Home > Travel > A Sojourn in the Southwest: Thoughts on Arizona

A Sojourn in the Southwest: Thoughts on Arizona

I can’t say that the prospect of visiting the state of Arizona was one that excited or enticed me particularly. A brief spell of snowbirding in warmer climes with family was not an unappealing concept, especially with a cold spell following on the heels of an ice storm that had left Toronto and environs hobbled and patchily attached to the overtaxed power grid. Still, my travel preferences tend towards the culturally-rich, and for all of its striking desert landscapes, the Valley of the Sun is not really that. It’s a sprawled suburban landscape of freeways, “power centres” (do they still call retail parks that, in a vain attempt at aggrandizement?), fast food franchises, and sport complexes occupied by corporate charity cases. It’s the land of Barry Goldwater, Jon Kyl, and Joe Arpaio, a Red State trench of bottom-feeding reactionary conservatism and xenophobia between relaxed New Mexico and Democratic Party monolith California. It’s full of wealthy retirees from the U.S. and Western Canada with questionable taste and the progressive visitor wishes he or she did not have to share the natural wonders with so many luxury sedans and golf shirts and Italian bistros settled in next to Safeways.

But the environment is so climatologically pleasant that relaxing one’s ideological and moral predilections proves nearly as easy as relaxing one’s physical tension. The diversity of the landscape also destabilizes preconceptions. It’s quite possible, in a half-day’s drive, to pass through three or four distinct zones. From the Sonoran desert of patchy, hardy vegetation like the towering saguaro cactus through scratchy, bare highlands north of Phoenix, the traveller can reach the imposing red-hued rocks clustered about Sedona, the coniferous forests and snow-capped peaks of the San Franciscos around Flagstaff, and, of course, the astounding Grand Canyon.

IMG_2477The latter, a true world wonder of spectacular geology, defies hyperbole and conventional description and photography both. It simply must be seen with the naked eye, scanned with one’s own personal in-skull telescope, to be believed. Protected in a national park that nonetheless allows for a selection of in-park accommodation and limited opportunities for capitalist consumption, Grand Canyon is not exactly untouched by the hand of modern American civilization. Indeed, the long-term consequences of the damming of the Colorado River that carved its cliffs down a mile deep are yet to be fully understood. But the Canyon is an island of irreducible wonder in a country that too often commodifies and apportions wonder, often selling it to the highest bidder. It stands inevitably apart, a timeless scar in the land that can still surprise.

It’s not merely the strange, spare natural beauty of Arizona that can captivate, mind you. There is some rare and precious culture to be sussed out of the place, after all. Much of it resides in Scottsdale, Phoenix’s toney luxury suburb with its stretch of art galleries in its downtown. But it’s not merely minor Warhol prints and overpriced carvings of horses that attract artistic attention. The giant of American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, set up shop outside of a less IMG_2613developed Scottsdale in the 1930s and built Taliesin West, a series of low, sloping bungalows that served as his winter home for the last two decades of his life. Now a prestigious school of architecture proceeding from Wright’s principles, Taliesin West was conceived as a structure in union with nature. Wright’s late-period style of unbroken straight lines and triangular forms, which dominate the complex’s structures, may not strike a contemporary viewer as being quite as organic as the master believed it to be. But the buildings he designed for his use and for those close to him cannot help but grant a keen insight into a boundless creative mind, as well as provide moments of aesthetic illumination.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Arizona is the better Arizona, a landscape where culture and knowledge meld and intermingle with the remarkable natural formation and growths rather than layer the faceless monuments of consumerism overtop of them. It’s this Arizona that is worth visting, even if it can be little harder to pinpoint precisely. But it’s there, in between the golf courses and expensive real estate, waiting to be experienced.

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