Arizona is a state of extremes: from alpine Flagstaff to desert-bound Tucson. From the Grand Canyon to the plains of the Mexican border. From tiny Seligman to bustling Phoenix. It is rich, diverse and authentic.
The Real Arizona
Arizona has its share of tourist traps. Tombstone was the site of the showdown at the OK Corral. Tombstone is now a cardboard cutout town where the dead are resurrected daily for a re-enactment.
In the hills south of Tombstone is Bisbee, the real Arizona. Ageing hippies with raggedy gray ponytails roam the streets wearing tattered sweatpants. The dark tattoos on their cheeks expand and retract as they order at the Bisbee Coffee Co. An Hispanic family camps out on the steps of the Copper Queen Hotel. The patriarch rises suddenly to face me as I cast a glance in his direction.
The cool mountain winds blow mercilessly through the wind tunnel of a main street. It’s just as ‘preserved’ as Tombstone and with better gunfights to boot. There’s an AAA bondsman to sort you out if you end up in County Jail, just down Route 80. But don’t bother hitchhiking home from lock-up. There are large signs on the highway warning motorists of just that possibility.
Towards the Mexican border from Bisbee, an achingly open landscape spreads out as I careen down accident-prone switchbacks. Sun-dappled plains stretch towards snow-capped mountains. There’s barely a hint of civilization to mar the vista. The border town of Douglas is a scar on this landscape. A large, razor-wired detention centre for illegal immigrants dominates the town. Every other car is emblazoned with Sheriff or Border Patrol.
North of Douglas towards New Mexico, the empty two-lane road passes an abandoned playground. The empty swing set, the staccato-like roll of tumbleweed and the piercing silence peculiar to windy deserts combine to give a feeling of post-nuclear apocalypse. It is peaceful and barren, serene yet devastated.
Many of Hopper’s sparse paintings of the West capture this unique, troubling silence. ‘Western Motel’ (1957) is a portrait of the transience of a modern motel room. It is one of only two pictures Hopper completed during his residency at the Huntington Hartford Foundation in Pacific Palisades, California. It shows a woman sitting on a made motel bed, staring at the viewer, her hand clutching the footboard in tense anticipation. The bags are packed and ready to go. There is a car parked just outside the window.
Here Hopper takes the use of the horizontal to its discomfiting extreme, portraying the replacement of the railroad with the uneasy freedom of the highway. Lloyd Goodrich, from the Whitney Museum of American Art, called it ‘one of his toughest pictures of any period…as firsthand an exposé of our mass culture as pop art.’
Where do you think the real Arizona is?