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A love letter to people who love the desert
Recently I road tripped through Arizona for the first time, and though the landscape was stunning, almost incomprehensibly so, the real highlight of the trip was all the people I met. Desert rats are cut from a different cloth, and I have a deep love for everyone else who enjoys the dry heat, who's mesmerized by the way the light plays over the texture of the rocks and sand, and who knows that in a landscape this harsh the only way to survive is to treat strangers as friends. Here are just a few portraits of the people I encountered out in the desert.
The Road Angel
Somewhere on the I-10 I noticed a man on a red motorcycle speeding up behind me. Not a lot of people drive as fast as I do, but he calmly kept my pace. When I'd weave between cars, he'd follow my path. Sometimes he even ended up in front of me. But for about half an hour, we never separated. We were like two dolphins swimming together fast and playfully in the waves, driving recklessly maybe, but for the sheer joy of it. There was no road rage. We just liked to go fast, in a way you only can on a desert highway. I found his presence strangely comforting and anchoring. Eventually we ended up side by side and had to split off; we waved goodbye, and that was the end of that.
The Botanist Veteran
I woke up around dawn to go hiking in the mountains in the middle of Phoenix, before the heat would be insufferable. I hiked with a man in his late 50s, blue eyes shining brilliantly against sun-leathered skin, eyes that noticed every minute detail in the monochrome of the desert. He picked a tiny berry from a pincushion cactus for me to eat; he taught me how the saguaros grow into their varied sculptural forms; he identified every bird I pointed out. He was an army brat who joined the army himself in the 80s ("no noble cause then") and ever since he left the army he had worked odd jobs. He was a seasonal worker at Costco for a whole two months before he quit, disgusted by the rampant consumerism. He worried about Phoenix's sprawl. He worried too about radio waves and telepathy; he didn't want anyone reading his mind. He told me how a long, long time ago, indigenous people built the canals that are still used today. As it got hotter on our hike I mentioned an old country song about cool water, and smiling he started singing the chorus. I think he was happy that the younger generation still knew these songs. When we parted ways, he yelled "Go Bernie!", and I yelled it back.
Sitting in a park in Scottsdale, languorous in the 100+ degree heat, I looked up to see an old man approaching me, asking if he could sit next to me. He told me he had once gotten married in this park, "but got divorced somewhere else." He asked where I was from and I said California but I'm visiting because I love the desert and he said, "If I never see a damn cactus again it'll be too soon."
I woke up around dawn on another day to go kayaking in a river with a few people. The man who brought all the kayaks was maybe about 40, and he wore an ACAB shirt and had a firm but gentle handshake. He kayaked in the river every single day, to the point where truthfully, he was a little tired of it. A few miles past our starting point, I asked him about the shirt, and whether anyone ever gave him any trouble over it, and he said, "Fuck 'em." He told me about his friend who had been an addict and had been high at the wrong place at the wrong time and had been killed by four cops. "Cops are all class traitors." His dad was a felon and a former rodeo cowboy; he himself had been a rodeo clown when he was 14. I said that reminded me of a King of the Hill episode where Bobby becomes a rodeo clown, and with a quiet seriousness he turned to me and said, "That is my favorite show." We talked about our favorite episodes, outlaw country, the time he had had an affair with a married woman, and the birds we saw. Much later we stopped at a large rock in the middle of the river, and after a lot of hesitation on my part, he finally encouraged me to cannonball off the rock and into the cold water. The river swept me away quickly but he grabbed my hand, firmly but gently, and helped lead me back to the rock, where I dried off almost instantly in the late morning sun and watched dragonflies skitter over the water.
There's a lot of paperwork involved when you buy gold from a pawn shop, so to pass the time I asked the jeweler if he had grown up in Tucson or somewhere else. I soon learned his whole life story, from Iran to Germany to France to Arizona. I mentioned I was Portuguese and he reminisced about a Portuguese woman he had once loved. He told me about his favorite French movies, and I listed off the few words of Farsi I knew. When I asked if he ever wanted to move back to Europe or Iran he said no; he liked it here, and the heat isn't so bad. After all, it's just a dry heat.
The Venus in Fake Nails
She was my height and my age but was brimming with more life and color and magnitude than I think I ever have. She was resplendent in layers of gold jewelry matching the warmth of her long curly red hair, and her tattoos and her dress (purchased from a store "five steps down from a Marshall's, that's how shitty it is") radiated the full spectrum of the rainbow. She sang and talked to herself as she did my nails, her own extra long fake nails pressing into my skin. Born and raised in Phoenix, she hadn't traveled much outside of Arizona at all. A few times to California, a few times to New York. She wanted to see more of the world but she had lung problems that made it hard to travel, and anyway, Phoenix had everything a girl could want. When I left, she hugged me goodbye and said whenever I was back in town, we could go get drinks at her favorite bar, a dive in a former tax office.
Hiking through Sedona, I overheard a woman happily sprawled out on a rock exclaim, "I love surrendering to the ROCK!"