I'm in Tucson, in a Hyatt Place hotel that is astonishingly nice considering how little we paid for it. I knew we were in trouble when I went to check in and they had a self-check, which I had never seen before; the uniformed man in the lobby had to direct me to the machine. "Ooh, fancy," I said, only a little snarkily, and swiped my card through. "Have you ever stayed in a Hyatt before?" he asked, seemingly without malice or even any large degree of pity, but just a quiet kind of curiosity. "Apparently not," I replied, grabbed my door keys and got the hell out of there. We have a couch here, and a brushed aluminum ice bucket and water glasses made out of real glass. There's a feeling like we should be somehow doing more with all this space, but really we're just sitting here, crowded together on the same full-sized bed at the far end of the remarkably large room as we check our email.
I hadn’t been to Tucson since the spring of 2007 and that was also the last time I’d seen my present companions, two of my best friends, together, and so this trip served two purposes: friendship and regaining my sense of place in the desert. We’re all older and, I think, considerably wiser than we were then; we have extra college degrees, somewhat steady and relatively grown-up jobs, and more heartache and fluttery new loves and life negotiation skills than before. I don’t know if any of us really know where we’re headed yet, but we’re much better at being where we are now and that’s something. We came to together to share all of that newness and change, and to giggle and laugh and tell our stories and hug each other and eat cheap and probably lard-filled burritos in the dirt and then take naked pictures of each other as we tried to hide from the day hikers on the rocks above us. We visited our old haunts and clapped our hands to Peruvian music while eating Guatemalan food and then spent evenings quiet in our hotel room, drinking wine and telling each other the stories of who we’d become. We carried on our own oral traditions in the place where we first met and knew each other, and when I left for the airport this morning there were nearly tears.
If Flagstaff is where I grew up physically, Tucson is where I began to grow into my own in the larger and eventually more important ways. It was the first place that I ever fully loved, with a passion that would have baffled me when I first moved there for college in the fall of 2000. At the age of eighteen, I was bitter, jaded, heartsick, and angry as perhaps only a young person with a surprisingly developed superiority complex can be; I wrote Tucson off immediately as a dirty redneck town—ironic, considering I came from a much smaller hippie town in the mountains where everything except the movie theater, the bars, and the Denny’s closed by ten—and made jokes about laws mandating a certain number of tattoo parlors per city block, and I barely left campus all year. I had maintained all through high school that I was getting out of Arizona for college and moving on to bigger and better places and had only applied to the University of Arizona as a backup, so my eventual enrollment there was both the death of an adolescent dream and a severe blow to my pride. I planned to transfer as soon as possible, and I remember going to the track during that first year and chanting “I hate this, I hate this” as my running mantra. I described Tucson in emails to friends as “hell, literally” as I wrote about temperatures in the hundreds and a landscape primarily consisting of dirt.
The depth of my hatred is shocking in retrospect. I’m almost positive that by that time I had read and enjoyed Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a collection of essays lovingly and cantankerously describing his summers spent working at Arches National Monument in Moab, Utah (in fact, along with my Italian Folktales, the Abbey was another one of the books I stole from my parents when I moved out), and yet when I arrived in the desert myself all I could see was nothing, a wasteland, dirt and dust and rock, and I wanted no part of it. A lot of this had to do with the fact that I’d never actually planned on going to school there, and that my rejection from four prestigious music schools the previous year had made me ragingly insecure and full of self-loathing; some of it also had to do with what seems to be a typical adolescent impulse to run as far and fast from where you come from as possible. When I think of myself at that age most of what I remember is overwhelmingly negative, although I doubt anybody else would remember me in such a harsh light: selfish, snarky in a less-than-constructive way, full of self-righteous spite and anger. In other words, I was a teenager and as such was just sort of generally pissed, and Tucson bore the brunt of my angst.
Luckily, I got over it, as you do, and I grew to love my adopted home with a passion. I got a bicycle and began realizing how much friendlier the city was when you took the time to look at it, to travel through it and pay attention to the small details and to interact with it in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way. I made friends who were smarter than I was about such things and already recognized the beauty of the mountains and the bare branches of palo verde and ocotillo, and I realized that the creosote smell after a rainstorm was absolutely amazing and even almost made up for the fact that the city had apparently been built without functioning gutters and so flooded during every brief downpour. I learned that dirt is not always just dirty; it’s also sometimes necessary.
Earlier this week, as I was sitting with my mother waiting to get picked up for the drive to Tucson and also having the only meaningful conversation we’d managed to have during my stay, we began talking about my parents’ possible plan to pack up and move to Oregon sometime in the next few years. She told me she thought that maybe they should just rent for a year and see how it suited them; she was concerned that my father wouldn’t be happy with the lack of sunlight, and, more importantly, she wasn’t sure he would like the mountains. “They’re all covered in moss and trees,” she told me. “You can’t see the ground. I don’t know if he’d like that, after the initial excitement.” And I knew exactly what she meant. The mountains in Tucson, and to a somewhat different extent in Northern Arizona, are green, but they are also brown and black and grey and rust-colored; the bare rock and the exposed soil are a large part of the landscape. And even though they could be considered harsh or even ugly, they also make my heart beat fast in my chest and I can’t stop staring at them.
On the first full day of our visit we went hiking. One of the reasons I wanted to come back to Arizona, why I always want to come back and why I visit Alaska and search out places that don’t have inescapably large cities in them, is because hiking is one of the best ways I know to connect with myself again. It helps me to remember my body, to narrow my concentration down to where my feet should land next, and to see how I can move through the world in terms of the tenuous medium of boot sole against rock and soil. (A note of interest: adults tend to see landscapes in wild settings; children tend to see small objects in their immediate vicinity.) When I feel upset in the city I walk or bicycle as if my life depended upon it, but it isn’t quite the same; the movement and the sound of footfalls are similar, but the immediacy is missing. When I hike, I am nothing except my brain assessing the stability and angle of the terrain in front of me, with just enough consciousness left over to roam through my memories and sometimes bring up thoughts that I haven’t had in years. Letting my animal brain assess the situation is critical, and in fact if I let my rational brain take too much control I fall, slip and slide and cut myself and hesitate when I should be striding forward. Talking tends to be sparse—although there are certainly exceptions to that rule, and I’ve had some wonderful conversations while hiking—not only because it’s hard to talk and climb uphill but at least sometimes because it seems almost unnecessary, extraneous. I feel close when I hike with someone, even if we barely speak. We’re being animal bodies together, and outside of the medium of sex I think that’s a rare thing to experience with somebody else.
Fittingly, the book I began in my hotel room one night during my trip and which has travelled with me onto my flight home is specifically about sense of place, the grounding of self in community and geography, of “from-ness.” Bill Holm’s The heart can be filled anywhere on earth is a witty and fierce and absolutely gorgeous exploration of his tiny hometown of Minneota, Minnesota, and his travel from—wait for it--adolescent hatred of place to adult recognition of the beauty and wisdom gained for where he came from, and I’m a little bit in love with it after only the first chapter. I don’t exactly know where I’m from anymore, but I actually don’t think that’s essential; I think from-ness can be equally about recognizing your connection to place as much as it can be about any specific geographical location. The book asks a question and poses an answer, based around a query in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass from a child who asks the unanswerable: What is grass? The poet cannot tell him; he doesn’t know any more than the child.
“…It seems to me the right American question. What is grass? Where is this place I live? What is to be learned about my own life, about the action of desire, about the lives of all of us, living or dead, on this planet? Maybe only the commonest least likely places will ever permit us inside that question. Walt Whitman examined grass. Henry Thoreau preferred the crow above all birds. Emerson was intoxicated by water. Emily Dickinson lived in a single room.”
I have so much appreciation for the whole of my life, and although the broader scope is important, sometimes it comes down to tiny details: the warmth of the sun on my face as I walk down the street with people I love, the shine of sunlight on mica chips on the trail, the texture of dirt, and yes, the anticipatory quietness of returning home to friends and family and lovers. I’m on a plane back to the place that is now my home and which I love in complex and distinctly different ways, but I feel more whole for having left and remembering some of the other places I love. They are all parts of me; I would not be who I am in Chicago if I hadn’t been the me that learned to love a dirty redneck desert town despite all odds.