This is what Tom Zoellner has done in his most recent book, Rim to River: Looking into the Heart of Arizona (2023), a rigorous political and personal study that he hangs on a backpacking trip from the top of the state to the bottom, passing through the Grand Canyon, the forested highlands of Central Arizona, and the low desert down to the Mexican border. This is an excellent way to assemble such a book. Half the story would be missing if he wrote without covering such distances. Arizona, with its complex and wildly changing geography, insists that the land play a significant role.
I take a particular interest in this book because Zoellner and I were born in Arizona a year apart (me in 1967 and him in ’68). His family has been here since before statehood, while I am first-generation, but let’s not quibble. We came of age within a few miles of each other in North Phoenix in similarly constructed cinder block houses, a landscape he describes as “sad streets with no sidewalks or character, the air of vague suspicion, feeling drowned in all the pricey elbow room, the lack of human connection.” Well said.
The grid of the city around both of our upbringings was spiked by scattered and bouldery mountains. Standing atop any of these pinnacles, you’d find yourself surrounded by a roaring plain of what looks like broken glass stretching for miles, but not forever. On the horizon, the city gives way to open desert and distant, looming mountains. Only by climbing a few hundred feet above the deck of the Phoenix Basin can you see this. Otherwise, you are lost in human sprawl.
On his trek, he is alone, no chummy side banter, just his own experience allowing him to freely corkscrew into subjects like mining, wildfires, and briars of city-building and lobbyists. A deep Indigenous history opens onto Spanish gold-seekers, ranchers, and missionaries. Indian wars, railroads, and land grabs follow, and epic water developments eventually make the state livable to millions, fertile ground for real estate scams and swarms of hucksters who continue to find easy pickings. Landlocked and severe, Arizona engenders a survival mechanism of strong, sometimes zealous self-interest, creating what Zoellner calls “the politics of loneliness.” This is where people have come to get away from everything else.
Zoellner is a participant in the writing. His intimacy makes the book. When describing the major irrigation canals winding through Phoenix, he writes, “My great-great-grandmother dipped bedsheets in the Grand Canal and hung them over the windows in the family boardinghouse on summer nights for a swamp cooler effect.” Zoellner had his first high school kiss along a trail of mostly lost Spanish missions built 400 years ago, not far from a canyon that Indigenous Pima fighters used as refuge during the O’odham Uprising of 1751. Through these personal anecdotes, he weaves himself into the state’s social and geographic fabric, giving the book a sense of presence, like he was meant to write this.
A career as a journalist put Zoellner in the thick of the action. He describes the moment an out-of-work firefighter looking for a job touches a match to dry branches and a fire erupts: entire horizons turn black in one of the biggest wildfires in state history. Zoellner is one step behind the flames, witnessing the still-smoldering remains, where he writes, “Children’s swing sets had melted into Salvador Dalí abstractions.”
As Zoellner backpacks southward, chapters of state history unfold from a millennium ago to the sharper focus of now. In the saga of the politically infamous former sheriff Joe Arpaio, Zoellner comes in close to the subject, as he often does in this book. Arpaio served as Maricopa County sheriff for 24 years, nationally known for his policies of racial profiling and stunts like forcing prisoners to dress in pink and eat rotten food. When he was found guilty of criminal contempt of court, then-president Donald Trump gave him a pardon. Zoellner and Arpaio know each other and share conversations; Arpaio admits to him that he doesn’t understand the meaning of the word friendship. This makes sense when Zoellner points out that the US Census ranked the state last when it comes to its citizens spending time with neighbors. He writes, “Arpaio came to epitomize, for me, a certain quality of loneliness in Arizona’s soul.”
This loneliness is familiar. I come from it too, and Zoellner helps me see more clearly why. In a land of endless promise and ruinous drought, we stand on the shoulders of genocide, dubious water schemes, and Japanese internment camps. History is laid bare on this dry ground. One has a sense of being adrift in mythic country.
Zoellner’s encyclopedic knowledge can become overwhelming, a marathon of copper lords, real estate developers, and comically ruthless public servants. He injects long exposition when I’m settling in for his experience, and I wish he’d stop doing that. It’s the journalist in him. Some passages have so many names, dates, and places that I worry there will be a test at the end. Then he hooks me with an episode so intense and close to home that I can’t look away.
Zoellner writes of a horrific urban murder of a mother and her two children, the crime concealed when the house was set ablaze. As it burned, he was at the scene as a newspaper reporter, his face warm from the flames, not knowing already-dead bodies were inside. When the story broke, he followed this case across the state on the trail of a manhunt, poking into a cave where the prime suspect is believed to have hidden before he escaped, never caught, presumed dead. Years later, Zoellner backpacks to where the suspect had been last reported. He describes picking his way down “a small drainage sinew lined with boulders.” I realize I know the place. I grew up fishing that creek with my dad, and all the cottonwoods and the purl of the water come back to me. I hear elk bugling in morning fog and cicadas screaming in the pines on summer afternoons. Throughout the book, I see that we’ve found our way to many of the same places. Each time he takes me there is a gift, even if it comes, as it often does, strewn with violence and corruption.
If I have any lasting complaint, it’s that I want more sunrises, more wind gusts and long days of travel. I know what’s out there. So much terrain passes underfoot that the natural landscape begs for a greater share. This is where aloneness replaces loneliness. The late legendary senator Barry Goldwater called it “splendid isolation.” The land is much greater than our endeavors, and it puts us in clear perspective. Zoellner spends more time in the weeds of state politics than one might like, showing how Arizona has become defined by clownish and dangerous civics, while I yearn for him to take me back to the wild, which is probably what he wants too.
Craig Childs is the author of Tracing Time: Seasons of Rock Art on the Colorado Plateau (2022) and Stone Desert (revised edition, 2022). He lives in Southwest Colorado.