February 27, 2023
Tom Zoellner walked across the length of Arizona to come to terms with his home state. But the trip revealed more mountains behind the mountains.
Rim to River is the story of this extraordinary journey through redrock country, down canyons, up mesas, and across desert plains to the obscure valley in Mexico that gave the state its enigmatic name. The trek is interspersed with incisive essays that pick apart the distinctive cultural landscape of Arizona: the wine-colored pinnacles and complex spirituality of Navajoland, the mind-numbing stucco suburbs, desperate border crossings, legislative skullduggery, extreme politics, billion-dollar copper ventures, dehydrating rivers, retirement kingdoms, old-time foodways, ghosts of old wars, honky-tonk dreamers, murder mysteries, and magical Grand Canyon reveries.
What was your reason for writing this book?
Arizona is an easy place to caricature, either as a scenic wonderland or a den of political craziness. It’s both of those to some degree but that is nowhere close to the whole story.
You grew up in Arizona, intimately aware of its landscape. Was there anything that surprised you about the natural world you experienced while on your Arizona Trail journey?
Nobody knows the whole place. There are pockets of Arizona that will always remain tucked away even to those who spend a lifetime here.
You said in one of the essays that a truly great novel about Arizona has not yet been written. Is this still true?
Yes. There have been plenty of very good novels set here, but none that has truly captured the essence of the state. This is a challenge laid before the state’s fiction writers: where is the Great Arizona Novel? Can you write it, please?
Did the lack of water on the Arizona Trail inform your writing about water challenges facing the state of Arizona?
Most definitely. One of the baseline characteristics of Arizona is aridity — it has defined us from the beginning of human settlement here ten thousand years ago. Thanks to hydrology, it’s easy to live in modern Arizona without experiencing it personally. Nearly running out of water creates a sense of elemental urgency.
What are you working on now?
A nonfiction narrative about the refugee camps of freed enslaved people in the early days of the U.S. Civil War.
Tom Zoellner, a fifth-generation Arizonan, is the author of eight nonfiction books, including The Heartless Stone, Uranium, The National Road, and Island on Fire, which won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Bancroft Prize.