Into the Desert

"But in the desert, in the pure clean atmosphere, in the silence - there you can find yourself. And unless you begin to know yourself, how can you even begin to search for God?" ~Father Dioscuros

An offer for Justin's next assignment came in just last night and we've accepted. We officially know where we're heading next and have a start date and the first draft of a plan.

Tucson, Arizona.

I've never lived in the southwest corner of the United States. Never called the true desert home. The closest I've come is Texas, but I spent my time there in the Hill Country, which certainly has some desert qualities, but also grows enormous live oak trees along creek banks and hides clear blue springs behind spanish moss. Tucson is desert. True desert. Home to the sentinel saguaro and the fuzzy cholla and what seems like 17 species of rattlesnake.

We brushed by Tucson last spring on our way to Reno and were impressed. We watched a mighty storm roll through the landscape and had the smell of creosote etched forever on our hearts. It is a city that seems to have space that is readily accessible, which matters tremendously. After this time back home in New England, I'm aching to feel the wide western spaces as I break myself in once more to nomadic life.

Desert isn't always my first choice for wild places to spend time. I have a deep, deep love of huge trees and flowing water and mountains that hold secrets buried in the understory. But there is a place for desert in me too. The desert is a very good place to face down fear and truth- it has a way of stripping things away and leaving the bones bleached under it's ceaseless sun.

I suspect that I have things to learn in the desert. And I suspect that I am ready to learn them at last. It took me awhile to get here and it took a lot of work, but I am eager to listen in close to what the rattlesnake and the saguaro and the cholla have to say.

We are going into the desert. Tucson, here we come.


A few favorite shots from when we passed through Tucson in May...


It began drizzling as we rolled into the eastern half of Saguaro National Park (did you know that this park is split into two parts with the city of Tucson between them? This was news to us...) and the rain was a cool balm to my dusty, thirsty skin.

After more than a week in the desert, I admit that as we drove from New Mexico toward Arizona, I wasn't thinking very much about Saguaro N.P., that I was sort of expecting the same general landscape we'd been looking at since Big Bend- scrubby mesquite bushes and ochre mountains and clustered prickly pear. It wasn't that I was bored (I mean, c'mon, how does one get bored when it comes to wide spaces and even wider skies?), but it hadn't really registered that this desert would differ significantly from the desert we'd been spending time in. Which is crazy considering that we all know saguaro (pronounced sah-WAR-oh...something else we learned there...isn't the world just full of surprises?) cacti are THE cacti that we all picture when think of cacti at all, all arms and elbows and looking for all the world like they are asking for a hug or giving praise at an old time tent revival. 

I was staring out of the passenger window as we approached Tucson, caught up in my thoughts and not really seeing anything I was looking at, so Justin's exclamation startled me a bit and I craned my neck to see what he was pointing toward. Our first sighting of the mighty saguaro. They dotted the open spaces as we passed in ever increasing numbers, sentinels standing watch as we inched toward the keep.

The desert isn't the landscape that calls me home. Don't get me wrong- I genuinely appreciate it and very much treasure my time there, but when my heart hurts and calls for wilderness, it's mighty trees and secret streams and mountains rich with foliage I crave most deeply. After more than a week of heat and dust and air so dry that my skin was cracking, I looked longingly at the building storm clouds but held no real hope for rain in this desert full of cactus royalty.

The first drops fell as we got out of the truck and walked toward the visitor's center. I paused to let the wet hit my skin and took a deep breath, inhaling the distinctive smell of creosote in the rain. It was a little bit sharp and a little bit metallic and will be how I remember the Sonoran Desert smelling for the rest of my days. 

Maybe it was the rain or maybe the cool air that came with it, or maybe just simple good timing on our part, but the desert was blooming in full force. The saguaros looked as though they were holding bouquets or wearing midsummer flower crowns in preparation for dancing around the bonfire, and the prickly pear and cholla were eager to keep up with their own festive looks. There is something distinctly special about seeing tender blooms sprouting from such spiny survivalist plants. A reminder that there lies within even the prickliest among us, a fragile and tender heart. 

That night we were treated to a thunderstorm that shook the ground beneath our camper. We turned off all of our lights, pulled out a bottle of whiskey, and watched the desert light up. It flung its light and flashed its fury and the rain grabbed the dust from the air as it fell.

Just when I thought I was beginning to know the desert, she showed me her version of tall trees and lush foliage and rushing stream. And then threw in a light show to drive home her point, cheeky thing.  


We took old interstate 90 out of San Antonio and headed westward. It was early in the day, but already sweltering in the 90s by the time we left the congestion of the city and the landscape became ever more spare, gnarled live oak trees giving way to mesquite and then replaced by something even scrubbier tucked between prickly pear cactus and golden prairie grasses.  We began seeing border patrol SUVs parked in the brush, the land curving down and out of sight, the Rio Grande low and invisible, but cutting its ribbon across the desert dividing nations regardless.

We came upon the enormous Amistad reservoir quite suddenly, startled by the turquoise water that seemed eerily out of place among all of the muted golds and browns and sage greens. I stared out of my open window as we drove past, curious as to why the lake felt so out of place aside from its desert surroundings before realizing that the lack of foliage at water's edge defied my idea of a desert oasis. No palms or lushness, simply an abrupt dive from dusty dry earth to clear turquoise water with no transition at all.

Later, we pulled off at a picnic area for a late lunch, surprised when the pull off continued further than expected and ended at the edge of a canyon wall looking down on the Pecos River. This was the old west spread out before our very eyes, the echos of inhospitable land, desperate livestock, skirmishes and lawlessness and a world unto itself, appropriated land and cultural annihilation, all of it flowing down out of its headwaters in the Sangre de Cristo mountains and running through the desert into the Rio Grande. We ate our lunch in awe and then crossed over the muddy, slow-moving water to “west of the Pecos,” continuing to our first chance at gas in over 100 miles in the sleepy town of Sanderson.

The sun was sinking low and the temperature beginning to back away from the triple digits as we entered Big Bend, the Chisos mountains turning ochre in the late light, shadows lengthening over the wide open land. As we drove, enormous jackrabbits and sweet desert cottontails played chicken with our truck tires (a true testament to Justin’s driving acuity that we hit not a single one…I’ve never seen animals so apparently suicidal in all my days) and even a lumbering javelina as it sauntered across the road in no particular hurry. Justin spotted one of Big Bend’s specialties, the Texas Brown Tarantula, but I admit to relief at missing a spider big enough to be clearly identified from a moving vehicle at dusk (harmless, I know, but still…). We gloried in the sunset, the fiery oranges and reds giving way to magenta and then that deep purple-blue just after the sun drops out of sight. We gloried also in the space and the mountains and the sheer exuberance of being alive in such a wild place.

There was sadness and regret in what we’d left behind, both in San Antonio that morning and further back in our cherished community and home in Maine. There was uncertainty and apprehension in the myriad unknowns that lay before us in Reno. But in this moment of transition, this space between before and after, we could simply be two travelers crossing desert and mountains in our journey, in our work at living our lives as fully and richly as possible. We could look out over cactus and cholla and sotol and take the moment as it came, unencumbered by our past or future, comforted by the steadfastness of long-lived mountains and the caprice of ever-changing desert.