Of Vistas and Visions

Santa Catalinas, Tucson. Photo by Kimberly Schmitz

As this summer of our discontent dragged slowly to a close, swamp coolers whirring uselessly against endless days of record heat, time was, I thought, to reconsider why I moved to Tucson. I recently appalled an East Coast friend by telling him that little lizards often crawl up through my kitchen drain. Pressed for details and wanting to shock further, I regaled him with creepy tales of rattlesnakes, spiders, and scorpions among the saguaros.

So, he wondered, after a stunned pause, what’s a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn doing in a desert like this? What on earth had possessed me to leave behind my co-op apartment on Fifth Avenue for such a hostile place?

There’s no hostility shortage in New York, needless to say, but I wasn’t just looking to trade in one unwelcoming environment for another. The quick answer to my friend’s questions was that I wanted to try my luck as a freelance writer – a luxury I couldn’t afford while paying a king’s ransom of mortgage and maintenance on my tiny piece of the Manhattan rock. So, I said, I wanted to buy some time and space in a less expensive city.

That’s the superficial story. The truth, as usual, is more complex. Another friend came closer when she suggested that 40 years of wandering by my ancestors in the Sinai might still be lingering in my soul. I’m not greatly given to mysticism, but the green cramped history of New England never did feel much like my own.

Since arriving here, I’ve been granted another vision of America, one I only vaguely recollect learning about back East. The English must have had a terrific PR team – how else can you explain the absence of the Spanish conquistadors and padres from my early classrooms? I knew more than I ever wanted to about those New England Puritan father-and-son preachers, Cotton and Increase Mather, but until I settled in the Southwest I had never heard of Junipero Serra or Eusebio Kino, Jesuit missionaries who traveled a whole lot more and had far more mellifluous names.

Oh, I know the Spaniards could be a cruel bunch, ruthless in their destruction of ancient Indian civilizations, not to mention my own ancestors’ heritage in the Spanish Inquisition. Still, I can’t help but feel a kinship with a people who headed south to warm climes when they crossed a great ocean instead of just substituting one cold shore for an equally unyielding one. Who could relate to a bunch of guys who took Saskatchewan when they might have had Acapulco?

Another desert critter, not in my backyard but in The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The myths of New English tell of harsh winters; in New Spain, it was relentless summers that had to be overcome. If, to paraphrase the poet, the world must end in fire or ice, I say let me burn. Let me die like Don Quixote, from an excess of imagination, rather than mired down in details like Hamlet.

Do I distort and exaggerate, arrange unfair juxtapositions? So be it. Back East, I was a Ph.D. without portfolio, a literature instructor with no inclination to teach. I edited travel guides to make ends meet. Out West, I have learned how to drive – and how to get paid for reporting what I observe along the way.

My vistas have literally expanded. The space in New York is vertical, massed buildings blocking out the sky. In Tucson, you learn the derivation of the word “horizon-tal.” Much of the time you’re boundaried only by the flaws in your own vision.

And by the city’s encircling mountains. Each time I go to the supermarket, I see the Santa Catalinas rising up before me. In late summer, before the monsoon rains bring relief from the heat, they’re often edged by grandly billowing clouds. The night of my talk with my New York friend, storm warnings bleeping across my TV screen sent me scurrying to my back yard. There I stood looking at the lightning, flash after flash illuminating an ink-black sky. Clashes of thunder drawing ever closer made me wonder whether I should head back inside. But I didn’t.

Call it an ancient Semitic desert yearning or a hearkening back to lazy, youthful summers spent baking on Brighton Beach; I can’t say for certain what makes this often-searing town seem like home. I only know that Tucson gives its pilgrims something far more precious than affordable real estate, that I’ve arrived at a place where you can let your mind roam.

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About the Author

Edie Jarolim is a writer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. Sign up on this blog to get updates about her humorous tell-all/memoir, GETTING NAKED FOR MONEY: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.

8 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Thanks for elegantly expressing what so many of us feel about this off-beat choice of a place.

  2. Stacy says:

    So pleased to call you a neighbor! This is a wonderful description of our extreme Sonoran desert – I have a love/hate relationship with the southwest, but I could never imagine living back east. Only the west offers an expanse large enough for my soul to wander… I’ll be visiting your new blog frequently!

  3. lee levin says:

    I connected with you through the Southern Arizona Jewish Genealogy Society. Although I am no longer actively involved with the SAJGS I’m looking forward to your book.

  4. Mike Webster says:

    Darn it all, Edie Jarolim. Somewhere in the small space of my parochial North Jersey mind, I had the entire American Southwest comfortably filed away under “Places I Have No Interest in Visiting.” And now you’ve gone and made me think there’s something I might encounter out there that can’t be found in the familiar rush and clamor of the Northeast Corridor. Darn it all, I say.

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