IT gets uncomfortably hot during the hours from 10am to 4pm in the southern Arizona desert, even with winter just weeks away, so I do an early morning walk and a pre-sunset tramp daily. It was yesterday’s late afternoon amble that scared the living crap out of me.
I’m here visiting my heart daughter Wayan. I’ve known and enjoyed immense affection for this native Balinese woman for 26 years now. Upon our initial encounter a few years back, her American husband Mike instantly became a welcomed heart brother.
Together they run an upscale bed and breakfast in a magnificent setting, yet one as different from my beautiful beach as might be conceived. The Crickethead Inn sits within Saguaro National Park, outside the city of Tucson.
What we’re talking here, plain and simple, is desert. Not a blade of grass, nor any sort of growing thing a New Zealander might construe as a tree. But things do sprout from the ground here, and wildlife, while infrequently encountered, is abundant.
Mike has owned the property since just after the beginning of time and bit by bit built the stunning accommodation that now exists. Wayan, meanwhile, has been here the 14 years of their marriage.
She is – and I defy anyone to challenge me on this – the finest cook in this corner of the galaxy. Though the rooms are immaculately fashioned with furnishings and ornaments shipped back from their annual visits to Bali and neighbouring Java, and the tariff is considerably under that of rival hostels, the probability exists that word of her exquisite breakfast preparations is what keeps the inn packed through seasons high, low and in-between.
When Mike ran the b&b pre-Wayan, guests ate whatever he laid out on the table. But Wayan’s mother taught her early on that feeding visitors was an act far greater than providing mere sustenance; you were performing God’s work, meaning you do your best to please those you are feeding, and spare not substance nor quality.
When there are, say, a dozen guests sitting around the breakfast table, producing the sighs and purrs of gastronomic euphoria to accompany the astounding exterior performance of the gigantic saguaro cacti fronting the powerful multi shades of brown distant mountains, it is Wayan who must account for untold different feasts to accommodate various preferences, needs, allergies, intolerances and current fashionable diets. (She herself is vegan.)
Nor is it strictly the paying guests she caters for. Forget the renowned horse whisperer; Wayan is a premier coyote screamer. Every morning and early evening she will step outside, offer a top-volume, high-pitched LALALALALA wail which immediately brings in off the desert heretofore unseen critters like the ultra shy coyotes, colourful javelinas (tayassu tajacu to you fussy Googleheads), occasional deer, the odd bobcat, hares, cheeky squirrels and more: a real-life Disney production, to gobble up the proffered leftovers. There’s only one breed of animal she resists with all her being: the long, slim, slithering kind, especially those that rattle.
Since Crickethead is well off the beaten path, my time here is spent reading, writing and walking, the three activities I enjoy most in life. And therein lies the harrowing situation I created for myself yesterday.
I admit to an abnormal fear of getting lost – this no matter where in the world I might be. I have no bias: since I own one of recorded history’s worst senses of direction, over the years I’ve got myself lost on every known continent, in dozens of countries therein. I have been lost in cities, in villages; in the bush and on mountains.
I even get lost in my dreams, for rarely does a night pass that I don’t find myself starring in some bizarre quasi-nightmarish video of being on the move and suddenly realising I’m unable to find my way back to wherever it is I’m calling home. My high standing in this particular brand of neurosis, though ever so familiar to me, nonetheless tends to be considerably upsetting. Yesterday’s experience rates near the top.
Late afternoon I left the premises for my standard 30 minute there-and-back walk towards the mountains. Accompanied by a self-fashioned walking stick, I made my way to what barely passes for a zigzag trail, trudged through sometimes soft, sometimes firm, desert sand dotted with a few trillion pebbles, stones, rocks and evidence of unseen animal life.
Understand that the desert has no obvious signs to follow. There are the amazing saguaros, of course, some 25-30 feet high, but to a beach bod they all look alike, thus presenting no traceable points of reference.
Unlike the sometimes soft, sometimes firm beaches at home, things grow in the sand here.
Things which are not pretty. They are, in fact, other-worldly ghastly, grisly and gruesome: spindly, knurled, thorny, winding around themselves and sporting razor-sharp needles long and terrifying as witches’ fingers. I am convinced they are of malevolent alien sentience, possessed of an abhorrence of human existence and react accordingly, reaching out to snag, dig deeply into, then detach and become part of their unassuming hosts. What’s weird to a desert novice is how a place as stunning as Saguaro National Park is in landscape viewing can be so hideous when you get knee-deep right into it.
Conscious of the diminishing late afternoon light and a sudden slight chill, after quarter of an hour I turned about and followed the same dusty trail back the way I came. Within minutes I sensed something was wrong. A few more minutes and I became convinced of it. For I could not spot a single of the footprints I had left en route.
Somehow, though surely this could not be possible, somehow, I now found myself on another trail headed back in the direction I’d come. Except, according to the sun’s emplacement in the sky, I’d got myself not only onto a different dusty trail, but one at a slight angle to the true pathway to Crickethead.
Without thought, I immediately engaged in two plays. Second of these plays was to quell my rising panic, which was the first play. Slow deep breaths. Affirmations. Had I been a believer, I might have prayed. But atheists do not pray. What we do is present demands to the universe and furnish a precise timeline for the desired results. This surely was such an occasion; however, in my current predicament I was somewhat reluctant to ruffle the cosmos’s feathers. Shamefacedly, I admit even employing the hated word, please.
Somewhat composed, there was still the matter of what to do. Turn around and try to locate the original trail? Keep moving forward? The sun was dipping rapidly towards the western hills, and I well knew that despite the temperature hovering around 30 when I’d left, within minutes it would get chilly, leading shortly to outright cold. I had on but a T-shirt and light trousers, carried no water nor iPhone, and even had I a phone, what directions might I present of my exact location?
There seemed no recourse but to proceed onward.
There existed as I continued fighting off the dread during my self-enforced march not a single man-made construction – even a dilapidated shack might have provided a measure of solace – nor sign of humanity anywhere. And was I imagining it or were those stands of saguaros multiple dual fingers flashing insidiously my way?
Even as I used my walking stick to provide a rhythm of sorts, new and disturbing what-ifs arose. The impending cold: I could easily freeze out here. The dark: animals, hiding during daylight, came out at night. Yes, they are mainly timid and avoid the human species best they can.
But they do grow hungry and they will attack when frightened. Especially those long, slim, slithering things that rattle. Shall I enchant an attacking beast with a melodious mantra?
Issue forth homilies about my basic love of all living things great and small? Inform it of the various animal protection and environment preserving organisations I donate to yearly?
I must have stumbled or tripped a dozen times on half-embedded rocks and those snarly, yucky, needle-y things emerging from the ground. Had to stop repeatedly to yank out plant-based stilettos that had penetrated the soles and heels of my flimsy trainers, rendering my feet bottoms inverted pincushions.
It grew dark, then darker. Black as, well, night in the desert. Around me, little noises in the otherwise dead silence. Crunching sounds of unseen things moving about. Caws and hoots of large nocturnal birds. The occasional spine-chilling cry or howl of a – what? Had a zombie jumped out from behind a saguaro, contorted face full of cactus needles, and asked for a fag I would’ve been shocked, yes, but hardly surprised.
Then half a moon kindly popped up above the eastern hills, providing enough light to keep me on the meandering trail I hadn’t chosen. Except where, exactly, would the trail lead?
And then it struck me: Why, of course: I was on the path to hell! Except my wayward wandering wouldn’t end there. On and on it would go. This was to be my life forevermore, get used to it.
Stop griping, I told myself. Keep moving, I told myself. One day this will be a story, I told myself. If I survive, I told myself.
After a further half hour’s slog I thought I heard a different sort of sound. I stopped to listen. Silence. Moved on. There it was again. If it was what I thought, what I hoped, it was a sound ever-so-close to my heart: a motor. (Or might it be the growling of a bobcat’s empty tummy?)
The sound grew steadily louder. Meaning I was getting closer. Then I saw through the saguaros a brief flash of distant moving light. A vehicle. I began to jog.
The road, when finally I arrived, was more than a mile from where you turned off onto the dirt path to Crickethead. Wearing the standard colours of the minimalist traveller, dark blue T and black trousers, I was anything but readily visible. Should I strip to my knickers so at least I presented my lily-white person to whizzing-by headlights?
I was shivering, sure, but cold was nothing compared to getting whacked by a couple tons of speeding steel while gingerly treading the extremely narrow shoulder. Peeling off might have made sense, but I refrained. Modesty? Hell, no. The experience of the past couple hours made me feel such an idiot, did I really wish to look like one as well?
I arrived sweaty and dead tired back at Crickethead to find a small party of Wayan and Mike’s friends. Following a quick wash in my quarters, I sat at table, engaged in conversation, near OD’d on my heart daughter’s exquisite cuisine. Then fell into bed.
Indeed, the desert holds majestic beauty, amazing energy, fascinating mystery. But to tell you the truth, I do prefer a long ocean beach.
Barry Rosenberg’s latest book, The Kickass Guide to Well-Being and Longer Life, is on sale at Javaman Café. All money from sales is donated to the Fred Hollows Foundation to pay for cataract operations in Third World countries. Meaning that for the price of a book, you can send two Christmas presents: an entertaining guide to fitness for someone you know, and sight to a blind person in a far-off land.
letter from America
travel by Barry Rosenberg