|SIX THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT: ARIZONA.|
|"There's not a single
issue in the world that I give a shit about. I do deals."
That proclamation from State Rep. Bobby Raymond, captured on FBI videotape, ranks as one of the all-time great political quotes of one of the last states to be brought into the Union on February 14, 1912.
This, of course, is my home state of Arizona, the prickly nether-nether land of the nation. The
retirement home of Ted Williams' cryogenically-frozen head; where one of the only rivers is named the Salt and it was dammed dry a century ago; where the cacti shed poison on each other in the fight for the meager rainfall; where summertime temperatures turn the street macadam into a sandal-sucking soup; where the capital was originally named Pumpkinville by felonious Confederate land hustlers and bechristened Phoenix in a drunken speech given by a self-styled English nobleman who could barely keep himself from toppling from a mud wall erected by the masons of an Indian civilization six centuries before; a homebuilder's quick-nickel combo of lax zoning laws, miniscule tax burden and plenty of absentee capital pumped-and-dumped into a spreading metastatis of Spanish-tile subdivisions and failing school districts that sprawl across the beige hardpan of the Upper Sonoran Desert -- all of it ringed by giant federal water projects, 23 Indian reservations and more than 200 golf courses.
Hey, we're glad you came. Especially if you brought money. Here's a few things to keep in mind, however, before writing that check.
#1. Our Politicians Really ARE Criminals.
The aforementioned Raymond was part of a distinguished line of Arizona statesmen who have gone on to serve hard time in the joint. The co-founder of Phoenix, canal digger Jack Swilling, (shown above) spent his retirement robbing stagecoaches and shooting morphine. He died in the territorial prison. Gov. Ev Mecham -- famous for calling black children "pickaninnies" -- was indicted in 1987 after giving himself some illegal campaign loans. He avoided prison, but subsequent Gov. J. Fife Symington III spent a few years in the Graybar Hotel for misusing the state's pension fund. He now works as a pastry chef in a Phoenix restaurant. When our leaders aren't skinning the kitty, they're playing to the cheap seats. Ben Mouer, governor of this landlocked state during the Depression, convened the Arizona Navy, and ordered it to raid a Colorado River dam in an attempt to keep water away from California. Sadly, he wasn't kidding. The latest mountebank is Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio -- the politician with the highest name-recognition numbers in the state -- who burnishes his image as a tough guy by forcing pre-trial inmates to wear pink underwear, eat rotten baloney and sweat out the 115 degree summers in canvas Army tents in Arizona's very own version of Abu Ghraib, which is known quaintly as the "county jail."
#2. Sedona: Home of the New Age Weirdo.
God chiseled some of His finest etchings into Arizona. Or was it the work of the Rain Goddess? The city of Sedona, set amid sunset mountains and towers of gorgeous sandstone, is one of North America's premier New Age meccas, with dozens of crystal emporiums, palm-reading parlors, perfumey geegaw shops and overpriced bed and breakfasts lining what is one of the tackiest main streets in the country. Here you can buy a map revealing the location of the seven vortexes, which are places in the redrock backcountry that an unidentified granola pope has decided are special conduits of the spiritual energy of the earth. I've hiked to each one and, not surprisingly, they are all worthy of a Kodak moment. The Rain Goddess apparently sold postcards on the side. Many of the bed and breakfasts come equipped with bedside journals where the lodgers that came before you have written of their mind-expanding experiences in Sedona. This makes for entertaining reading, especially those sections in which middle-aged couples describe undressing at some of the more remote vortexes and, as one entry put it, "let bodies become one."
#3. All We Need is Good People, Water and Billions in Federal Aid.
After this chunk of untamed desert finally became a state in 1912 (an event that some old-timers here still recall), it sent a cowpuncher Cicero named Henry Fountain Ashurst to Congress. He wasted no time doing what Western Congressmen have always done best -- professing frontier independence while trying to grab as much federal bacon as possible. "All that Arizona needs to flourish is good people and water," he implored in his maiden speech. "So does hell," replied a New England congressman. Whether Arizona got the good people is still a matter of opinion, but it sure did get the water -- thanks to you. Arizona was able to grow only because of massive taxpayer investment in dams, as well as the most expensive hydraulic project in American history, which diverts Colorado River water across 100 miles of desert for the benefit of a few cotton farmers. So thanks for that, people, but don't forget that you own us. Absentee ownership is a way of life here. All of Arizona's major institutions -- its largest bank, its largest newspaper, countless second-home McMansions, big law firms, dozens of resorts -- are owned by out-of-state concerns.
Just as the craggy desert became soft with federal water, so too do the residents seek to beautify themselves artificially. The tony suburb of Scottsdale boasts one of the densest concentrations of plastic surgeons in the nation, and it has become a rite of passage for women of a certain age (say, about 18) to go in for a little elevation of their sunset mountains. The Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall (favorite haunt of local celebrity Jenna Jameson) is known locally as the "antigravity mall." Natural has become declasse. Arizona loves beauty by human design -- a fact made plain by the state flag, which is an art-deco mockup of a setting sun. It ranks as one of the most beautiful state flags in the U.S., even if it couldn't be flown in the Pacific during World War II for fear of attracting friendly fire. It looked too much like the Imperial Japanese flag.
#5. We Like to Double Down.
Looking for some excitement in your sex life and Jenna won't return your smile? Try heading to the town of Colorado City, way up on the Utah border, which is home to a huge outlaw offshoot of the Mormon church. You guessed it -- this is the largest polygamist assembly in the country. Matches are usually made by the prophet, however, and are not subject to appeal, so you'd better not be picky. (Joke overheard at a gas station in a neighboring Arizona town: What kind of woman does a man in Colorado City consider a real "10?" A: Five "2s"). Teenaged girls frequently run away when they discover the identity of the toadish middle-aged man they're supposed to lose their virginity to at 3 p.m. the next day. If you feel like taking a different kind of chance, you're always welcome at one of Arizona's 21 Indian casinos. Slot machine payouts here are significantly worse than Las Vegas, but that doesn't stop herds of bored senior citizens coming here to blow their Social Security checks on a daily basis. Two years ago, Arizona quietly marked an economic milestone. There are now more employees of casinos than there are employees of mines. For a state founded by copper interests, this is saying something.
#6. The Future Can Be Found in the Valley of the Sun.
It is sometimes said that Phoenix is the model for urban growth in the 21st Century -- a motherboard city without a discernable center, where people drive to work in glassy office campuses and drive back to tended residential nodes behind pulley gates. Little more than a dusty jerkwater a century ago, the greater Phoenix area (known to all by the 1960s real estate slogan "Valley of the Sun") is now home to more people than the Republic of Ireland and sprawls across a landmass equal to that of Los Angeles. We're home to a lot of cul-de-sac cowboys who don't punch a clock - telecommuters who trade bonds at dawn and are on the course by ten. It's a wonderful place to come if you want to grill shrimp on the barby, not have to pay a lot of property taxes, avoid any sort of civic engagement, and not care too much about the state of the state outside the gates, where mediocre strip mall architecture is the norm and the high-school dropout rate is the worst in the nation. Like I said, we're glad you came. Sign here, please.
Tom Zoellner, a former reporter for The Arizona Republic and a fifth-generation Arizonan, is now a freelance writer in New York City