It was 114 degrees fahrenheit in Tucson, Arizona, when I arrived the other day. This is not a temperature that most Americans are used to, but then Tucson is not a town that most Americans would find familiar. The shimmery waves of heat rising off the blacktop; the blanched and mostly grassless expanses of countryside that ring the city; the ubiquitous saguaro cactus, whose hail-fellow-well-met raised arm would seem to greet out-of-state visitors were it not for its dangerous spines; the Democratic politics in a floridly Republican state; the bohemian subculture that exists around the edge of the University of Arizona; and the vital participation in domestic civic life by Mexican, Latino, Chicano, indigenous American, and undocumented people—all these add up to a city that is unlike most American cities. Walking around in 114 degrees, just for starters, is not something you do often elsewhere. But in Tucson, in July, some locals do it, and they are often riding unicycles, playing banjo, browsing for tattoos, or camping under a palo verde tree to wait it out, until the sun goes under the lip of Sentinel Peak and the day can begin in earnest.
Or they are waiting for monsoons. The monsoon season, which arrives in Tucson with a startling drama to arrest the hottest part of summer, fills the dry washes and riverbeds of the city so quickly that the water can back up into the roads—sweeping away cars, other large-ticket items, and anything else in the way. Just as quickly as the flash floods flood, they come to an end, and the air is dryer and marginally cooler. Everyone in Tucson loves monsoon season.
Tucson is also a somewhat violent city, and there’s no disguising this. It’s not far from the Mexican border, and close to the border strange things happen, like the narcotrafficking from the other side and the sex-and-pharmaceutical tourism emanating from hereabout. And thus: violence. Most recently, Tucson is (also) noteworthy for Jared Loughner’s attempt to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords, a congressional representative from Tucson whose reasonableness and ability to move in and around her party, depending on the needs of her constituents, seemed to make her the kind of politician you would like to duplicate above all others. But when I heard about the attempt on Giffords’s life, based on what I know of Tucson—the bodies in the ravines, the poverty-stricken blocks, the gangs, the meth labs, the economic downturn that has wiped out the real-estate market in town—I was not terribly surprised. Sad but not surprised. Even less so when it turned out that Loughner was not what he would have been most predictably, a right-wing nut attempting to neutralize a perfectly reasonable politician, but, rather, a paranoid schizophrenic. None of these things is out of place in the Tucson I know and love, the place of startling beauty and great difficulty.
The first stoplight on Speedway, the most major of Tucson’s big, Western thoroughfares, didn’t appear until the ’50s, but in just 60 years or so, Tucson has gone from a sort of a one-horse college town to a golf retreat and a snowbird destination of choice, and an alternative to what has to be among the ugliest and most unlovable of American cities, Phoenix. The golf-resort façade of Tucson makes me want to lie down and die, and it seems especially inadvisable in a town nearly bereft of water, but fortunately Tucson is so complicated, and so paradoxical, that it never entirely tolerates or rewards the capitalist version of itself. Large-scale development has nosedived now and again in Tucson, and no matter how much you seem to develop the town, there are still mountain lions in the Catalina foothills, coyotes on residential blocks, javelina in your garbage, and astoundingly good Mexican food in the most unassuming taco stands.
One thing seems to bind together all the contradictions of this dramatic desert landscape, and that’s the aforementioned monsoons. I’d been visiting town for more than five years and never seen one until just this week. Sitting up on a hill on the west side of town, I watched the gray, ominous clouds massing over Mount Lemmon, the heat lightning so frequent that it was like the clouds were pulsing with it. A couple of hours later the storm erupted and lit up the deeper night, drenching the parched latitudes, reminding everyone who lives in this forbidding and alien landscape that in these parts nature always wins.