Letter From The Desert: Save the Avra Valley

Harris’ hawks at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Beth Hoffman, some rights reserved.

You’re having a little trouble breathing. The weather’s fine, and you haven’t been exercising, particularly. The last couple hours have actually been relaxing, despite the stress of the previous few days. The clutch on your ancient VW pickup truck, which had failed abruptly as you slept in the parking lot at Picacho Peak State Park and forced you to speed-shift on 40 miles of interstate to Tucson, where all the garages were closed and you realized with a sinking feeling that it was Sunday, is, 36 hours later, freshly repaired. You drove from the garage to the Desert Museum two hours ago, and have been strolling and letting the kinks in your spine unwind since.

It’s not physical demand making it hard to breathe. It’s the view to the southwest: a broad valley punctuated with emphatic saguaros, backlit by the lowering sun, palo verdes (you assume) and ironwoods (probably) and creosote moving in the slight breeze. That broad stripe of disturbed soil in the middle distance, a sign helpfully explains, is the Central Arizona Project’s aqueduct bringing mineral-laden water to corrode the plumbing in Tucson homes.

Beyond is a landscape you’ve spent years reading about. You’ve just finished reading a novel about the place by Barbara Kingsolver, a promising young writer who you hope has more than one book in her. You’ve read your Nabhan, your Krutch, your Bowden. You’ve read your Ed Abbey, whose death a month ago was part of what compelled you to drive through the Mojave at 45 miles per hour with a bad clutch to get here. The sign identifies a prominent peak on the horizon, a pinnacle 40-odd miles off toward Mexico, and you almost gasp. It’s Baboquivari Peak, sacred to the Tohono O’odham as the home of their creator I’itoi, and for some reason its presence in your line of sight startles you almost as much as if the sign had identified it as Mount Fuji or Krakatoa, a semi-mythical place that it’s hard to imagine actually existing.

Off beyond that far line of mountains ringing the horizon, you realize, is a pantheon of other such places: The Tohono O’odham reservation. The Sierra Pinacate. Organ Pipe. Cabeza Prieta. You are really here. They are really there.

You start, ever so slowly, to realize that this desert, this interplay of sun and rock and story and ocotillo stem, isn’t a backdrop for someone else’s writing you read. It isn’t mythical. It isn’t metaphorical. The Avra Valley, which is what you learned from the sign that this broad plain is called, isn’t wilderness either. Lights of small houses start to show against the shadow of the mountains. A dust cloud in the distance follows someone as they drive a dirt road.

The Avra Valley is a place that stands on its own, with no need for mythmaking or embellishment. The myths were beautiful. The reality is many layers deeper.

Baboquivari at sunset. Photo by Khyri, some rights reserved.

Over the next 30 years you will come back to this spot time and again, sometimes in the flesh, in a series of visits each of which merit their own extended retelling, and sometimes when a random event spurs the memory and raises gooseflesh on your arms and neck. You will think about the person you have become, your fate wholly tied up in desert places like the Avra Valley, and each time a wave of gratitude will come to you. The desert spoke softly to you in Avra Valley in the spring of 1989. That whisper changed the course of your life.

In 2019, the Arizona Department of Transportation is proposing to put a highway to be dubbed Interstate 11, within brick-throwing distance of the place where you stood 30 years earlier. Trucks would roar past Ironwood Forest and Sonoran Desert National Monuments, past Saguaro National Park, past the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and the small, rural settlements that dot the Avra Valley. Where a unique Sonoran Desert ecosystem and human community now thrives would arise one more goddamn boring spume of big-box stores and chain businesses peddling items they allege to be food. Night skies bleared in redundant lights. Coyote song drowned out in motorized din. The Avra Valley indistiguishable, aside from the ambient air temperature, from any other useless suburb. Plastic bags and oily discarded burger wrappers where javelinas now doze in creosote shade.

This cannot be allowed to happen. This cannot be allowed to happen. Click that last link. You know what to do.