Shooting the Cactus, Pissing in Each Other’s Mouths: A Story from the American Desert

By Christopher Ketcham

“I meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got. I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads. I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads. And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.”
— “The Lorax,” Dr. Seuss

Emerging in May on my 33rd birthday from heat, aloneness, sun, air, light, rock, and the warm smooth starry night of southeastern Utah, I fly home to New York via Phoenix and then Las Vegas, canyon-jumping in little planes. Unused to human company, artificial noise, confined spaces, the barking of loudspeakers, the masses of fake tits boarding the plane for Vegas, I come into Phoenix and wait on many lines in a semi-moronic state. Yesterday, I climbed the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park. The Furnace, so named not for its heat but for the crimson it glows in the setting sun, is a maze of fins and slots and pinnacles carved of the melodious red sandstone — sculptures of 200 million years of work by wind and rain. A labyrinth of silence and immensity, its washes are gardens: dunes glued by the spreading roots of pinyon pine and by the wild green hair of Mormon tea and by cliffrose smelling of honey.Then there’s Phoenix and Las Vegas. Whereas it might be said that every stone and tree and slot and dune in the Fiery Furnace has a purpose — what that is, who knows, who cares — and was meant to be, the twin metropolises of the southwest thrive where no city was meant to be, where God told the traveler not to stop (there is no water here, fool, only rock) and humanity in its inexhaustible hubris instead founded Babylon. By some estimates, Phoenix and Las Vegas each swallow the desert at an acre an hour in a marvel of unsustainable growth. Phoenix especially: a city so gripped by the slow suicide of the development monomania that in the midst of the worst-ever drought in the recorded history of the West, as ancient aquifers suck dry, officials hand out fines for not watering the lawn. Brown grass is bad for a real estate bubble.

I first got to know Phoenix on Christmas Day, 2003. There was no sun in the city that morning, which made the desert palms look fake, like a movie set. My friend Christine Nucci, with whom I was staying, was leaving town forever, packing big black suitcases in her little apartment. Her 74-year-old mother was helping. Her boyfriend, Brian Mahoney, sat in a metal stacking chair and said in his Brooklyn accent, “I don’t know. Don’t feel so good. Dizzy. Real dizzy.” On Thanksgiving, three weeks earlier, he nearly died from a sudden affliction, diabetes, that caused a blood clot in his left leg, which had to be opened up and carved out, with skin grafted back on in raw red squares. He’d been in the hospital until a few days ago. Now Christine stared off the balcony at the sunless desert, chain-smoking. “Can you believe this? I live here for fuckin’ six years, I don’t see a cloud, and Christmas Day complete overcast. What a town. What a mess.” Then she burst into frantic activity.

Her mother, Eleanor, stood a moment more on the balcony and watched the deflated sky and the sprawl and the highway and the empty lanes. No traffic jams yet. A black boy with a new toy gun sprayed the quadrangle yard on which the apartments opened, blasting the green lawn, which was falsely green, watered absurdly. This was a desert, after all. The boy played alone, realized it, stopped spraying the bullets, and stood there looking as if the fight had been suddenly hoovered out the top of his little head. Then in a weeping willow, the birds chattered, sounding like pieces of pottery clicking. The willow, like the lawn, was an alien form, grown here against the will of the land. No one awoke or spoke in the apartments, except the boy. “It just doesn’t look like Christmas at all,” Eleanor said to Brian, who shifted weight from leg to leg, and shuffled when he walked. His face was sallow and thin. When he almost died, he told me, “There were all these people in the operating room and I wanted to scream out and tell ’em what was happening, but you know that feeling when you’re powerless, you’re paralyzed, you open your mouth but nothin’ comes out?”

Eleanor Frick-Nucci spoke to her four-year-old grandson over a cellphone and said, “Merry Christmas, darling.” She stared at the palm trees that lined the false lake where no one was walking. The connection was bad, and she had to yell. Later she said, “On Christmas Eve, I usually stay at my son’s house, in Florida, and I’m there to watch the kids open their gifts. It’s nice.” Then she said, “My son married into a big Italian family. They have a feast, everyone gathers. They have lobster tails and crab meat and all sorts of good things. They do this for a whole day.”

Eleanor and Christine and Brian hated Phoenix. “If this is America, America is a fuckin’ dump. What a sick, sick, sick place,” Christine said, waving her arm, by which, apparently, she meant everything in sight. “Gawd, I can’t wait to get back to Montague Street. Eat good food. Live good life. I don’t even know where to get food around here. Six years, and there’s nothing good to eat. Ha, ha, I’ll be back in Brooklyn before you, buddy, eating a big cold-cut sandwich at Lassen & Hennings on Montague Street.”

On Christmas Eve we tried to find food. Nucci was desperately hungry, and so was Brian, who waited at the motel, sick. Eleanor sat in the back seat falling asleep in the warm sun. First we went to a glorified box called Swenson’s, which closed at exactly three p.m. It happened to be one minute after three. Nucci threw up her hands and cursed. We drove in the maze of malls and road and got lost. Nucci suddenly grabbed my arm: “Turn here!” We pulled up to a sandwich place in a strip mall. A server was stacking outdoor tables and told us cheerily, “Uhp. Just closed.”

“You bastids!” cried Nucci, smashing the dash with her palm. She scanned the horizon like a wounded animal. “Bastids! Whole town of bastids! Just keep driving, Chris. We’ll find something. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe we won’t find anything at all. Maybe we’ll starve to death in this car driving around in circles. This is what happens when you leave Brooklyn,” she said. “Gawd, I just wanna get out of here alive. Get Brian better. Poor guy. I can’t believe the priest was gonna be called. Good grief, they told me he was a goner. Never leave Brooklyn, Chris.” To pass the time, I asked about her students at Arizona State University. “My students? Redneck idiots. These people are going to be teachers next year and they don’t know that Phoenix has water problems. I had one girl ask me, ‘Oh, you’re from Brooklyn! What does a Jew look like?’ Savages. God help Phoenix.”

As we drove in circles, Christine started talking about prehistoric disasters, about the Hohokam Indians who once farmed Phoenix, irrigating the desert. They called it the Valley of the Sun. For a thousand years in the Valley of the Sun they built canals and watered the sand and thrived in balance with the land, a sort of Arizona Maya. Then, around the year 1400, the Hohokam disappeared. No one knows why.

“Hohokam means ‘the people who have gone away,'” Christine said. She shrugged and pointed with her chin at the stripmalls on an endless loop out the window, the throwaway homes, the highways now clogging, the empty streets where no one was walking on Christmas Day. She was reacting, in effect, to the waste and anomie and profligacy of the quintessential American habitat made all the more sinful and strange planted in the scarcity of the desert. “Six years ago when I first came here, I thought there was hope for this place,” she tells me. “Not anymore. I watched the county government knock down hundred-year-old cactus to pave cheap tract homes. One guy was clearing his land by shooting at a cactus and it fell and killed him. God help Phoenix.”

Now from the plane leaving the city I looked down over the martian peaks of the Superstition Wilderness, which until recently stood remote from the sprawl. The Superstitions are deadly in summer, volcanic and hoodooed, red as rust, with gardens of mesquite and saguaro and arroyos that rush briefly in summer monsoon. In the distance, crawling toward the crags, a smear of lime-green: golf courses that should never be and cannot remain. They feed a golf community, homes with more green smears, sprinkled lawns, dogs in fern yards. Sewers extend along roads that lead nowhere, waiting for the people to come. From this wide vantage as night falls, one can’t help but see the fool’s gold hope in the city’s mighty twinkling. Geographically, Phoenix now spreads farther and wider than even the gorged sprawl of Los Angeles.

The “Growth Lobby,” as Nucci called it, insures this is nowhere near an end. The bankers, mortgage lenders, construction companies, developers, speculators, the real estate agents and the pourers of concrete stack the legislatures and the local community groups, which abdicate land-use planning in favor of growth and more growth. Local governments insure low- or zero-impact costs, which saddles the taxpayer with the water and sewer and electric lines, the schools, the funding of fire and police departments. The result is a systemic starvation of social services. In Phoenix, fire departments in their off-time offer cheap car-washes; the firemen stand outside the firehouses with signs begging motorists. Low-wage linear slums blight the cityscape, gangs thrive, crime explodes, income inequalities widen apace. The rich disappear into the next big development on the fringe, seeking the last open spaces. Meanwhile, there is drought and more drought, seven years and counting, and Phoenix in 2003 was the only major Western city to not impose mandatory water-use restrictions. Instead, desperate Arizona water managers, in the grip of the same old madness (grow or die!), now envision using “treated effluent” — shit and piss water chemically cleaned up for drinking and bathing. (I say cut out the middle-man and have the good citizens piss in each other’s mouths.)

Weather will fortunately call a halt to this tragedy. The American West may be entering a prolonged drought cycle unlike any seen in recent history. According to the New York Times, researchers who have studied tree rings and ocean temperatures for drought patterns over the last 800 years are finding evidence “that the relatively wet weather across much of the West during the 20th century was a fluke.” The Times cited experts predicting that energy production from Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam, feeding the air conditioners and slot machines of Phoenix and Las Vegas, will come to a halt by 2007 if conditions remain unchanged and the waters recede and Glen Canyon becomes again a canyon. In words that should ring like funeral bells, the Times concludes that “the development of the modern urbanized West — one of the biggest growth spurts in the nation’s history — may have been based on a colossal miscalculation.” That miscalculation is perhaps paradigmatic in Phoenix, but the monster is being replicated everywhere throughout the desert (as for example, in Las Vegas, in 2005 America’s fastest growing city). As a respected urban planning magazine describes it, the pattern is typified by “disregard for a water ethic, fragmented local government that is subservient to corporate planning, lack of public space, failure to account for conservation, disregard of zoning for natural disasters, dispersed land-use, dictatorship of the automobile, and acceptance of racial and economic inequality.”

In 2001, Arizona environmentalists made a hearty effort to right the course, with a ballot referendum called the Citizens Growth Management Initiative. CGMI, or Proposition 202, would have instituted the basic infrastructure of rational land use planning — community review and impact studies, public meetings and public votes — but it was resoundingly defeated following a $4 million ad campaign, a Growth Lobby tour-de-force, that predicted economic and social disaster but was largely a mosh of half-truths and outright lies. One television spot showed a family stranded in their desert home using a Port-o-San, a bratty child crying up to hollow-eyed parents, “It’s not fair.” Other tricksters purchased the URL www.yeson202.com to post anti-202 propaganda. A $50,000 study from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, Bank One and Bank of America doomed the state to a loss of 1.2 million jobs over 12 years if the initiative passed. Within a week, the chamber admitted its ballyhooed press release was way off — that in fact a potential 210,000 new jobs might not materialize.

The corrections made little difference, for the damage in the public mind was done. Early polls showed CGMI had the support of roughly 70 percent of voters, then it dropped to 62 percent, and by the time the ballots were counted, the numbers had reversed: 70 percent of Arizonans had voted against CGMI. Newspapers said the flip-flop was “unprecedented” in Arizona polling history.

Oh well. My piss awaits their thirst. A generous offer. Not good enough, however. The grow-or-die maniacs want a piece of sweet and holy places like the Fiery Furnace, too. As I write these words, an energy exploration company is building a derrick on land just outside Arches National Park, looking for cheap natural gas. The derrick will extend 14,000 feet into the earth, and will likely rise a hundred feet into the air, if not higher. It will be visible from many vantages in Arches. In the silence of the Fiery Furnace, you might even be able to hear its labors, the sound of industry carried on the wind.

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