Ruben Hernandez

Hitting road to history

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It’s sunset in central Arizona. I find comfort on a cliff’s edge, sitting across a small canyon from the vaulting half-domes and quirky structures that bear the name Arcosanti.

It’s like seeing your own porch light come into view at the end of a long trip. Maybe the apses, arcs and nooks of Arcosanti invoke some ancestral memory of sheltering in a cave for the night.

I had come here as a balance between two ideas. I wanted a brief getaway that contributed more than it took from our planet. The other idea was salvaging my checking account balance.

I first went online to find where all the cool kids went. I discovered a new invention: the Eco-friendly hotel. A few clicks into my research, it all seemed “Eco-spensive” with energy-efficient lighting and linens washed in environmentally-safe detergent.

I and my checking account ran screaming in the opposite direction.

To birdwatching! At I found a list of upcoming birdwatching events around the state. I could stock up at the Army Surplus store; buy some granola; fill my canteen. Sleep in a tent with binoculars at my side. I could even track down an overpriced and elusive hybrid rental car to get me there.

My checking account was getting nervous again. That, and the idea of birdwatching just made me sleepy.

My solution was just an hour north on the I-17. Close enough to lessen guilt over not renting that hybrid. Combine this with rooms at $30 a night in a place that composts leftovers and recycles brown water and I’m in!

In 1970, the site began construction as architect Paolo Soleri’s idea of a future city. In short, throw away the parking lots, roads and cars. What remained would be multifunctional and efficient. He wanted to condense a self-sufficient city, and bring nature to its doorsteps. But Arcosanti has been plagued for years by limited funding and by local people calling it nothing more than a commune.

35 years later, time still hasn’t caught up with Soleri’s idea. And yet, the concept is a thousand years old. Arizona’s own Montezuma’s Castle shows us this.

At the end of a dirt road, I stepped out of my vehicle, and into a strong breeze, rich with the jangle and clang of bronze bells like some hundred distant church belltowers.

In the visitor’s center, I was briefed on accomodations. I was lucky to have a room. It’s best to call ahead and make a reservation. This is no hotel, so lodgings are limited. But prices are great: from $30 with shared bathrooms to $65 (with a kitchen and private bath. One could also splurge $100 on the two-bedroom “Sky Suite”. This sits above it all, near a terraced amphitheater where many of Arcosanti’s events are held. Rooms replace television sets with a stunning view of the rising sun at dawn.

The gift shop has bells, tiles, books and shirts to buy. The bells range from $30 to a few thousand dollars. My favorite are the Cause Bells at $xxx. There are dozens, for everything from world hunger to Hurricane Katrina. Purchase a bell, and a portion of the proceeds go to a nonprofit of your choosing.

As I toured the somewhat outdated mix of buildings and sidewalks, the randomness cold concrete became intent and purpose. Odd shaped roofs are designed to collect rainwater. Flower pots are used foundry crucibles. Even the landscaping is more than just visual. Olive trees provide income from pressed oil. Fig trees are positioned for their broad leaves to give shade in the summer and empty branches to allow sunlight through in winter.

In the waning hours before dinner was served at 6 in the café – a tasty buffet for only $8.95 – I walked down the Visitor’s Path. The trail drops from Arcosanti’s perch on one mesa, crosses a small wash and ends on the edge of the opposite mesa. Here I sat and studied the city from afar as a crisp wind howled through the round openings of up-ended 8-foot concrete slabs underneath the town swimming pool.

As faint voices also found their way through the wind, I realized one of Soleri’s points of this decades-old experiment was evident, not from within, but from afar: to be both in nature and civilization, at once.

The next morning I met with Public Relations Director, Erin Jeffries. She filled in the gaps my first tour had missed. As we waited for the foundry furnace to melt bronze ingots, she showed me the town’s “secret” underground tunnel – a heat transference passage for future greenhouses that will line the canyon wall just below Arcosanti.

She cited resident bats for not venturing past the entrance. It only made me want to go further. Instead we hurried back to the foundry, where a crew of four poured blistering hot liquid bronze into silt molds for the famed Paolo Soleri bells I’d heard when I arrived.

Watching them break the sand away from pieces that had cooled, I wondered if this slow-going architectural experiment was a success? There are some who look at the site and only see intriguing but dated pulp sci-fi whimsy. But Arcosanti isn’t frozen in time like a book cover. The struggle for funding and time itself have made something more organic: A human-sized city, instead of our car-sized metropolis.

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