Be Mine, Arizona!
The 100th Birthday of the Valentine State
The Outs- February 2012
Ellen Jo Roberts
Upon return from any out-of-state road trip, the first glimpse of the “Welcome to Arizona” sign always chokes me up, teary-eyed with joy. Everything feels right when we see the warm sunset stripes of the state flag beckoning us along the highway home. Like many Arizonans, I was not born in this place, but I love it as if it were my own mother. It’s a land of extremes. As one flatlander visitor declared to us, “Arizona is not for beginners.” It is a place that can have both the hottest and coldest temperature of the nation, on the same day. Curvy back roads mix with the ever changing landscape and elevation. Ecosystems change from Canada to Mexico in a two-hour time span. Chock full of public land, there are 3,928 mountains here--more than any one of the other Mountain States. Route 66 and the sun- baked neon and kitschy artifacts of the Mother Road continue to be mythologized in films and publications. It’s fantastic how commonplace it is to pull up at a stop light next to vintage cars and trucks, because this fine dry climate preserves the old metal.
Even in the bigger cities, people here are friendly open-faced and helpful in a small town way. I love the vibrant blend of cultures here, ranging from the great population of native tribes, to Mexicans (who once called this land Mexico), to the melting pot mix of retirees and transplantees. Clarkdale, founded in 1912, shares the centennial with Arizona, and our 98-year-old brick bungalow was built during the United Verde Copper Company reign. Our views from home are steep angles to the mountains. The Verde River winds through our neighborhood, bringing with it ancient cottonwood trees and a wealth of wild and rare critters. The quality of light here is so phenomenal that when certain seasons and atmospheric events conspire it appears that everything is aglow, even us. These are some of the things I am in love with about Arizona.
For the past few years I have spent countless minutes defending my state from being a cheap punch line to a thousand political jokes. We are stereotyped a lawless desert, full of gun crazy racists.
“In Arizona, it’s illegal to be black!”- NBC’s 30 Rock.
Last summer the NYC-based website Gawker named Arizona “the worst state in the USA” as the finale to a week-long countdown, awarding it the grand prize. Written by an urban hipster in Brooklyn (who had apparently only been to Arizona once, to visit the Grand Canyon) the article was an mean-spirited, over-simplified attempt at comedy (insulting pretty much every state along the way).
“Arizona is swiftly devolving into a dystopic free-for-all of armed mad men patrolling the state with guns, often to disastrous effect…Arizona is a hissing snake pit of angry old white people (they are angry because they are literally being cooked to death) yelling at the immigrants and others. Others whom they fear and loathe, and it is probably going to explode someday soon into a bright ball of orange fire and we will know that either the end times have come for us all or thank god we are finally rid of Arizona.”- Gawker.com
This assessment of my state is inaccurate. These are not the people I know. Arizona is home to a wild variety of ecology, geology, ethnology, politics, culture and climate. In lumping Arizonans all into the right wing nut-job category a vast population of liberals, hippies, artists, and new-age, left wing nut-jobs is slighted. We demand equal representation! The reality of our surroundings is complicated. Arizona is more than a political punching bag, or a stock photo of the Grand Canyon. As we celebrate Arizona’s Centennial, I asked local folk about their complex relationships with this state we call home. Consider it a love letter, a valentine for our Arizona as it celebrates its 100th birthday on February 14th.
Ona Ziegler is a world traveler and a clothing designer who grew up in Jerome. She finds a lot to love about her native state, “I love the sky as my ocean. I love the animals, birds and coyotes. Tarantulas. I love the heat! I love the blue water in the red desert I also love the murky brown dirt water. I love the space above my head and the earth beneath my feet! The sunsets and sunrises. I always thought as a kid that it was where God lived in those times of day in Arizona. I also believed and might still do that the aliens and their ships use our Arizona clouds as perfect camo transportation devices. I love the saguaros and prickly pear and the snakes that sleep beneath them. The I-17 I love. I've always imagined the saguaros were in motion until a moment before I saw them! Just laughing and cuddling and gesturing to each other. You'll notice they do mainly live in family groups.”
When asked what she doesn’t like so much about Arizona, Ms. Ziegler says, “So the biggest things that standout, as far as not liking goes, is the governor, Jan Brewer and all the immigration laws surrounding her and her cronies. The lack of heart and love that goes into electing people like her and the laws she enforces.” She also calls Sheriff Joe Arpaio “embarrassing and creepy”. Back to the things she loves (because there is a lot to love!), “The night deep dark starry sky and the full blazing sun. I love Arizona with my whole being and feel amazingly blessed to be able to call it my home. And as for being raised in the town of Jerome, with the weirdos, the artists, the drunks and the free. My family! I've always thought I must have been a kind and good person in my last life to have been able to have experienced that in this one.”
I know lots of Illinoisans who migrated to Arizona, myself included. Seeking big sky country, wide open wilderness and freedom from sour weather, many Midwesterners relocate to Arizona, perhaps initially inspired by watching our baseball teams romp in their metro-Phoenix spring training grounds. Flagstaff resident Jim Buthman grew up in Chicago’s north shore suburbs, and lived in Florida and Colorado before arriving in Arizona in 1995. Here he earned his PhD and is an instructor in Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. About his adopted state, “There's lots I like. The abundance and diversity of nature. Lifestyle, specifically the Northern Arizona lifestyle. Attitudes: friendly and neighborly people. Libertarian ideals: anti-authoritarian-self sufficiency.” There’s not much Mr. Buthman doesn’t like about Arizona, though says the Libertarian ideals are a double-edged sword, as they also exhibit an “obliviousness to reality.”
Sarah Harms, a Camp Verde jewelry artist and mother of two, also came from the Chicagoland area. “Since moving here what will be five years ago in July, I fall more in love with Arizona every day. Obviously, I love the weather and scenery and the ability to get out into the middle of nowhere really fast. Lack of traffic, and the general good natured-ness of the inhabitants here are also on my love list. Arizona had a rich and colorful history that I am loving learning more and more about. I guess if there is anything I don't like, it's some of the politics.”
Artist Brice Wood has been a full time Arizona resident since 1988. He and his wife bought a home in Jerome in 1979, and later moved here permanently from Los Angeles. It bothers him when folks visiting for the first time remark, “I was so surprised the people here are so nice!” “It bothers me,” he explains, “because that’s what we all used to think about the [pre-Civil Rights] ‘Old South.’ Beware of places with this reputation.” An unabashed liberal, Mr. Wood finds the state’s right-wing politics discouraging. “As a conservative state, I think our priorities are wrong. We should spend more on education.” Mr. Wood finds much to love about Arizona, “The beautiful air. The landscape, the open space. I live in Jerome. I think Jerome’s a great place.”
He rhapsodizes over the “blue haze” in the horizon, caused by big pine forests exuding oils into the atmosphere, coloring everything in the distance with deep blues, and tinting reds into deep purples.
“I hated Arizona growing up,” says Jennifer Epperson, a vivacious and popular bartender at Jerome’s historic Spirit Room. Growing up in a dilapidated Cornville trailer park, Mrs. Epperson remembers always being teased about her neighborhood at the end of Loy Road, known as “PIC”. “Pukes in Corntown is what most kids liked to call it.” She thought Cottonwood was “a big fancy city, especially when Wal-Mart came. And Phoenix blew my mind! Arizona was not cool at all to outsiders, especially to Californians it seemed.”
“Now, I love Arizona to the core of my being. I love sharing all the stories with the other locals that I grew up with. Like the recently retired Jerome officer, Chuck Harris, laughing about the trouble his kids and us would all get into. And laughing with other locals about the PIC jokes, and proud now to be a ‘Puke in Corntown’. What was then the low-income area, I now can't afford!”
As youngsters she and her pals grew up playing with scorpions and centipedes, building forts, having “boonie” party bonfires, and wandering Jerome’s dangerous ruins, including the old United Verde Hospital before it was reinvented as the Jerome Grand Hotel. In later years, she and husband Josh enjoyed their honeymoon at the Jerome Grand, after marrying at a friend's ranch in Cornville’s Page Springs area, not far from where she grew up. “It was the most beautiful barefoot wedding ever. I love that he and I are both born and raised here and can share in all the memories of yesterday's Verde Valley to today's.”
True “local yokels” are a rare species, and I always value their opinions on my adopted land. Mrs. Epperson finds a lot to love about Arizona, “I love Arizona sunsets, I love the monsoons and lightning shows. I love Jerome and working there and love that we have a lot of great restaurants there, and Old Town being fixed up.
I love that there are still real cowboys and ranches here. I love how you can drive for three hours and see Saguaros, then red rocks, then pine trees. The diversity in the geology is incredible.”
Brian Mitchell has lived in Arizona his entire life. “I love Arizona because it is truly a state with everything!,” he exclaims, “I live in Phoenix, and in a little over two hours I can be snow-skiing. Or I can be fishing in an hour. The desert landscape is gorgeous, there is nothing like the smell of the desert after the rain. You can pretty much count on a breath-taking sunset every day!”
Blake O’Neill is a Cottonwood resident, retired from a long time career in the U. S Navy where he was a navigating quartermaster on submarines. Though he spent many years living on coasts, he was born and raised in the wild open western spaces of Idaho. His favorite thing about Arizona life? “There’s nothing I don’t like about Arizona.” Prior to arriving in the Verde Valley in 1994, Mr. O’Neill drove a tour bus for Florida’s Disneyworld. “The humidity chased me west. I had to squeegee off my bus every damn morning at Disney and then one morning I said, ‘Blake, let’s go home.’ Home to me is anywhere west of the great rock pile that goes all the way up into Canada.”
“What I love best about Arizona,” says Clarkdale Mayor, native Arizonan and nature photographer Doug Von Gausig, “The beauty of the land. The dramatic open spaces, the juxtaposition of red rock against blue skies.
The stars – the sheer number of stars in the sky, so clear and so bright that we see the color of each. The birds – nowhere else can I find the diversity and numbers of birds like I can in Arizona. The pristine Verde River – a treasure unique in the desert southwest – miles of clean flowing water winding its way through wilderness and farms, habitat for some of the richest diversity in the country. Otters play while beavers work in its pools and native fishes still thrive there. The desert in bloom – nothing compares to such a starkly beautiful landscape painted with so much color!” Mayor Von Gausig is a big fan of sustainability, and continuously working on a plan for his community to create a viable future for the historic town. He also appreciates “the people who care, who work hard every day to see that our children and grandchildren will still have these things to appreciate and value in their lives.”
With all those positives, the Mayor still sees some things that need work, including our ongoing struggles with water consumption and “the polarized politics that lock us into inaction at a time when action is so critical.” He feels some have a far too easy disregard for the limitations of living in the dry southwest. “Deserts are austere places with limited and precious resources. Water, plants, trees, open space, clean air – all the reasons we all live here – the reasons we moved here - are being depleted so quickly and so easily.” Mayor Von Gausig doesn’t like “the fact that we must struggle to convince people that we need to educate our children, preserve open spaces, nurture our river, and conserve the limited water resources.”
As the nation’s 48th state and the final within the continental U.S., Arizona is considered young, with great riches that ironically contribute to its drawbacks. The fine climate and brilliant scenery attract more residents than can ideally be sustained, unless the newly arrived from wetter locales can abandon their carefree old ideas of water use. As the population continues to diversify, however, the state’s classically right-leaning politics will level out somewhere more towards middle ground. Happy 100th birthday, Arizona. This land of great contrasts and brilliant light, I am proud to call you my home.
Ellen Jo Roberts and Bike Daddy Chad arrived in Arizona in August 1995, with Illinois license plates and brand new wedding rings. Read all about it ellenjo.com