Tucson, Arizona greets us
with the same ‘chilly’ weather we’ve just suffered in Florida.
“It’s not even 80 degrees out there,” the man at the car rental counter
warns, looking askance at my pitifully inadequate attire of slacks and polo
shirt. “I’ll take it,” I reply,
explaining that back home anything approaching 80 degrees would represent a
scorching summer day. “You must be
kidding,” is his incredulous response.
“How do you folks stand it?”
It’s a question I’m hard-pressed to answer.
The locals are more accustomed to the kind of heat
that attracts cornball jokes. “We feed
our chickens ice cubes so they don’t lay hard-boiled eggs,” is one. “I just spent two hours shopping because I
couldn’t find a shady spot to park the car,” another.
My visits to Arizona,
which now number about a dozen, are still, even in my approaching dotage,
reversions to a childhood of watching Cowboys-and-Indians films, mostly at the
dear old Embassy in Petts Wood.
The first one that burned itself into my memory was Broken Arrow, with James Stewart and
Jeff Chandler, a 1953 film since lauded as the first western that treated
Indians – sorry, native Americans – sympathetically. Another was John Ford’s The Searchers (1957), in which John Wayne plays an unalloyed racist
obsessed with rescuing a niece captured by Comanches. Both
were filmed in Arizona,
as were dozens of others.
I’m no longer remotely interested in the genre, but
the sight of the rugged desert landscapes of the Sonoran Desert,
dotted with iconic Saguaro cactus trees – the tall ones with the upturned arms
– always takes me back to those treasured Embassy days. The Saguaro (pronounced Sawaro) is a marvel
of natural engineering. With a life
expectancy of a century or more, it grows its first arm only after 50
years. It survives the heat and the
prolonged droughts by feeding off the water it stores during the infrequent
Even in the desert regions Arizona isn’t entirely desert. Our Tucson
hosts, B and J, take us on an excursion into the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains
where, after a drive of no more than half an hour, we find ourselves in dense pine
forests, the shadowed slopes filled with snow.
Up here, at an elevation of 5000 feet, the air is as crisp as in the Alps, and some of the higher trails are accessed by ski
lifts. This is, as the locals like to
say, God’s own country.
The same may be said – though not by me – about Arizona’s brand of politics,
evidently little changed from the old frontier days. The oldest contiguous state in the Union – it
became, in 1912, the 48th to join – Arizona may be the most conservative state
of them all. “We’re in a distinct
minority here on many levels,” said our friends, who stand out in these parts
not just for their liberal instincts but for being gay. Gay marriage is prohibited (our friends were
hitched last year in a civil ceremony in England). Gays may take comfort in being slightly more
popular than Mexicans.
Arizona, exposed to a 400-mile border with Mexico, is even more obsessed with illegal
immigration than Florida. A proposal to require voters to produce proof
of citizenship – which has the enthusiastic support of the political right but is
violently opposed as a blatant act of discrimination against Hispanics by the left
– is currently being contested in the Federal courts. Talk of gun controls is widely viewed as an
affront to the natural order, notwithstanding the shooting of Congresswoman
Gabby Giffords in a parking lot incident, in which six others were killed, just
two years ago.
This is Goldwater country, in which the memory of the
heaviest loser of a presidential election in history is held sacred by the Tea
Party (a body of which, it has to be said, Barry himself, who experienced a
kind if Damascene conversion to libertarian values late in life, would not have
approved). In short it’s a land of startling
beauty populated by people with an ugly disposition.
We’re off to California,
by way of Yuma (another town made famous by Hollywood western lore) now known less for raising cattle
as for growing lettuces.