New west oblivious to world events
September 12, 1999
Three days a week I work in a local bookstore in an Arizona mountain town. Flagstaff was once little more than a wild night on Route 66, a rough-neck play-ground whose saloons were distinctly split between Indian or not, their windows boarded where glass had been taken out by flying bottle or body. The town had more than its share of cheap Chinese restaurants, run by and for the men who laid the rails that still sing through the heart of town. Rogues and solid citizens ate 5-cent chow mein and loved the howl of the midnight special.
Those rails are no longer so beloved. Flagstaff’s population is no longer mostly cowboys, linemen and Chinese cooks, nor the more subdued working class place it became. Our town is on its way to being yet another Western playpen, a place where the unimaginably wealthy own million-dollar second homes, drive sport utility vehicles at 60 mph on city streets, cursing the trains that halt them in their busy busy lives. The “affluent,” as they describe themselves modestly, wander from micro-brewery to coyote-kitsch boutique to any charming remnant of Old West authenticity, looking for something to fill what can’t be filled by mansions, on-line stock-market gambling or vehicles the size of Shiprock.
A few weeks ago, the people of Turkey were devastated by earthquakes. Tens of thousands of Turks were killed and injured. The town of Adapazari was diminished by 2,800 souls. Golcuk lost all but a handful of buildings, every one of its residents homeless.
Each morning, before driving past Home Depot’s clear-cut construction site to the bookstore, I read the on-line news. I tried to imagine how it would be if all of Arizona were shaken as dreadfully as Turkey had been. In a photo of a man trapped alive, his face an inch from the block of concrete that held his head fast, I saw the truth of the absolute power of the earth.
Each morning, each noon I sat at the bookstore desk. The customers bought books on letting go, on millennial revelations channeled from the Pleiades, on the right diet for your blood type. An old woman whose eyes glittered bright as the gold she wore at ears, wrists and throat asked me what I thought of the blood-type diet book. “Isn’t it just so healing?”
“Actually,” I said, “I’m not interested in all of that. I think it’s impossible to be fully healthy on an ailing planet.”
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She smiled. “Oh,” she said, “You’re one of those people who believe in global warming.”
“It’s not a question of belief,” I said. “It’s based on scientific fact.”
She smiled again. “Well, dear,” she said, “I don’t know the facts so I just don’t believe in it.”
Later, a soft-spoken man bought $200 worth of books on Buddhist compassion. He told me he tries to read the news, but can’t because it upsets him too much. “I have to have my inner calm,” he said. “That’s my way to heal the earth.”
A woman rushed in, eyes wild, holding her right hand out. I prepared to call 911, as she gasped, “I’m new in town. Where’s the nail salon? I broke one.”
Nobody talked about the earthquake. Nobody.
Seven days. Tens of thousands dead and injured. Seven days in a bookstore that loyal customers call, “The heart of Flagstaff.” The Aids Support group meets in our big front room. Community activists talk strategy. Six newsletters a month go out from here, on everything from women’s issues to bagpiping.
A year ago, when wildfires threatened the boundaries of our up-scale suburbs, threatened nothing more than the property of the few and absent, the store and the town were buzzing with fear. A forest thinning project was rushed into action before, many believe, appropriate research considerations were taken. To protect huge and empty mausoleums.
Nor did I. I waited. I was doing appropriate research. I thought of the Turkish man, his face an inch from his death. Waiting. And, the couple trapped under their bed, a floor below where they had been sleeping. “We didnt know,” they said, “if each breath was our last.”
Have we been numbed by too many disasters? Or our great good American luck? Or have too many of us New Westerners simply forgotten that the irrevocable power in our playground can, in a 30-second shudder, make us kin to our distant neighbors? (Mary Sojourner is a contributor to writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo., http://www.hcn.org. She lives in Flagstaff, Ariz.)