Yankee stay home

  • Railroad track in the West

    Illustration by Malcolm Wells
  • Saguaro cactus

    Illustration by Malcolm Wells
  • Southwestern architecture

    Illustration by Malcolm Wells

We seldom hear about things that don't happen.

I'm not talking about cancelled flights or broken dates. Or even about asteroids that didn't collide with the earth. The nonoccurrences that interest me are the products of restraint. This interests me most with regard to the American Southwest.

The moment I saw it, 40 years ago, it was love at first sight. I was a hotshot 32-year-old architect from New Jersey, in Tucson to design a building for a corporate client's Arizona operations.

Arizona! It might as well have been Antarctica for all I knew of it. The year: 1959. Flying from Philadelphia took all day, with stops at Memphis, Dallas and Albuquerque. I sat for hours glued to the window, watching in fascination as the land slowly turned from green to brown, from trees to grasses to bare earth.

Tucson wasn't the movie-set cowboy town I'd imagined, but a bustling little city with a few high-rise buildings. What a surprise to see flood warnings where the roads crossed completely dry stream beds. And to see big mountains right up close. Then at night to find the sky ablaze with stars.

I rented a car and drove to the client's site, passing on the way a saguaro forest so otherworldly I had to get out and take deep breaths before I could drive on. Never had I been so smitten: "Is this actually part of America, of my country? Could I move out and live here? Oh, man, my family has got to see this."

But first there was the architecture business. Over the next few months I made other trips to Tucson, watching the contractor turn my half-baked Wrightian pueblo adobe design into brick and steel. Then I could bill the client for the balance of my fee. I think it was $5,000, so I grandly booked a double bedroom on a train and took us Wellses to Tucson. I remember that the five round-trip tickets came to $1,900.

We didn't spend much time in our rolling suite. Instead we spent hours in the open vestibule of the last car. Santa Fe's southern route was mostly a single track then, a mere scratch across the vast land. Chicago! Davenport! Hutchinson! Guyman! Tucumcari! Santa Rosa! Alamogordo! El Paso! Tucson! We arrived starry-eyed.

As soon as we could, we booked ourselves into a dude ranch. If we'd awakened in ancient Greece, we couldn't have been more agog. It was desert, but it wasn't like any desert I'd imagined. It was full of plants - exotic, thorny plants with brilliant flowers - the air so transparent, the surrounding mountains seemed close enough to touch. And when we drove to the top of them, we found ourselves among snowbanks in lush forests of conifers.

This wasn't love. This was lust. I wanted to possess it all. I wanted to learn everything I could about the American Southwest. I talked with ranchers and naturalists. I read about the desert, discovering such authors as Joseph Wood Krutch and Ann Woodin. And I began to understand the role of water in everything I saw. I began to see the cruelty of imposing Eastern, high-rainfall-type demands on such thirsty land. The sight of green lawns in the desert began to appall me.

It was a long, slow process, but the answer for me was inescapable: stay home.

Talk about a painful decision. It's still painful to me four decades later. But the restraint put upon me by my awareness of the environmental crisis made my subsequent Western trips - preaching underground construction to architectural students - all the more to be treasured.

The stars aren't as bright in the West anymore. Millions of cars and giant power plants have seen to that. Ski trails ravage too many mountainside forests. Traffic jams and toxic wastes are now part of Western life.

I know I took only the weakest and most tentative kind of a stand: I could afford not to go West. But others, perhaps by the millions, have made tougher decisions, risking jobs or family stability, in order to stay away from the beautiful desert.

Maybe our growing perception of the world will turn us around and make us think twice about where we decide to live. Maybe more of us will look harder at the morality of water use in the Southwest. Maybe the bare-bones beauty of that land will get its message across to us before we suck it completely dry.

Malcolm Wells is a writer, architect and illustrator living in Brewster, Massachusetts.