Passing Time in the Desert

Hello, friends and family!

They say Phoenix is one of the fastest growing municipalities in America. It sprawls in walled subdivisions out into the far reaches of the desert, and its gated neighbourhoods have lawns so green and canals so dry it makes me want to puke. But the rest of the Arizona desert is a place without much apparent progress, human or otherwise. The desert is a place of slow time, where expansion has been hampered by same conditions that limit the growth of desert plants: a lack of water, a surfeit of heat and sunshine, and a dry climate. The timescale of progress out here is measured incrementally over hundreds of years. Over the course of a century a mining town booms and busts and booms and busts, ending up back where it began, while a saguaro cactus gains a few measly feet in height. The drought cycle lasts decades; Arizona is currently in its 26th year of drought. In another century, not many Arizona towns will be survivable, as climate change intensifies the heat and drought and turns summer days into blast furnaces.

It’s of no matter, though. Something happens to your sense of time in the desert, making concern for the future a far-off problem – something for someone else to solve down the line. Because every day is warm and windy and sunny, I never know what day it is, and always assume it’s Sunday. The dearth of wildlife (visible wildlife, that is, as most creatures are moving in shadows, underground, or at night) means I can spend hours watching the flight of a single bird, or waiting for a lizard to stir into action. Nature-watching in the desert is like watching paint dry. But if time passes at a snail’s pace, light moves with lightning speed. At sunset the desert is cast in an orange glow that lasts a brief moment, and then the mountains on the eastern horizon glow blood-red for a brief moment, and then the clouds turn a fluorescent pink for a brief moment, and then everything is grey, and it is night. It’s that fast, the failing of the light, the one thing the desert cannot slow.

The brief sunset

I’m camped now just south of Quartzsite, a town near the Arizona-California border that’s a winter mecca for retired snowbirds due to the warm winters and cheap accommodation. It’s also home to a huge RV trade show, nomad meetups, and gem shows, so the winter population swells to several hundred thousand. This is unbelievable until you see the way RVs are packed in like sardines at every park in town and overflowing the BLM desert campgrounds. On a whole, Quartzsite could be mistaken for an RV dealership. It makes me wonder at the sheer mass of people sitting around in their tin cans. How do they spend six months in their RVs, parked about two metres away from their neighbours’ RVs, totally retired and idle and aimless?

Six months in a town with nothing more than a few gas stations, fast food chains, and a used bookstore. Some RV parks advertise weekly dances (“With DJ!”) and others host bridge clubs and rockhounding expeditions. However, RVs are not meant to be driven around, so it’s not like people are taking day trips. RVs are meant to be trundled down the highway to Quartzsite and parked for six months, then trundled up the highway to the Midwest and parked for six months. I have to imagine that casual alcoholism is rampant, both as social lubricant and as a way to make the clock move faster. I have to imagine there is some sort of geriatric swinger’s club. Why not pass the time in a whirl of hedonism? Why not pass the time by joining the historical society (though the only notable local history concerns a Syrian man named Hi Jolly, who unsuccessfully introduced camels to the Arizona desert)?

Or maybe I’ve got it all backwards, thinking that the snowbirds are trying to fill the long winter months with hustle and bustle. Perhaps the old folks enjoy the slow-mo pace of life out here. Perhaps those six months aren’t meant to race by, and perhaps Quartzsite is a place to be savoured, a suspension of time’s passage, because that ultimately means a slower march to that Great RV Park in the Sky.

Getting sundrunk

I walk into the desert at a random direction and come across a sign, sun-faded but still standing, that reads “No Vehicles.” I am three miles from the nearest road. There are no tire tracks or footpaths, no sign of man or car or ATV. Over by my campsite there are tire tracks heading into the desert that look as though they were driven just yesterday, except there are fully grown trees sprouting between the treadmarks. The desert has a strange way of preserving things so it feels as though no time has passed at all. Later in the day I follow a set of horse prints that are crusted into the soft earth. I track his path for miles, hoping it’ll lead me to treasure, losing the tracks time and time again and somehow always finding them once more, even when I veer off course. After a while it’s like the tracks are following me, rather than me following them. The only treasure I find along the trail are cast-off tin cans, so old they’re punch-tops rather than pull-tabs, rusted completely brown. But how can that be? If the cans are so old, how can the tracks remain?

Ghost cowboy, I assume. Spooky. I take a ninety degree turn back to my van, but the tracks find me once more, so I take another wild detour to lose them and end up at the main road, where any tracks would have long since been driven over into dust. Or maybe not: the desert here protects the things abandoned to it. No moss grows to cover them and not enough water falls to wash them away. People are always stumbling across bits of the past, which I like to think of as a sort of low-tech time travel. Old mining camps, pioneer cemeteries, and 10,000-year-old woolly mammoth kill sites, all of which feel completely contemporary, as if someone could return at any minute to lay flowers at the graves.

Sonoran desert is mostly sky

In the town of Bisbee, Arizona, time ground to a halt as soon as the copper mines shut down in the 1970s. Once Arizona’s biggest city, now a fraction of its peak population lives there, mostly older artists that reside in brightly painted wooden houses that climb up the sides of the mountain valley in which Bisbee is nestled. It’s not a place for the faint of heart, literally: most houses are only accessed via a long, steep staircase. Bisbee is a Wild West boomtown preserved in amber. Just outside town, locals have recreated an old Main Street as a Disneyfied shrine to post-war Americana. There are two blocks of storefronts for stores that no longer exist, complete with rusting classic cars parked along the curb. The vintage signage for five-and-dimes and motorcycle shops and movie theatres is in good, if weathered, condition. I peek in the windows to see if any of the stores have shelves or products, but find only junk: a pile of mannequins, scrap wood, dust bunnies mounded across the floor.

Progress may have halted in Bisbee the day the mine closed, but the mines are one thing the desert cannot preserve in perfect condition. The lingering effects of the open-pit copper mine will persist for generations in terms of groundwater contamination and aquifer depletion, not to mention the eyesore of the 900-foot-deep pits themselves. Once again we have created a landmark that will outlast us long after the last Arizonian has fled the scorched earth. And yet there is something beautiful about it all, somehow. After the rains, pools of water at the bottom of the pit turn brilliant shades of red and orange, like a desert sunset painted in toxic heavy metals.

American nostalgia

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