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A Shootout, a Canyon, and Common Ground

Aug 22 2019

Melina on a "field trip" two hours away to Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim, Desert View Overlook. (photo credit: Casey Mullins)

By Melina Walling '20

Hometown: Wayne, Pennsylvania 

Major: English

Museum Intern, Natural History Institute

Out West Student Blog

Student Blog



Bang. An actress in a hoop skirt falls to the ground, caught in a blank’s imaginary crossfire.

I’m at Prescott’s annual Shootout on Whiskey Row, where a local band of dedicated historian-actors puts on an all-day reenactment of the most famous gunfights in Old West history.  I linger to watch for a while, but as I leave the scene, I continue to wince at the pistol cracks. I never seem to get used to them, even though most of the crowd is unfazed.

A few days later, thirty-two people will have been killed, and dozens more injured, in the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.


A reenactor fires a blank during a mock demonstration of a gunfight at a saloon at Prescott's annual Shootout on Whiskey Row. (photo credit: Melina Walling)

When I moved to Arizona, I thought I would be most surprised by the big things: the sprawling forests of Prescott National Forest; the red rocks of Sedona; the incomprehensible depth of the Grand Canyon. But the truth is that, while all those landscapes and locations have been spectacular, my expectations have been subverted countless more times by the minutiae of daily life. And while the landscapes have taught me about Arizona, living in this area has taught me a little more about America.

The red rocks of Sedona at dusk. (photo credit: Melina Walling)

Prescott is a retirement hotspot, and many of its residents have moved here recently. Over two hours from Phoenix, the nearest big city, it seems to preserve a slice of a bygone era. The line of antique shops and historic main street all add to the illusion; the center of town probably looked the same seventy years ago as it does today. Around it, things have changed—a Trader Joe’s, a few yoga studios, art galleries—but the core of Prescott clings to what came before.

I asked one of the reenactors, who has been donning his cowboy hat and three-piece suit for over fifty years, why he does what he does. His response? “They don’t teach history the way they used to. They leave things out. I want people to remember the past.”

Tourists gather to watch the Sunset near the watchtower on the South Rim, which overlooks the Colorado River below. (photo credit: Melina Walling)
Every day on my way to work, I drive past a gun and pawn shop with a billboard out front that says in large blue letters “Guns Are Why America Is Still Free.” I can’t pretend to understand this. I can’t deny my own frustration at the parts of the past that many people here choose to remember, while simultaneously forgetting others. But still, I make my left turn, and I drive on.

Once I get to work, I am absorbed in my job: copyediting and laying out a field guide to plants in the area. I spend most of my time with two former Prescott College professors, a field botanist, and a high school biology teacher, in a thought-bubble as sheltered as the office’s air conditioning.

That said, the Natural History Institute operates under the belief that paying close attention to the natural world around us is a deeply human trait, one that transcends the limits of misunderstanding and political division. And I believe that anyone curious enough to know the type of plant in front of them is already part of the conversation.

Now, the goal is to find common ground. And maybe that ground is this earth: the rocky soil where the plants grow, the red rocks of Sedona, and the chasms of a canyon as the sun sets gold.

View from the South Rim at sunset. Included in these silhouettes are the famous rock features known as the Shiva Temple, Isis Temple, and Cheops Pyramid. (photo credit: Melina Walling)
Follow Melina on Instagram: @mwallingphoto

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