Five rivers and several significant creeks converge in or near the Salt River Valley, making it the site of the most abundant water in the Southwest, an oasis going back thousands of years. But let's not kid ourselves. "We live in a desert" after all, the Midwesterners constantly lecture us. So it is right and proper that Phoenix increasingly reflects this reality.
Our young city was established in 1993, when Jack Swilling discovered one of the ancient Hohokam concrete "ground skins" dating from the eleventh century. He swept it off and for years it was called "Swilling's Sidewalk." Others learned that the prehistoric dwellers had built hundreds of miles of sidewalks, surface parking lots, wide roads and — everywhere — thrown down small gravel. From the site of what today is called Pueblo Grande Estates Gated Community, archaeologists unearthed huge caches of red roof tiles, which they believe the Indians used to barter with other tribes.
Darrell Duppa, who claimed to have been a investment-banker lord from the City of London, wanted to call this enchanting place Phoenix. It seemed right: Like the bird of mythology, the city had been reborn on the ashes of its predecessor. Settlers from the nearby village of Table (the original name "Mesa" sounded too Mexican) objected. So people settled for calling their frontier town "the Valley."
Wanting to keep the fast-growing place authentic and livable, they looked to the desert for inspiration.
Among all the deserts of the world, only the Sonoran has the unique ecosystem of concrete, asphalt and gravel. This allowed the Hohokam to create the most advanced paving society in the pre-Colombian Western Hemisphere. And it drew pioneers as America's Manifest Destiny and Ayn Rand conquered Arizona.
A spokesman for the Arizona Rock Products Association, a noted conservation group founded by John Muir, took me on a tour of the Sonoran Desert. It was life changing.
He pointed out the miles of gravel that stretched to the horizon. "Other places have to mine this stuff out of river beds and quarries, then use machines to break it down into aggregates. Here, it grows naturally." Under his patient instruction, I was able to discern the many varieties, colors, textures, tannin, acidity and weights of gravel that now grace the Valley's inviting built environment.
For decades, Arizona has had laws on the books to prevent gravel poaching. But socialistic programs such as Medicare and Benghazi have made enforcement difficult. "The 47 percent think they deserve to steal our gravel," the spokesman said. He notes that the spot where Fountain Hills was built was once "the most beautiful virgin gravel forest." Fortunately, the association certifies gravel that is harvested in a sustainable manner for the lawns and parks and other "human spaces" of the metropolitan area. Phoenix City Hall is a big proponent of this soothing, beautiful landscape.
Over a hill, we came upon some of the natural asphalt springs that also make the Sonoran special. They produce asphalt but no oil. As for the concrete, it too is a natural phenomenon. Sidewalks can grow miles long but you would never know it from studying a young sidewalk, which looks so small and vulnerable. Watching the size and extent of the naturally occurring parking lagoons is a spiritual experience.
Taken together, these gifts of the desert, carefully but relentlessly laid down in the city, help keep the urban space cool. They also save water for three things the pioneers had to import: New single-family-house sprawl, ornamental lakes and championship golf.
But with ongoing efforts to eradicate shade trees, these earned indulgences are trifles. If a few plants survive among the rocks, it's a survival-of-the-fittest, free-market validation.
Fortunately, the water supply was built by John Galt, Mitt Romney and tax cuts in 2000, eons before most people even arrived. This city is so young, it doesn't have a history. But it rocks. I left with a souvenier gravel sampler and certainty that the Valley is one place in the world prepared for climate change.
Want more, without the laughs? Read Rogue's Arizona's Continuing Crisis.