This morning I went to the top of South Mountain. I had to show my son where the aliens landed each night. The path winds to and fro, but is paved and has become a popular place where thousands come each year to observe the city that we built from nothing.
Phoenix is an unlikely place for a city. A dry, barren valley where only those of us who love the desert would even think of living. At the beginning, when Arizona was only a territory, it was a stagecoach stop between Flagstaff and Tucson – a growing, important city of the exciting new territory.
It was at this time that Tombstone (going there this week – stay tuned for the blog post) was rich and powerful (if not cosmopolitan), boasting the biggest economy between Saint Louis and San Francisco. It was the cowboy’s hangout where the gangs rode; the miners’ village where the ladies dressed in Parisian dresses – a drinkers’ town where the great theater troops stopped.
But then a civil war a continent away changed everything. During that tense time, Flagstaff had allied itself with the union efforts while Tucson had sided with the confederacy. The politics were still poisoned by this rivalry in 1911 when Arizona went from territory to state; so to soothe the frayed nerves of these famously unstable cowboys, in 1912 Phoenix became the capital of the new state.
This fact is unremarkable – politics and conflict exist everywhere in the world. What is remarkable is what became of this stagecoach stop. Within our amazing country – Phoenix is something special indeed. A great city, millions of people – the largest capital city in these United States and the fifth largest city in America – built in a valley where for an eternity existed only cactus and barrenness. I have wandered the world over – from the Sahara to the Sonora, from the dunes of Coro to the great mountains of sand in Cafayate. I have traveled jungle and river and bustling urban metropolis – Karachi and Mexico City and Caracas and Buenos Aires. But nowhere have humans seized a place so hostile and turned it into something so inviting.
Looking down over the vastness – houses and malls and airports and stadiums and golf courses – I do not feel small. Because we did this, we humans. We are capable of these great deeds; we are able to build for ourselves and our children great places indeed, at peace with each other as long as we are free to seek our own prosperity. I love my city – the city where I was born – for just this reason. I showed the city in its enormity to my son today, who responded by saying, “I want to see where the aliens buy the vegetables.” He will learn in time, as I learned, not to take these things for granted. Not to ignore the great acts of creation – such as was spread out before our eyes. Because it is in our great acts of creation that we find our humanity.