Archive for the ‘Western Travel Writing’ Category

Walking from the parking lot to the terminal, the usual roar of the jets captures the senses. But entering the modestly sized Tucson airport terminal building, the mood changes. The architecture—clean lines, iodized metal surfaces, cylindrical in theme and minimalist in appearance—announces an airport small enough to find one’s bearings, and appealing to the the harried air traveler on a hot desert day. The simplicity of locating check in, boarding gates, the whole sense of a reasonably human-scaled enterprise contrasts so nicely with those massive, impersonal and rather terrifying places like Phoenix Sky Harbor to say nothing of LAX or O’Hare.

We were there to send our daughter and baby grandson off to the challenges of LAX, sitting in a sort of waiting alcove near Southwest Airlines ticketing, while I strolled about and happened to look up. In fact I was the only one there who happened to look up, catching from the corner of my eye glimpses of what? Aladdin? Ali Baba? Scherazade? Wait—flying carpets? Yes, flying carpets, curling with the breezes, magically translucent colors of many colors, many shapes, going this way and that, up and down, across and back. Ah, is this airport art subliminally suggesting to my primal brain the freedom of magic carpet conveyance? If so, it worked. As I say, no one else there seemed to notice the floating world above, even when I was moving tables and chairs, kneeling and and pointing my camera ceiling-ward.

It’s possible I imagined it all. But no. No amount of photoshopping could create the scene. And I don’t use Photoshop anyhow.

I don’t know the name of the artist who created this public art, but I do know these translucent pieces of magic carpet art cast a spell. Maybe, just maybe, in a thousand and one desert nights anything can happen. SRE (all photos © S R Euston)IMG_2451 - Version 2


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Mapping Wonderlands: Illustrated Cartography of Arizona 1912 – 1962 by Dori Griffin, U of AZ Press,. 2013. 218 pp.

16158084Mapping Wonderlands is an in-depth examination of how Arizona’s tourist industry was developed during its first fifty years of statehood. Griffin’s source material is “ephemera”— images that include post card maps, illustrated cartographs (visually more evocative and narrative geographic representations than basic navigational maps used to get from point A to point B) and chambers of commerce “come to our town” maps. While first encouraged by boosters with their early “Good Roads” program and later by Arizona’s Highway Department with their now iconic Arizona Highways magazine, these illustrated maps suggested a highly developed road system passing through a well-watered landscape of lush valleys, majestic mountains and mysterious historic sites.

Needless to say, these maps presented a highly romanticized view of Arizona. Ancient and modern Native Americans were often depicted sitting before looms in Navajoland (the current reservation which encompasses about 25,000 square miles in the northeast). The Spanish “Entrada” of the late 1600s and its subsequent influence on the state’s identity was represented alternatively by conquistadors, vaqueros, missionaries and sombrero-clad Mexicans on burros. 1800s Arizona miners, cowboys, artists, ranchers and business tycoons were added to Native American and Hispanics who called the territory home. Still, in most of these cartographs all of that linear history is collapsed into a single monolithic timeless whole.

Looking at these cartographs, all 66 of them presented in the book, gives the reader a glimpse into the remarkable manipulative power maps carry to invoke a vague sense of accuracy about landscape and culture which often has little “on the ground” truth. In one map for example, strong double lines, suggesting a four lane superhighway, in fact represent “roads under construction”, as noted in the fine print below. Cartoonish imagery evokes a land full of playful opportunity, much of it water-based, in fact a rare situation save man-made hotel pools and dam-created lakes. Time is flattened into a history without time: Conquistadors march alongside cowboys and grubstakers on their horses and businessmen in their motorcars, while Indians using a paint brush create “the Painted Desert.” A cowboy-hatted saguaro beckons with spiny arms to “visit the land of the sun!”

The Arizona imagists who made these cartographs (which often included vignette illustrations of both natural wonders and the built environment) wrestled with a big problem: Was Arizona a crowded landscape, safe and recognizable for tourists looking for a memorable “grand tour”, or the last of the “Wild West” available for adventurers looking for thrills? Was it filled with waving fields of grain and cotton, or thorny desert cactus? Was it friendly and accessible, or uncharted territory? Of course the truth is some of each but the desire to convey a tourist wonderland with something for everyone won out over some less cheerful Arizona facts: Never leave home without water; watch out for snakes; cactus spines really hurt!

The main point of the book, it seems to me, is that these map-makers, by their choices of what to present on their “maps” sent a wide variety of subliminal messages that played with reality to promote tourism. Unfortunately the book’s illustrations are not in color or clearly reproduced and the writing seems unnecessarily academic. That’s too bad, considering the subject is a fascinating one of overarching sociological as well as academic interest—how visual representations we call “maps” can and do manipulate our understanding of landscape and territory. This is a particularly challenging issue to contemplate as we come to rely more on virtual maps, viewed on computer screens, which provide detailed distance directions but little information about the world we’re passing through beyond isolated and isolating factoids like where to buy a pizza or gas.

Sure these earlier “maps” may have stretched the truth as did earlier maps with Terra Incongnito and oceans teeming with dragons and serpents lurking at their edges. Somehow though they seem so much more informative and colorful, not only about geography and territory but about the cultures that developed them. Our modern technological “just the facts maam” computer voice on the dashboard screen intoning, “In 1.6 miles turn left” portrays a colorless, homogonezied  version of our world.

But then, perhaps it’s appropriate for navigating the territory we have created.

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Today we took a quick trip to Madera Canyon’s Santa Rita Lodging birding area—a group of covered roadside benches just perfect for relaxed birdwatching. Adjacent to a small grassy field holding about fifteen nearby numbered bird feeders all in a row and designed to attract different birds—we less adventurous (or time-pressed) birders can come up with some great quick spots. Although Madera Creek isn’t running (we’ve had about 20% of normal rainfall) and both the oaks and sycamores look pretty peaked, this is a time for migration through and coming home for many bird species. In less than an hour we saw flocks of lesser goldfinches, broad billed and black chinned hummingbirds, wild turkeys, a black headed grosbeak and, probably most spectacularly, a lazuli bunting. Not bad for some essentially drive-by birdwatching.

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Wide Ruins. Memories from a Navajo Trading Post by Sallie Wagner. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque, N.M. 1997. 150 pp.


41vO5l7mxnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Wide Ruins is the story of a Navajo Trading Post from the late 1930s until 1950—a time of irrevocable change both on the reservation and the country at large—and of its owners, Bill and Sallie Wagner. As Wagner described it, as newlyweds they arrived for a temporary ranger position at Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. A local friend who, like them, was an “outsider” had purchased a trading post himself and suggested the Wagners do the same. Which they decided to do shortly after, in 1938. As Sallie opens the book: “We slipped sideways into the Navajo Indian trading post business.” After a crash course from their pal Cozy, they took over the post and for the next three years managed it, as well as another they purchased on the reservation. This book describes what life was like for white traders located in an extremely isolated location between the Arizona Defiance plateau and the Painted Desert.


The closest post office was at Chambers AZ, a tiny, overwhelmingly Navajo settlement, eighteen miles south. The nearest “big city” was Holbrook, about 40 miles southeast. Emergency medical services were available at the hospital at Ganado, about 100 miles north along a dirt road. For the three years that closed out the Depression, the Wagners ran the post, learning much about the Navajo culture, rituals and clans as well as how trading happens. In the process they became a trusted institution for trading locally crafted jewelry, wool and blankets. Sallie Chambers introduced new weaving techniques (especially borderless blankets and rugs) as well as the use of vegetable-based dyes. These newer approaches led to the creation of what are now highly prized “Wide Ruins” blankets. The post also served as a kind of “bank”, storing valuables (which had been pawned for cash) in the store safe, where they remained until the owner returned to repay the loan.


Wide Ruins Rug, 1930s-1940s


Early in 1941, Bill was called up from the Naval Reserve and he and Sallie sold the post and moved to the West Coast. Later, as the war ended, the Wagners returned to the post, re-possessing it after the buyer defaulted on his payments. The Navajos were happy to see them return and business was soon brisk again. In 1950, they sold the post which finally burned down in the 1980s.


This is an engaging story, told with humility, kindness and humor. It is not as insightful as Edward T. Hall’s West of the Thirties set on the Najavo reservation at about the same time (Hall wrote this book’s glowing introduction). But then, these folks were businesspeople not anthropologists and they seemed willing and able to fit themselves into a tricky financial role as trading post owners in the community—a difficult feat in which few outsiders proved successful.

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Beauty is not a word one associates with contemporary art and literature. In fact, beauty is something of a pariah in esthetics generally. The ugly the grotesque the brutal the bizarre have cache. If art follows life, it does seem quaint to talk about beauty in this age of political upheaval, cultural relativism, raging consumerism, rampant technology, environmental tragedy.

But—democratically speaking—is not beauty in the eye of the beholder? The great nineteenth century lyric poet John Keats gave beauty its most ethereal meaning, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.

Finally, art is said to mirror nature. Nature can certainly be brutal, cruel, ugly, in human terms. But in the eyes of many, nature is also full of beauty, plain and simple beauty. In fact the kind of beauty that also attracts insects and birds, no strings attached. A beauty that is beyond ecology, beyond human construct. Well, maybe within a human construct that opens our minds to an infinity of mental mirrors reflecting our long evolutionary inheritance, emerging as we did as a species when the only truth was nature.

And somehow after a million years of inhabiting earth we humans can still find beauty in nature, even desert beauty in a parched land of thorns and spines, heat and dust. And some of us we will even agree with John Keats—beauty is after all truth. SRE (All photos © SR Euston)



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Arizona is dry. After parched Nevada, the second driest state. But it has a great river.

That river begins with freshets in the Colorado Rockies, is infused by New Mexico rivers, carves  great canyons in Utah, reluctantly accepts Glen Canyon Dam, then revived,  goes about its  great geological task, uncovering the incandescent  sandstone glories of the Grand Canyon.

Then there is the Santa Cruz. A puny sort of non-river in southeastern Arizona looking mostly like a road in the sand.

It wasn’t always so. Spanish missionaries, Mexican settlers, the Mormon Battalion, Anglo developers—they found a river flowing, small but life giving with cottonwoods,  riparian pools, grassy wilds, from its headwaters near Patagonia, dipping into Mexico, flowing free, meeting the Gila River as it  rolled on to join the Colorado at Yuma. The river flowed through early Tucson, watered the lands at Mission San Xavier, provided for irrigation.

The Colorado still glistens below the Grand Canyon. The Gila River still has some wild upstream stretches. But the little Santa Cruz is nearing extinction. Ground water pumping continues, the water table drops, the drought plagued watershed is filled with mines and houses and cattle. To use a watery analogy, the glass by now is far less than half full. But for optimists there’s a hopeful exception—a cottonwood shaded flowing stretch below Nogales that is replenished with clean effluent  from an international  waste treatment plant—technology for once in service of the environment.

The exceptions always give one hope. Here is a mesquite-cottonwood riparian refuge, an exceptional birding environment offering walks, photography and a semblance of the old Santa Cruz. One easy access point to all this is at Tumacacori National Historic Park.

Recently southern Arizona got its first rains since mid-December. After the rain, a good inch and a half, the Santa Cruz River bed at Green Valley was braided with silver meandering streams, under the eye of the rain drenched, snow touched sky Island peaks of the Santa Rita Mountains. For a moment, this river was flowing.The photography offered a few fleeting chances.  Maybe even an environmental pessimist can find hope.

The following photographs move back and forth between cottonwoods and placid river in the upper, semi-restored,  stretch at Tumacacori, and the evanescent apperance after early March rains of  a shinning but rushing and muddy stream near the Continental Road Bridge in Green Valley, taken mostly in black and white.   SRE


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North Shore Promotion  courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

North Shore Promotion
courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

In the 1950s and 60s the Salton Sea was a favorite resort destination for Southern Californians who boated, swam and fished at its seaside resorts. Desi Arnaz and Dwight Eisenhower golfed there; Guy Lombardo and Frank Sinatra raced boats.

Guy Lombardo, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra at the Salton Sea photo courtesy of the Salton Sea Museum

Guy Lombardo, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra at the Salton Sea
photo courtesy of the Salton Sea Museum

But alarms raised about pollutants caused recreation to plummet and in 1976 and 1977 two tropical storms, both “100 year storms”, followed by seven years of increased rainfall, flooded the resorts and vacation homes, leaving veritable “ghost towns” behind.

At Desert Beach photo courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

At Desert Beach
photo courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

Since 1977, a group of dedicated volunteers, the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association, working with CA. State Parks and the Salton Sea Restoration Project have been working to clear up false rumors, address bad publicity and get on with the job of restoration. As the Sea and Desert Association’s brochure states: “There is no evidence of the sea being polluted or having any harmful chemical or sewage. It is said that the Salton Sea is cleaner than Lake Tahoe. While dead fish are not a real pretty sight or smell, we are experiencing  the life cycle in action. The fish remain plentiful and healthy…and the fishing is great.”

Still the Sea faces enormous problems, the major one being quickening salinity rises that are bound to occur once agricultural water runoff dries up. This is slated to begin in earnest in 2017 as the Imperial Valley begins to sell its ag water to San Diego. The plans to mitigate what will obviously be profound if not catastrophic results for the Sea and its avian and fish life, seem, to be either prohibitively expensive or too large scale to be realistic. Still there are promising technologies and potential economic uses for by-products of de-salination.

On February 27, 2014 a new way to generate dollars for restoration was put forward—Barbara Boxer, California’s US Senator and two southern California congressmen, Raul Ruiz and Juan Vargas requested, by formal letter, that the Department of Interior designate the Salton Sea as  a renewable energy development area, making it easier to extendi its geothermal generating capacity beyond the current seven plants, clustered in three facilities. Income from new plants could be directed toward restoring the Sea.

Salton Sea Geothermal Plants photo courtesy of Center for Land Use Interpretation

Salton Sea Geothermal Plants
photo courtesy of Center for Land Use Interpretation

The problems are large; the costs high. But the importance of the Salton Sea as a diverse and very rare mixed ecosystem on the Pacific Flyway makes finding a way toward restoration a high priority—for all of us.

For further information see:




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