This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. This blog is not supported by advertising, it's supported by the generosity of my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

How the desert became beautiful

The Sonoran Desert, where Phoenix, Arizona is, has looked the same since the end of the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago. But the way that people see it has only recently changed. It has changed from ugly to beautiful.

If you've never visited the desert around Phoenix, Arizona, I highly recommend that you do. There are amazing views, stunning landscapes, and plants, like Saguaro Cactuses, that are seen no where else in the world. The colors are absolutely astonishing, especially in the spring, after a rain. And did I mention the delicious smell of the desert, especially after a rain? I could go on and on, but I want to time-travel a bit with you.

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Let's go back to a time before air-conditioned cars, and cupholders, and convenience stores where we can get a hot dog, some Cheetos and a Coke. Let's go back to a time when the desert is horrible, and ugly, and frightening. I'm going to wave a magic wand and take away all of the roads. We are now out in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

Without food and water we will die fairly quickly. And yeah, you may be able to squeeze a little moisture out of a cactus, but it's not the same as opening a cold bottle of water from the Circle K. And if it's summer, we will be dead very quickly, even if we find some shade. Temperatures in the Sonoran Desert in the summer routinely get over 100 degrees, often over 115. And if it's winter, the desert is a painfully cold place, with temperatures below freezing.

The pioneers of Phoenix, in the 1860s, knew about that. To them a desert was a horrible place, a place of misery and death. It wasn't a place to live, it was a place to cross over as quickly as possible on your way to somewhere else, like California. So they changed it from a desert to an oasis. They built dams, and canals, and channeled the flood water from the Salt River up into the valley to grow crops, and plant trees. They transformed the desert. Their goal was to erase the desert.

But attitudes change, and now the desert is a precious thing that people like me love, and want to preserve. I'm old enough to remember the graffiti on the signs on Shea Boulevard east of Scottsdale Road that advertised the new subdivisions - the writing on the signs said, "Save Our Desert!"

I'm happy to live in the desert. I have all of the modern conveniences, and I'm not gonna die of starvation, or thirst, in Phoenix (unless I can't get to a Circle K fast enough!). The desert is a beautiful place, and I love looking at it, especially through the window of a car that has handy cupholders. The Phoenix pioneers would have no idea of my point of view. The desert has become beautiful.

Image at the top of this post: A Giant Saguaro Cactus in the 1920s. You're looking east towards Camelback Mountain at where Stanford and 32nd Street are now, 1/2 mile north of Camelback Road, Phoenix, Arizona.