Extended drought and overpopulation, the archeologists explain, were the causes of the breakdown. Over the next two weeks, Pueblo Grande preyed on my mind as though ghosts from the past were whispering to me, warning that history might easily be repeated.

Escapees from the monochrome bleariness of a Canadian winter, my wife and I were vacationing in the Phoenix area, happily immersed in delicious warmth, revelling in the exotic sights of pale green saguaro cacti, red flowers contrasting against the light browns of the desert and dark green fronds of palm trees soaring high into a deep blue sky. We were not alone, for hordes of visitors, snowbirds especially, are drawn to Arizona by a fascinating desert landscape and endless days of sunshine.

From Pueblo Grande we drove miles toward the northeast, lured by Taliesin West, the masterpiece winter home and studio for America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived and worked here from 1937 to 1959.

The rambling, low-slung house dramatically captures the soul of the surrounding desert with its low horizontal lines melding into the brow of a hill. Ingeniously designed to offer spectacular views from almost every nook, it required a lengthy stroll to appreciate the sprawling magnitude of the place, which includes accommodations for architects, a theatre, dining room, a drafting studio and library.

We were captivated by the bold and imaginative use of canvas, natural materials, Chinese terra-cotta decorations and even a fire-breathing, wrought-iron dragon. But Wright would have been disappointed, for today his views of the landscape are marred by a power line, roads, and the tentacles of encroaching suburbia.

Phoenix, as we were fast learning, is a city that knows no restraint. This is non-stop urbanization and its lifestyle does not match the austerity of the desert landscape. Instead, it is lavish and opulent reflecting North America’s consumer-oriented high standard of living and materialism. The automobile dominates and shimmering multi-lane roadways run everywhere in the sprawling city. There is no effective public transport. The absurdly over-sized Hummer is a common sight. On many days a stagnant smog hangs over the city like a shroud.

Another lengthy car journey delivered us to the Desert Botanical Gardens, where we learned how life has adapted, often in bizarre ways, to the harsh desert environment. A guide explained that the saguaro cactus — known as the monarch of the Sonoran Desert, for it only grows here — has a shallow but extensive root system that can quickly draw in rain water. Its pleated stem can expand and hold up to a ton of water. In spite of the difficult conditions saguaros live for over 200 years, reaching heights of 16 metres. I could only imagine what they might do in a rainy climate.

The barrel cactus, in contrast, is short and stocky, sports no arms and is often crowned by yellow flowers. Because it grows faster on the shady side, it always leans toward the south, earning itself the name, compass cactus — a handy fact I filed away in case I should ever lose my bearings in some remote area of the Sonoran desert.

Noticing a small bird peeking out of a hole in a cactus, the guide explained the hollows are drilled by Gila woodpeckers seeking food. They then become nesting cavities for cactus wrens, elf owls, and other birds. Hummingbirds are also abundant, and once we saw a roadrunner, cartoon-like, race across the road.

Many of the desert plants are used by locals in ingenious ways. Mesquite molasses on hot cakes sounded tasty, but I was not about to try rattlesnake hash. Later, my wife luxuriated at a spa with an aloe rehydration, a jojoba-seeds/juniper/sage moisturizer and an adobe-clay exfoliation.

On the drive back to our hotel with the sun glistening on the dry brown hills to the west, the thought occurred to me that this barren, basically inhospitable (for humans) desert landscape would inhibit settlement on the part of our species. Instead, this area has always been a magnet for humans and, enticed by abundant sunshine and wide-open spaces, the attraction continues unabated today with politicians vociferously pushing for further growth. It also occurred to me that even in this vast desert ecosystem there must be limits. And, as I discovered, some of those limits have already been surpassed.

Water, vital to making life in the desert possible, is very scarce; and yet it is consumed by the human population here so voraciously that the natural water table in some areas has dropped by 200 feet.

And even more disturbing is the fact that water piped to the Phoenix ares from the Colorado River to the north has reduced its once-mighty flow so dramatically that this legendary river's waters often do not reach the Pacific.

The demand for energy, much of it generated from burning coal, is also extremely high. Amazingly, Phoenix’s leaders preach little restraint or conservation. A chill ran through me when I learned there was no recycling at our resort nor in the surrounding residential areas.

Over the following days we immersed ourselves in the rich cultural life of Sun Valley, as the Phoenix area is called. We enjoyed displays of native culture and arts at the Heard Museum, an elegant Spanish-style complex built around a cool courtyard. We went on tours of art galleries, and my wife enjoyed shopping.

Phoenix is not marred by tacky neon strips, instead shops are collected together in enormous malls offering an almost unlimited selection of restaurants, galleries and, of course, shops and more shops. Kierland Commons in Scottsdale, for example, has a pleasant “main street” ambiance and a central plaza and fountain that drew us in and made it easy to spend hours wandering about; and momentarily oblivious to the real landscape outside.

A hiking aficionado, I found no shortage of trails. Camelback Mountain and Hole-in-the-Rock parks offer many delightful walks and because they are located in the centre of the city, they are easily accessible.

A Desert Paradise Where Ghosts Whisper

by Hans Tammemagi

Under a brilliant blue sky, we wandered among adobe huts, ruined walls and — surprisingly — an ancient ball court.

These prehistoric ruins at Pueblo Grande Museum — incongruously surrounded by the sleek high-rise offices and thrumming motorways of central Phoenix — formed a disturbing window into the past, for Hohokam natives flourished here about a millennium ago. Then, suddenly, in about 1350 A.D., their civilization collapsed.

If You Go

Arizona information: www.arizonaguide.com

Phoenix information: www.visitphoenix.com

Taliesin West:

Pueblo Grande Museum: www.pueblogrande.com

Desert Botanical Garden:

Heard Museum:

You can now flying from Gary-Chicago airport to Williams Gateway airport (Mesa, Arizona).

Mesa, Arizona Convention and Visitors Bureau

Late one afternoon, I drove north and hiked to the top of Pinnacle Peak. The entire Phoenix Valley was spread before me like a giant three-dimensional map. Although I was soothed by the soft beauty of the desert landscape, at the same time I could not help but see how the once-separate cities of Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, and Phoenix have merged into one vast megalopolis This is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States.

As I stood pondering the scene and feeling quite conflicted, I wondered how long the sparse resources of this desert could support such an immense population; a mega-urban world that has exploded from 1.5 million in 1980 to 3.7 million in 2005. By 2050 it will have reached 20 million.

But I could not tear myself away from the view. I therefore sat on the edge of a rock and stared out into the distance as the sun slipped ever so gradually toward the western horizon. As it declined into the great open desert sky, it cast soft gold hues on the hills and rocks around me. In the middle distance, I could see cacti silhouetted against the orange and purple pastels of the setting sun. The receding hills of the distant edge of the valley were slowly transformed into ever deepening shades of misty velvet.

Surrounded by the vast serene desert, a quiet solitude settled over me ... but ghosts kept whispering in my ear.

Photographs by Hans Tammemagi