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SOAPBOX: Crossing over

On KJZZ's SOAPBOX, The Show  turns over the the mic to listeners. For the summer 2022, writers tackled the theme HOME.

Like an old monarch demanding respect, the Colorado River appears only after a certain amount of ceremony when you approach it from the west on Interstate 10. The hard floor of the Mojave starts giving way to the agribusiness checkerboard of irrigated melon fields surrounding the sunbaked town of Blythe, built here — like Phoenix — on a system of canals.

You pass the signs for Taco Bell and Denny’s, smell the fertilizer, the turnoff for Intake Boulevard, which must one of the worst-named streets in the entire southwest. In front of you are the Dome Rock Mountains, plutonic crags dating to the Jurassic Era, looking down over the scene.

For Arizonans coming home from a California vacation, crossing the Colorado River can be a potent psychological symbol. After all, this is the legal line of demarcation between the two states, set in 1850 when Arizona was still not even a territory. The rivalry and jealously between the two – over water, over politics, over money and culture – has flared off and on ever since.

The interstate bends just slightly before it hits the river, and if someone in the passenger seat looks down across the low bridge, they’ll see a fringe of tall grass and a few palm trees give way to a modest body of water no wider than the highway itself, a skinny old man, a shadow of what used to course through here before the big upstream dams started going up in the 1930s and diverting its water to Las Vegas and Phoenix. There’s no more seasonal floods, no more jaguars in the marshes, no more of the wild unpredictability that used to characterize this stretch of the river. Instead it’s like an insulated electrical cord that you step over on your way to someplace else.

This describes me since I moved to California for a job a decade ago. Going back to Arizona to see friends, family or do academic research usually involves this drive, this crossing of the Colorado. Flying seems wrong. The subtle landscape changes of the drive feel right. And the river, appropriately enough, is the midpoint.

Literature puts a lot of emotional weight on river crossings, signifying a decision or a personal transformation. Caesar couldn’t become emperor until he disobeyed orders and took his armies across the Rubicon River. American migrant diaries of the 19th century describe a major operation and some agony at every wagon ford. Sharecroppers fleeing the segregated South considered the Ohio River a powerful milestone of freedom. The ancient Greeks regarded the River Styx as the boundary between life and afterlife.

Now in front of you is not Charon waiting to ferry you to another existence but a truck stop advertising gas that’s more than a dollar cheaper than in California, one sign that you’re in the land of lower taxes, and the road leads on over the Dome Rock Mountains to the RV paradise of Quartzsite and then to the magnificent green-brown amoeba of Phoenix, the place whose astonishing growth was made possible by water drawn from the Colorado River. You have crossed over. Welcome home.

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