Birthday of the burning boot

Making peace with growing older, on a hike near Patagonia, Arizona.

  • "Later, we walked downstream to low cliffs covered with petroglyphs. I clambered up the rocks, coming nose-to-stone with them. Late light ambered the stones and their figures. A three-legged human. Spirals. Snakes. Suns. Someone else's time."

    Diane Sylvain

I knew that how I'd feel about my birthday would depend on what I'd done the day before.

Which is to say that my feelings about turning 50 would depend, in part, on where I woke up.

So when the Tucson-based conservation group Sky Island Alliance asked for volunteers to trek through the hills near Patagonia, Ariz., assessing freshwater springs, I decided to mark my birthday weekend by getting out on the land, listening to mountain water (even a trickle would do) and by sleeping in a tent on a chilly January night.

We met early on a Saturday at the post office parking lot in Patagonia, a tiny, not-yet-hipster town with a fetching 1970s macramé vibe and a restaurant called the Velvet Elvis. Under a weak sun, folks sipped steaming mugs of tea and coffee over topographic maps spread on a truck hood. I knew no one, but I've come to love this ritual – strangers meeting to do citizen science. Despite being the second-driest state in the union, Arizona may have the most springs, and volunteer mapping projects help protect them.

I wasn't grieving turning 50. OK, I was guarded about it. I'd been reading books on aging, trying to make sense of it all. But what's there to make sense of? The earth had completed an orbit around the sun 11 days before, and tomorrow my own orbits would number five decades. So after a bumpy drive I was walking under a big blue sky on the way to Gate Spring, with Louise, Julia, Cliff and Rick.

We found the stream, a thread beneath a low cliff about two stories high, and we followed it to the source: a spring set in hummocky deer grass, dotted with ash and willow and cottonwoods. Mesquites held the higher ground. Bright orange algae swayed in the water, literally going with the flow, I thought.

Louise unpacked her science kit. We mapped the terrain, measured the stream's width, tallied the amount of sunlight that fell on it, assessed the flow rate and water acidity. I looked for scat and tracks, finding none, though there was an explosion of feathers on the ground – the remains of someone's meal. I jotted down the names of trees and respected the persistence of a lonely cholla on the mesquite upland. I watched for birds and saw ravens, listened for birds and heard ravens. Then Cliff pointed out a flock of smaller shapes. It took me several minutes to untangle the little brown jobs from shadows and branches: rufous-crowned sparrows. A better birder would have nailed it in seconds, but working through the identification was satisfying – a way of slowing and shepherding the present moment.

Behind the trees, Ashburn Mountain loomed hefty and squat, like the peaks around my former home in Utah. The passage into 50 was also the passage from my previous decade in northern Utah into this next decade in southern Arizona. Place and time felt bound together, and walking the land this weekend was a way to make a home with both earth and years.

Later, we walked downstream to low cliffs covered with petroglyphs. I clambered up the rocks, coming nose-to-stone with them. Late light ambered the stones and their figures. A three-legged human. Spirals. Snakes. Suns. Someone else's time.

I wondered if there was a petroglyph for acceptance. That night, camping alone, I built a fire, put on my snow boots and drank wine, thinking, "The next decade will be a good one."

Pascal said, "Everything slips away from us and flees with eternal flight." It seems a fear-tinged version of Buddhist impermanence. Why not "flows"? Like a stream in a new place, like a river you said goodbye to that still runs. Tipsy, I swayed like algae in my camp chair. It would be all right, this getting older, because if it weren't, why bother?

I felt a sudden, happy warmth, a glow from within, as it were, till I realized that my right snow boot was on fire. "Jesus!" I said, swearing and prancing away from the fire-ring, clawing at the melting shoe laces till I got the ruined thing off. I belly-laughed. My ruined boot would be one of my birthday presents.

I could fear growing older, as my mother did, retreating into Valium, cola, cigarettes and TV. I could fret over dementia and sloppy organs and brittle bones. One of her gifts to me was to show how not to age. I'll do the things we're supposed to do: Eat well, exercise, learn, create, stay connected, keep my shoes out of the fire. But I can do them as bulwarks or as joys. The choice is mine.

I slept well that night in the tent along the dirt road to Gardner Canyon. When I woke on my birthday, it was cold and mostly clear, not unlike the day in Indiana, when, my father tells me, I first arrived.

Christopher Cokinos is the author of Bodies, of the Holocene and Held as Earth.

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