The Desert and the City

Since our last report we’ve made it over the continental divide and traveled deep into Arizona. We have had the good fortune to stay with old friends as well as meet a few new ones, and to experience some truly amazing terrain.

The first town we reached after the mountain pass was Silver City, NM. Silver City was populated by fantastic old hippies. While at a local coffee shop, we encountered a number of people in full costume for an experimental film about recycling set in the distant future. The proper way to tune a Fender amp was being discussed. We met a long distance hiker who used to walk around the desert for up to a week. We stocked up on dried bananas, Turkish figs and fresh-ground peanut butter at the organic food co-op on our way out of town.

After Silver City we climbed up to the continental divide. This was another big geological milestone, equivalent to crossing the Mississippi. After we crossed the divide, we descended several thousand feet in the course of an afternoon. We were able to coast for so long that our legs actually became stiff. The weather became noticeably warmer, too. We’re no longer at significant altitude.

Over the next few days we stayed with two sets of Warmshowers hosts in Arizon. In Duncan, we slept in a teardrop trailer in the backyard of a bed and breakfast, which was shared with a small herd of goats. In Safford, we stayed with two remarkable individuals, Hal and Jay.

Hal is a retired history and educational psychology professor, and great conversationalist. He lived in Egypt back in the 1960s, and his first wife graduated from AUC, the university where my father works. He gave me a biography of Hal Empie – a local artist from the area. The start of the biography had many wonderful descriptions of what life in old Arizona used to be like – wild streams, cows, farming on marginal land in the odd valley that received enough rainfall to be irrigated. 

Hal’s friend Jay took us on a tour of the local desert in his truck. He was very familiar with the area as he used to be a desert beekeeper, producing hundreds of barrels of honey every year from the nectar that the bees could harvest from agave, yucca and aloe. We were very impressed with Jay’s driving skills as he drove us into and out of steep desert canyons on washed-out rocky switchbacks.

Hal, Jay, and scenes of the Gila river valley.

Our college friends Chris and Kira live in Tuscon, so we decided to take a detour off the published Southern Tier route to visit them. We spent a very enjoyable few days playing Dungeons and Dragons, cooking, bowling, and generally enjoying each others’ company, as well as that of their cats and dogs. It was a welcome break to see friends after so long, especially ones who are normally so far away from us.

Playing Adventurer’s League at Tucson Games and Gadgets.

Tuscon itself was an interesting city to drive through after leaving the predominantly smaller towns and desert agricultural areas. The city was diffuse; spread out  too thinly for bicycling, let alone walking. However, the logic of its design started to make sense while being driven through it. The establishments were placed just far enough apart to cater to a casual driver, and each store had a few locations around town, so that no matter where you lived you didn’t have to drive too far. The map seemed to loop around, repeating itself every few miles, like a a cheap movie backdrop. Calling it ‘suburbia’ would be, I think, incorrect, since it didn’t seem like there was an urban core. It’s more like the entire city has suburban characteristics.

The experience of being in such a constructed space contrasted very strongly with the natural beauty of the desert. It seems almost disrespectful to paper over such an interesting and fragile land with such a prosaic landscape. How much water must this all use! Does there really need to be a city here? At the same time, this is the place that people are from, call their home, and this is the way that their city has evolved.

Chris, Kira, Amy and I took Sunday afternoon to visit Biosphere 2, just to the north of Tuscon. Biosphere 2 is a greenhouse large enough to live in, out of a particular kind of late 20th century futurism. It was strongly featured in many of the science documentaries I used to watch in the late 90s and early 2000s.

The greenhouse is situated in the same desert as the rest of Arizona, and is designed to be self contained, with the option to be completely shut off from the outside world for years at a time (although it has been open since the early 90s). Beneath the biosphere is the ‘technosphere’, a bay of various pumps, reservoirs and heat exchangers that augment the natural processes in the greenhouse above, including a particularly elegant structure for absorbing the air pressure variations caused by the daily thermal cycle. Perhaps some similar hybrid approach will enable us to build cities in the desert in a more harmonious fashion.

The next major stop for us will be Phoenix, and then onwards into California.

Thanks for reading,


One Reply to “The Desert and the City”

  1. No pictures of goats ? How can you pass up such an opportunity 😉 Great writeup Jim, and love the sketches Amy! Way cool that you got to see biosphere 2. I know what you mean about the urban planning. I had a similar visceral reaction to it when we were there in 2008. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Phoenix. The dome has a Logan’s Run feel to it for me. Congrats on passing over the divide. Such great symbolism in it no doubt.

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