Roughing It in Arizona

Totem Pole in Monument Valley, Arizona, USA. Photo by Bernard Gagnon.

Totem Pole in Monument Valley, Arizona, USA. Photo by Bernard Gagnon.

Still the question haunted me: why do I stay? It was an echo of a previous interrogation put to me by a senior professor when I interviewed for my present job: If you’re so good, how come you’re here? I have had occasion, living in Arizona, to feel just like Mark Twain’s hero in King Arthur’s court, without that stern Yankee’s talent for humbugging his society into Progress. Seeking relief in the Great American Trickster’s novel, I stumbled upon this passage:

My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags—that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it.

And then it hit me. I do not live in Arizona; I live in what the ancient Spaniards called the Kingdom of New Mexico. 

For Don Juan de Oñate and his colonizers in 1598, all the unknown territory—with the exception of Florida—north of the Río del Norte (today called the Rio Grande), was the Kingdom of New Mexico. I stay here because of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and the mystic hills of Sedona. Especially at sunset here, one can still glimpse the golden rays of the Seven Cities of Cíbola. In the darkness of early mornings a running coyote will stop and look you in the eye, and a band of ghostly javalinas will often greet you in passing.

Mark Twain (1890). Photo by James Mapes Dodge, published in "Life" magazine.

Mark Twain (1890). Photo by James Mapes Dodge, published in “Life” magazine.

I live here because the craftsmanship and integrity of my gardener, Roberto, surpass the talents of 500 Arizona legislators; and because the spirit of Nellie Cashman—the generous and courageous “Angel of Tombstone”—was greater than that of dozens of Arizona governors.

Here Father Kino founded the mission of San Xavier del Bac, and the seer Lozen used her gifts to warn Victorio of approaching enemy troops. For Arizona is a land of warriors—by which I do not mean Senator John McCain, but rather Geronimo, Cesar Chavez and Pat Tillman.

My children grew up and live here in the West; here my Indian grandson was born; and here the woman I love feels at home. In spite of SB 1070, no one has run us out of town yet (as they did in Texas and New Mexico).

Here at dusk, a giant owl once announced the death of my parents, and here their ashes will be strewn. And I, who have been an exile and a wanderer, have stopped my pilgrimage here. As the late Gabriel García Márquez reminded us, “One doesn’t belong anywhere until you have a dead one under the earth.”

But I will concede to my friend, the UNM professor, that there is one place in Arizona I will not visit (not even for business), let alone live in: the city of Scottsdale. The devil that Daniel Webster exorcised from New Hampshire—and which may still roam Massachusetts or Vermont—is alive and well there.

Even the Kingdom of New Mexico—a mythological vortex where Indian America, Spain and the United States have lived for centuries—has its connecting Gate to Hell. This is where our heat, our demons, and our occasional swarms of legislators, hate groups and raggedy institutions come from. We have learned to live with them in noble tension.



  1. Many thanks for your generous comments! The ocean in San Diego is always blessed for me too, as it brings childhood memories of Caribbean waters. OG


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