Destination: Arizona

Look beyond the sprawl and congestion of this desert state with books from Wallace Stegner, Geronimo and Barbara Kingsolver -- and an unlikely guide to the Grand Canyon.

Published June 15, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

There are just under 6 million people living in Arizona. This is about 5 and a half million too many. One need only visit polluted, overcrowded Phoenix or the development-scarred red mountains surrounding Sedona to understand that the 48th state is being overrun by a herd of Homo sapiens, many of whom are imposing the aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of an upper Midwestern suburb upon a fragile desert landscape. I got to know, love and hate Arizona while working on my 1992 novel "Thirst," which deals with a son's search for an alcoholic father's secret history during an epic drought in Phoenix. Since then, the state has continued to "develop" at an alarming rate. Travelers would be advised to bring along books that will allow them to see beyond the golf courses, mini-malls and three-car garages. Properly informed, you can still catch glimpses of one of the nation's most mysterious, beautiful and ghost-haunted regions -- before it vanishes completely.

A perfect place to start would be Marc Reisner's magnificent 1986 book "Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water." At once a scholarly history and an impassioned piece of muckraking, Reisner's book charts how the region, notably the ersatz-oasis of Phoenix and its surrounding agribusiness spreads, came to rely upon shortsighted water policies that are often little more than theft, particularly from Mexico, where the once-mighty Colorado River has been reduced to a trickle. One of the book's many ironies is its observation that this politically conservative, supposedly self-reliant region owes its prosperity to big government programs. Also memorable is Reisner's description of the creation of the Lake Powell reservoir, which was achieved by submerging one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, the Glen Canyon.

The great Western writer Wallace Stegner's brief essay collection "The American West as Living Space" (1988) provides a quieter, but equally memorable, look at the region's resonant myths and fragile ecosystem. Stegner's theme is the folly of man's attempt to dominate the desert; to dam up its rampaging rivers and pump precious water from its aquifers to support an alien lifestyle. As he writes in the chapter "Living Dry," the West has been "misinterpreted and mistreated because, coming to it from earlier frontiers where conditions were not unlike those of northern Europe, Anglo-Americans found it different, daunting, exhilarating, dangerous, and unpredictable, and entered it carrying habits that were often inappropriate and expectations that were surely excessive."

More Arizona lore is on offer in Alex Shoumatoff's idiosyncratic and informative "Legends of the American Desert" (1997), a comprehensive and well-written collection that covers just about every iconic site in Arizona, from Tombstone to Route 66; from the vast Navajo reservation in the state's northeast to the Biosphere 2 dome outside of Tucson. He is particularly good at equating Arizona's wild frontier past with its untamed contemporary reality. He claims, with ample justification, that "after tourism, land fraud is the number two industry in the state."

Shoumatoff's extensive bibliography is also the perfect jumping off point for more detailed journeys into the state's history, legends and future. "Geronimo: His Own Story," the 1906 autobiography of the great Apache leader, is rich with details of a once-ascendant Native American culture's legends and military tactics. One reads it with a sense of loss for the Gila River paradise in which the great warrior was raised: "This range was our fatherland; among the mountains our wigwams were hidden; the scattered valleys contained our fields; the boundless prairies, stretching away on every side, were our pastures; the rocky caverns were our burying places." Another valuable study of native life is David Roberts' "In Search of the Old Ones" (1996), a penetrating look at the lost civilization of the Anasazi, who disappeared more or less without a trace from their remarkable cliff dwellings in northern and central Arizona 700 years ago. Their vanishing was most likely due to their hubristic efforts to live in an environment that could not sustain them -- something the state's contemporary suburb-dwellers might want to think about.

Upon contemplating all that has been lost in Arizona and the grim prospects for its future, the traveler might feel tempted to hurl himself into its most famous tourist attraction. If so, he would be in good company, as detailed in Thomas M. Myers' and Michael P. Ghiglieri's creepy 2001 survey "Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon." It turns out that the main cause of death is ignoring warning signs -- a fitting lesson for humankind's attitude toward the entire region.

Arizona's parched landscape has also provided fertile ground for fiction. Tony Hillerman's Navajo crime mystery "Coyote Waits" (1990) takes place in the state's remote Four Corners border region and combines a cultural anthropologist's broad scope with a truly suspenseful narrative. That area is also the setting for Edward Abbey's 1975 cult classic "The Monkey Wrench Gang," which details the often bumbling attempts of a ragtag crew of eco warriors to stop construction of a dam. Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal Dreams" (1997) is far better than her perennial book group favorite "The Bean Trees." Set in the fictional small town of Grace, Ariz., her story of a daughter's return to look after an ailing father deals, well, gracefully with the topics of ecological degradation and Native American tradition.

The greatest poet of Arizona's unique landscape, however, is the film director John Ford, whose images of Monument Valley capture what is perhaps the state's most unforgettable panorama. The noted film historian Edward Buscombe's studies of Ford's two greatest films, "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers," provide fascinating details of his work in what remains, despite our best efforts to strike it down, nature's greatest soundstage.

By Stephen Amidon

Stephen Amidon is currently at work on the screenplay for his most recent novel, "Human Capital."

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