In the Grand Canyon's deep innards, flocks of 80-year-olds passed me by on the trail. In the shady, pink-rock bottomlands of Canyon de Chelly, crumbling cliff dwellings sat silent against the red- and black-streaked sandstone walls.
Up in Hopiland, where the ancestors of the Anasazi have lived for more than 1,000 years, I walked through Old Oraibi, perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited spot in the nation. There, among the layers of ruins, Hopi entrepreneurs sell their arts and crafts out of tiny gray-block buildings with a few solar panels on the flat roofs--just enough to run a few lights and a small fan.
On the barren and lonely Arizona Strip, the polygamists are using solar, too. Along the wide, empty streets of Colorado City, on the Utah border, the huge, sprawling multi-family homes, each in various stages of completion or decline, are topped with sun-gathering panels.
Arizona has always been a good place to get off the grid a bit, and that seems to be especially so these days. It's a place where you can discover yourself, lose yourself or transform yourself at will.
In the coming year, all eyes will be on Arizona as Sen. John McCain seeks the presidency. What will those eyes see? They might see that this is a welcoming place for visionaries and gamblers.
They'll also likely notice that it's a little weird out here.
There are still wild men in Arizona. One was happily selling used books out of an open-air shop in Quartzsite, wearing--in January when last I met him--nothing but a tight sweater, showing off a bare ass.
Paul Winer, the 64-year-old, nearly nude proprietor of the Reader's Oasis in Quartzsite, claims he coined the phrase "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." I believe him. He's been selling books along the main drag--sometimes in 120-degree heat out there in Western Arizona's snowbird badlands--for nearly 20 years.
"I used to wear very brief shorts," he said. "I didn't drop them and feel free to be who I am until I had 180,000 books. Then I thought I could do it."
Winer spent 25 years back east playing boogie-woogie piano, nude, under the name "Sweet Pie." He fought a protracted public-indecency battle and eventually prevailed, he said. In lieu of recompense, he chose to settle a rather large Internal Revenue Service bill free and clear, and then headed out to Arizona to see his parents. He started selling his mom's just-read paperbacks at the big swap-meet gem shows that make Quartzsite the third-largest metro area in Arizona for a few days every winter. Eventually, he got a loan from a regional bank and started growing his unlikely enterprise. If things keep up, he might even have a retirement. He opted out of Social Security as a conscientious objector during Vietnam, he said--just one of the many turns in his lifelong quest to "make a living naked."
Arizona, he said, "is one of the few states that would tolerate someone like me on the main street of a redneck town. It has a history of having the most obstinate, stubborn, off-the-wall people. There is still quite a tolerance for outsiders."
It's true that, to many visitors, Arizona is still the American outback. Seekers crowd its scenic two-lanes with rented Harley Davidsons and motor homes, taking Easy Rider road trips in search of the America. Europeans visit often, and Germans are especially prevalent, a few hoteliers told me.
The official numbers bear that out. About 15 percent of international visitors to Arizona are German, representing the second-largest block, just below the English.
Last June, I was in Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation. The thick dust seemed to cling to the headlight beams of the cars driving the red-dirt loop road around the eroded spires and buttes. I was heading for my car when a stylish and well-spoken Italian woman asked me if I was English. No, I said. American.
She shrugged her shoulders like the two were synonymous. "Do you have a wine opener?" she asked, apparently not worried about being a cliché.
Suddenly, I turned into a park ranger. You know, there's no alcohol allowed on the reservation, I said.
Again with the shoulder shrug. Silly American.
But then my Arizona white-boy cultural memory kicked in, and I remembered that I had my buck knife in my backpack. I held the bottle between my knees, opened the blade and gently pushed the tip as deep into the cork as it would go without splitting it. I twisted it a notch or two, and then pulled it slowly out, cork and all.
The Italian woman, who had been joined by a friend who was now clapping, got a little wide-eyed and dewy. She poured me a Dixie cup, and we toasted sandstone and erosion. We must have all felt wild and free.
Anglo culture in Arizona had a rapacious colonial bent early on; the plan was to get in, dig it all up and head back to New York or San Francisco, first thing. If the state's early leaders were nominal progressives who challenged Washington, D.C.'s power in the West and supported labor unions over the Eastern "capitalists," it was usually only so that they could wield that power more easily themselves. One of the biggest early debates in the state was over whether or not to ban "foreign labor," meaning, primarily, Mexican miners.
History always seems to be a dirty circle. To a large degree, tourism changed this trend and gave the state an identity apart from its raw materials. Thomas Sheridan put it best in his 1995 book, Arizona: A History. Beginning in the early 20th century, "as thousands of tourists stared at the sunset over the Grand Canyon or hiked down switchbacks to see the stunning cliff dwelling of Betatkin, they came to feel that Arizona belonged to them," Sheridan writes. "Its dry rugged beauty overwhelmed them, and its Indian heritage intrigued them, so they demanded protection of that beauty and heritage against the ravages of miners, stock raisers and loggers."
The Arizona tourist track is as familiar today as it was in the old days: the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest, a saguaro or two, a cowboy steak and a plate of ranch beans, mysterious cliff dwellings and houseboats floating among the red-rock labyrinths of a flooded canyon.
But there are also more forgotten grave yards, crumbling buildings and lonely stretches of road without end here than in most other states in the union--and there are certainly more people pretending to be old-timey miners, gun fighters and cow hands while other people take their pictures.
Many of the original Anglo settlers who made a go of it in the Arizona Territory after the Civil War came from the West, not the east. Having failed to find gold and glory in California, they headed back east to that sun-blasted land they'd passed through on their way to the coast, where precious minerals and wild times were to be had in the central mountains, around Prescott and elsewhere.
This pattern is still current to a certain degree. About 30 percent of visitors to the state hail from California these days, according to the Arizona Office of Tourism, while 31 percent of the state's "domestic overnight leisure stays" are paid for by Arizonans themselves. Texans, who were long ago primarily responsible for the Arizona's myth-making open-range cattle industry, came in a distant third, at least in 2006, with about 4 percent of overnight stays.
There was always a good bit of ill will toward Californians while I was growing up in Prescott in the 1980s. There was a perception, whether true or not, that rich West Coasters were moving into our small town, driving up prices and citifying the culture. This perception reached a fever after San Francisco's big earthquake in 1989, when many Californians sought refuge from the shaking plates among the rural burgs of Arizona. For better or for worse, we can't escape our giant coastal neighbor's influence, and probably never will. At least by the early 1990s, you could get a microbrew and a latte in the pinebelt.
Allan Affeldt, now the second-term mayor of Winslow, is one such Californian. Few would disagree, however, that his influence here has been anything but positive.
Affeldt grew up in Southern California and can remember vacationing with his parents in Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon as a boy. In 1994, he and his wife, artist Tina Mion, learned that architect Mary Jane Colter's 1930 Harvey House masterpiece, La Posada, was on the verge of destruction.
Through much of the early 20th century, Colter worked for the Fred Harvey Company and the Sante Fe Railroad. She designed and remodeled several of the railroad's elegant Harvey Houses, where train travelers could get a well-prepared meal in clean and stylish surroundings, both of which were usually lacking in the rural establishments beyond the tracks. The hotels reflected their cultural milieu, at least as it was filtered through Colter's fantastically Romantic imagination. She created a whole back story about a high desert hacienda while designing La Posada, a hotel that never quite got the attention it deserved, having opened just before the stock market crashed.
Affeldt ended up buying the property and living in its sprawling, abandoned confines for several years, reforming the Spanish Hacienda-style railroad hotel to its former high-toned glory--and beyond. Say what you will about Fred Harvey--even that he "invented the Southwest." The invention, as far as I can tell, stands. Through Colter, he introduced a sense of style to the state that still holds up a century later.
"We couldn't (rebuild the hotel) all at once," Affeldt told me. "In a way, that was very much a good thing; it made me fall in love with it."
He has also fallen in love with Winslow, the town he is now leading into what he hopes will be a renaissance similar to what's happened over the decades in former mining towns like Jerome and Bisbee.
"We can see the city coming back to life," he said, but it hasn't been easy. For a long time, he couldn't get anyone to give him any money. "No one would make a loan on a commercial property in Winslow," he said. "That's true all over rural America."
Despite the difficulty, Affeldt and others see small-town Arizona as an ideal incubator for the new, and especially for the old turned new again.
"You can have a measurable, direct and significant impact on a small town that is nearly impossible in a big city," he said. "Arizona is a low-tech, low-regulation state, which encourages a certain amount of risk; we are an entrepreneurial state, and a young state. There's a sense of possibility here for the entrepreneurial mentality."
A case in point: Affeldt recently purchased another moribund Harvey House, this one just across the state line in Needles, Calif. It's costing him twice as much, and the process has been a good deal more difficult than it was in Arizona, he said. Unfortunately, Affeldt only has so much money and time, and a former Harvey House in Seligman--the Havasu Hotel along the popular last dregs of Historic Route 66 in north-central Arizona--could not be saved. Within the next few weeks, the Santa Fe Railroad plans to destroy the old husk, which it hasn't used for decades.
Affeldt said he's been sending potential saviors over to the abandoned Seligman hotel for years, hoping that someone would do as he did, but to no avail. Even in low-tech, low-regulation Arizona, "economically, it's a very, very difficult proposition," he said.
Affeldt is right about this being a young state. There's always a lot of talk about the coming invasion of the baby boomer retirees, but there are many more Arizonans younger than 18 than there are older than 65. About 13 percent of the population is 65-plus, right in line with the rest of the nation. Arizonans younger than 18 make up 26.4 percent of the population, a couple of ticks above the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
I may have seen the last truly wild man in Arizona at an abandoned hot-spring resort on the Verde River, off the Fossil Creek Road between Camp Verde and Strawberry. Last May, I hiked up river from the decommissioned power plant at Childs to the old baths, once part of a resort that advertised the curative powers of the piping water trickling out of the cliffs above the wild river.
On the walls of the little roofless bathhouse, and all around the crumbling riverside walkway, generations of soakers have created a kind of public-art gallery, with intricately painted and colored messages variously advertising Jesus' love and wondering if anybody's seen so and so who was here in March of '96. A large portion of one wall is illustrated with a charming depiction of the old hotel. "Verde Hot Springs Hotel 1922-1962," it says.
I was taking pictures when out of the riparian bush came a tall, tanned refugee, with a big gray beard and ratty straw hat, carrying a can of Milwaukee's Best and wearing only what appeared to be a leather thong. He was clearly unhappy that I was there, and he grumbled something and stalked around moodily, like I was trespassing, but he didn't want to say anything.
After a bit, he came around and sank, splashing with a deep sigh, into one of the tubs. "This one's 104 degrees; that one's 102 degrees," he said, pointing. I wasn't inclined to get in the baths, but at least I felt welcome.
When I got back to the campground at the trailhead, mine was the only car there.