It’s cold…Frigid, to be exact. 36 degrees in the Valley of the Sun is no joke for a desert rat, and this temperature is frosty! I’ve avoided the western Supes for some time because I always thought them to be too crowded, but changed my mind with a little prompting from a persuasive friend. I am glad I did.
Up the canyon, I can hear the quick crack of a raven and the shrill of a hawk, but I can see neither. My leather shoes are stiff from the cold and I can feel every step as we ascend the trail. Ice forms over a wash bed and rock slicks where waterfalls are made during storms.
I can understand why this trail draws so many here. There is a magic that does not diminish with each person who walks this path, whether ancient or contemporary. It’s a building up of shared memory: the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.
I’ve been thinking about the possibilities of pain that morning. One slip on black ice or a tumble off an unsteady rock, yes. That’s the risk you take when you hike, but I wasn’t thinking about that obvious kind of mishap. Life’s unpleasant pains, when we want very badly to avoid them, that’s the sort I was thinking of.
In my not too distant past, I would give way to curiosity. Well, actually, impulsivity. And when there was pain at the ready, I welcomed it because I expected it. It didn’t cause much grief because there is no real investment in the immediate.
Then, there’s the painstaking type of pain, when you put the time into something.
Time, work, more work, more time.
A mountain of moments that, oh my god, require trust and perseverance….And no guarantees.
The grueling time it takes for anything to emerge, and the elements that work away at them, that’s what a mountain is. Those needling storms and ice and the cracking open of heat, it knows.
Fragile animals, I cannot forgot this; we are no mountains. People die looking for gold or the trail they’ve lost. People lose sometimes.
There’s always a choice to turn back. I will keep going.
Without family, the only thing I can hold to on Christmas is the fact that there’s nothing to hold on to. Christmas is like the idea of finding our family waiting on the banister, caked with fresh snowflakes, declaring a love for all mankind while being embraced in kisses. It’s fantasy; the wonderful life.
My thoughts return to Christmas past, where I would spend time with my grandparents. One of the best possibilities of those trips was when I could sleep under the tree at night. Looking up through those faux branches into the sparkling glow made me feel at home, precisely because it mimicked the woods and the stars.
This Christmas, I had that opportunity, except here in my beloved home, the Sonoran Desert.
After doing some merrymaking over breakfast with friends, my friend Ellen and I packed off to the North Maricopa Mountains for some desert camping. We rambled through a short, sandy trail to Margie’s Cove, a primitive campground on BLM land, adjacent to protected wilderness and the Sonoran Desert National Monument.
This was an area severely grazed over the past few hundred years, but has been slowly returning to its former ecological glory through the efforts of closure and tightened recreational restrictions. The Monument itself contains the Maricopa Mountain ranges (north and south of the I-8), Table Top Mountains, Booth and White Hills, and the Sand Tanks.
Rife with historical and prehistoric trails and archaeological sites, there’s reason that these places, while quiet, contain thousands of years of stories. You can feel the words under the basalt and strewn across desert pavement, so much so that they sing to life any who care to listen.
Owls lift off from a place
I cannot see. Their long silence
is riddled with the same silence.
In the desert, listening is critical. The slightest wind contains more insight than your GPS. The faint trail of a forgotten sidewinder has more to show you than your cell.
As we set up camp, the clouds formed across the neighboring ridges, looking ominous. It is winter, after all, so we were prepared for both some rain and chilly nights, and the occasional snow (like we saw in 2015). When everything was secured, I set off cross country to look for bones. Like anything, looking intently for what you want results in no luck.
Giant chunks of quartz riddled the desert pavement, looking quite out of the ordinary against the patination. Wilderness boundary signs have been glazed over after a few Sonoran summers – its words barely visible. The quality of quiet shifts from a treacherous gasp of unrelentingly survival to a creosote cold, with humidity setting off any scent.
Later that evening, the campfire was welcome as we quickly ate dinner. Winter nights in the desert make me want to hibernate and wake to the stillness of the stars from under the confines of my sleeping bag and wool blankets.
Next morning, I set out on the trail with the moon to guide me. The air on my face was freezing to the touch, and my nose, permanently frosty. I had hoped to see an owl or maybe a grumpy coyote, or the mountain lion who comes down from his rocks to sip water at the wildlife cache. No sound. No movement. Just my walking motion and my short exhalations.
Walking is reverie, and I, a somnambulist walking in the desert, under moonlight, in winter.
Late morning, we set out on the sandy back roads looking for historic trails. The north country on the boundary of the Monument has rebounded and was especially lush. Sonoran Desert at its finest, said my friend, and she was right. Every few feet, we stopped to gaze at the beauty and the sun creeping over the horizon.
Another friend says, “Sit still and look. This is everything you need right here.” I believe him.
Water has quenched the desert, and everything seemed alive and happy to be so.
Impressions of place: potsherds, one busted, displaced river cobble, many hawks, rusted out windmill, Sheep Mountain (how I longed to see the bighorns), boulder climbing, desert pavement napping, scurries of owls, coyote misfits, deep wash after wash, bajada poetry, walking for miles.
If I could only stay another few nights here…But each night could easily blend into another. The desert is without time, and my time is unfortunate. I am the longing sleeper who must pack up and be fit for the other world I inhabit.
I chase it at night when others slumber.
That which saves dwells where death inhabits.
In the moments of childhood, I would stare out through the faux Christmas tree and wonder where I will end up, what life will become. I have the same childhood curiosity, and no more information as to what comes next as I did then. Here is now. Timeless.
This essay is from a brief visit to the mining towns of Globe and Miami. I went there to shoot a number of old structures, forgotten things, once loved items. What I left with was a heavy feeling of loss and the genesis of renewal. Of coming out of the shadows into a Technicolor of the mind, emotional awakening from nostalgia.
“It’s a dangerous thing to romanticise the past. To allow nostalgia to drag up old memories from the depths of our hearts and fashion them into something they’re not. We built a mirage from a memory and knelt before it like a false god.”
I woke up angry again. The feeling of it scratched at my sheets and gnawed my arms, so that I had to leap out of the bed to get away from it. That feeling like steal wool against flesh.
Anger is not my normal state. My normal state is somewhere between here and Tijuana. My normal state is anxiety, the way you feel when you fall asleep behind the wheel for a few seconds and are on a hairpin curve. I can be cat-like, prone to scamper. But anger is something else for me.
Someone told me after I got sober that I have a lot of anger; that he has seen that side of me very few people know about. Repressed anger is something most alcoholics carry—especially women. In truth, all women. Our anger turns to sadness—overripe fruit set to pop its pulp and sicken the air.
I am not an angry person in that belligerent, obvious sort of way…Male anger. I think I am just impatient, knowing that everyone around me agrees that I need to be patient, but I am not in agreement. That’s the thing.
“If you are not angry, you’re not paying attention.” << My mantra when I was a twenty-something. “If you are angry, you are not living in gratitude,” I am reminded. As if gratitude is on the shelf all alone, as an urn with special cremains from angels.
No, I say. Anger and joy can co-inhabit. Gratitude and disdain, equally so. Gratitude MUST know the contents of my grief for me to even recognize the grace of being alive, the love that still remains. Gratitude respects a good sorrow.
We live in a world that is not set to stop for us to exhibit one thing or another in perfect order. Feeling states are not art exhibits, and rarely are they exclusive.
It can be trite. I know I am growing older into middle-age womanhood. “You can still have kids?” “Why don’t you just focus on your career?” “Ever think about getting a job?” <<<Countless questions about being a 45 year old, childless, in recovery, poor woman writer.
It pays to have women friends. I’m sure I’d be a lot angrier if I didn’t.
Holding this breath like a wish for desire only exasperates, and then the pace of one day to the next just doesn’t stop for anyone. How many things have happened over the past few months? Years? Did you expect them? Were you patient for them?
I am impatient. I don’t care for the scheme of things, and if I could raise the wild places out of their peril, the wild beings away from what is certain apocalypse, why would I choose patience?
If I could find that place I envision, the kindred partner, the freedom to roam, would I jump? Yes, I would.
There is the very real now versus the prospective future of waiting games and being patient. I choose to embody the now. And, maybe, just maybe that anger upon waking won’t make its appearance.
Exploring new terrain is always exciting, but sometimes you only have a few hours to kill. The Superstitions seemed like a good bet, but I still shy away from the crowds and on Veterans Day, there was sure to be a crowd.
The Goldfield range, near Usery Pass and Saguaro Lake, is something I have always wanted to explore. Not as glamorous as the Supes, the Goldfields offer many of the same wonders of the volcanic complex to its east, but with less of an allure. It’s unusual for people to know the range, unless they’re outdoor enthusiasts from Apache Junction, or those who prefer solitude, even in the city.
Since the terrain is easy to explore with a topo, I decided to jump out around Willow Springs Wash and cross country my way southwest to the middle of the range, just north of Dome Mountain.
Here is what I experienced…
I arrived just as the sun was starting to crest over the ridge, and – of course – it was insanely cold. I’ve never felt so cold in my life as I have in the desert in the fall and winter months. There is a quality to the cold unlike any of the humid places I’ve been during the winter. It’s like touching frozen metal.
Thankfully, I was quick to warm up by hiking up a steep ridge to gaze into the eye of the sun. Its warmth was immediate.
I looked around at the awaiting cacti, jojoba, and creosote. Everyone seemed to be waiting for this precise moment of sunlight splendor.
It was a windy day and it seemed to drown out the few ATVs I could hear, probably over in the Bulldog Canyon OHV area. There are many jeep roads that transect much of the range. Relics of old mining roads, mines, pits, and former camps and equipment are what you can expect here. The sort of place you’d see burros and a rusted out Model T. I sadly saw neither.
As a matter of fact, I wondered why I hadn’t seen a soul, even a coyote, in over 3-4 miles. All I had for company was the wind.
And more wind… and the eerie sense of knowing there were plenty of critters all around, but I couldn’t see them. I was able to spot a Cooper’s Hawk flying high above the tuff pinnacles. Seeing him added to the absolute hush of the morning. Even my footsteps were silent.
Nearing the end of the jeep road, I decided to scramble down a side canyon. I had to bushwhack a bit to get down into the wash where former rains pooled in the deep sand and the grasses gave the path a rare delicacy that no desert ever really offers.
Farther into the canyon, the walls began to narrow. I came across some old wildlife caches that have long since dried up. Moisture from the shade and rains produced unknown ferns, mosses, and lichens along the ground and canyon walls. Bobcat, coyote, and javelina tracks were visible, as well as skunk.
Dropping onto the canyon floor and over a large pool of murky water, I realized I probably wouldn’t be going any farther without technical gear to assist. The vertical drops were more than I could manage and more water to deal with. A good problem.
I already had a long trek of boulder hopping and butt sliding, so I was ready to climb back up to the ridge. (It’s interesting, if you are a rock nerd, to note that the canyon walls were smooth with chalcedony. Very pretty in the morning light.)
Before making my way back to the car, I had a chance to take it all in. From Gonzales Needle to Golden Dome to Razorback Ridge. What a view. What beauty.
And NO PEOPLE.
My kind of hiking.
So long, Goldfield range! I will be back in February for the wildflowers, and maybe an overnight somewhere down the canyons.
I recently returned from an overnight trip to the Sierra Ancha. This is a range that is close to my heart, because it was one I visited briefly during my first trip to Arizona after being gone for nearly 15 years.
As my friend Ellen likes to say, this place is special, sacred. You can feel it when you are here. Something of the ethereal is close to the skin. No wonder there are many sightings of monsters and ghosts, of messages on the wind and in strange dreams beneath glowing stars.
We arrived in late morning, so I decided to hike down Rose Creek. Little did I expect, I encountered a small female bear. I was as stunned as she was. I have a certain level of fear about bears; they seem so unpredictable. Their demeanor can quickly change from aloof to threatening, and within seconds.
The bear looked at me, then Lily, my 13 pound dog. I realized that the only way out was to back up since we were surrounded by thick, thorny berry bushes. Lifting Lily high, we eased away, watching the coal black eyes look back at us. Thankfully, we escaped safely through the berry corridor.
Roaming the back roads is always a part of any adventure that I consider an adventure, and Ellen and I set off for Buzzard Roost Canyon the next day. Rocking through the boulders and slopes, and down, down, down into the mouth of the canyon, we went far away from any human activity. Spotting perfect primitive camp sites and canyon songbirds lifting off of the schist and gneiss, what else is there but this?
Lying awake at midnight in my tent, listening to the soft steps of skunks along the creek, I am here. The immensity of the night sky overwhelms me. I wish for one star to fall. Minutes later, the blaze and the descent.
Water in the desert is precious, and to find a flowing creek in the Sonoran is a magical thing. After miles of climbing and bumping down forest roads, we were delighted to find Spring Creek by way of Jerky Butte.
Even a shallow swimming hole can relieve a tired, hot traveler. I am a longtime traveler.
Waking up at sunrise, I hiked along a new road that leads to a development that’s in an in-holding of the national forest. The illuminated cliffs of the Sierra Ancha Mountains caught first light. Being in deep canyons feels like I am returning to the quiet, still place where my true self emerges. The light shines on these places, but it occurs one hour at a time.
If you pay close attention on any walk, you will notice things. Small things that can make you wonder why you ever thought you were alone.
Fall is my favorite season, which feels like a mere two weeks in AZ. I do love the winter months here, but sometimes I miss those real two-three months of serious autumn that I experienced in Indiana. The kind that reminds me of the fall foliage of my birthplace, the sound of the wood stove’s cracks-and-pops, feeling chilly enough to put on an extra big flannel shirt when the sun sets, and that deep, pungent odor of decay.
I savor it when I am in the mountains.
As with any range, a person can spend an entire lifetime exploring and never fully get a complete picture of all of its secrets. And, isn’t that the point, really, to know that a place is composed of so much enchantment it is impossible to contain?
When the disciples asked Jesus when the new world will come, he replied, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it.” There is no outside heaven or planetary escape of tech fantasy. This is it. This is the kingdom.
I hope to continue to recognize it for years to come.
“At times her whimsical fancy would intensify natural processes around her till they seemed a part of her own story. Rather they became a part of it; for the world is only a psychological phenomenon, and what they seemed they were.”
― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
I have wild ideas about life. It started with books. I read the classics: the Brontes, Shelley, Blake, Hardy, Joyce, and so many others. I lived in books, and the world around me become small as the world of concept grew large and unruly. It stalked my thoughts and formed the most precise ideas about all things, regardless of their necessary definitions.
The words, themselves, became real, as real as ascetics who hold up the Good Word and look to some Heaven. The books are my first and last temple.
The words itched under my coat and shoes, and wanted me to draw fangs and hooves in the place of friends and students. Everyone seemed flat in comparison, that is, except these wild imaginings and wild places.
I could see the world as I imagined, among nightingales, persimmon trees, and the low-slung moon above the treeline. There, I was no longer in a place of one-dimensional characters, the mean dramas of humans, but in a microcosmic world of unfolding new buds and the twitch of a cricket antennae.
“..I have roots, I have roots deeper than this island. Deeper than the sea, older than the raising of the lands. I go back into the dark … I go back into the dark! Before the moon I am, what a woman is, a woman of power, a woman’s power, deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon. Who dares ask questions of the dark? Who’ll ask the dark its name?”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu
A life in books is an instructed one. In these books the girl survives, the moral of the story is upheld, and justice is served.
The gods of the old and new are remade, and the balance between evil and good, rectified. My life in books has prompted me to wander off into the night to seek truth and has drawn out instincts I never knew I contained.
To dream of such things is to know that it is real. To dream is to know there is another dreamer dreaming these things. Nowhere are you alone in the world that forms itself. And in this wild heart of the untamed word, I am found.
Second chances, I have had many. Whatever it is, call it God or the Universe, or the Everlasting Energy, has stopped the trajectory of my chaos, that endless comet of catastrophes, and set me back on the path I was meant to be on. Sometimes a bit bruised, sometimes dusty, but when it comes to second chances, I have had more than a few.
Yet, I continued to veer off course.
Some of us test the waters to the point of drowning, and find ourselves in the tide looking up at the stars, never knowing how it is that the tide always sends us back to safety. But sometimes it doesn’t. I know too many who never got a second chance, who just washed away into the distant welcoming deathtide.
When I was in the hospital last summer, it occurred to me that I may not have many chances left. Hitting 40, you realize that the romantic idea of dying young passed you by and here you are in middle age. No smoky car engulfed in flames. No overdose. No suicide penned in the name of lost love.
You begin to ponder all of the crazy neuroses and freak accidents that your younger self never considered, like dying in a horrible washing machine accident or being speared by a swordfish at Pike Place Market. Not so flippantly speaking, death ain’t all that great.
You start to covet your wrinkles and less-than-tight abs a little more. The things you did to bring down the lights seem cruel and petty. Who wants to go down like that?
Nth chances, I am well aware of. I live with a bit of death on my shoulder, just to keep me on my toes. And it isn’t about fearing death; it is just a healthy respect.
Self-destruction, I have put away that book and crawled out the window. When you know, viscerally so, that it can all end (and will) you come closer to life than you ever had before. We are creatures of intimacy. I forgot this for a long time, but it was there sleeping like Rip Van Winkle, and Life pulled me back up to see the stars.
In the woods of my youth, I would tell my dreams to whomever would hear them, usually the swayback mare or the barn swallows who built their nests high in the corn crib. As a child of the country, the forests were my refuge. In the woods I was someone, the narrator of my own life, the one I meant to have.
On summer days I would spend hours looking for insects, reptiles, and amphibians. I was obsessed with their seeming insignificance or disdain felt by most humans. For me, they became worlds beyond worlds, an unseen realm of dreamers keeping track of the earth’s secrets. They saw things most mammals cannot see. They recorded the events of much more complex creatures with their own simple arithmetic of rhythmic chirps and bellows.
In these times, I seek out this refuge, but where do I find it? Gone is my Indiana home of wildflowers and forests skirting the edges of farms. In a desert city, there are few places to hide from the chaotic world. A friend of mine used to refer to the human world as the “meat world” and nature as the “fur world”. The fur world is much more than that. It is the place of plants and stone and soil. It is the water world, and the decomposed humus that reminds us of our death.
One of my favorite places in the woods was a natural sinkhole. I would sit there among the saplings and undergrowth, imagining it to be a cocoon, a sacred bowl that contained protective powers where I would feel safe, where I would speak to God.
For so long, I have been without refuge. What I found was false sanctuary in a bottle, running, un-remembering. In this limbo, I am learning to return to the lessons of insects. What appears to be insignificant can sometimes save. I cultivate a refuge among ant hills and alleyways where coyotes run.