I remember coloring a map of the United States in grade school making each state a different color. Florida was blue, Texas, red, California, green. My favorite color, purple, was reserved for Hawaii. But my home state? Brown. Always. There was never any question about it. Arizona was brown; it just made sense.
I suppose the brown notion came from the landscape. Almost anywhere in Arizona, you can look out and see pale, faded mountains standing guard in the distance, misty, but distinctly camel-colored. Having grown up in Tempe, it wasn’t an unfamiliar color; still, it always seemed to lack the vibrancy of other colors. I’d see pictures of northern and eastern states, with beautiful, mountainous landscapes, and although these too held a brown hue, the brilliant blues and greens surrounding these peaks seemed to be more prominent. Yet in Arizona, mountains have no colors to highlight their facets; if green happens to sprout, the brown swoops in to capture it. This transformation is permanent: brown remains dead forever.
When I first moved to Mesa, it seemed everything was named for the local mountain scenery. Red Mountain High School, Red Mountain Community Church, Red Mountain Multigenerational Center, Red Mountain Freeway. I grew excited, wanting to see the actual landmark. The Tempe mountains had all been that dreadful brown. Was this one really red? However, when my dad pointed it out, I was shocked to see it was just another brown mountain. A little rusty-colored perhaps. If you squinted hard enough, it might have passed for a brick red. But brown nonetheless.
In Arizona, people don’t mow their front lawns or water the grass. There is no grass. Instead, yards are filled with rocks, dirt, and weeds. Landscaping companies make millions of dollars each year, outfitting homeowners with original rock designs. It’s become an art: paths made of beige pebbles, finely-ground swirls of sand, cleverly-placed piles of stones. Some new arrivers to the state try to make up for the brown by dying their yards green. They actually paint the rocks, like an Easter egg. These are the “lawns” that conspicuously stand out, the ones native Arizonians snicker at as they drive by. Yet even if you are lucky enough to buy a house with plants in the yard, you still don’t gain much in color. Trees are tall and gangly, made up of many branches and few leaves. Deep brown or light beige, the bark seems always to be peeling off and sticking out. What little green grows is tinged in yellow; it too turns brown under the hot sun.
Even here, people are brown. Arizona is probably the only state with tanning salons that actually profit year-round. Not that this is quite necessary. You need only to step outside for fifteen minutes everyday in a tank top and shorts to achieve that golden bronze that is so sought-after. Here, pale skin is the anomaly; the darker, the better. “Laying out” is the thing to do, but if you’re in a hurry, you can always “fake-bake”. Arizonians have come up with countless options: spray-on tans, bronzing creams, tanning beds. Brown is the state color, and her people are tinted in spirit.
I never knew the extent of her brownness until it ceased to surround me. I spent one year living in Texas, where the only place you’ll find brown is on the cowboy’s horse. Yanked from my childhood home, my father had abruptly changed jobs and uprooted the family to a crooked, rented house in Dallas. Awkward and out of place, I was suffocated in color: lush green trees covering the streets like a tunnel, pink and yellow buds blooming on every branch, a cool, crisp blue overhead. Beautiful? Undeniably. Uncomfortably so. Texas was constantly changing. Overnight, the leaves turned from green to yellow to orange. The sky went from calm cerulean to stormy black in minutes. Swirls of color rapidly taking over, only emphasizing the foreignness of my surroundings.
I longed for brown. Who would have guessed? I hated brown: more than black, it seemed the color of hate, of misery and death. It implied lack of growth, was void of life. Yet it was dependable, and that mattered the most. After one miserable year, Dad took us home. Instead of flying, we made the long drive from Texas to Arizona. I remember pressing my nose to the glass, and watching as the green grew less and less frequent. I’d gaze out across the endless stretch of dirt along the highway. Dirt-I was excited about dirt! Brown was the first sign of home. Brown hills, speckled with brown brush. Even the green cacti were spotted with brown.
Brown no longer meant death. Instead of seeing it only as a conqueror to green, brown grew to mean opportunity. It no longer shut out color, but held ground for new growth. Brown was familiar, but familiarity didn’t have to mean dormancy anymore. Coming home gave me enough brown to appreciate the color in Texas, yet I finally began to see brown for what it was: possibility.
Maybe Arizona really isn’t brown. I’ve truly only seen Phoenix and its suburbs; all the attractions Arizona claims are just pictures to me. The northern, cool cities of Flagstaff and Prescott, beautiful Sedona, and even the Grand Canyon are places I’ve only seen on postcards. Still, I’m almost sure these must be brown compared to the green of Texas. Yet it is the brown that we boast of, the brown we depend on.
Waking up in Arizona is to be greeted by brown. This may never change, and few natives will ever complain. However, Arizona says goodnight without her brown. All day she waits patiently, arms open wide for the possibility lurking just around the corner. Faithfully at dusk, she sheds her bronze skin for a few glorious moments and reveals her true colors. Streams of pink and indigo shoot out, crimson and sapphire burst forth, and a yellow-orange fire lights up the sky. It is here, in her sunsets, that color gives life to death, reflecting off her land. Brown turns to beauty.