Cochise Stronghold, AZ
“On belay!” My husband’s voice travels down 120 feet of granite bluff to reach me, where I hang comfortably at the steel-bolted anchors marking the start of the second pitch. I am expected to follow him, but as I contemplate the sloping bulge to my left and 100 feet of exposure below, I hesitate.
Below this 850-foot face I cling to lies our camp, where Mexican jays and canyon towhees search for food scraps amidst desert scrub and ash-throated flycatchers sing “chi-beer” from the tops of bushes and trees. Even tiny yellow-rumped, orange-crowned and black-throated gray warblers silently search the tops of trees for meals. But here, as I rise up into sky, only black and white swifts fly around my head like tiny jets patrolling the cliffs. Their high-pitched bouncing calls echo off the wall like laughter.
I repeat my manta, “I am safe,” and unclip myself from the anchor. I reach left to grab handfuls of granite and pull my body up and over the bulge on delicately balanced rubber-soled feet. I don’t look down. The granite is a universe of micro-life, with teal and neon-green lichen claiming this wind-battered wall as home.
These next pitches I am a lizard-in-training, gripping small grains of granite and absorbing the full desert sun. The route leads up hundreds of feet through bare slab, over a vertical head-high block, up plates with eroding edges creating a ladder of dinosaur-sized scales, and into a chimney of rock.
I emerge from the chimney and stand almost 2000 feet above the desert floor. Hot wind whips my hair fallen out of place from under my helmet. From here, I can see history. Across this desert rests the timeworn wild west of Tombstone. Over a hundred years ago, Cochise positioned Apache warriors as sentinels on these granite-dome summits, successfully warding off enemies for years.
As I stand where these warriors once did and look out at the horizon, I am not looking for war. Instead, I stand at the edge, stretch my arms wide above me and welcome peace.
Joshua Tree National Park
The roadrunner ran along the sandy dirt road as if being chased, a freshly dead lizard hanging limp from its long beak. It disappeared into the sparse desert scrub that was scattered with proud tree-like yuccas called Joshua Trees and 14 different species of cactus.
I saw a lizard alive in the soft circle of light that illuminated the heap of shit and toilet paper at the bottom of the pit toilet ten feet below me. I dreamt of ways to save it, but ultimately let the fear of other people’s waste prevent me from getting my hands dirty. I held onto the hope that he found a way out.
Cactus wren songs pulsated through the dry windy air, creating the very sound of the desert. The wind bellowed with gusts at 60 miles per hour, scattering Tupperware across the campsite in the middle of the night and muffling the yips and howls of coyotes running wild.
The desert was a bowl bordered and filled by small mountains of broken granite artistically arranged and balanced together. Pieces large and small piled on each other as if shaken into place.
During the day I tasted desert sand and dust blown into my chapsticked lips. My clothes smelled of burnt wood from campfires, which partially masked the body odor accumulated over days without showering.
My hair continued to become greasier, and I carefully watched the water supply as the nearest source was a 20 minute drive away. The water always ran out before I expected it would.
My skin began to shrivel and dry and separate from my body in places, eager to fly off into the wind and join the black-throated sparrows, Say’s phoebes, black-throated gray warblers, oak titmice, and rock wrens.
I saw shapes in the boulders piled in jumbled heaps around us. The Old Woman, The Blob, The Cyclops. The massive boulders perched atop each other in unexpected ways and I wondered what would happen if there was an earthquake. Do rocks have souls like some traditions believe? My skin turned red and broke apart if I held onto these rocks too tightly or for too long as I climbed up their spines to stand above the desert.