Its Easy To Leave Tuxon, essay by John M. Bancroft*
John Bancroft (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Editor and Web Publisher for the Office of Arid Lands Studies at The University of Arizona in Tucson and editor of The Arid Lands Newsletter. He currently is seeking a publisher for Sheila Na Gig, a novel about the only vampire there ever was or will be and her adventures in the Desert Southwest with, among others, an outlaw employee of the U.S. Forest Service named Ed.
(Originally published in the 11 September 1989 edition of High Country News, page 12.)
Ed Abbey said it's easy to leave Tucson. He did it lots of times.
And so have I. But I always come home to the Sonoran Desert, to Tucson in particular, because no place but this hard, dry country feels like home.
Abbey was a neighbor of mine. I can't claim him as a friend, at least not in the usual sense, as I talked with him only a handful of times since meeting him a dozen years ago. Like a lot of people, I was sad to see him leave Tucson for the last, irrevocable time this spring -- although he didn't go far.
Our first meeting, carried out in the dark of night on the neutral ground of the Tucson Community Center plaza, was straight out of a spy thriller or the dope-runner's handbook. Abbey carried something far more dangerous than drugs, though.
Ray Ring and I were editing a now defunct newspaper at the time, and we had heard that Abbey's novel Good News was about to go to press. We tracked him down by phone at his home "near Oracle" (then just a little town of copper miners, reclusive eccentrics and a handful of artists living quasi-communally, none of whom was Ed Abbey), and timidly asked whether he might consider allowing Tucson Weekly News to excerpt the new book.
Ray, who has since turned novelist himself, became a good friend of Abbey's over the years, but back then we were both just readers and admirers of his work and of the independent spirit of the cantankerous West his work embodies. We were sure he'd say no, probably forcefully, and so we were surprised when the gentle voice on the other end of the line invited us to meet its owner.
That's how we came face-to-face with the author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang after sundown on a summer evening. As we walked north along the plaza to our meeting place, Abbey, in the company of a pretty woman -- his wife, I believe, although we didn't ask -- loomed up out of the shadows, stopped, and waited for us.
It was Ray, who as both a journalist and a human being is nine parts skeptic and one part innocent, who spoke first.
"Edward Abbey. It's good to meet you ... I think."
Abbey just smiled at that, an amused grin growing first out of his hawk's eyes and only later out of his anarchist's beard, and handed over a beat-up manila envelope containing the freely annotated manuscript of his book.
"Use anything you want. Just be sure I get that back," he said, nodding at the fat envelope and starting away. Ray and I stayed where we were for a while, as I recall, and watched him walk back into the shadows.
That's the whole story. It doesn't hold a candle, I'll admit, to Tony Hillerman's story about a friend of his who one cold night in New York recognized William Faulkner stamping his feet under a street lamp outside a bar, and upon being invited inside for a drink and conversation stammered that he'd love to, if it weren't for the fact that he had to catch the last train to White Plains.
That's a New Yorker for you. A Tucsonan like me probably would have just stood there on the sidewalk with his mouth open until he froze solid.
Which reminds me of the reason I started this piece: I've been East several times, usually to take work as a writer or editor that paid better than the trade does here, but it never worked out. No sooner had I arrived in Chicago or New York or Palm Beach than I began making plans to go home, back to Arizona, where I could use my lungs and not the gills I felt growing under my ears.
It is so wet and warm in Tampa, where I rode out five benighted Reagan years, that just about anything but mountains will grow there -- whether you want it to or not. That's what finally sent me packing. I remember clearly the horror of the moment that sent me over the edge.
I have a pair of old-fashioned, high-topped, lace-up leather hiking boots that I broke in with a stroll along the trail up Wasson Peak west of Tucson in 1974. I loved those boots unreasonably the moment I laid eyes on them in the window of the Red Wing shoe store.
I didn't put many miles on those sturdy boots in Florida, and so they sat for months on end in the back of a closet in a rented bungalow.
Having been built for the steamy climate back in the '20s, with deep overhanging eaves, a wide verandah and so many windows that even the lightest breeze found its way in, the house had no air conditioning. Which meant the air inside was as moist as a pelican's pouch nine months out of 10.
One day I pushed aside the clothes that hung in the closet to renew my acquaintance with those boots. I didn't see them right away, but I did dance back a step or two at the sight of twin columns of a cancerous-looking green fuzz back behind some boxes I'd never unpacked.
It took a minute for the disgusting truth to sink in. When it did I found I was already on the phone to the U-Haul company, booking a truck for Tucson.