Arizona in the 1950s as a soldier stationed at Fort Huachuca. He soon fell in love with the region and upon his discharge found a job as a schoolteacher in nearby Bisbee. Now a university professor and respected poet living in Tucson, still in love with the Southwestern deserts, Shelton sets off for Bisbee on a not-uncommon day trip. Along the way, he reflects on the history of the area, on the beauty of the landscape, and on his own life.
Couched within the narrative of his journey are passages revealing Shelton's deep familiarity with the region's natural and human history. Whether conveying the mystique of tarantulas or describing the mountain-studded topography, he brings a poet's eye to this seemingly desolate country. His observations on human habitation touch on Tombstone, "the town too tough to die," on ghost towns that perhaps weren't as tough, and on Bisbee itself, a once prosperous mining town now an outpost for the arts and a destination for tourists. What he finds there is both a broad view of his past and a glimpse of that city's possible future. Going Back to Bisbee explores a part of America with which many readers may not be familiar. A rich store of information embedded in splendid prose, Shelton's hundred mile trip through the basin and range shows that there are more than miles on the road to Bisbee.
In this powerful annal of place, Shelton imbues landscapes, flora and fauna with resonance, imprinting themes of memory, history and human nature in the reader's mind. The opening description of a Sonoran monsoon is a masterful evocation of weather, vibrant and violent. Shelton's tour of the desert includes descriptions of a six-foot snake that rescued him from the local squirrels who were infiltrating his house; his disastrous attempt to harvest a yucca as a native Christmas tree; an attack by raging bulls on the Mormon battalion in the U.S.-Mexican war; his abrupt discovery of an adobe ghost town; and the sociology of an old mining village. Shelton knows the lore and the life of Southern Arizona, and his diction, both precise and evocative, reflects his poetic skills. This book offers a glimpse into life and landscape in a mountainous mining region not often captured in stellar literature. Shelton has a generous sense of humor, and his wit, poignancy, word magic all make Going Back to Bisbee fit company with Dillard, Eiseley, Abbey, and Graves.
5) Voice of the Coyote
The product of over thirty years of research, this book will make you view the coyote on an entirely different plane. Southwestern legend J. Frank Dobie pens what he calls a "biography" of the coyote by tracing this mysterious and exciting animal throughout history and weaving together entertaining stories of fact, fiction, science and imagination. This collection of stories will not only make you laugh, but will introduce you to a fascinating but long-misunderstood animal.
Dobie began systematically collecting lore about the rattlesnake world many years ago, using some of it in such regional publications as Southwest Review and incorporating much of it into essays with the intention of eventually putting together a book about rattlesnakes. Now, in this collection of twenty-two articles, his wish is posthumously fulfilled.
Here are observations and speculations, legends and yarns, even gossip about the habits and dispositions of these extraordinary creatures ? their reported size, deadliness, and power to charm their natural enemies. Dobie includes descriptions of actual fights to the death between rattlesnakes and other animals and accounts of the strange experiences human beings have had with them, as well as tips on where to find them and how to act when you see one. Only Frank Dobie could tell of this fascinating and frightening creature with such wisdom and humor, thereby tempering "the age-old feud between the snake and man." And the rattlesnake ? who once aroused fear among even the boldest men in the Old West ? can at last be regarded with tolerance, respect, and even affection.
7) Gathering the Desert
If placed in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, how would you fare?
To the untrained eye, a desert is a wasteland that defies civilization; yet the desert has been home to native cultures for centuries and offers sustenance in its surprisingly wide range of plant life. Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan has combed the desert in search of plants forgotten by all but a handful of American Indians and Mexican Americans. In Gathering the Desert, winner of the John Burroughs Medal, readers will discover that the bounty of the desert is much more than meets the eye ? whether found in the luscious fruit of the stately organpipe cactus or in the lowly tepary bean. Nabhan has chosen a dozen of the more than 425 edible wild species found in the Sonoran Desert to demonstrate just how bountiful the land can be. From the red-hot chiltepines of Mexico to the palms of Palm Springs, each plant exemplifies a symbolic or ecological relationship which people of this region have had with plants through history. Each chapter focuses on a particular plant and is accompanied by an original drawing by artist Paul Mirocha. Word and picture together create a total impression of plants and people as the book traces the turn of seasons in the desert.
8) The Desert Smells Like Rain
Longtime residents of the Sonoran Desert, the Tohono O'odham people have spent centuries living off land that most modern citizens of southern Arizona consider totally inhospitable. Gary Nabhan has lived with the Tohono O'odham, long known as the Papagos, observing the delicate balance between these people and their environment. Bringing O'odham voices to the page at every turn, he writes elegantly of how they husband scant water supplies, grow crops, and utilize wild edible foods. Woven through his account are coyote tales, O'odham children's impressions of the desert, and observations on the political problems that come with living on both sides of an international border. Whether visiting a sacred cave in the Baboquivari Mountains or attending a saguaro wine-drinking ceremony, Nabhan conveys the everyday life and extraordinary perseverance of these desert people in a book that has become a contemporary classic of environmental literature.
People often find science boring and ill written, but here the reader is lured into botany, ethnology, hydrology, and a couple of million acres by a poet's prose: spare, evocative, respectful of both facts and mysteries. With humor, charm, insight, and compassion, The Desert Smells Like Rain offers a remarkable insight, sensitive but unsentimental, combining the sound perceptions of a scientist with ecological concerns and a sense of human frailty with tentative hope for the future.
9) Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert
In the summer of 1999, best friends Raffi Kodikian and David Coughlin headed off on an American rite of passage ? a cross-country trek in the spirit of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The two stopped for a simple overnight sleep-out trip in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, carrying barely adequate camping supplies, only three pint bottles of water, and a journal to record their experiences. After they awoke the next morning in Rattlesnake Canyon, however, the friends' adventure quickly took a turn for the worse when they were unable to find their way back out of the canyon. The journal they left behind chronicles their increasingly desperate search for help, as each new path ended in frustration, and buzzards began to circle overhead.
Four days after they entered the canyon, help arrived. Rescuers found Kodikian dehydrated but alive. When he was asked where Coughlin was he pointed to a pile of stones: "Over there...I killed him," he said. David Coughlin had been stabbed twice in the heart. Had there been a darker motive than mercy? And how could anyone, under any circumstances, kill his best friend?
Armed with the journal Kodikian and Coughlin carried into Rattlesnake Canyon, Jason Kersten recreates in riveting detail those fateful days that led to the killing in an infamously unforgiving wilderness. Through in-depth interviews and profiles, he presents the key players in Kodikian's case and examines the ongoing controversy of an instance of murder that captured national headlines. Jason Kersten's Journal of the Dead is at once a true-crime mystery set in the wild, an exploration in moral ambiguity, and a compassionate portrait of a friendship's tragic end.
10) Majestic Journey: Coronado's Inland Empire
Former US Congressman and Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall and photographer Jerry Jacka retrace the steps of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado who, in 1540, began his exploration in what is now the American Southwest. Originally published in 1987 by Doubleday as The Inland Empire, this paperback edition contains new and wonderful color photographs, maps, and a new preface.
11) The Devil's Highway - Lois Alberto Urrea
In May 2001, a group of men attempted to cross the border into the desert of southern Arizona, through the deadliest region of the continent, a place called the Devil's Highway. Twenty-six people ? fathers and sons, brothers and strangers ? entered a desert so harsh and desolate that even the Border Patrol is afraid to travel through it. For hundreds of years, men have tried to conquer this land, and for hundreds of years the desert has stolen their souls and swallowed their blood.
Along the Devil's Highway, days are so hot that dead bodies naturally mummify almost immediately. And that May, twenty-six men went in. Twelve came back out.
Now, Luis Alberto Urrea tells the story of this modern Odyssey. He takes us back to the small towns and unpaved cities south of the border, where the poor fall prey to dreams of a better life and the sinister promises of smugglers. We meet the men who will decide to make the crossing along the Devil's Highway and, on the other side of the border, the men who are ready to prevent them from reaching their destination. Urrea reveals exactly what happened when the twenty-six headed into the wasteland, and how they were brutally betrayed by the one man they had trusted most. And from that betrayal comes the Inferno, a descent into a world of cactus spines, labyrinths of sand, mountains shaped like the teeth of a shark, and a screaming sun so intense that even at midnight the temperature had only dropped to 97 degrees. And yet, the men would not give up.
Spectacularly written, The Devil's Highway is the great leap forward for one of America's finest writers, a trip to hell and back that is not only an astonishing piece of investigative reporting but also a literary tour de force.
12) Arizona Highways Magazine
A perennial classic, published in Phoenix, the magazine circulates in every US state and in about two-thirds of the countries of the world, with only 25 percent of subscribers, believe it or not, within Arizona. You want to take a quick armchair travel? This magazine's brief travelogues, backroad forays and unique profiles are the perfect portal.