From propaganda to travel: History behind Arizona Highways magazine

This American magazine was banned by the Russians!

PHOENIX - Flipping through the pages of Arizona Highways Magazine is like traveling. In this world, the west hasn’t been won. Indians aren’t yet “native Americans” and only the brave set out through the sparse desert.

Gorgeous photographs pull readers in with a tight grip on their optic nerves, painting portraits with nature’s brush that are so vivid, your high definition television could only hope to reproduce them.

Think of Highways as the National Geographic of the southwest, with a razor-sharp focus on Arizona.

“We really are the magazine of record for this state,” said Editor-in-Chief Robert Stieve. “There is an intrigue about Arizona and wild west.”

If there is enough intrigue to fill the Grand Canyon, the writers at Highways are detectives who set out to uncover it.

Each month, readers are treated to write ups of the state’s best hikes, hidden gems and of course, the sometimes rough but always resilient people who call the state home. In one particular edition, writer Susan Lamb profiled a veterinarian who left her modern practice in Oklahoma to set up shop on the Navajo and Hope reservations.

She operates – literally – from a pickup crammed with vaccines, antibiotics and medical instruments,” writes Lamb. “She’s performed surgery on a dog in a Tuba City car wash and developed x-rays under a blanket on her tailgate.

The articles are thoughtful, well written and offer a glimpse into the lives of those who live, love work and play in a ruggedly wild landscape.

 When Arizona Highways was first published on April 15, 1925, it contained articles on the roads that were being built in the state, which was only twelve years old at the time.

The new publication was written by engineers of the Arizona Highway Department (now the Arizona Department of Transportation). While the magazine remains a state-sponsored publication, it is self sufficient and takes no funding from the government.

Black and white photographs offered a visual survey of early highway projects and small desert towns. In the 1940’s, the magazine featured regular color photographs.

That led Arizona Highways to become the first magazine in the country to print entirely in color. As much a pioneer as the state’s early settlers, the magazine attracted quite an array of photographers and illustrators.

“Some of our photographers live in a van for days eating peanut butter and jelly as they wait for the perfect conditions to snap an image,” said Stieve.

Interestingly, the first color photographs produced by Ansel Adams may have appeared in Arizona Highways.

Over the years, the magazine evolved into what it is today. Thousands of readers are scattered throughout the United States and in foreign countries. During the cold war, as one popular story goes, the Soviet Union banned the magazine within its borders.

“They thought it was propaganda,” explained Stieves. “That no place could be as beautiful as some of those that were showcased in Arizona Highways.”

Fortunately, no such ban could ever exist in America and today the magazine fills mailboxes from coast to coast. In Tulsa Oklahoma, a former Arizonan explained how he stays connected by flipping through the magazine’s rich pages.

“I don’t know of any other magazine like that,” said Frank Madero. “It’s really a unique magazine in my opinion.”

Unique is a word the editorial staff at Highways hears a lot, as they gaze upon a wall plastered with each page of the next edition. Imagine having to select the “best” photo from dozens of stunning submissions.

“We have very spirited discussions about that,” said Stieve. “There is a great deal of passion here.”

Maybe passion is the key to running a magazine which is still primarily distributed through the postal service. In an era where institutions like Newsweek have stopped the presses and maintain an online-only presence, the staff at Highways has no plans to stop printing.

“We’re old school in that, that experience of curling up with a cup of tea and flipping through the pages is still with us,” explained Stieve. “I think we’ll be there at the end.”

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