There are two approaches to my hometown from the west – Highway 66 coming from Needles, and 93 coming from Las Vegas. They have similar features – spanning the Colorado, climbing from the river valley over barren rock mountains, and then crossing a long, low stretch of desert on their way to Kingman.
In the days without air-conditioning, it was a hard drive, with furnace-blast wind pummeling you through the open car windows. Finally, though, the highways climbed up to Kingman, intersecting at a monument to Lt. Edward Beale, who pioneered with camels the original Route 66 in 1857. Across the street from the monument was Metcalfe Park, the old county hospital under a canopy of trees, and the original high school athletic field — an oasis of tall trees and cool grass. There was also a small park for a retired locomotive – which also served as a marker for homeruns hit from the athletic field.
Combined, these swaths of greenery made a simple statement: Here was a sanctuary carved from the desert and you were welcome to it. You’d come to higher, cooler ground; you may not be home, but here was respite from your travel and the heat.
It was quite an impression then, and so shocking now that almost all of it is gone. Under the excuse of building a new high school campus, nearly all the trees have been cut down. Those at Metcalfe Park remain, as do a few on the campus, but that is all. Gone are the trees that lined the athletic field and ringed the football stadium; those that sheltered the old hospital; the tall, trimmed cedars that highlighted the campus walks – gone; enough timber to make a mill owner smile — gone; leaving in their place a stark expanse of pale soil baking in the sun.
Many of the trees were as old as the high school, dating from the early 1900s. Trees are rare thing in this area – even the ponderosa pine forests on the nearby mountains seem dry and sparse by compared to other regions. When you cut lines of healthy trees that have been in place for nearly a century, you kill a part of what made a bunch of buildings a community. You kill the sense of what that place was, where it had come from and what made it different from any another, leaving residents without much sense of what their town was, or it should be. This isn’t limited to the American West, but it is acutely felt here because so many of the towns were small for so long and so much of the landscape was without trees. Cutting down the sylvan landscapes renders a numb sameness to these towns and proves Black Elk’s lament, “There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”