Alone in the Desert

Hello friends and family!

Greetings from Arizona, where it’s 35 degrees and the sun is so oppressive I have to hide inside the van every day between the hours of 10 and 5. Everything is normal here, in a “first act of a horror movie” way, because everyone acts as if Covid weren’t happening. I walked around Tucson’s downtown on a Saturday evening and it was full of (masked) packs of young partiers headed to the bars. Restaurants seem full, and hospitals are filling up, and nobody seems to care! Now that we’re headed into the nationwide superspreader event of US Thanksgiving, I’m headed to the woods.

Right off the bat, I want to address the obvious development: I’m now travelling on my own, and Eric is back in Michigan. We’ve made the very hard, but mutual, decision to pursue different lives. For that reason I’m going to skip over a few weeks of travelling in California because, honestly, it wasn’t very much fun for me and it won’t be very fun for you to read about.

Which brings me to Arizona, where I’ve been hanging out by myself for the past few weeks. Travelling alone is a new kettle of fish for me, and I’m sort of relearning how to do this #vanlife thing without a partner to give directions and split the driving and take risks with. I’m more apt to pay for a campsite or seek out an established campground now that I’m on my own, not really because I fear for my safety but because I just like the comfort of having other people around. It makes me feel less lonely, I guess, to hear their television sets playing and see them walking their dogs and overhear scraps of their conversations. Also, I don’t really go out to eat as much or visit as many breweries, which at least is reducing my risk of catching Covid! 

Spending quality time with the sky

I really did miss having another person around the other night when I camped atop Mt. Lemmon, a peak overlooking Tucson, and a mouse got into the van. For hours I listened to it chewing and scurrying, before I finally put some crackers in the bottom of a bowl and perched on a stool in what felt like a Guantanamo Bay stress position, my legs shaking, for half an hour waiting for the mouse to take the bait. I held the cast iron lid of my dutch oven at the ready, hoping to trap the mouse in the bowl and humanely release it into the woods. Unfortunately, he was too quick for me. I panicked and accidentally smashed him to death and left the lid on the ground, afraid to look underneath it. The next morning it was below zero, so I slid the lid over to the side door along the floor like a curling rock, and shot the frozen body of the mouse outside. It’s times like that you miss having someone to scream and laugh with at the absurdity of a situation.

Most of my time has been spent in the desert south of Phoenix and west of Tucson. I found a place richer than I’d ever have imagined – miles and miles of vegetation, and none of that brown, sandy wasteland one thinks of when one hears the word “desert”. I was in the Sonoran desert, including Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Saguaro National Park, and found staggering biodiversity. The towering green saguaros, prickly branched ocotillo, mounds of prickly pear cactus, and stands of betentacled organ pipe cacti; the weeping leaves of ironwood and mesquite trees that provide life-saving shade; creosote bushes that emit their peculiar chemical-medicinal odour before the rain; a half-dozen strains of razor sharp cholla cactus with names that read as an incantation or ingredient list (teddy bear, pencil, buckthorn, jumping, chain fruit, staghorn).

Parked among the creosote

Throughout it all, I spotted rabbits and pronghorn deer running for cover, and listened to the mournful yowls of the coyotes every night as they approached and receded. I watched Gila woodpeckers and hawks sit sentry on saguaro cacti and finally realized that the roadrunner is an actual species and not just a cartoon. I was fortunate not to encounter any rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions or Gila monsters (the only poisonous lizard in America), but I still saw their ground holes and watched my steps carefully as I walked through the desert. 

The land here is blanketed in species surviving – thriving – in a climate so harsh it’s essentially unliveable for humans for half the year, and we’re supposed to be the great adaptors. I shouldn’t be so definitive – there have been people that wrestled with the desert and won. I saw evidence of them in the ancient petroglyphs carved into weathered basalt rocks throughout Arizona: thousands of years of graffiti reflecting the sun and moon, the animals of the desert, and all sorts of symbols that hold no meaning to us now but once, surely, held divine significance. There are also the modern-day desert people, the migrants crossing over from Mexico (“illegal aliens” being the crueler term). I saw the crosses in the desert, the Catholic shrines to those who didn’t make it. I watched the Border Patrol fly planes overhead and rip up and down desert roads in their pick-up trucks and set up checkpoints to stop and search vehicles. I read National Park Service brochures explicitly stipulating that if I were to come across a migrant dying of thirst in the desert I should not provide succour, and that I would be doing it for their own good.

Hiking Organ Pipe National Monument

I think I came to the desert hoping to feel the desolation of the land mirroring my own. I initially thought that the desert would be an apt setting for the misery I was experiencing, and I had wanted to go the place where all the real soul scouring happens in the Bible. There was a sort of desire to experience those 40 days and 40 nights of deprivation. I wanted the thirst and the heat, and I craved a little bit of self-punishment for letting my life fall apart. But after a week or so, I realized I wasn’t filled with desolation. I was full of awe: at the lushness, at the land and its inhabitants, at the tenacity of the smallest weed to gain purchase, and at myself – at my capacity to survive. I really do feel like I’m going to be ok. If saguaro cactus can grow to 40 feet tall and live for 150 years on 3-15 inches of rain per year, I think I’ll be able to make it through a hard winter.

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