The importance of being nowhere

 

The day felt like rain and smelled like rain. The sky held the soft gray of a winter storm, the kind of weather Mexicans describe as equipatas, equal steps, to capture that idle way the rain on a December day can slowly drizzle across the land. It was 1957, and I was your basic 12-year-old, out of the Southside of Chicago, riding in the back seat of a '55 Chevy down the Ruby Road, that section where you climb across the flank of the Atacosas and then slide along a ridge above Bear Valley near Montana Peak. I looked out at a landscape of dry grass and green oaks, the trees evenly spaced like in a model railroad layout, and was struck dumb by the ground, that moment they now call imprinting, where some things make an impression that can neither be explained nor removed. I remember imagining living down there, a sane thought for a kid who'd spent most of his life in an apartment. And that was it, no bolt of lightning from the heavens, no roll of celestial drums, no voice thundering a revelation.

Since then, I have, like most of my fellow citizens, wandered far afield and squandered generous blocks of my life, but always that day and that stretch of road and that landscape came back to me, riding the El in a Chicago rush hour, commuting to work in the Bay area or doing dim toil on the East Coast. I can still feel the light, taste the air, and smell the soil of that day. The rocks brood under the gray clouds and the trees, the scrubby oaks dotting hills, the trees glow with an eerie green.

Luckily, I seem to have imprinted with a patch of earth almost beneath notice. Along the border from the Huachuchas to the Altar Valley is a swatch of oak woodland that is tucked away in the national and forest and forgotten, a place without coffee-table book vistas and major landmarks. This has been my sanctuary from a world that demands the special effects of the red rocks of Sedona or the monotonous pines of the Mogollon Rim or the fleshpots and villas of Carefree, Paradise Valley and Scottsdale. This oak grassland lacks the pizzazz for American mansion builders or campers. It is, God be praised, too nondescript for the global scenery consumers.

I keep coming back to it, and each time I kind of worry that it will have been sacked by golf course junkies, destination resort vandals and other chamber-of-commerce vermin. And so far I've always been wrong. In part, I think what has spared it is the lack of water. Water is a kind of lethal toxin in Arizona that always manifests itself in tumorlike eruptions of golf courses and country clubs. The other thing that has spared this swatch of ground is Mexico, always nearby, and on a calm night you can hear the gnashing of teeth as a nation of poverty brushes against the American fences. And finally, what has saved this place are the inhabitants, a varied lot who seem genetically favored with some kind of deep immunity to the blandishments of the Republic's malls and economists. For 40 years this tract has been the playing field of my fantasy life, the place where there is space, silence, and hills no one has yet broken to a name. And within its core, say from the Atacosas to Arivaca to Amado, is a kind of Bermuda Triangle, where all development plans seem to vanish without a trace. Naturally, this history has made outsiders look at this ground as a place of failure. I remember once seeing a newspaper clip from the late 1940s, in which some leading Tucsonans said they were ready to develop Arivaca and make it the next Santa Fe, a vicious threat that would stop anyone's heart.

I like the light, the white light bouncing off the burned grass in June, the soft light touching the face in December. And I like the big events that never make the papers. I remember once in October watching fifty or a hundred ravens roosting on Oro Blanco wash, a kind of biker gang of 2-year-olds having a fling before they mated and bonded for life, and it was a dark and noisy run that went on for weeks. I've killed a lot of time in this border forest, finished up a book on Charlie Keating at Jim Chilton's ranch, wrote another book or two at Chris Clarke's ranch. One evening I watched a deer twirl and make its bed and then go to sleep. Another evening I drank until 2 a.m., listening to Miles Davis. There was a morning when I saw ravens chase an eagle away. Another time a great blue heron and a redtail had a knock-down-drag-out at the pond. By June the well pretty much went dry, with late July came the rains, and by the end of November the last hummingbird had fled and did not return until February, when the Arizona holly bloomed. The snow came in the night but left by noon. When it got real dry, a rattlesnake moved onto the porch, but it left with the rains. I saw a red bolt of lightning split an oak and savored the smell lingering in the air. Once, two DEA agents asked me what I was doing and I said watching birds. Usually in the morning, someone standing next to a government vehicle would be staring at me with binoculars. I took a long walk in the hills New Year's Day.

I once had a friend go to Nigeria, and he saw a message painted on the back of a bus: NO EVENT NO HISTORY. That sounds about fine to me. It's not that nothing happens, it is that what happens is not news. If you walk up Cedar Canyon from Arivaca Lake, you'll find huge cedar stumps, stumps that announce trees the likes of which are now nowhere to be seen. And you realize that there is a ghost forest out there that will not come back from the dead for another century. If you look at early photographs of Ruby, the hills are all but empty of oak, the trees having vanished into the lusty appetite of the mine. So things do happen, if you watch for them.

The places worth clinging to are the places nobody quite knows what to do with. That's where the life is. That's why we should feel lucky. What we want and what we need seems to have the power to last. We can count on it, even if most other people can't even notice that it exists. God, in his infinite wisdom, has created places like Sedona and Santa Fe as sacrifice areas. Out here in nowhere, we are lucky. Nothing happens. Progress seems nil. We have a future.

Charles Bowden writes from Southern Arizona.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Charles Bowden