The Great American Road Trip
Destination: Southern Arizona
Book: Going Back to Bisbee
by Richard Shelton (1992)
Welcome to my part of the country. Somehow when choosing a book to represent Arizona, I could not resist fastening on my own little corner–southern Arizona–desert country. Like New Mexico, Arizona’s spectacular scenery climbs from desert to mountain tops, one of the facts explored in today’s book.
Richard Shelton has had a distinguished career as a poet and University teacher. His book Going Back to Bisbee won the Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction in 1992. He strings words together in this non-fiction, semi-memoir like a poet, and I’m kicking myself that it took me so long to get around to reading it.
In the book, he drives from his home in Tucson to Bisbee, a small mining town that has become an arts community. He held his first position as a teacher there in the late 50’s. But the book is not about Bisbee so much as about the southwestern desert. Although if one were driving straight through, it would take less than two hours, Shelton’s journey meanders through history, geology, botany and biology, for more than 300 pages. He talks the way you talk about a loved one. With a bit of awe and longing and a deep appreciation for the beauty and recognition of the flaws.
Coming to the crest of a hill with a view out over a valley toward distant ranges of mountains sets him to thinking about the Apaches and the cattlemen that struggled over the land. Passing near Ft. Huachuca gives an excuse to remember his only military service at that army base, and then a meander through the history of the military in this region.
When he crosses the only live water in southern Arizona, the San Pedro River, he can’t resist the lure of plunging into the water, literally, and into the history (figuratively) of the mining towns that lined its banks. And so it goes. Every little sidetrack he takes as he ponders his surroundings is accompanied by a story and we meet some very interesting characters.
Sometimes he really cracks me up. He believes that a writer needs to have names for things.
If you can’t name it, you can’t really see it. In this lies the magic of names and naming. To name a thing is to give it a second creation, a creation by the viewer…..I think that all poets believe in word magic. Maybe that’s what distinguishes them from novelists.
But those names don’t have to be scientific. There are many strange plants in the desert, and Shelton clearly knows the scientific names and several variants of common names for most of them. However, he says
In my personal system of taxonomy, I classify both Parry’s agave and lechugilla among “things-that-stick-straight-up.”
That distinguishes saguaro cactuses and century plants from ocotillo cactuses, which are “things-that-stick-up-at-an-angle.”
He returns to his love of word play when he discusses the names of birds.
How bitter is the least bittern? Surely the white-faced ibisis and Egyptian statue and the Virginia rail some kind of fence….I know the Nashville warbler is Hank Williams, but I’m not sure who the yellow-rumped warbler is. And they all live along the San Pedro, pretending they are birds.
I think part of the reason I loved this book so much is that so much of the landscape is familiar. I’ve been to the ghost town of Fairbanks and the melting adobe of the 1776 Spanish Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate. I share his respect for the museum in the Old Courthouse in Tombstone.
And I think that his writing is superbly evocative. But I would love to discuss this book with you, particularly if you have never been in Cochise County, Arizona. If you are not familiar with the Sonoran Desert. Anybody out there who has read the book and would like to chat? Or if you read it now, please come back and let’s talk.
Music for your road trip to Arizona, I hear, should include Gretchen Peters and Linda Ronstadt. The Ronstadts are an old family in Tucson. The one who became police chief had a better voice than Linda, it was said. Unlike a lot of western towns, Tucson actually has “old families” since the Presidio here was founded in 1776. But anyhow, see Music Road for the usual good advice on road music.
The final four pictures are used by Creative Commons License through Flickr. Please click on the pictures to learn more about the place and the helpful photographers. I took the first two photographs. One from the USFS is identified.Please do not copy without permission.