Just as the promise of silver and gold once lured prospectors, just as the promise of vast grasslands once lured cowboys, just as dry desert air once lured tuberculosis sufferers, the sun lures the winter-weary to Arizona. This state is solidly a part of the Sunbelt, the region of the southern United States that stretches from coast to coast and is characterized by sunshine and warm temperatures for much of the year. Before the current recession hit, when the economy was booming, Phoenix was one of the fastest-growing cities in America. Vast tracts of desert sprouted housing developments and shopping malls. However, just as mining towns such as Tombstone, Bisbee, and Jerome went bust, Arizona's economic forecast turned from sunny to gray and gloomy with the collapse of the housing market.
Because Arizona built so much of its recent economic wealth on the construction of new homes, when the housing and lending markets crashed, the state saw its tax revenues plummet. By 2010, Arizona was struggling to stay solvent. With high unemployment, high mortgage foreclosure rates, high taxes, and cuts in state services, it isn't surprising that Arizona citizens would look around for someone on whom to blame the state's woes. Illegal immigrants felt the brunt of the anger and frustration when, in April 2010, the Arizona state legislature passed the toughest immigration law in the nation. The new law made it a crime for illegal immigrants to be in the state and required law-enforcement officers to ask suspected illegal immigrants for documentation proving they have a right to be in the United States. Proponents of the law say the federal government isn't doing enough to secure the U.S. border. Critics say that the law will lead to racial profiling and that anyone who looks Hispanic will be targeted by law-enforcement officers. By July 2010, the law was already being challenged in court. However, although the law was criticized across the nation and across the globe, it was popular enough among Arizona citizens that, in the wake of its passage, the state reelected Gov. Jan Brewer, who had signed the legislation into law. In that same 2010 election, conservative candidates, including several supported by the controversial Tea Party, won enough races to give Arizona one of the most conservative legislatures in the country.
The international news spotlight once again focused on Arizona when, on January 8, 2011, a gunman killed 6 people and wounded 13 others, including congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in front of a grocery store in Tucson. This tragic shooting, which some linked to heated and contentious political rhetoric, brought renewed attention to Arizona and it's lenient gun laws. Carrying an openly displayed firearm in public is legal in Arizona, and, as of 2010, a license is no longer required for carrying a concealed weapon. In early 2011, the recently elected (Nov 2010) conservative legislature proposed loosening the state's already liberal gun laws even more. Some people believe these laws make Arizona safer, while others contend it is just the opposite.
If all this has you wondering if this state is big enough for both you and the state's highly vocal gun advocates, don't worry, you won't have to get out of town before sundown. It's okay. Corral your apprehensions. Chances are the only guns you'll see will be on actors performing staged shootouts in the streets of Tombstone or Old Tucson Studios. You are likely, however, to see a few modern-day outlaw wannabes. As glorified in countless Hollywood westerns, the cowboy and the outlaw are iconic images of the Wild West. While most people the world over associate these characters with the 19th century, in Arizona they are alive and well. Visit one of the state's resuscitated ghost towns on any weekend, and you will see ranks of Harley-Davidson's (today's trusty steed of choice) lined up in front of one bar or another. However, take a look at the motorcycle riders, and what you'll see are mostly old gray-haired guys, often highly paid professionals, who are busy living out their fantasies of being real outlaws, at least until Monday when they have to go back to the office.
Obviously, Arizona is still struggling to strike a balance between the new West and the old West. Hopis still perform their age-old dances atop their mesas, while in Phoenix and Tucson, hipsters dance to the latest techno beats. Stoic wranglers are still at home on the range, but they're as likely to be leading city slickers on a staged cattle drive as to be scouring the scrublands for wayward longhorn steers. There are still working cattle ranches all over the state, but the word "ranch" is just as likely to show up in the name of a new subdivision full of multimillion-dollar winter homes for wealthy retirees from colder climes.
This struggle between the old and new has been going on in one way or another since the Spanish first arrived in the region in the 16th century. Then, and for more than 300 years after the arrival of the Spanish, the struggle was between settlers and Native Americans. For Arizona's Native Americans, the days of the Wild West were days of hardship and misery, and today the state's many tribes continue to strive for the sort of economic well-being enjoyed by the state's non-native population. Traditional ways still survive, but tribes are struggling to preserve their unique cultures -- languages, religious beliefs, ceremonies, livelihoods, and architecture.
Arizona is home to the largest Indian reservation in the country -- the Navajo Nation -- as well as nearly two dozen smaller reservations. Poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism are major problems on many of these reservations. However, several of the state's tribes have, through their arts and crafts, managed to both preserve some of their traditional culture and share it with non-natives.
Today, however, many non-natives visit reservations not out of an interest in learning about another culture, but rather to gamble. Throughout the state, there are numerous tribal casinos, and despite the controversies surrounding such enterprises, many Native peoples are finally seeing some income on their once-impoverished reservations.
Many of the people who visit these new casinos are retirees, who are among the fastest-growing segment of Arizona's population. Each winter, the state's mild climate attracts hundreds of thousands of retirees from colder parts of the United States and Canada. Many of these winter residents, known as snowbirds, park their RVs outside such warm spots as Yuma and Quartzsite. Others have winter homes in the state, and still others have settled permanently in retirement communities such as Sun City and Green Valley.
This graying of the population, combined with strong ranching and mining industries, has made Arizona one of the most conservative states. Although by today's standards Barry Goldwater could almost be considered a liberal, his conservative politics were so much a part of the Arizona mind-set that the state kept him in the Senate for 30 years. The town of Paradise Valley even has a small park dedicated to him.
Arizona's environmental politics are some of the most contentious in the country and have been for decades. There are heated debates going on over managed flooding of the Colorado River within Grand Canyon National Park, uranium mining adjacent to the Grand Canyon, and the ongoing destruction of desert habitat as the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas continue to sprawl. Although many people think of the desert as a wasteland in need of transformation, others see it as a fragile ecosystem that has been endangered by the encroachment of civilization. Saguaro cacti throughout the state are protected by law, but the deserts they grow in are not.
In many parts of the Tucson metropolitan area, houses have been built right up to the edge of national forest lands. The consequences of creating such a stark line between wild and developed lands came to the forefront of the news in 2004, when mountain lions moved into the popular Sabino Canyon recreation area and were even seen on the grounds of a public school. The presence of the big cats caused the immediate closure of Sabino Canyon and other nearby trails into the national forest. Today, when you visit Sabino Canyon and other natural areas around the state, you'll be warned repeatedly about the presence of mountain lions in the area.
Way up at the north end of the state, remote Grand Canyon National Park has long suffered from its own popularity. With more than four million visitors a year, the park has for many years seen summer traffic jams and parking problems that often made a visit an exercise in patience. To help alleviate congestion and air pollution, the national park now uses alternative-fuel buses to transport visitors to and around the South Rim and Grand Canyon Village. With the addition in 2009 of three large parking lots, the park has in recent years become a little more user-friendly.
Efforts at preserving the state's environment make it clear that Arizonans value the outdoors, but a ski boat in every driveway doesn't mean the arts are ignored. Although it hasn't been too many years since evening entertainment in Arizona meant dance-hall girls or a harmonica by the campfire, Phoenix and Tucson have become centers for the performing arts. The two cities share an opera company, a ballet company, and a theater company, and the Valley of the Sun is home to several symphony orchestras and numerous theater companies.
The arts, though, are often overshadowed by the Phoenix area's obsession with professional sports. Downtown Phoenix has positioned itself as the state's primary sports and entertainment mecca, with Chase Field, US Airways Center, and numerous sports bars and nightclubs. However, it isn't just downtown Phoenix that is big on professional sports. The city of Glendale, west of Phoenix, is now home to both University of Phoenix Stadium, where the NFL's Arizona Cardinals play football, and the Jobing.com Arena, where the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes play professional hockey. In addition, more than a dozen professional baseball teams have their spring training camps in the Phoenix area.
Suburban sprawl has long been a fact of life in the Phoenix area, but there are signs that even Phoenicians are tiring of the metro area's never-ending expansion. Inner-city Phoenix neighborhoods have been rediscovered, and many old homes have now been restored. Although construction has been slow since 2009, hip loft-style condominiums have been built near downtown Phoenix, and a trendy, urban art scene now flourishes in long-abandoned commercial and industrial neighborhoods in downtown Phoenix. The city even has a light-rail line.
The new urban vibe that is taking hold in the Phoenix metro area is most evident in downtown Scottsdale, which is home to several hip hotels, including a W Hotel. Scottsdale also has one of the hottest nightlife scenes between Miami and Los Angeles, and high-style bars and clubs attempt to outdo each other with their daring interior decors.
It isn't just in Phoenix that Arizona style is changing. There are chic hotels in Sedona and even Lake Havasu City. Espresso bars are proliferating in Phoenix, Tucson, and Sedona. Flagstaff, a high-country college town, has several gourmet restaurants, and Prescott, a classic small-town-America sort of place, even has a jazz club. What's a cowboy to do?
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.