The Forgotten River

Growing up north of Tucson, I never paid much attention to the Santa Cruz river—in fact, I didn't even know that it was a river. Like all of the other washes in Tucson, the Santa Cruz appeared to be little more than an ugly dirt strip channeled between two concrete banks. Where did it flow from? Or to? These questions never crossed my mind. I had no idea that the Santa Cruz gave birth to Tucson, that people started farming its banks four-thousand years ago, or that it continued to flow until less than a century ago. My ignorance didn't make me atypical; it's easy to live in Tucson without noticing the Santa Cruz. Not only is the river dry and strewn with trash, but it also runs through areas of town that few people visit. Nothing cultural happens in or near the river. Mining the first eighteen years of my life in Tucson, I can only uncover a single, discrete memory of the Santa Cruz.

The back seat of the white Ford Explorer is too warm and the machine's air conditioner hisses impotently at the Arizona summer. I am ten. My friend and I are being ferried to his house after lunch at Peter Piper Pizza and we are sleepy from the combination of pepperoni grease, heat, and white noise. Glazed, I stare out the window as we cross a bridge over the Santa Cruz. Effluent winds through green reeds, like a black snake slithering north. "There's water in the wash!" I shriek. My friend is worldly and travels over the bridge twice a day on his way to school. "It's sewage," he pronounces with solemnity. "Oh." My dreams of playing in the river die seconds after conception. My friend tells me that the two hippie sisters with the freckles went swimming in the sewage without knowing what it was. "Gross!" "They are gross!" We laugh and judge them.

Eight years after this memory, I will leave Tucson. Seventeen years after it, I will return and begin living near the Santa Cruz. I start a graduate program in environmental history at the same time that I start running along the cement banks of the dry river. It begins to develop character and substance in my mind. One day, I am in an anthropology class and the professor hands out a geography quiz featuring a blank map of the American Southwest and Mexican Northwest. The students behind me panic. While the map includes rivers, they cannot remember which is the Santa Cruz and which is the Little Colorado—yet the Santa Cruz is five minutes away. This moment sticks with me. It is what led to this radio project.


Or, you can stream the piece through PRX:


I have posted a few Santa Cruz photographs here: