Arizona is a state of secrets. And, for the most part, she has kept her secrets well. As more and more people flock to Phoenix and Tucson and Flagstaff, their secrets are lost. However, they are still alive, still flourishing, in places like Bullhead City and Parker and Cottonwood. There are big secrets, like the startling beauty of the Milky Way slashing across the sky like God’s own river of diamonds or the sudden blast of heat as you open the front door in June. Moreover, there are small secrets, like the sound of the baby coyotes on a hot summer night or the sheer bliss of floating down the Colorado. I grew up in a town that has not lost its secrets.
Mohave Valley, bare miles south of Bullhead City, is a town of cotton and alfalfa, sheep and coyotes, tumbleweeds and sand and the cool blue beauty of the Colorado. She is beautiful, but only a special person can see past her rocky, parched earth to the beauty beneath it. In my town, the mountains tower into the sky like silent stone guardians. In addition, when the sun sets behind the western mountains, those in the east light up as if from within. I have never seen such a thing as those mountains all purple, gold, and gorgeous. I have seen pictures of the aurora borealis, in Alaska, and I always wanted to see it. Then one day I realized that I didn’t have to go to the cold reaches of Alaska to lay eyes on it; every night I could see my own aurora, this one set in stone, not air.
When July graces us with her hot, humid presence, the monsoons come roaring down the mountains. Sometimes every night, the clouds boil and writhe and lighting flashes from the sky. Thunder shakes the earth while the hot wind bends the trees and rain is torn from the clouds. Usually I stand in the driveway, face tilted to the sky and arms spread wide, drinking in the violence and the glory. There is an amazing sense of smallness to be found there, barefoot on the wet driveway. It’s a kind of realization, a realization that as important as you may be in your world, you are insignificant in the real world, in the huge world of hurricanes and tsunamis and miracles. Then the storm ends and the sky clears and you think that maybe you are not so insignificant after all.
Mohave Valley is a very small town. The closest Wal-Mart is thirty miles away, and the closest mall is in Las Vegas, over a hundred miles away. The town is so small that it is almost statistically impossible for you to go shopping in Wal-Mart and not see someone you know. When I graduated high school, the roster of graduating seniors was read off. There was not a single name on that list that I did not know. I didn’t realize how rare that was until I got to college and started making friends from other places. While it was frustrating sometimes, especially as a teenager, I did love living in that small, hot town. In Mohave Valley, “traffic” means having a car in front of you and behind you. The Colorado River was within walking distance and we practically lived there during the summer. I was there as often as my friends were, though I have a very fair complexion. This just means that I was the one in the giant, tacky straw hat, slathering sunscreen on and sun burning anyway.
There is some history left in Mohave Valley, too. Oatman, an old ghost town, is nestled in the mountains. They still give tours of the old mine and there are mock gunfights in the streets. The people live above their shops that were built before the turn of the century. An old miner who was killed by a jealous husband haunts the hotel of course. Moreover, miles out in the other direction, across the river and halfway up the other mountains, if you look hard enough, you can find the ruins of Fort Mojave, built two hundred years ago and abandoned when the Mojave Indians decided to turn and take it. In addition, here those Native Americans remain, some in villages that have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. I have a friend who is full-blooded Mojave, and sometimes when I would go over to her house, her grandmother would tell us stories about how things have changed since the dam was built and sometimes she would tell us the old stories of her people, how the sun came to be and how the earth was created. She died last year, and part of her culture died with her.
There is a kind of magic in a small town; it’s being lost everyday as more people flock from the big cities to the small towns of America. While I do love knowing that more people will discover this magic and love it, I worry about its fate. Will the sheer number of people crowd out the magic? Will it be lost as the magic that was once Los Angeles was lost? All I can do is hope that it is not lost, because the people will flock no matter what. I think they know that there are secrets and magic out in the desert. While at first they may cringe at that blast of heat in the summer, eventually they will bask. At first, the thunder may scare them, but then it will thrill. At first, the scorpions and snakes will terrify, but then they will fascinate. Even with the sunburns and hot concrete, the long-distance shopping and the flocks of sheep in the field across the street, Mohave Valley is my home. However far I travel, and I will, Mohave Valley and Arizona will always be the hot, magical secret waiting for me.