Spirits of Place: Tucson

Tucson Magic.

A late friend called it that, by way of explaining why so many writers and creative types are drawn to this city in the Arizona desert. It’s a very Western city, sprawling across the hard dry land, with fierce heat in the summers and a dusty dryness that can catch at the throat.

Flying in, you see an expanse of rugged brown country veined with empty riverbeds. Tucson is a broad flat valley walled with mountain ranges: to the north the Santa Catalinas, to the south the Santa Ritas, and on the west and east the Tucson Mountains and the Rincon Range.

There’s very little grass here. Lawns and water-hogging vegetation are discouraged where they aren’t outright banned. Desert flora are the order of most days: sharp, spiky, alien-looking things that every now and then pop out with a flower of striking and delicate beauty.

Up in the mountains, the forests are pine and spruce and fir. Down on the flats, bosques of mesquite and rows of cottonwoods mark the buried watercourses. On the hillsides in between, we have forests of saguaro, the huge columnar cacti that have become icons of the American West.

Mostly this is because so many classic Westerns were filmed in the area. The actual range of the saguaro peters out not far north of here, just past Phoenix, and runs out of gas to the east and west somewhat before it reaches the borders of New Mexico or California. Southern Arizona is the land of the saguaro, and Tucson is surrounded by what look like fields of strange green telephone poles.

It’s an alien world. Which means that for writers and artists, it’s creative gold.

It’s a wonderful place to settle in and write.The desert is starkly beautiful and strikingly quiet. In the daytime, away from the main drags, all you’ll hear will be the buzz of a plane from the base, or the call of a bird. At night you’ll hear the yipping of coyotes and now and then the lonesome call of a train.

And you’ll see stars. Oh, will you. This is astronomer heaven. It’s a Dark Skies city, where the streetlights, where they exist at all, point straight down. There’s as little light pollution as humanly possible. Many of the mountaintops have observatories perched on them, and Kitt Peak, an hour’s drive to the west, has a whole colony.

There’s a fair bit of the countercultural in the city and environs, and a good bit of the old Western state of mind, too. Young kids still call you Sir or Ma’am, and cowboy hats and well-worn boots aren’t out of place in the middle of town.

The ranchers close in have sold off their cattle ranges to the developers, but there are still cattle running on the outskirts, and you might see a guy on a horse moseying along down the street with his ten-gallon hat tipped down over his eyes. Down in the big washes on a Sunday morning, riding buddies of a certain age and heft will take their constitutional with bloody Marys in hand. School lets out in February for the rodeo, and the Rodeo Parade is all horses and humans. No mechanized rigs allowed.

There’s plenty of modern here, too. The university designs and builds craft that go to Mars, and Biosphere 2 is still hanging on, though the original experiment was rather a failure. One sees experimental aircraft overhead while they’re still just a rumor.

And then road crews will rebuild another highway interchange and find a village a couple of millennia old. Or a hiker will stop on a trail and look up and find a dinosaur’s skeleton sticking out of the cliff.

It’s a place of extremes. High heat in the summer, biting cold in the winter. Bone-dry for months at a time, then awash in monsoon rains. If it grows here, it’s probably got spines, and those spines are bound and determined to get you. But the leaves among the spines, if they exist, are tiny and delicate, and the flowers look like poppies and peonies and old-fashioned roses. Most years the spring features a few determined flowers and a lot of brown, dry earth–but every so often there will be just enough rain to carpet the desert with color.

Not everybody or even most bodies can live here. If you need soft green with more blue in it than yellow, and humidity in the air that doesn’t mean it’s about to explode into a cloudburst, this isn’t your place. Summer is not for the faint of heart. If it’s not burning you to a crisp it’s trying to drown you or electrocute you with bolt after bolt of lightning. Winter is mostly mild and can be bliss for the visitor from the frozen north, but winter rains, which come hard and cold, require a certain level of fortitude.

But if these things intrigue you, and alien worlds fascinate you, this is the place to be. The sky is enormous. The air is sharp and clean. Even the rain smells dry, a distinctive, astringent, oddly cold smell even in the dead of summer.

It’s different. It’s not like anywhere else. It’s its own kind of magic. Desert magic.

Tucson magic.

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Spirits of Place: Tucson — 4 Comments

  1. I love Tucson. Last time I visited, I found a great bookstore, several great restaurants, and lots of places to walk around and explore.

    But what I liked best was that wherever you were, it was no more than a 20-minute drive to the great outdoors. I even had a good down a mountain (I took a shuttle up) in the city limits.

    In a perfect world, I would live in Seattle in the summer and Tucson the rest of the year.

  2. Oh yes, that’s one of the great selling points. Live in the city with all its amenities, drive a few minutes and be in the wilderness. And, twenty minutes from warm sun to snow.

    It’s also a world-class cycling city. Wonderful place to ride and train, with a pretty well-subscribed Tour de Tucson in November.

    Someday you can do the Seattle-Tucson thing. The local writers would love to have you join us. 🙂

  3. Judith, you’ve nailed it beautifully. When we decided that we were not going to be staying in Iowa, Tucson wasn’t even on our radar, but then, somehow, it kept creeping into my consciousness like one of those rattlers snoozing by the side of a trail.

    I remember telling one of my yoga buddies we were thinking about relocating here, and she exclaimed that she couldn’t do that, it was just wild, even in the city.

    That clinched it. There is a scruffy charm to the city, full of hidden gems, and within a few moments, out in the wilds.

    Although, I’ll confess, stepping on a cholla on the morning thanks to the cat who hides under cacti because she knows no one will take her from THAT spot, ah, what the heck – it’s all part of it.

  4. Your love for your home just glitters – and it is a truly wonderful place. Though my home is further north, and loved with nearly equal passion, I sense I will revisit the magic of southern AZ.