When I actually got to the top of the foothill, I was able to see Phoenix as I think it was intended; from above, as its name of the mythical bird for which it is named suggests. I sat on a nearby rock and began to look out and reflect on my trip, taking in the sounds of the people around me, laughter filling the air as my camera did its thing. As I began to lose light in the west, directly north of me was the city, suddenly shimmering as if set ablaze. What I saw in that moment was bigger than words, so self-apparent that all I could do was laugh and then not, until things were quiet and I was left agape.
Phoenix at sunset from South Mountain.
When the sun set on Phoenix, I grabbed my stuff and took stock of my work. The photos I felt were dramatic and impressive, every one of them except those of Phoenix itself. I couldn’t be closer I felt, but it would have taken a different camera setup or moving a mountain. Understandably, my frustration lie at my own feet. Climbing down the foothill, I took some parting shots of the large saguaro cactus in the area. They were like giants next to me, their forms oddly anthropomorphic. The cactus had “skin” that wrinkled and furrowed as well as “hairy arms” set in the orans position as if engaged in eternal prayer. I could see us in these trees, and them in us as well. Being next to the cactus made me feel a sort of kinsmanship with my environment, and even with time itself. How many people had stood where I stood? I would be hard to guess, but the realization reemphasized how important it was for people to see this place.
Phoenix was founded before Arizona became a state in 1881 by a former Confederate veteran, the former happening on Valentine’s day, 1912. It was said of one the founder’s convoy, the city should be named Phoenix because it was built on the ruins of another civilization. Perhaps it was an acknowledgment of a greater truth, the abhorrent wars with the Native Americans or the fact that it’s easily one of the sunniest places on earth, second only to Yuma, AZ on the Arizona-California border.
Theodore Roosevelt, famous for his stance on conservation and the establishment of the first national monument in the U.S, once said this of the Grand Canyon and more generally Arizona:
“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”
Travelling around the state, brief of my time was, I was struck at how much of the land was unadulterated, visible as it would have been to my grandfather and his before him. For vast stretches of land, no cell phone reception, not so much as a radio signal could be caught. While it could be interpreted in some senses that this means that Arizona is lacking in development, I would contend, as Theodore Roosevelt might, that some things are fine as they are. Development doesn’t always have to imply that a community gets a Walmart, Starbucks, or some other feature of our modern urban sprawl. Progress too isn’t best defined by our ability to connect, multitask, and go fast. In the interest of speed, of volume, of capital, we’ve erected “McCities” and the internet as both testaments to our increased growth and capacity as a society as well as hallmarks of our hubris and decadence.
As one of the first generations to have been exposed to various levels of digital and or virtual reality, combined with the whiplash-like speed of the internet, the world quickly became strange and distant; foreign, cold and smooth like plastic. Being in Arizona brought me to terms with ephemeral nature of our modern conveniences and set them in contrast to all of the natural wonders I got to see. These gifts of technology, our increased access and connectivity suddenly felt small and inconsequential, affected even. Scrolling through my photos, I began to wonder about the very nature of my passion and profession and then things got meta: I make the content for the screens, capturing as best I can those moments I deem beautiful through glass and a screen of my own. No matter how well I tried to hold the essence of what lay before my eyes in Arizona, no photo, no video could do so satisfactorily. The reason, I concluded was simple: Arizona is raw. Much like life, it should be experienced in person, with one’s own eyes and hands, nails caked with satisfaction until it sinks into their pores and deeper still down to the bone that nothing ever beats the real thing.