Bicycling Back to Bisbee

March 16, 2013

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.

SheltonAgain 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.

A melancholy cyclist riding along the Santa Cruz River

February 22, 2013

The Lessening Stream: An Environmental History of the Santa Cruz River, by Michael F. Logan (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2002)

Turkey Creek in the Canelo Hills

Turkey Creek in the Canelo Hills

As American rivers go, Arizona’s Santa Cruz isn’t very much, 205 miles from its headwaters in the Canelo Hills to its confluence with the Gila River near Phoenix where both streams exist as dry washes most of the time.

My interest in this little desert stream is based, in part, on the fact that on four days of PAC Tour’s Border Towns bicycling event we’ll be riding up and down in two valleys that are part of the Santa Cruz’s drainage basin. A second reason is that this river is a useful paradigm for the environmental history of rivers great and small across America’s West and in many other places in the world.

To understand the river’s history, it is necessary to have a comprehensive account of its life as far back as we can get it, with special attention given to the forces, natural and human-caused, that have affected it. Environmental historian Michael F. Logan, whose family settled on the Santa Cruz a few miles north of Nogales in 1880, has provided this narrative. Its usefulness is increased by the fact that he intends to avoid a moralistic overlay to the narrative. Evaluations of good and bad and right and wrong are largely absent, leaving it to the readers to develop their own interpretation of the story’s meaning.

As we bicycle along the historic course of the river and its tributary streams, we can ignore its history. We can focus full attention upon the ride itself and give little thought to the way this river has entered into the human history of the societies that have endured through this desert landscape. All that we have to do is keep to the designated route and revel in the delights of Arizona’s winter sunshine and broad vistas.

As a history-oriented cyclist, however, I keep thinking about the human stories that have unfolded along the roads over which I bicycle mile after mile. As I travel along the Santa Cruz waterways, Logan’s book will provide a multi-faceted narrative that interweaves the interaction of natural and human factors in three eras which he describes as archaic, modern, and postmodern.

My mindset will differ from Logan’s, however. He considers himself to be a materialist, and therefore resists seeing this history as a story of decline. As a religious historian, I pay attention to meaning as well as to fact, and it is more difficult for me than it is for Logan to resist the tendency to develop the morality of the actions that have taken place in the Santa Cruz basin. Topics that interest me include this short list:

Logan1)    The capacity of this little stream to support extensive human development, including the Tucson metropolitan area, vast acreages of irrigated farming, and an extensive mining industry. Even though the Santa Cruz is a diminishing stream, the reservoirs provided by its ancient aquifer continue to support a complex industrial society.

2)     The ability of humankind to alter the forces of nature. Logan shows how even the Hohokam—the “Ancient One”—were able to change the river’s flow by their simple but highly efficient irrigation systems. In later years, and especially in the most recent postmodern era, this human capacity beggars the imagination.

3)    The strange, disquieting character of what Logan describes as the postmodern era. Even Logan’s determination to avoid moralizing escapes him as he describes the “postmodern vision of the river” as “chaotic and surrealistic.” People with this point of view completely dissociate the river, and all of the politics revolving around its use, from anything that is important to them in their daily lives—and this despite the fact that the Santa Cruz and its aquifer continue to “be central to the survival of human society in the valley.”

4)    Logan’s calm confidence that our culture, like that of the Hohokam more than six hundred years ago, will disappear because the natural world will no longer be able to sustain our way of life. “Just as a river existed before human cultures arrived in the valley, . . .a river will no doubt continue to exist in one manifestation or another long after the last human culture, and I, have passed from the scene” (p. 11).

Despite the somber character of Logan’s eschatology, I tend to share it. As a religious historian I am drawn to the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, but as I bicycle through life the plot of world history seems to be fundamentally tragic.

This bicycle ride through the Santa Cruz basin, enjoyable as it is bound to be, is likely to send me home even more uneasy about our human prospects than when I began the ride.