The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back: Preservation of an Urban Mountain Landscape

By Protas, Josh | Journal of the Southwest, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back: Preservation of an Urban Mountain Landscape


Protas, Josh, Journal of the Southwest


   Brooding, through the hazy distance, Listless, indolent, reclined, Head
   extended, drowsing, dreaming, `Gainst a turquoise sky outlined, Lies the
   Camelback, a mountain, Age-carved from the upthrust stone, In the semblance
   of a camel, Resting, sleeping, lying prone. (1)

Rising above the modern urban metropolis of Phoenix in central Arizona's Salt River Valley, Camelback Mountain is the subject of W. I. Lively's 1928 mythic legend of the "Old Man of the Mountain." According to this tale, which appropriates and generalizes American Indian imagery, the dromedary-shaped mountain served as a sacred site and place of worship for an ancient civilization "long since perished from the land." When the cruel and arrogant chief of the tribe set out to defy the gods by scaling the mountain and bringing it under his rule, he was struck by a bolt of lightning, "chang[ing him] into the stony substance of the mountain he profaned." The camel has remained "lying prone" ever since. A warning to those who would attempt to master Camelback's sacred heights, the moral of this legend has gone largely unnoticed in recent times.

With the modern settlement of the Phoenix metropolitan area, Camelback Mountain has become one of the region's most prominent landmarks. It functions as a popular outdoor recreational spot and a landscape of natural beauty for both area residents and visitors. Likewise, Camelback serves as an identifying symbol for the city that has grown up around it. Though this urban expansion has brought new threats to the mountain's sanctity, such encroachment has been highly contested over the years. In contrast to the intervention of the gods in the legend, Camelback Mountain was saved most recently by the impassioned efforts of concerned citizens from within the Phoenix community. The story of the preservation of Camelback Mountain reveals much about the city's complex and fragile relationship with its surrounding open spaces. Insights into the community's perceptions, attitudes, values, and politics regarding its physical environment can be gleaned from this fascinating chapter in the history of Camelback Mountain.

The story of the mountain's preservation also reflects patterns and processes of urban growth occurring on a broader, regional level. Questions of land use and perception central to the history of the American West were played out in the lengthy debates over the mountain's future. The preservation of Camelback Mountain is significant in that it illustrates the contested nature of both the mental and physical landscapes in Phoenix and in the West. The community's struggle over issues of the meaning, use, and ownership of the mountain has pointed to its conflicting responses to the surrounding landscape. The mountain represents to some a wilderness environment worthy of preservation, whereas for others it is a resource to be developed and transformed. This situation reflects the tensions that followed the rapid urbanization of the American West in the twentieth century. Cities attempted to reconcile people's desires for a regional ideal involving Old West traditions and an unspoiled natural environment with the realities of an urban context. The open spaces and "western" lifestyle that attracted people to the region became increasingly threatened by new urban growth and expansion. (2) As historian Richard White has noted, "There are many possible relationships between us and the land, and such meanings are contested. Despite multiple use, land cannot be simultaneously range, parking lots, and wilderness; discovering which perceptions and which uses of land prevail, and why, has become much of the subject of environmental history and the New Western History." A study of such relationships focuses on the diverse, conflicting interests at play in the debates over the meaning and use of the land. It explores the contesting groups, their perceptions of the land and plans for its use, and the power relationships that shape the contest. …

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