East Clear Creek near the Mogollon Rim
Mention the High Country now and several images come to mind. Escape from Phoenix during the worst days of summer. "Cabins," for those with means, that are usually just subdivisions plopped down amid the pines, sometimes with a golf course attached. Flagstaff's charming downtown. Prescott Valley's hideous sprawl. Wildfire season. The horrific traffic on Interstate 17 and the Beeline Highway.
Thank God, I got to see a very different High Country, as different from what exists now as old Phoenix was from the current migropolis.
Even in the 1960s, it was rough, empty country. The entire state population in 1960 was 1.3 million -- smaller than the city of Phoenix now -- and 1.7 million in 1970. In 1960, Flagstaff had 18,000 people, Prescott 13,000, Payson wasn't even counted (it had 1,800 in 1970). And yet Arizona had built good highways -- and still had passenger trains -- so it was possible to explore this enchanted land in relative comfort.
What towns that existed were not cartoon suburbia. Flagstaff made its living from the Santa Fe Railway and the lumber business, and the cafes and bars along Route 66 were filled with real cowboys, real lumberjacks, and other gruff men who did punishing, often dangerous work. The double-track main line of the Santa Fe carried the railroad's many passenger trains, some of the finest and most famous in the world, including the Super Chief, the Chief and the Grand Canyon Limited between Chicago and the West Coast. The forest was close and dense, the mountains pristine. Like other real American towns, Flag was compact and had not yet been destroyed by sprawl and Wal-Mart. It snowed more than today.
Prescott, the former territorial capital, had been a mining and ranching center. By the 1960s, it was struggling with the loss of its most important industry, the Santa Fe's busy Peavine branch between Phoenix and the main line at Ash Fork (soon to be relocated to Williams Junction). Back in those days Phoenix actually produced things for the outside world -- not just bringing in lumber for tract houses -- and had passenger rail service. Prescott had been a railroad division point, and held extra locomotives for the big climb in and out of town. Santa Fe relocated the line to an easier grade, leaving Prescott on a little-used branch. Still, the beautiful Santa Fe depot stood guard at the foot of downtown (it's been somewhat preserved), and trains still ran into the hinterlands of Dewey and Humboldt to serve the remaining mines. The courthouse was still an important venue for Arizona lawyers -- Barry Goldwater would announce his presidential candidacy from its steps -- and Whiskey Row was not only an artifice for tourists. I learned to ride horses in Prescott.
I spent the summer of 1967 in Payson. A friend from Phoenix joined me for several weeks, and we were High Country Tom Sawyers. Payson was tiny, and although the country around it held a few (real) cabins, it was much more isolated than Prescott or Flag. We explored the countryside during the day, being careful to find shelter from the afternoon thunderstorms. At night, on the porch with my grandmother, we stared into an infinite vault of stars and went inside to read Zane Grey describing a country perfectly recognizable to us. The Six-Day War was raging in the Middle East, and the Nuclear War Kid in me was not sorry to be so far away from the first-strike target of Tucson. One treat was a trip to Star Valley to the one little movie theater in the area. There was nothing but emptiness between Payson and the hamlet, which sat like a little candle against the black, primeval forest. Payson was an impossible drive from the county seat in Globe, but it didn't matter. Its peace was only interrupted by the occasional logging truck.
The Mogollon Rim loomed above us, a deep blue escarpment that was lovely but vaguely menacing to young eyes. I spent summers at Camp Geronimo as a Boy Scout, and later camped, as a young man in the late 1970s, in what was still the vast, silent, empty wilderness. In the 1960s, we drove through tiny specs like Heber. This was national forest land, so private ownership wasn't possible. Nor was it practical. The lack of water would help ensure that this land wasn't developed, or so the men at the Stream Commission assured me, and the Salt River Project would never allow poaching on the upper Verde. What human activity there was, aside from adventurous tourists, was logging and the seasonal movement of livestock. Yet the wilderness ruled. Now it's difficult to look around many parts of Arizona and not see the works of man. Not then. This part of the High Country was only a very few decades removed from the frontier.
So many memories: Fording the Verde, swift and wide with snowmelt, as Scouts and, at Geronimo, hearing the terrifying stories of the Mogollon Monster; watching the town turn out in Skull Valley when the train from Phoenix would make its nightly stop; long hikes through the forest without seeing another person; the first time I saw the Grand Canyon, unfogged by air pollution; the utter emptiness of Arizona highways, including I-17 at certain times; Crown King accessible only by treacherous unimproved roads; the white-knuckle old Yarnell Hill highway; Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon unspoiled; a long, lonely drive with a friend through the White Mountains, going hours without seeing more than five other cars; the last time I took my mother to Flagstaff and the Canyon.
Now I can hardly bear to see the High Country because I know what's been lost. Arizona added 5.2 million people with virtually no constraints on land use, little provision for infrastructure and a "stoned-in-the-dorm" denial about the reality of water. The heat island from Phoenix combined with climate change is slowly killing the forest. Even without the sprawl into the High Country, it's terribly stressed by having a huge metropolitan area so close. One minor (!) problem is the use of national forests as trash dumps. The highway along the Rim is lined with schlock and subdivisions, a product of highly questionable land swaps that have never received the proper scrutiny. Just getting to still-charming downtown Prescott requires driving through the abortion that is Prescott Valley -- a huge, ugly car dealership presiding over it all like a malevolent god -- and the amorphous shopping strips on the edge of town. The depredations of the mining and logging industries on the West were tiny compared with that of sprawl and unsustainable population growth.
So much magic has been lost. The public costs will keep rising. Things could have been done differently with a little more vision and a lot less greed.
It's not confined to Arizona, of course. I worked for a time in northwest Nevada in the mid-1970s. The Washoe Valley, a lush grassland at the foot of the Sierras between Carson City and Reno was a vision -- take away the little highway and you could see it as the 19th century cowboys did (you can glimpse it in the picnic scene of the movie, The Shootist). When I came back to Reno in 2002 to give a speech, I was driven through the valley -- it was a horror of tract housing and shopping strips.
America the beautiful. I saw the last of the best of it. Were it not for the terrible environmental consequences coming, and the sacred patrimony profaned, this would all just be nostalgia.
Read the entire Phoenix 101 series here.