Viewing a Desert Highway Through Someone Else’s Eyes

Picacho Trading Post, demolished. Photo by Aaron Gilbreath

Driving certain roads countless times, you form a relationship with the place even if you find it loathsome. For Tucson Weekly, journalist Tom Zoellner narrates his relationship with the stretch of Interstate 10 that runs between Phoenix and Tucson, and examines what drivers see along Arizona’s busiest freeway, showing history and life beyond the land’s appearance of ugly vacancy. A derelict concert venue, a Native American reservation, truck stops, abandoned businesses, fading signs of old agriculture ─ there’s history here if you look closely enough.

We come up to the perennially jammed off-ramp to Arizona Highway 347, widened to four lanes in 2004 to make room for Maricopa, an explosion of stucco and baked-red tile that qualified it as the fastest-growing city in the country until the foreclosure crisis hollowed it out half-a-decade later. Though the horizontal maze of curving streets cannot be seen from the interstate, I invariably think of the economy founded on cheap housing and mortgage trading; the desert chewed up for families on the move. The detached air-conditioned rancher is Arizona’s coal, its steel, its bushels of wheat. Before long, we pass the ruined museum and visitor’s center at the exit for the tribal village of Sacaton as we move into a ragged stretch of upper Sonoran hardpan and the first showings of another kind of boom: the swaths of ragged land that have never really recovered from the mania for cotton that swept Arizona in the 1910s. Big chunks of land near the rivers were scraped bare and planted with an extra long staple variety called Pima cotton, a primary component in tires and airplane wings. My great-great grandfather, Franklin La Rue, got caught up in the craze and planted cotton himself on the edge of Phoenix. The demand collapsed after the war and most of the desert fields went fallow. They still look hard-used and wasted.

The road crosses the Gila River, its broad bed gone to dust, but an important psychological line nonetheless. This used to be the border with Mexico before the Gadsden Purchase brought the south part of the state into the U.S. for a Confederate railroad that never got built. Large riverboats used to sail on it before the Coolidge Dam impounded all the water for the cotton farmers. A sign points the way to that sorrowful agribusiness crossroads off to the east; the one that I-10 pretty much murdered when it sucked away the traffic from state highway 87.

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