Musings on the Southwest as a Region by a Southwesterner
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Musings on the Southwest as a Region by a Southwesterner

Defining the Southwest is intuitively simple but practically difficult. Inevitably, regional disagreements about inclusion or exclusion erupt, cultural divergences complicate, physiographic boundaries interfere, and political boundaries deceive. Generous definitions include either all of New Mexico or only that portion west of its eastern plains, the Llano Estacado. How much, if any, of California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas, and Utah to include gives rise to xenophobic sentiments. Chihuahua and Sonora, Mexico have strong affinities for the American Southwest, culturally, economically, and physiographically, but just where to draw the southern line is an elusive problem. Arizona alone lies unequivocally and uncontestably within the Southwest. The definition is complicated by a century or so of shameless promotion of a region championed by hucksters, developers, and investors eager to capitalize on regional images they connived to create. But at the same time it is a region that most Americans would view as our most exotic and, perhaps, romantic.

For purposes of this essay I will adopt the definition offered and argued by James W. Byrkit in his profound and lengthy 1992 essay The Southwest Defined, published in the Journal of the Southwest.1 Byrkit, after a sustained and nuanced discussion, proposed the boundaries as the area encompassed by 29 degrees to 39 degrees latitude north and 104 degrees to 117 degrees longitude west. It stretches from the east slope of the mountains of eastern New Mexico to slightly beyond the western edge of the deserts of Southern California. It includes portions of Mexico’s northern Baja California, Chihuahua, and Sonora to the northern limits of the Mojave Desert, much of southern Nevada, the Slickrock Country of Utah, and a representative [End Page 101] slice of southern Colorado. This definition is satisfying to many scholars of the Southwest, for it includes virtually all the cultures, contemporary and pre-Columbian, that comprise the more popular conception of the Southwest and the most notable physiographic features, the most prominent landmarks, those basic definitions of place, and the loci of native peoples who provide the history and content to southwestern heritage, are included. Even Texans are afforded their appropriate inclusion—El Paso, historically prominent, is retained, and the Guadalupe Mountains sneak through the eastern boundary. The California inclusion does justice to the Salton Sink and Death Valley, the grandest, hottest, and lowest of drylands. The 39-degree north and 104-degree west coordinates extend well into Colorado. For better for worse, Las Vegas, Nevada, is in.

Byrkit’s definition is marginally arbitrary—the limits could be adjusted a few global minutes in any direction without doing violence to the idea of the Southwest. I would advocate setting the western limit at 116.5 degrees west longitude, rather than at 117 degrees, since 117 degrees just barely excludes San Diego and Tijuana and includes too much of Southern California’s urban mass for my liking. But his boundaries seem to satisfy the intuitions of those who study the region in detail. For example, the Anza-Borrego Desert is justifiably southwestern and the Mojave National Preserve clearly belongs to the Southwest, but the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada do not.2 And Byrkit’s Southwest offers an enormity of topics to the scholar and the essayists, an unending gradient of objects of fascination and complexity, in a background of traditional southwestern imagery. The Southwest is home to the most celebrated geological phenomena, the most prototypical deserts, the greatest concentration of present Indigenous peoples of any region, and offers unmatched heat, drought, and biological diversity. Included, quite logically, are the entirety of the north-south reach of the Río Grande with its gathering of Puebloan peoples and its rift-related lavas and mountain ranges, including the San Luis Basin in Colorado, the river’s headwaters. The Grand Canyon and its associated Colorado Plateau tableau of geological spectacles and revelations lie inside; the massive San Juan and Sangre de Cristo ranges of southwest Colorado are in as well, as are much of the four great American Deserts: the Chihuahuan, Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran. The boundaries enclose the most spectacular American archaeological sites. By the inclusion of Sonora...