Going Back to Bisbee, by Richard Shelton (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992). This book won the 1992 Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.
Again this year my bike ride in Southern Arizona was an intellectual journey disguised as vigorous physical activity. It provided the incentive for reading about the historical, religious, and geographical territory through which I was cycling on week two of PAC Tour’s Winter Training Camp.
In an earlier blog (“A melancholy cyclist riding along the Santa Cruz River,” posted February 22, 2013) I reviewed a book, which I read before the trip, that interprets the history of the portion of the Sonoran Desert through which I would be cycling: The Lessening Stream, by environmental historian Michael F. Logan. This modest stream, scarcely 200 miles long, is one of the defining features of this year’s journey.
It is difficult to imagine how a book could differ from Logan’s more completely than the volume that I read during the ride itself: Going Back to Bisbee by poet and university professor Richard Shelton.
Whereas Logan’s self-avowed materialist point of view generated a strong sense of frustration and futility as I thought about the way that human activity has affected this desert river and its basin, Shelton’s personal narrative conveys a lilting sense of love for this arid river valley and its flora and fauna (including the people who have lived here over the centuries). Instead of melancholy, Shelton inspires joyful wonder.
Unlike Logan who grew up in Southern Arizona and moved away, Shelton first came to this country in 1956 as a draftee in the U.S. Army and has made this “baked land of chaotic hills and valleys” his home ever since.
Going Back to Bisbee begins on a monsoon summer day as Shelton drives his old van from Tucson to Bisbee—up the grade on AZ 83 to Sonoita, east on AZ 82 over the San Pedro River, south on AZ 80 through Tombstone, and onward over Mule Pass to Bisbee. It takes 319 pages of beautifully crafted prose for this poet-English professor to fill in details about the drive itself and the many associations that it brings to mind.
He describes the character of the Arizona monsoon season, portrays the strange beauty of yucca and other “stand-up-straight” desert plants that thrive in this dry land that has two rainy seasons. Shelton gives a detailed account of the ferocity of the marauding Apaches who terrorized this land for three hundred years.
His accounts of ghost towns in Southern Arizona are based on his own scrambles through the desolate places where crude piles of rain-destroyed adobe, now overpowered by mesquite thickets, are all that remain.
Whereas Logan stands back from his subject, trying to describe it with analytical objectivity, Shelton draws close, embracing this strange place with love. What Wordsworth said of poetry can be ascribed to Going Back to Bisbee. It “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
As Shelton drives through fields overrun with cholla cacti, he explains in full detail the particularly painful characteristics of this desert plant. When he stops to watch a handsome coyote lazing along a pool of water in a canyon, he provides an extended discussion of the remarkable family life of coyotes and, as an extended aside, the ill-fated romance between one of his own dogs and a coyote from the Tucson hills.
The deep humanity of Shelton’s narrative is most fully expressed in the last third of the book in which he describes the geographical, architectural, and human history of Bisbee itself where he taught school for two years immediately after his two-year stint at Fort Huachuca.
The sensitive portraits of his junior high students during the late 1950s inspire confidence in the teaching profession. Shelton describes the complex ethnic mix of Bisbee’s neighborhoods and explains how the culture of copper mining has created this town that “never grew up, just got older and older.”
As religious historian, I was especially interested in Shelton’s characterization of Bisbee as caught between the hardships of life and the terrors of a Calvinist God, both of which were brought to Bisbee by the Phelps Dodge mining company.
The hardships of life, manifested in Brewery Gulch and the many brothels of earlier times, are self evident because of the rigors and dangers of mining and its destructive impact upon geography and the ecosystem, and also the fluctuations between prosperity and privation that are characteristic of a mining economy.
Less obvious is the religious side of the contrast, represented by Bisbee’s Presbyterian Church. The Phelps-Dodge-James family consisted of New England Calvinists, who brought their theology and their desire for order and propriety to this town that their company controlled.
Neither side of the social conflict won, and the Bisbee that Shelton remembers in the late 1980s, when he writes this book, contains ample evidence of both elements still living in tension.
Most of what Shelton tells us in this book was new to me, even though I have bicycled through this land several times. And now, having read this travel narrative, I am inspired to follow Shelton’s example by going back to Bisbee one more time.