This is a personal story about manifest destiny.
In 1966, my family and I emigrated from Philadelphia to Phoenix in a covered station wagon, becoming part of a great flood of latter-day pioneers who would change this great nation in ways no one could have imagined at the time. We crossed the Great Plains in a steady caravan of moving vans, sedans, and station wagons—dad behind the wheel, mom navigating, quarrelsome kids in the middle seat, dogs in the back. We had one goal in mind—opportunity. There were innumerable reasons for leaving home: dank cities, dead-end jobs, misty woods, milk barns, slums, high-rises, boring parents, angry lovers, Eastern snobbery, northern snows, southern humidity, and anything else that humdrummed our lives. Seeking a brighter horizon, we went west as young men and women, drawn by the desert’s promise of light, space, warmth, and a swimming pool in every backyard. We were met with open arms. Homesteading a new land called Suburbia, we were greeted by town leaders who enthusiastically cleared the desert for settlement while their industrious partners planted cheap homes in the newly disturbed soil like row crops. Everywhere we looked, shopping malls and commercial clusters were springing up like patches of flowers (or weeds) after a spring shower. All was fresh, clean, and hopeful.
Clearly, we had found the promised land. Cheap food and gasoline overflowed in conveniently located grocery stores and filling stations; wide, car-friendly boulevards stretched to the edge of the receding wilderness; the dust of a thousand construction projects filled the air like pollination; water flowed magically from our taps despite the near absence of rainfall; seductive carpets of flood-irrigated Bermuda grass lawns tickled our toes; and glorious year-round sunshine fell on our peeling shoulders. Best of all, if it grew too hot while errand-running across the blazing asphalt, we could slip inside our new homes and relax in air-conditioned bliss.
I loved it.
For a young boy, pioneering Suburbia was a great adventure. Our first home backed onto a golf course, and I recall long, restless walks with my mother in late evenings across the trimmed fairways, dodging “tsk-tsking” water cannons and ducking into fairytale forests of oleanders and eucalyptus. A few years later, when we moved across town to a cinder-block house, I discovered the desert. Our new home sat on five acres of backyard wilderness that became both a personal refuge and a stage for elaborate games (alone, alas) that I created among the palo verde trees, creosote bushes, and sandy washes.
Later, we moved again, this time to a townhome in a generic subdivision with no wilderness anywhere. When I went outside to escape various family disharmonies, all I could do was go into the backyard to bounce a ball off the building’s sloped roof, over and over, or ride my bike around the cul-de-sacs. The move required that I switch high schools, which disoriented me as much as losing my cherished desert, though it eventually netted me a spot on the soccer team, the presidency of the backpacking club, and a girlfriend.
Soon, we moved again, this time to a spacious house near what was then the last stoplight on the edge of town. I could smell the desert. Liberated at last by a driver’s license and a new but mechanically challenged Jeep Cherokee (a source of many adventures in its own right), I began to explore the rapidly expanding boundaries of Suburbia with delight. I dug in archaeological sites with an amateur society, prospected for photographs among the cactus and rattlesnakes, climbed hills, hiked trails, and drove that damn Cherokee back and forth relentlessly on unending blacktopped streets and highways, luxuriating in every unleaded moment.
It was 1976, our nation’s bicentennial year, and the world was definitely my oyster.
I never asked, but I’m certain my parents enjoyed their roles as homesteaders too—at least in the beginning. Both had humble roots; my father was born in a shack in a dairy field near Hope, Arkansas, in 1926, and my mother grew up middle class in Charleston, West Virginia. Their journey from want and need to hard-earned success and (for a time) modest affluence was typical of their generation, my father’s story especially. After enduring a hardscrabble childhood spent knocking around Tennessee, North Carolina, and Louisiana with an itinerant dad who at times was a teacher, lumberman, football coach, and preacher, my father determined at a young age to cut a different path. Over his mother’s objections, he signed up with the Army, completed a tour of duty in Allied-occupied Berlin, and then attended Vanderbilt University on the GI Bill. Medical school and an MD in neurology followed. After graduating, he won a national award as an up-and-coming doctor, which he parlayed into an opportunity to cofound what is today a highly regarded national center of neurological medicine in Phoenix—a job he held for the rest of his life, earning the accolades of peers and patients alike.
Not bad for a boy born in a dairy field shack.
My mother’s journey was no less typical, though it illuminates a darker side of her generation’s saga. As a spirited youth, raised in a book-loving but modest and unhappy family (the Great Depression knocked her father back on his heels emotionally as well as financially), my mother yearned to soak up the bright lights of big cities. After marrying my father in 1950, she spent the next decade absorbing every ounce of culture provided by Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other places my father took them to complete his medical training. They attended plays in New York City, vacationed in Boston, traveled to Paris and Prague, all of which made an indelible cosmopolitan impression on her expectations. She especially loved literature and ate up the lives of writers. Judging by the vast quantity and high quality of her correspondence during these years, as I discovered later, I’m certain she harbored ambitions to be a writer herself. However, things got in her way—children, for instance. My father too, who held old-fashioned opinions about gender roles despite his liberal nature. Then there were my mother’s personal demons, including bouts of crippling self-doubt. Part of her situation was beyond her control. As a young woman in the 1950s, she was caught between social riptides, liberation coming ashore and tradition ebbing out to sea. She felt confused, frustrated, and at times angry about both the opportunities and challenges confronting her, as did many women of her generation, I suspect. It also fed her demons.
Phoenix made it all worse. Moving to the suburban frontier in a desert was not on her “to do” list, and after an initial burst of enthusiasm for her new home, she came to resent the city, as well as her fate. Like other pioneering women who “went West” reluctantly but dutifully, leaving the sophisticated “East” far behind, my mother never got over her dislocation or her disappointment. She endured, but not well. She never found the footing she desperately craved in those vigorous times, slipped, and eventually fell. My father also struggled, especially toward the end of his life, despite his achievements. I think they had trouble keeping pace with the rate of change both in Phoenix and in the world at large. Like many pioneers, my parents were engulfed by the economic fire they helped to light, though I’m certain they didn’t see things that way. To my father, it was all progress—which he considered uncritically to be a good thing (recall the shack in the dairy field). To my mother, the changes were just part of her general discontent. Progress dog-piled her diminishing expectations, and as a consequence, she recoiled physically and emotionally, eventually embarking on a general retreat. Their home, in fact, became a sort of hermitage from which she emerged only occasionally. By the end of her life, I believe she was content to be engulfed by the city’s expanding flames, perhaps hoping to rise again some day from the ashes. It was much the same with Phoenix itself. What was once a small city with big dreams grew into a big city with big problems—and was ultimately consumed by its own success, though most residents didn’t see it that way either, I suspect. Phoenix, too, endured, and not well.
* * *
One of my indelible memories of growing up on the edge of Phoenix was the procession of hardware-laded pickup trucks zooming ceaselessly to construction sites everywhere. Festooned with ladders, water igloos, tool boxes, and whatnot, they zipped up and down the fresh streets like bees buzzing around a very large hive. They didn’t have to fly far to find nectar either. Cheap housing developments, mini-malls, and office complexes exploded across the desert with a fury that had all the hallmarks of an Old West land rush, only without the horses and revolvers. Certainly, the zeal was the same, as was the sense of unstoppable destiny, though perhaps without the religious motivation. Instead, we worshipped a lesser god—Moola—whose divine will directed us to overflow Phoenix with homes, schools, businesses, churches, restaurants, fast-food joints, sports bars, shopping malls, and highways. The only things an Old West miner or cowboy would have missed in 1966 were brothels and livery stables.
If Phoenix in the late 1960s represented a new frontier, marching to the updated tune of manifest destiny, it differed in one important respect from its predecessor: it exhibited a palpable sense of loss. I have a vivid memory from my teenage years of a silent protest. All over the edge of town, numerous real estate signs, each announcing vacant land for sale, had been defaced with a spray-painted lament: save our desert. During a visit one day to a dilapidated horse stable my parents rented way out in the desert, I asked my father what the protest meant. I don’t recall his response, but I do recall my feeling of uneasiness, especially as the signs were pushed farther and farther into my beloved desert. A torn feeling crept into me. I was a suburban kid. I loved all that asphalt and the liberty and convenience it symbolized, especially when behind the wheel of my adventurous Jeep Cherokee. But I also lamented the disappearing desert, its living edge harder to find with each passing month. I understood that my two halves were linked together—one depended on the other—and were like squabbling siblings doomed to quarrel endlessly. As I grew older, however, this torn feeling deepened, until I didn’t know what to make of the tension anymore. So I did what many of my peers did to resolve their teenage angst—I moved away and went to college.
The torn feeling nagged at me, however. On trips home, I tried to shield myself from the expanding signs of manifest destiny that I saw everywhere, preferring to cocoon with my parents in their downtown apartment, far from the still-vigorous frontier. It helped that my mother had finally made peace with Phoenix. They now lived close to the main library, the art museum, and other cultural amenities, which had encouraged her to engage once more in the outside world constructively. She became cheerful again, and I recall many happy conversations in their living room revolving around books, authors, movies, and current events. My father, too, had made peace of a sort with his shortcomings, though not with his deteriorating health. He had contracted adult-onset diabetes in the 1970s, and by the time he was due to retire, his health had declined substantially, requiring daily dialysis treatments. It made him cranky. At the end of their lives, they had reversed roles—my sweet-tempered, generous, optimistic father became grumpy and despondent, while my conflicted, restless, unsatisfied mother mellowed into a cheerful, if still reclusive, angel. It made for unpredictable visits home.
In a way, their lives continued to reflect the changes consuming Phoenix. Rapid growth, especially the proliferation of new highways in and around the city, created a type of urban-onset diabetes that required daily transfusions of fossil fuel and water to keep the megalopolis alive. It also mocked the proclamation I heard throughout my youth that “We’ll never be another Los Angeles!” This type of daily dialysis made residents cranky too, especially those citizens who felt helpless to stop, or even slow, the city’s relentless growth. At the same time, Phoenix tried to make peace with itself, or at least with its expectations. It stopped fighting its fate. It stopped pretending it was still a frontier cow town and embraced instead its role as a major cosmopolitan city, with all the traffic congestion and good coffee that came with it. But most of all, it stopped trying to have its
desert and eat it too. It just ate and ate.
It was manifest destiny at work, of course, but it was also the American sense of exceptionalism in action. Not only did we believe in the “rightness” of our cause—to conquer and overspread the continent—we grew increasingly confident that we were exempt from any negative consequences of our actions. If they existed, we were told they either would be (1) fixed by the free market, (2) fixed by government regulation, or (3) pushed far enough into the future to not matter. Phoenix was a perfect illustration. At no time did I hear any second-guessing about limits to growth in a desert. Nothing checked Phoenix’s destiny—not concerns about water supplies, cheap gasoline, loss of local agriculture, smog, or what it would take to keep four million people alive in a desert. It was as if we ignored the laws of physics along with the lessons of history.
Progress was good for my parents. They came to a strange land as poor pioneers and prospered along with Phoenix. They lived the American Dream—not the pursuit of material manifestations of success as much as their steady improvement over time. Their lives were better than their parents’; they had more security, more opportunity, more comfort. They didn’t do without, go hungry, or stand in unemployment lines; they were well-educated, well-fed, and well-blessed with the fruits of a robust and expanding economy. Best of all, especially for my mother, they could travel, and they saw parts of the globe that deeply impressed them. If they had second thoughts or misgivings about progress, I never heard a word. For them, the future was always bright.
I developed a different perspective. I came of age during the heyday of progress, witnessing the good, the bad, and the ugly. Impressed at first, I have now lived long enough to see that manifest destiny was not necessarily a positive force in our history. I will likely live long enough to see evidence that America is not exceptional after all—that despite this nation’s many admirable qualities, it is subject to the same historical forces that have worn down all great nations and empires throughout the ages. I know that I’ve already lived long enough to see us enter the Age of Consequences.
Excerpted from "The Age of Consequences: A Chronicle of Concern and Hope." Copyright © 2015 by Courtney White. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.