24 January 2012


The scene ~ Mid-September 1967, Fort Lewis, Washington.  With only a few days left in Army basic training, the members of my company (C-3-1) had gathered around Drill Sergeant Hess to hear our assignments for AIT, Advanced Individual Training.  He took his time going down the roster, calling each trainee's name, his destination, and the type of training he would receive there ~ infantry, artillery, armor, vehicle mechanic, communications ~ along with any wry comments that came to mind regarding that particular Army post.  At length he reached my name, looked at my assignment in silent mourning, then looked up with a grin and called out "Fort Huachuca, Arizona.  That's where you can go AWOL, be gone three days, and they can still see you."

At the ripe young age of 20, this Montana boy had never traveled east of the Mississippi, and rarely south of the Wyoming Rockies.  Arizona.  The desert.  Visions of endless Saharan sand dunes popped into my head.  Amid the laughter of my friends, my thoughts ran to "Aw hell, why did I have to request radio school?"  

A week or so later, after the obligatory graduation parade and ceremony, we headed for Sea-Tac airport, there to scatter to destinations around the country.  My flight was to Tucson, Arizona.  It was my first ride ever on a passenger jet, and being pushed back in my seat by the acceleration of takeoff was thrilling.  My desert foreboding remained.  We landed after dark, and were met by an Army bus driver for the ninety-minute drive southeast to Fort Huachuca.  There was little desert to be seen in the inky darkness, but my discomfort wasn't improved by the news that the previous night a skunk had taken up residence beneath the in-transit barracks.  Sleep was fitful, and reveille arrived much too soon.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that far from having arrived on the set of Lawrence of Arabia, the landscape surrounding the fort was actually green with desert shrubs and trees, presided over by the Huachuca Mountains to the west.  An aside regarding nomenclature ~ for readers in the American east and south, what you regard in awe as "mountains" only qualify as foothills out west.  But then, eastern mountains are ancient and worn down, while western mountains are geographically young and dramatic.  Ask anyone who has moved to Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, or any of the other Rocky Mountain states.  Once while working for the Forest Service in South Carolina, I was directed to follow a "ridge" to reach a particular red-cockaded woodpecker colony.  Ridge?  It took some explanation before I understood that they were talking quite naturally about a rise of ground barely three feet above the surrounding terrain.  Where I grew up, it took you the better part of an hour to climb a ridge, the shoulder of a mountain.  It's all in what you're used to.

I won't go into the rest of my military experience here, other than to say that I became used to the desert, this desert, very quickly.  The Sonoran Desert covers part of the southwestern United States and part of northwestern Mexico.  It embraces a number of climate zones ranging from desert to sub-alpine, and is home to an amazing array of plants, animals, birds, reptiles, and  fish.  It is a harsh land if that is what you expect.  But if you take the time to learn how to be a good visitor, you'll be astonished at the beauty of the desert.  It is dry (except during the monsoon seasons), it is clean (except where people insist on 'developing' the land, thereby desecrating it), it is verdant and very, very alive.  It is a land of magic.  Small wonder that on my copy of Edward Abbey's seminal novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, the back cover features the lament, "Desert, o my desert, yours is the only death I cannot bear."

After radio school at Fort Huachuca, radioteletype school at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and a year in southern Vietnam during that war, I was honorably discharged from the service.  I spent a brief few months with my parents before moving back to the southwest, back to Tucson, back to my beloved desert.  And stayed there for the next 20 years in the best of both worlds, enjoying the border culture of the city, and mother nature in the surrounding desert and mountains.  I lived in many homes, enjoyed many friends and lovers, got married and sired my magnificent son, and graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.  To my delight, my studies included numerous science labs (biology, chemistry, physics, mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, comparative anatomy, island biogeography, animal behavior) and, most vividly, numerous field trips into the desert, some lasting for days.  

Yes, there's the heat.  The joke goes that in the desert there are two seasons, January and summer.  The summer I moved to Arizona, it was 115 degrees Farenheit in the shade.  Not every summer is that extreme, but anything above 85 is hot, especially when you're working outdoors with no air conditioning.  Each summer I swore it would be my last summer in that heat, yet I remained.  How can one leave a land of magic?

Things have changed since I moved away in 1989.  Tucson has grown carcinogenically, judging from the street maps I see in bookstores.  What was once virgin desert, serenaded in the clean dawn light by mourning doves, curve-billed thrashers, phainopepla, cactus wrens, and (yes) road runners, has become overrun by housing developments and paved streets.  Much desert remains, of course.  It is a big, big place.  But life along the border has changed in other ways.  At one time when I was living on a nature preserve near the border, if I saw a Mexican walking northward, I knew it was just someone looking for work.  I would offer him water and see him on his way.  Now the violence of drug wars and gun-running has tarnished the peace of the land.  I hope that we all come to our senses and stop the trafficking in both.

Ah, but the magic remains.  Why else would so many people move there, diluting the very qualities of life that they seek?  I was reminded of our conflicting images of the desert by an article by Jen Patton.  She says in part, "There are, according to Randall Henderson, founding editor of Desert Magazine (1937-1985) two deserts in the American imagination.  One is full of 'venomous reptiles and unbearable heat .... it is the desert visualized by those children of luxury to whom any environment is unbearable which does not provide all of the comforts and services of a pampered civilization.'  this is 'fostered by fiction writers who dramatize the tragedies of the Desert for [their own] profit.'  By contrast, the real desert, as Henderson saw it, 'offers rare gifts, health giving sunshine .... a sky studded by diamonds .... a breeze that bears no poison' to those who come 'in friendliness and understanding.'

"There is, of course, only one desert, equally full of comfort and danger, plenty and lack.  Its gifts ~ that diamond sky is real ~ are for everyone, but its history shows all America's small scars."  Patton's very partial explanation of the human history of the region only goes back a few hundred years.  That is another part of the magic ~ the pre-European human presence of the Anasazi, the Hopi, the Navajo, the Apache, the Yaqui, the Seri.  That's a story for another day.

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