By Christopher Conover and Will Seberger
Congressional District 1 is home to much of what gives Arizona its flavor.
Some of what the rest of the country found so attractive in the territory that eventually became the 48th state still lives in the district.
This place is Arizona, before Arizona was Phoenix, Barry Goldwater, stick and stucco suburbs or the heart of the immigration debate.
The newly drawn Congressional District 1 reaches from the affluent northern suburbs of Tucson, east to New Mexico, and north to Utah. The district’s northwest boundary stretches nearly to Lake Mead, just a short desert run from Las Vegas.
Watch a photo slideshow of the district: (mouse-over image to navigate)
In the middle of the district, which is more than 55,000 square miles, are numerous small towns and villages scattered across Hopi and Navajo reservations. A considerable portion of the population lives without electricity and/or running water.
Tourism is the lifeblood of other parts of the district, including Page and Sedona. Night after night, tour buses disgorge Asian, European and retiree visitors, allowing them to take in the sights in single-serving packages: Get off the bus, smoke a cigarette, eat a cowboy steak, take pictures, get back on the bus.
Amid the scenic and historic wonders of the West, industry churns out electricity and raw materials, providing much-needed jobs and commerce - but finding itself at odds with environmentalists and government regulators.
Flagstaff, one of the only quasi-urban areas in the district, is a university town. It is the home of Northern Arizona University and 65,870 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The city and its inhabitants largely exist by the heat of the economic furnace of higher education and tourism. Despite its population, Flagstaff has less than 10 percent of the district’s 710,224 residents.
By comparison, entire congressional districts in the Phoenix metro area may include just a few suburbs. Similarly, Tucson dominates the state's southern districts, in population if not in acreage.
With no single dominant population center, CD1 is a largely headless giant, full of roads in varying shades of pavement snaking through the desert and alpine wildernesses fighting to stay relevant. Roads seemingly from nowhere to nowhere criss-cross the district's 55,180 square miles.
We spent the first week of October driving the district to underst what its representative will encounter. Eight days and 2,000 miles later, we barely left a mark in the desert.
We began our climb out of the low desert on a Sunday afternoon. As dusk gave way to night, we followed State Route 77 to Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation and as good a place as any to start a journey.
Both the city and the rock formation are aptly named. A small redstone hill on the northeastern side of of the area, just west of the Arizona-New Mexico line, has been gradually losing its battle against erosion. The result is a 50-foot hole through a 200-foot-tall wall of redstone.
Watch a time-lapse of the night sky at Window Rock:
Since 1936, Window Rock has been the seat of the Navajo Nation, the D.C. of the tribe.
Just outside nation headquarters and below the Window Rock, is a memorial for the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, men who communicated in the only unbroken code of the Pacific theater.
“The Navajo language, discouraged in the past, was instrumental in developing the most significant and successful military code of the time," says the Congressional Record of April 12, 2000. "At Iwo Jima alone, they passed over 800 error-free messages in a 48-hour period.”
So successful were the code talkers in keeping their language secret that each man was guarded by a fellow Marine with orders to kill the Code Talker if captured by the enemy were likely.
One gets a sense, sitting in that place, of why the Navajo might be distrustful of policy and politics. In the last 70 years, they were worthless in the eyes of government and their white neighbors, then suddenly useful enough to execute in the name of war, given a Congressional Gold Medal and then shipped back to the "rez."
The most obvious reminders of the past are an endless stream of USMC, Semper Fi and “Proud Veteran” t-shirts for sale in the shadow of a 12-foot-tall statue of a code talker.
The tradition of armed service still runs strong in the Diné, the Navajo self-descriptor, meaning "people." In February 2010, then-23-year-old Lance Cpl. Alejandro J. Yazzie, a Navajo, died under the USMC colors in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Watch a time-lapse of the night sky at the Code Talker Memorial:
The people, who are so often reminded by history that they are unwelcome anywhere but the reservation, still bleed and die just like people of any other ethnicity.
The reservation runs in all directions, north, west and south from Window Rock for hundreds of miles. It skips over the state line and into New Mexico, though the congressional district does not.
We spent the second day of this journey on and off-road in our best attempt to keep pace with the Navajo Nation president's driver. President Ben Shelly himself took us on a break-neck speed tour of the reservation.
We were taken by the austerity of a place where subsistence ranching is the life for people in a place where unemployment consistently hovering around 50 percent.
Mesas rising hundreds of feet from the desert floor against sapphire skies are the only points of navigable reference on roads that snake from village to lone home to village.
Shelley visited places without running water or electricity. In a town hall meeting about ranching rights, he praised Democrats and expressed hope for the future of his people. But also has doubts about getting any attention from Washington.
"I don’t think (President Barack) Obama realizes how big a problem it is out here," Shelly said. "Mitt Romney has no idea what an Indian tribe is all about.”
The nation spans three states and has its own sovereign government that interfaces directly with the federal government.
Some Navajos told us they feel disenfranchised and don't see the need to vote. But Ethlyn Vikati, a middle-aged cattle rancher, said she sees voting through a different set of eyes.
”I vote because I have pride in my culture, I have pride in the government," Vikati said. "I think voting is so important. We still get help from Washington. Our vote should count for a person to represent us.”
We broke off from the president’s caravan in Tuba City and drove north to Page, a town of about 7,000 people tucked between the Colorado River and Utah.
Page is home to both Glen Canyon Dam, which Edward Abbey fantasized about blowing up in his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, and the Navajo Generating Station.
The coal-fired power plant makes electricity for the Central Arizona Project, which pumps water to Phoenix and points south, while also providing power to customers in Arizona, California and Utah.
Between the plant and the coal mines that fuel it, 1,000 jobs, mostly for Navajos, live and die by this creation of electricity in the spinning of steam turbines.
Watch a time lapse of the Navajo Generating Station:
Page was founded as a company town for the construction and operation of the Glen Canyon Dam. Today, it is as dependent on tourism as anything else. We found it nearly impossible to find a room in any of the 20-plus hotels in the tourism guide on a Tuesday night in October.
The dam, the town and the power station would not exist without the federal government. There is a clear sense here that what the government giveth, the government can taketh away.
The federal government is trying to kill coal-fired facilities, Navajo power plant officials have said while claiming theirs is one of the cleanest in the country. The government says emissions from the facility are harming visibility at nearby recreation areas, including the Grand Canyon.
George Hardeen, a contracted spokesman for the Salt River Project, a part owner of the Navajo plant, says fixing visibility in the Grand Canyon is not so clear cut.
“The selective catalytic reduction technology would improve the visibility in the Page Valley, in this area," he said. "But as the emissions are dispersed over a wide area, it's doubtful it would show great improvement, enough to justify the expense.”
It could cost as much as $1 billion to make more changes to the plant, Hardeen said. The cost may not be worth the benefit, so plant closure is an option depending on what the EPA rules, he said.
Daily, thousands of tourists on buses stop in Page for meals, rooms or both. City Manager Bryan Hill said those visits are generally one-night stays, so the tourism trade is based largely on supplying dinner, a room and maybe breakfast.
Phil and Mary Jane Cline own the Ranch House Grille, the locals' breakfast and lunch spot. Phil said the tour buses are not the only tourism business. Lake Powell and the Colorado River also bring visitors to Page.
“Gosh, there is a city out there on a good weekend. I think we counted a hundred large house boats that are renting for close to two grand a day, some of them, so there’s an economic (fact) for you,” he said.
From Page, we turned south for Flagstaff.
Flagstaff is the largest city north of Phoenix, and it lives for Northern Arizona University and pass-through travelers bound for the Grand Canyon and cross-state.
See an evening at the Lumberyard Brewery in Flagstaff:
It's the kind of town where visitors can wander into a local art space in the dead of night and wind up in an hours-long conversation about art, reservation life and politics.
It's like a small part of Tucson: all the best of downtown and Fourth Avenue and a similar plethora of college kids.
On a Friday night, the university watering hole was jammed with students and other young people line dancing and drinking beer or pink drinks from plastic cups.
Chris Valdez, a member of the management team at the Lumberyard Brewery, said the popular restaurant and bar gets the majority of its business from NAU, with students bringing in visiting parents, quick lunches by professors, and of course the nightly drink specials for the later crowd.
After a four-hour drive, we were in Globe, 100 miles north of Tucson.
Globe is a quintessential Arizona town. Once a copper mining center and one of the most powerful corridors in state politics when mining was the state’s biggest economic driver, today it is a town people are from.
The mines don’t provide as many jobs as they have historically, and economic hard times have befallen an aging population in an out-of-the-way part of the state. Despite its proximity to Tucson, Route 77 is the only practical way in or out, and most jobs are in Phoenix or Tucson.
Earl Bacon, a saddlemaker, is likely the last in line to run a family business that once offered boots, western wear and tack. There is no heir apparent to a family business going back to the 1950’s. The economy will no longer support clothing and boots, so Bacon concentrates on making saddles.
In better times he averaged a bit over one saddle per month. These days, he’s making three in a year.
What does Bacon see in a dying business in a town on life support? “Its got real people in it, they speak to you on the street, they look you in the eye,” he said.
A few hundred feet down the main drag from Bacon’s place is Nadine’s Attic; a women’s clothing store owned and run by Nadine Garcia.
Garcia’s family goes back generations in Globe, and although she left for a time, she returned when her mother took ill. She remains hopeful for Globe. “Cowboys and miners don’t quit,” she said.
Halfway between Globe and Tucson on Route 77 lies Saddlebrooke, the comparatively wealthy, largely conservative bastion of Midwestern retirees.
Despite our desire to more thoroughly explore Saddlebrooke in the context of this story, our attempts at getting permission from the property owner -- Saddlebrooke is entirely private property with no public rights-of-way -- were turned away several times.