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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Chapter 20:  pilgrimage
Canyon of Rainbows, Tohono O'odham Reservation, Arizona

Plants and animals change as one goes up the mountains, and so, apparently, do people.

I have been noticing people's faces as they come down. They are flushed and hot, but there is something else in them, too: a happiness. Maybe because they're down again, back in the bosom of the extended family, and it's almost time for the big meal. Maybe not, I think, later.

The people arrived last night in a phalanx of pickups that banged and roared into the canyon, over the wash, the crowds in the beds of them yelling with the loudest jolts, then there was chatter and lights for an hour as they settled in. There was a dog or two and an army of children. This much I could tell, in the dark.

Well before dawn there was a cracking of twigs and the crackthump of ax on wood, and giggling, and the smell of smoke and then boiling coffee, then cross-borders polka music from a radio, and the children and the dogs got going. An extended family of Tohono O'odham had arrived in the canyon camp for a reunion.

Even before their breakfast had been served from the mammoth black frypans and two-gallon camp kettles, I noticed that groups, two or three and more, came by me up the canyon toward the mountain trail. They wore sneakers and jeans and T-shirts and baseball-type caps and carried bottles of water in plastic bags. I thought they were going up a little way to get a view, or a peaceful place away from the maelstrom to chitchat and visit. Later I wasn't so sure.

***

I had come for something else, for the mountains themselves, or that was my intention. Ecologists are interested in biotic communities, in their inhabitants and boundaries, and as one goes up a mountain slope these change. The ranges are islands; each one isolated from the next range by miles-wide bajadas, great alluvial outwash plains that stretch between them like bowls so gently curved they seem flat. In the way of islands anywhere each range is unique, though here each one holds roughly the same concentric rings of Sonoran desert community. Beginning with the basins -- the markless expanses of cholla, paloverde, and barrel cactus -- one can climb through gravelly slopes dominated by saguaros, then through upland scrub, semidesert grasslands, Sonoran evergreen woodland, into the oak forests of the encinal (encino means oak in Spanish), and beyond that to forests of pine and fern, even spruce and fir. If the climate changes these communities can swell downward or retreat up, and can wait isolated in their mountain islands for millennia.

The encinal has waited a long time. It hails back five million years or more to the time before the glacial ages began. What's left in the Mexican uplands and in these few border ranges are relics, swatches, forests from the past.

Climate changes with the altitude, becoming cooler and wetter in general as you go up, though the way the slope faces matters too; the south sides of the canyons are drier, lighter, more extreme. Here these are desert slopes of saguaro, mesquite, gravel. Cactus wrens start their burbly muttering there even before dawn, and flocks of Gambel's quail scutter between the washes. The north slopes are more temperate and shadier, damper; there are crevice-forests of oak, Arizona walnut, netleaf hackberry, canyon grape, filled with flocks of red cardinals and yellow warblers, and mourning cloak butterflies, big and velvety, heavy as shadow.

Mountains being what they are, with creases and canyons, raw bedrock and tumbled scree, the theoretical neat layers of biotic community are hopelessly scrunched and scrambled. There are endless microclimates, possibilities for pockets of wildflowers, jojoba, or for an exceptional species -- elephant trees, the tiny fiery wild chilies called chillepines, or something else -- bird or coati or wildflower.

I had come in here the afternoon before, promising myself a day of rest, of reading and writing and eating well. I was tired, and confused with traveling. I'd gone a hundred miles out of my way to find a store; I'd bought a bag of oranges, real meat, fresh tortillas and peppers. The canyon of rainbows had been a balm before and I wanted a day of rest before climbing the range as high as I could go. The mountain communities were something that I needed to see. And botany and birding and the glimpses of animals, or the signs of them, are the best escape from one's own dreams and confusions and the general drama of human life, but now a new drama had arrived in the form of this big family of Tohono O'odham, whose country this is, after all. So in the morning I made my own coffee and kept my head down and met no one's eyes; I was self-conscious, and they seemed happy enough at first to ignore my presence.

Coming in, I had stopped for water at the post office in the last of their villages before the mountains. There were hardly any houses and no stores but there was an old Spanish mission building, painted white; there were children in the playground wearing neat uniforms. There was a spanking new post office and a water spigot outside the door, but no way to turn the thing on. When I asked inside I found that the postmistress kept the tap in the drawer with the airmail stamps. She examined me with that impassive X-ray stare endemic to the fiercer breed of third-grade schoolmarm before allowing me to borrow this talisman, this key to kingdoms, this threaded bronze wheel. I screwed it onto the spigot, filled my water bags, and returned the tap to its guardian with profuse expressions of gratitude.

Such is the effect of water on the desert traveler. Then I followed a track into the range, and made my camp in the canyon.

***

Now after breakfast the children have gathered around my camp. The boys climb all over the rocks, the girls sit and stare and smile and laugh; the most un-shy children I've ever met. I get my bag of oranges and cut them up and they eat and giggle -- there's Olivia, and Renata, and more names I don't catch.

All morning they appear and disappear, as flocklike as birds. I run out of oranges but they still come. They look through my books and recognize birds and animals, pointing. Late in the morning the father of one of the boys comes to sit awhile, he's just come from the mountain, and his feet hurt; he's wearing a pair of new boots that the Park Service gave him for his summer job as a firefighter. When they call him, he'll go, wherever the fire is, as far as Nevada.

He says he likes the Sierra Club and other conservation-minded folk who leave no signs of themselves, and who love and respect nature.

He was in the U.S. Marines for four years. When he came back -- from the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore -- he knew so much, had so much understanding, he would try to tell people. He would tell them about the treasure of their natural resources. He counseled them to control their cows, to keep them from overgrazing the range. He would try to lecture them against drinking. They didn't listen. They called him White Man.

He says that teenage pregnancy, alcohol, diabetes, and the self-destructive tough-guy mentality and so on -- these things are rampant. And no one will listen.

"Now in the schools here they teach Tohono O'odham language, and traditions -- why can't they learn this at home?" he says.

"Here, Renata," he says, and talks in a slow, low, soft, choking language. Renata shakes her head, giggles, hides her mouth behind her hand.

"Children are ashamed to speak O'odham," he says.

There is a familiar ring to this. In the clash and mingling of cultures unexpected things are discarded and adopted, but often enough no whole fabric has been made. People fall between the meshes. On the other hand, in unexpected ways they are buoyed up.

"Have you been to the mountain?" he asks.

When I say no, not yet, he says:

"This is the sacred one." He points up. "The mountain of our God. His cave is there. If you go there, you must leave something."

***

Half an hour later a tall white-haired priest arrives in the canyon. Someone has fetched him in a pickup, and he comes to the groaning reunion table in full Roman Catholic regalia. Everyone has gathered; fifty or sixty people. Suddenly there is silence and bowed heads. I see Leo's graying head, and Olivia and the others kneeling on the ground, the little children's heads in their mothers' laps, and the priest raises his hand and gives a long blessing, the words inaudible. The fire smokes, the pots steam. His hand is lowered at last and everyone begins to talk and eat. The priest stays awhile, then someone takes him away in a pickup. Someone else turns the polka music back on. After the meal, more people begin to walk, in little bunches, up the mountain trail and out of sight.

By nightfall the whole family has packed back into the trucks and is gone, no one is left but me. In the dark there is a poorwill poor willing for all he's worth, a great horned's somber staccato hoots from upslope, the wails of coyotes rising, falling. A crowd of coatis comes through camp, shadow shapes with tails like walking sticks, to rummage the trash cans the cows have dumped over; in the morning the ravens, their wings in the near-dawn like heavy breathing, pick over what's left. Legions of camp goons, here.

***

True to the spirit of the spigot, in which all things of importance here seem incomplete, puzzles to be resolved, just above camp in the canyon, as I set out at dawn, I find a busted wooden sign nailed to a stake. Whatever it said once it now says "MOUNT." Signpost or commandment, it stands beside a narrow path.

The path goes up through fat green saguaros, their tips white-gold with meshed spines; they're like enormous candles. There are wild flails of ocotillos, in leaf now -- though they'll drop them in any drought, put them on again in any rain. There are clumps of nipple cactus, white netted mesh with dark hooks, complete with enormous yellow blooms. There are prickly pears in bud, new pads like beavers' tails with small wedges of upcurling leaves. These will drop away soon, and permanently; now they make the new pads look like larval porcupines.

The Tohono O'odham make fences out of ocotillo. The bodies of these fences are ocotillo stems cut to size and packed vertically like palings. Ironwood is used for the fence posts, saguaro ribs for horizontal supports. Ribs are what's left when a saguaro dies and the flesh rots away, and they're naturally smooth as though they'd been sandblasted. You can't see through these fences and you sure can't get through. O'odham ocotillo impoundments are made from a nice cross section of Arizona upland flora, and are as through-proof as close-woven barbed wire.

When I stop for breath a broad-billed hummingbird sits on a mesquite twig ten feet away, then on another twig, closer, turning, as if to give me the view: of fire-red beak tipped with black, his breast grading from central purple through parrot green to pale lemony green at his flanks -- a jewel. Then he burrs away.

There are smatterings of spring annuals: orange Mexican poppies, blue stars of phacelia, purple pixie hats of paleface delphinium, lupines. Where cows haven't trampled them whole slopes are tinted orange and blue, though it has not been a rainy year. In rainy years the colors rise in these hills like a Technicolor shag rug.

***

The scene begins to change. I am not sure when the cacti fall behind. The air goes bluer with the day.

There is a slablike funnel of a canyon between rounded rocks -- trees with bonzai footholds, ferns in north-facing crevices. A yellow warbler flirts through branches, sings, is gone. In the shade is a single false mock orange in white bloom.

The path climbs, steadily screwing itself upward. In one pitch after the next it switchbacks up through raw stones.

The air begins to change. The swifts that nest high in the rock whirl and chatter against their cliffs like live smoke.

There are scattered oaks and pinyons; there are meadows of mountain yucca, clumps of desert ceanothus. In the stones are pale circles of rainbow cactus, the muffin-sized cactus of the mountains, cream and red and pink and silver, delicate as dreams.

At a bend in the path a single oak holds on to a crevice of red stone. Today in the hot sun the tree is a mass of golden pollen, and is alive with bees. The noise of it is huge; a thrum that communicates through rock.

Then the path goes goaty, steep, with a near-vertical drop on one side and rubble and cliffs rising naked on the other. All on one side as if the earth had gone wrong is the mass of the air: below and away like scrunched cloth whole ranges wrinkle the landscape, the gray plains lie between the mountains as far as far with no scratch of road or patch of field visible anywhere, no sign that human beings have crept onto the planet at all.

Then the trail climbs over a rim and arrives in the encinal, a yellow grassland dotted with ancient trees.

The grassland laps against red knobs of rock. Scattered in the grass are oaks, thick and short and spreading, here and there clustering into forest. Around them the grasses are tall and the path is no more than a grass-covered dent through them. The cows have never come here; this is above cow line, above usage, beyond anything but the feet of pilgrims; and there haven't been too many of those.

There are emory oaks, gray oaks, Arizona white oaks, their leaves glossy, dark, small. There are one-seed junipers and Mexican pinyons. Gray-breasted jays move in loud flocks through the trees, their dark eye lines giving them a jazzy look, big blue birds cocking me a cocky eye.

***

The path goes on through the grassland and the forests. A coyote has left her dung, as usual, beside the trail. She has been eating juniper berries and small rodents -- there are tiny teeth, rib fragments, a tiny broken femur -- and there is hair: bighorn sheep wool and rodent fuzz; there are grass stems, berries. There are deer tracks in the path, and the dry flattish pellets of a cottontail.

The desert is below all around like a distant sea, with stains of cloud shadow, and faraway mountains like old teeth. It is all a faintly freckled texture roughened by the ranges like tree bark. Here and there a dust devil wanders, a pale pencil of a djinn balanced on one pointed toe. Overhead there is very dark blue sky full of flatbottomed clouds. The clouds are close. Ahead is a last rusty pile of stone streaked with lichen and desert varnish like a corroding hulk. A real peak, peaklike and final. The path ends on a tilting shelf of forest and beyond it there is only red rock on which nothing grows.

Here is the place. A narrow precinct of stones walls it off. Behind is a hole in the rock, in a cleft; it looks exactly like the entrance of a vagina. No wonder, I think. A hole like that would stop anyone in their tracks.

The hole has been rubbed smooth. I go in feet first, touch ground, ease my shoulders in with my arms over my head. Inside it is dark and smells of old smoke. It's a while before I can see anything. Then it arches up, the size of a room, the walls blackened, everything dusty, there is a kind of altar alcove, and all around the walls and in this alcove there are things.

There are empty cans and bottles and bottle caps. A rhinestone necklace is stuck to the wall with a wad of gum. There are half-made baskets, a toy truck, a teddy bear, a ball, a comb, a football trophy, photographs, hair bands, cobs of corn, votive candles, bandannas, a piece of sandpaper, seed pods, a lot of baseball-type hats, a few sneakers, and an enormous hand-forged medieval sword standing on end, piercing a black-and-white photo of a Roman Catholic priest in full regalia.

I take an empty page out of my notebook and a jay feather out of my hat and wrap them in the band from the end of my braid, and put that by the wall, too, as if I'd been thinking about it all the time, which I hadn't.

This is the cave of the god who first found the path of life that all Tohono O'odham follow from their birth until they die, and they leave the simplest pieces of themselves in his house.

Then I go out, squeezing head foremost into the light.

In the winter, Leo said, you can walk here in the encinal through six inches of snow with no shirt on. The light is as strong up here as medicine.

The Old Mission and the Older Mountains, Tohono O'odham Reservation, Arizona

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