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Annexing Tumbleweeds

A yearling tumbleweed crossed U.S. 60 in front of my car the other day, and I had no choice but to smash it to smithereens.

I felt a little guilty, remembering Sarge, the pet tumbleweed I had as a child. But there was this big weed rolling across the highway right in front of me. It doesn’t happen that often anymore.

An 18-wheeler was at my back door, a sleek Daewoo Vinaigrette was passing me on the left, and I was going 65 mph. I hit the weed head-on. In my mirror, I watched the 18-wheeler coming through a cloud of smithereens.

Sadly, our great-grandchildren may have to visit a preserve to see tumbleweeds, symbols of the West that used to be.

Wickenburg has plans to annex some of the best tumbleweed habitat in the West, and eventually to cover it with houses.

The Russian thistle was introduced into the United States in 1877, included in wheat seed brought to South Dakota by Russian settlers. The thistle quickly spread across the land.

Along the Colorado River, I’ve seen tumbleweeds so tall that buzzards roosted in their tops. We used to find flocks of tumbleweeds tagged with red tape by the now-defunct Arizona Department of Weeds, which tracked their travels as far as the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Then the West was fenced, blocking not only the traverse of the wandering cowhand, but that of the tumbleweed. By the time Bob Nolan wrote “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” in 1932, the handwriting was on the billboard. Flocks of tumbleweeds were piling up against right-of-way fences.

I’m using tumbleweeds as a metaphor, or a metaphive. I did not really fear for the future of tumbleweeds, and the rest of the traditional West, until a recent headline in The Wickenburg Sun asked: “Larger Than Phoenix?”

The Town of Wickenburg is contemplating annexing enough surrounding space to ward off capture by such aggressive communities as Buckeye and Surprise.

Wickenburg, which now covers 25 square miles, would grow to 750 square miles. Phoenix, the nation’s sixth largest city, covers only 514 square miles. (World Almanac says the land area of the actual city of Los Angeles is only 469 square miles, and look what happened there.)

I couldn’t make up a story this outlandish (I’ve been suffering from liar’s block). But because I have lived in Arizona through 50 years of pre-emptive annexation, Wickenburg’s plan makes sense to me.

A vocal segment of Wickenburg residents wants to retain its small-town, cowtown ambiance. Count me in. But there’s also a pro-growth group, and since abnormal growth has been the norm since 1946, I’m glad someone is out ahead of it.

At present, Wickenburg has a buffer, 28 miles of tumbleweeds between it and the fringe of the Phoenix metro area, the 14th largest metropolitan area in the nation.

However, part of that buffer zone is within the city limits of Surprise, which annexed it several years ago. Buckeye has annexed a long stretch of desert that runs all the way up the west side of the White Tanks Mountains until it adjoins Surprise.

Projected “planned communities” now on the drawing boards envision several million people living in the area north and west of Phoenix by the end of this century. Maricopa County, the fastest growing county in the nation, added 130,000 people last year.

Wickenburg even sees the unincorporated community of Congress, north of here in Yavapai County, as a threat. Congress sees Wickenburg as a threat, and has been having public meetings about it.

Wickenburg has a population estimated at 7,500, scattered through the hills and washes at the far north edge of Maricopa County, and into Yavapai County. I estimate that if you shook out the hills around the town, at least 10,000 people live here full-time.

That estimate does not include an equal number of winter visitors, surreptitious visitors from other nations, and occasional elements of the Mexican army.

Wickenburg was here before Phoenix, and is partly responsible for that mass of humanity that I call Baja Wickenburg.

Wickenburg was founded after Henry Wickenburg located the nearby Vulture Mine in 1863. There were only a handful of towns in Arizona Territory then. The largest of these was Tucson, a former Spanish presidio established in 1776.

The 1860s had brought a small but steady stream of prospectors, soldiers and ranchers. The 1870 federal census counted 9,658 non-Indians in the territory. They and their animals needed food.

Jack Swilling, who can most charitably be described as an adventurer and promoter, lived briefly in Wickenburg.

Fifty miles southeast of Wickenburg, Swilling studied an ancient system of irrigation canals built by the prehistoric Hohokam people, who had irrigated by taking water from the Salt River.

Swilling formed a ditch company of about a dozen men from Wickenburg. With mules and scrapers, they began in 1867 to build ditches to irrigate new farms near what is now Sky Harbor International Airport.

That was the beginning of Phoenix. Wickenburg has much to answer for. By 1889, when it stole the territorial capital from Prescott, Phoenix was coming to be resented by just about every other town in Arizona Territory.

When I was born in 1935, Phoenix had fewer than 50,000 residents, and there were not yet half a million people in the entire state.

We lived in Peoria, which was four blocks square. (Now Peoria has annexed north to the outskirts of Spokane, Washington, and also could be a threat to Wickenburg.)

During World War II, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and airmen trained at bases in Arizona. The war introduced a new mobility. Ex-GIs realized they didn’t have to go back to the West Virginia coal mines, or the family feed business in Fargo.

They could come live in the sunshine, and build houses for other people to live in. Annexation wars began between cities like Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Newcomers stacked up tumbleweeds in the shape of Christmas trees and spray-painted them white or gold or blue. The memory brings tears to my eyes.

Now Arizona is approaching a population of six million (projected to be 10 million by 2030).

This has led to a demographic fluke. Arizona, known for its wide open spaces, is one of the most urbanized states in the nation. Well over half the population lives in Maricopa County, mostly in Phoenix and the satellite cities which have eaten up the farmland and desert that separated the towns when I was a kid.

Another half million people live in Tucson, 30th largest city in the country. Tucson also is ringed by satellite cities that have sprung up over the past forty years.

Stucco houses with red tile roofs are spreading out across the desert at an exponential rate, something like the tumbleweeds they displace. Fortunately, no stucco house has rolled out in front of my car.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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