One late morning in mid-December of his second winter he found himself getting bored. He’d already ridden his bike the usual two miles; had played pickleball for two hours; had swept the floors and even washed the front windows. It was still only 11:30. There was nothing written in his day planner for the afternoon or evening. He couldn’t think of any new local sites to explore and wasn’t up to tackling unknown parts of Tucson. Didn’t want to have a beer; one would just lead to another. So he did what he usually did in situations like these–opened a book—not another novel but a local history book, and settled down in the hammock under the giant mesquite in his front yard, his dog settled on top of his legs.
The book elaborated what he’d learned in the Presidio museum. He’d been reading for almost an hour when Rowdy suddenly leaped off to investigate an incoming Fed-Ex truck. The book fell off his lap. When he stretched to reach it, he ended up on the ground. What the hell, he muttered, deciding it was time for an afternoon walk anyway. He’d start at the Resort side of the Anza Trail and return in time to say hello to the Presidio’s director, who had shown him a 1774 map picturing building sites around the fortress. He’d been overjoyed to see his own pink adobe on the map. First, he needed to go inside to pack drinks, a sandwich, and doggy cookies.
Rowdy always knew his way down Burrell Street. Before getting to the Resort they had to pass the old Mexican cemetery with its brightly colored plastic flowers and metal sign that everyone commented on, “Cementary.” Burrell Street used to be the dirt road from Tucson to Sonoran Nogales, and then probably Mexico City, where seventeenth and eighteenth-century soldiers and friars had come north from.
The book he’d been reading about Father Kino claimed the Indians loved the simple man who’d come not just to convert them, but more importantly to improve their quality of life. They appreciated his efforts to keep them from slavery and forced labor at the mines. Maybe also his better ways of planting–like, our walker thought, the rural priest in the 1986 “Mission” movie who taught his natives to enjoy simple songs of joy while out working their fields.
Kino had brought with him horses, sheep, mules, and cattle. The animals proved a mixed blessing for local inhabitants busy with their subsistence farming, since they later became the basis for wide-scale ranching–something that eventually brought wealth to a few but damaged the whole area, including the Santa Cruz River. That was to be a while in the future, however.
Still walking Burrell Street, he figured that Kino must have taken his own walking orders seriously, establishing twenty other missions while walking 75,000 miles throughout the area. But now his thoughts turned to a later Spaniard, the famous soldier he’d just read about who preferred riding to walking.
Juan Baptista de Anza came north shortly after the Tubac Presidio fortress was established. Serving as its commander, he chased fierce Apaches all over Arizona, and was then ordered to mount a thousand-mile expedition to Monterrey, California. Almost immediately he was called back to Tubac, only to be ordered to march once again to California, this time to do something about possible Russian colonization in San Francisco. Then, back home in Arizona, he had to do something about another hostile Indian group, the fearless Comanches—pursuing them all the way to New Mexico and Colorado.
The Presidio moved to Tucson the year after de Anza rode west with his entourage, but later another Spaniard kept a garrison of Pima Indian soldiers near the old fort. They tried to stave off Apache attacks that continued to plague Tubac until Geronimo was captured a century later. Our afternoon walker pictured soldiers taking a day off to shoot a few of the thousand wild turkeys that flocked to the river to drink…plus maybe one of the many wolves that drove them crazy howling all night. Maybe they’d jump into the river for a swim. Back then it was a real river, not just a struggling creek fed by effluent from the Nogales Treatment Center.
For hundreds of centuries a dense mesquite bosque of Arizona walnut, Mexican elder, hackberry and of course mesquite trees bordered both sides of the Santa Cruz flowing north from Mexico. Mesquites probably still predominated when Cabeze de Vasca and Coronado marched through Arizona a little farther east, but by the time of Kino and de Anza, the area had changed into a cottonwood-willow forest. Even as recent as the early twentieth century, some of the Anza cottonwoods grew trunks eight to ten feet across, and like all cottonwoods, were brittle and littered the ground with limbs too thick to be swept downstream by monsoon floods.
The Santa Cruz got mortally wounded in less than half a century after the Anglos started depending on it for mining and cattle. It didn’t die immediately, for it still flowed fast and strong when an Eastern visitor called Tubac the most beautiful spot he’d visited—but he must have been talking about the river area, not the town past the cemetery with its handful of old adobes. Our walker had studied photos of Tubac at the height of its early population in 1865 after the cattle turned the land into a dry desert. No trees could be found until the town’s influx of famous people, artists, and developers started planting them in the 1950s. Well, maybe the mesquites had decided to make a comeback on their own—with the help of mesquite bean pods recycled in cattle poop, or perhaps the new water supply created by septic systems.
He crossed Bridge Street and looked longingly toward the lush Resort grass, tempted to ditch his sandals to run barefoot through what looked like wet, green summer grass. The golf course had been created in the early twentieth century but only recently become a beautiful destination spot. Every time he played one of its three courses he breathed easier and gave thanks for the desert oasis of pure greenery. He’d stopped feeling guilty long ago. Non-golfers could grouse all they wanted about the waste of precious water, but he knew a good part of it seeped back where it belonged—and how many of the grousers complained about the much larger water waste up in Green Valley’s huge pecan groves?
After stopping for a quick beer outside the bar with Rowdy leashed beside him, he got up to cross the Rancho fairway for entrance to the Anza Trail. The Resort owners had wisely chosen to let a dozen beefy cattle graze its fairways next to the river. He wondered how many of his fellow golfers appreciated the bucolic bovine touch even when it occasionally slowed them down.
Now the wilderness part of his walk was to begin—for every time he walked the trail, he pretended he was back in Colorado, Wisconsin, or North Carolina experiencing true wilderness. Better yet, Alaska, where he’d never been and probably never would. Like many older humans, he inhabited several worlds past and present, sometimes getting confused about which he was currently in.
He’d stumbled on the Trail the day after getting settled into his new adobe home in Old Town. That was two and a half years ago, back in July, too hot for most people to go outside walking. Someone had made a swath in the tall grass with a lawn mower, of all things. On both sides everything was green: deep untrammeled green grass, ninety-foot tall cottonwoods bearing light green leaves, an isolated green bamboo stand, dark green bushes, and no doubt lurking somewhere, tiny green frogs. Hopefully not poisonous Sonoran toads or hemlock plants disguised as wild carrots—the most poisonous plant in North America, his book said.
Now, in the middle of December, everything had turned brown. The Trail was grassless dirt. All the shrubs, bushes, and dead flowers wore drab tan, dark or light brown. Half the remaining cottonwood leaves were brown–still beautiful, but very monochromatic. Even the tamarisks, which his book had denounced as invasive exotics that grew into tall “salt cedars” crowding out native vegetation and making the soil salty, had lost their lovely pink plumes and turned into coppery-tan feather bushes.
He would have called the landscape drab except for the memory of what his wife had told him almost forty years ago up on their Colorado mountain top: “Look, it’s all wonderful shades of brown. He showed me—He taught me–to look carefully to see how all the shades are so very different.” She had never been one to talk about her religious experiences, but he’d noticed the way she switched from parroting what she had been taught by a remote minister about an equally remote deity to what she actually experienced with a close Presence.
Rowdy used his nose, not eyes, to experience the place–no doubt indifferent to the particular season, but totally into it. His master tried to let his own nose call forth memories of fall leaves. He couldn’t smell anything until he reached down for a handful of brown leaves to crush next to his nose. That brought back lazy afternoons jumping off roofs into deep piles of leaves or driving through miles of red maples in Wisconsin and North Carolina. Then the smells and heat carried him back to his midlife in Boulder, Colorado where the cottonwoods at the local park lost their leaves earlier in October. He used to run laps around the park and drive to the high mountains to watch quaking aspens turn yellow, gold, and rose during his favorite month, September. Mountain aspens, he remembered, were as thirsty as their bigger cousins six thousand feet lower, but had to go to bed a lot earlier.
The Trail was strangely quiet today. He couldn’t hear any birds, though he knew the birders would be around somewhere. He’d already seen most of the ones they spent hours looking for–vermillion flycatchers, yellow billed cuckoos, orioles, tanagers, phainopeplas, and high-flying black hawks in March. He’d never seen the crazy whistling duck that perches in trees, not to mention mountain lions, coatis, or the elusive jaguar some claimed was still around.
Today he found himself concentrating on the cottonwoods. Half their leaves were brown, the other half remained a beautiful yellow. Apparently, the unusual weather had produced two frosts this winter, a mild one in mid-November followed by a warming spell, and then another colder frost in late December. Maybe the milder frost had killed some leaves, but not ones which hadn’t fully turned. That was his feeble reasoning, but he still couldn’t understand why some trees succumbed early, whereas others right next to them tightly held their bright colors of yellow. One giant that he studied for five minutes quaked and shimmered golden, issuing a strong challenge to January.
The temperature being in the high seventies, it felt more like September than December. He still had a half-mile to go before reaching Bridge Road at the edge of Old Tubac. From this view toward the sun lying low in the sky, the brown leaves scattered on the dirt turned into giant snowflakes, shimmering silver and white until he put his sunglasses back on.
He continued walking slowly south. Before he got to the place where the Santa Cruz winds back to the Trail, he felt something happening inside that brought him to a standstill. He found a giant cottonwood stump to sit on and turned off his mental motor. He even stopped admiring the tall cottonwoods. Stopped looking up to the puffy clouds floating through the blue. For no reason, he just wanted to sit quietly and taste the very ordinary moment. Everything had become overwhelmingly satisfying. More than enough.
I must be experiencing some kind of epiphany, he thought. He sat looking at the end of the log, a goofy smile forming over his face. He didn’t know how long he sat there—an hour or a few minutes—but life was utterly ok. He was ok, was right with the world. Thinking of nothing, just enjoying silence and beauty.
This is what true relationship and love is all about, he thought. With nature, with infinite Mystery, with himself. Sitting quietly without knowing, wanting, or needing to know, he felt bedazzled by absolute freedom.
It wasn’t just the beautiful cottonwoods, mild winter temperature, or pure silence, but simply sitting in some deep and spacious place. Sustained by something else. Being an empty nothing…and everything. He looked down at the ants marching resolutely on a trail of their own to a destination of their own. Another world before his very eyes, a world always there but never understood. He laughed at how unimportant he was to them, this monster from another world, an obstacle to maneuver past on their way to somewhere important to them.
Then he slowly came back to his own world, the world of yellow, brown, and gold cottonwoods in a precious narrow riparian area in the middle of an endless desert stretching far into Mexico.
Rowdy barked saying it was time to go. Time to trod the trail a gentle priest and fearless soldier had trod. To head back to his pink adobe built two and a half centuries ago by Presidio soldiers. Life was certainly ok in this strange place.