Authentic American History: Arizona


I've been reading more of Philip K. Dick's stories lately. Mostly his short stories, but also The Man in the High Castle. Thinking about Dick's stories, my impressions of Arizona are filtered through the lens of historicity. What is the "authentic" Arizona experience? Is it one steeped in history, or that which reflects the current reality?

A view of the Superstition Mountains from the Goldfield Ghost Town.

The Phoenix Skyharbour Airport is similar to most other airports in North America: security checkpoints, slow moving lines, and long distances between where you are and where you need to be. It's not until I was on the shuttle to pick up a rental car that I was exposed to the external environment. As expected, it's hot. It's dry. It's very different from home. Yet the same sun sets over Arizona as does here.


Many areas near the highways in Phoenix, Tempe and Chandler that I visited are meticulously landscaped. Reddish brown gravel covers the side of the highway, where I'm familiar with unkempt green grassy weeds. From this grow a number of hardy shrubs and red flowering plants. Everything is well maintained: I frequently saw ground crews doing roadside maintenance. Any greenery was an olive colour: well adapted to the dry environment.

The highway overpasses were painted a tan colour, instead of the grey concrete. Embossed designs are a complementary purple. Most of the palm trees in these areas were well groomed, and there were also a number of cacti.

One gets an impression of the local economy, which appears to have weathered the financial crisis relatively well.

Stepping just outside this core area, towards the Apache Junction, things became significantly more naturalistic. Overpasses were no longer painted. Palm trees, while plentiful, looked ragged, with rough bark. Along the roads were scrub desert. Highway signs warning of flash floods.

A view of the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, with scrubland desert and cacti

Which of these represents the "authentic" Arizona?

I visited the Goldfield Ghost Town, as a bit of local tourism. I dont' think that I've every truly appreciated the term "tourist trap" until now. From the outside, things have an air of history. They're an outer shell of respectability. But step inside the saloon, and you quickly see how the building has been completely gutted and rebuilt, with new framing from the second floor up.

A view of the inside of the Mammoth Saloon, with reconstructed interior.

There was a small museum, for which a small entry fee was required. Within were several items of questionable provenance, and limited description. Near the end of the tour was the most interesting artifact: a dinner jacket purportedly worn by Doc Holliday. It has a plaque, mentioning that it was purchased from the Wells Fargo Museum in Tombstone, which was closed down and auctioned off in 1985-86. While this artifact is of course of interest to Arizona history, it felt out of place here, a three hour drive from Tombstone.

A dress coat worn by Doc Holilday

A plaque reading "Doc Holiday's Dress Coat. This no doubt was worn many times to the Bird Cage theater. Purchased from the sale of the Wells Fargo Museum, Tombstone, AZ by Goldfield Ghost Town in 1985. Charles F Dickerson Auctioneers"

Not nearly as out of place as the pottery shop. While the artist in residence could very well be from Arizona, the clay from which these trinkets were made was imported from California.

I could not help but think of Robert Childan, from the Man in the High Castle. These artifacts, passed off as authentic, holding only the bare veneer of truth. But was this location any different from Tuscon itself? Nestled under the Superstition Mountains, I felt both closer to history, yet also keenly aware of the alien nature. Reality is a relative construct, as in much of Dick's work.