Wednesday, May 21, 2008

December 2007 Arizona Trail Journal (sort of)

Here are excerpts from the journal I took from Dec. 12-24, 2007, mostly on the Arizona Trail. They have been edited and expanded because I took brief notes. It was too cold to spend a lot of time writing. Plus, I'm trying to break away from straightforward narrative in favor of trying to give "impressions" of certain moments. I read these segments May 9, 2008, at the last NIU English Department First Friday gathering of the spring semester.


Maybe emotions can take root in places, like little unseen spores, spiky shells of thought, left behind by the frantic electrical energy of trauma. Christianity, a religion borne out of the desert, portrays evil as a flying, airborne, external force. Jesus drove evil spirits out of a man into a herd of pigs. The man was wandering amongst tomb stones and could not be bound. When Jesus asked the demon, it replied, “We are Legion.” The pigs were feeding high up a mountainside. Their herders were probably not too pleased with this transfer of evil.

Then there’s the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The desert again. In this case, the evil spirits are rooted in an object, the Ark of the Covenant, but once conjured fly out in deadly pursuit of anyone with their eyes open. The spirits are heralded by a beautiful woman, swirling, curling, transformed in a lilting twist to a screaming banshee. Eden was so quickly snatched away. The Nazis jiggled, exploded, and melted away in layers.

I camped beneath the honeysuckle tree, cow chips thrown to clear a spot, listening to old-time country radio, lulled to slumber later by the patter of doll stuffing light snowflake pellets. There I had a dream about a Mexican woman dying. She was curled in on herself, laying on the ground, shivering. Dying of cold. Hunger. Exposure. Did some woman really die here, imbuing this spot with her presence. Do the cows who normally slumber in shade beneath these trees ever feel the same beacon of despair?

Blowing stones
along the road on Mount Asama,
the autumn wind.

Matsuo Basho


Lost luggage. Tucson. Long wait. The graceful curve of the drop-off area in front of the airport. A line of palm trees and fat-stemmed agave. Hours to sit and look at the mountains that await, the Santa Catalinas, so white as to imprint on the retina with eyes closed. They are covered in fresh snow. Major precipitation the past two days, but sunny days ahead.

On a crosstown city bus, past industrial parks and lego block apartment complexes, everyone’s tired, the bus 2/3 full. No one’s standing. Two Hispanic women gently talk, plastic bags crumpled at their feet like supplicants. Both have long, coarse, thick, peppery hair in pony tails, ends trimmed neat, no flyaways. Ample bosoms and laps, content and glowing, the comforts of home and domesticity. Their ropy forearms are the only hint of hard labor.

The bus talker, the one who knows most the passengers by name, looks like a classic desert rat, the dust jacket photo of Edward Abbey -- long, frill-sleeved white, button down collarless shirt, grey vest, long, rangy gray beard, cheeks sharply contoured and beveled. He’s skinny, sinuous, glowing with the evangelical fervor of a preacher or prospector. He’s a mad genius, a raving mind spinning vigorous eddies, ravenous for company, contact, finding order in bus stops and transit schedules.

I too feed off these last sights and sounds of people before disappearing into the scrub. Company will be sparse the next couple weeks.

The last stop at a turnaround at Sabino Canyon and Tanque Verde Roads, strip malls and sidewalks, uncharacteristically foggy and damp. Finally, I’m walking, striding with purpose after a long day of transit, train, plane, sitting, waiting, echoed announcements, pleasant mechanical voices, a day encased in modernity, the greeny inner soul of thick glass. I breathe frosty plumes, steam with exertion. Desert smells are especially strong in the moist air. Mesquite, fuzzy-budded creosote, and an undercurrent of dust and rot.

Past horse farms and patches of suburban neighborhoods. A stoplight in the middle of nowhere, on a rise, a gibbous moon illuminates a line of highway cut straight to a distant glow. But to the east all is darkness, the shadows of giant saguaros and boulders, blinking constellations of homes in the Santa Catalina foothills. The sidewalk ends. The road narrows to two lanes, and continues its gradual ascent. A couple miles later. A welcome sign. “13 acres for sale.” Blessed camp. Coyote yips and dog barks announce my arrival. I’m never alone.

The Unheard Song

Each living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a 'song.' The land, the planet itself, is also a living being - at another pace. Anglos, Black people, Chicanos, and others beached up on these shores all share such views at the deepest levels of their old cultural traditions - African, Asian or European. – Gary Snyder, Turtle Island

The allure of backpacking is partly in its escape, its utter sense of other, both in place and senses, from life in civilization. There is a momentary sense of panic when the bus rolls away, a slight pang of regret disconnecting from the grid. Leaving behind the roads, homes, and power lines also means leaving behind basic comforts like bathrooms and drinkable running water. Society and all its constructions are at a concrete remove from a wildness that constantly tries to eat its way to the surface. Collectively, we beat back the beast, few of us knowing how closely it lurks on the periphery.

Backpacking is more meditative than exciting. Those seeking an adrenaline rush should look elsewhere to bungee jumping or mountaineering. Blessed fatigue attends backpacking, endorphins healing soreness and slowing the mind. Life is reduced to essentials – food, air, water, warmth – and overlooked details, like bird calls and wind patterns, magically appear on this cleared palette.

Most of us are fools and limit awareness to what we create. Tiny dramas like ant caravans and the feathery bluster of bird territorial disputes, happen in urban environments too. But they are only noticed by children and the insane.


Steve and John picked me up on Freeman Road. Steve is in his mid-50’s, skinny, frayed shirt and pants, the ashen, wrinkled face of a chain smoker. I later marveled at his ability to roll a cigarette as he drove. John was younger, late 20s, with Ray Ban prescription glasses that reminded me of last few pages of brat pack author Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. John’s glasses didn’t jibe with his shabby attire, frayed and dirty overalls and work boots. He later told me he found the frames and had prescription lenses fitted using the last check he’d gotten from some waiter gig in Portland, Ore.

Steve and John were looking for Troy, an overweight guy with a black dog who’d gone out the day before to gather wood and hadn’t returned. They passed me going east and stopped to ask if I’d seen him. I said I hadn’t seen anybody or even off-road tracks for the last five miles. But there were sandy washes every quarter mile or so big enough for a car to drive down. It’s not hard to get lost in this maze of drainages.

They said they’d give me a ride when they turned around. I’d been on this road four hours this morning, and they were the third vehicle I saw. They were also the first people I’d talked to since the gas station clerk who sold me food back in Oracle, about 30 miles ago.

After picking me up, they took me back to Steve’s ranch, a 10-acre spread on the end of a dirt road off Hwy. 79 north of Tucson. Troy later returned on his own, sunburnt and thirsty as hell, but ecstatically happy. He’d had an adventure and couldn’t wait to share it. My arrival earlier and Troy’s late, exultant return, much to everyone’s relief, made for a festive atmosphere on the ranch.

I told them about my journey so far, hiking up and over Mt. Lemmon in deep snow, pointing out my route through the window at the mountains in the distance. Steve gave me a short history of his ranch, an open retreat for hippies, seekers, and free thinkers since the mid-70s. In the corner of the main room was a shrine to some unnamed Indian swami. Tibetan prayer flags and a dream catcher hung from tacks in the ceiling.

Steve said hundreds of people come here each summer to meditate and partake of the sacred Sonoran Alvarius Toad. He said the Toad derives its shamanic powers because it is the best meditative creature in nature. Some remain in silent, still, hibernation for five years or more.

Steve offered to take me out to the wash that runs through his yard and dig one up for me. “They look like cow turds,” he said. “But pour a little water on them and they’ll be hopping around in a few hours.”

Steve said I could stay as long as I wanted, as long as I helped out. I washed dishes each day, took their herd of goats for a walk in the desert one day, where I saw how delicate goats can be, picking bits of fruit from the center of barrel cactuses and avoiding countless other spines en route. The five or six dogs that hung around followed me on these walks and every one of them whelped and stopped to chew thorns out of their pads. But these goats were hardy, bony-backed desert goats. They had a knack for avoiding harm.

I never planned to end up at a hippie commune and sleep in an old bus. But I found company and camaraderie in the middle of desert, just when I was getting lonely.

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