The Real Antique Land

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While reading up on Arizona preparatory to a trip there, I came upon the following remark by the English author J. B. Priestley: “There is no history here because history is too recent. This country is geology by day and astronomy at night.” Given the title of this column, I briefly wondered if I’d chosen the right destination, but after it was all over, I could see exactly what Priestley meant. What he took away from a winter’s stay on a ranch near Wickenburg just sixty years ago (and wrote about in Midnight on the Desert ) still applies.

Of course this isn’t because Arizona, after Hawaii and Alaska the youngest state in the Union, has no history. Indian, Spanish, and Mexican cultures are deeply embedded there. Certainly the shape of present-day Arizona owes much (for better or worse) to the ranchers, miners, and military forces that by the mid-nineteenth century had entered this remote, inhospitable land and begun the struggle to tame it. As for the most recent great migration, only the future can tell how the “economic spree,” as one writer has called the Sunbelt, will rewrite human history here.

“In the West nothing done by Americans is for keeps,” writes the Arizona journalist Charles Bowden. “Everything … becomes a brief raid on the dry land and then becomes tumbleweed, ghost towns, lost mines, real estate empires that go up in flim flam.…” So it is on Bowden’s implacable desert and on Priestley’s “oldest country I had ever seen, the real antique land, first cousin to the moon” that history becomes the sum of geology.

Because I’ve always wanted to see some part of the American landscape closely and on foot rather than from a speeding car, I was ready to be intrigued by the brochure of a company called Country Walkers and especially by its southeastern Arizona weeklong trip through the Sonoran Desert, scheduled for spring just as the flowers were starting to bloom.

Not all urbanites are completely innocent of backpacks and hiking boots, but I certainly was. I comforted myself with the belief that a regular regimen of walking city streets and panting on a treadmill would mean that I would be up to speed. Moreover, the word walkers rather than hikers and my image of a desert allowed me to picture myself sauntering through a flat, sandy place made bright with flowers and birds. I’m just as glad I didn’t comprehend the topography ahead of time; I might not have gone.

Other selling points: A van would carry luggage, and nights would be spent in comfortable, even elegant, hotels. Half the week we would be based in Tucson and half in Sierra Vista, about ninety miles to the south. The brochure grades walks as easy or moderate, and that seemed reassuring. So did the word optional when referring to nine-mile hikes. Expert naturalists, in our case Julia Huestis and Ted Levin, would lead the group. The ten who signed up for my trip were all women (an unusual occurrence, I heard), ages twenty-four to sixty-four, sturdy, enthusiastic, and—but for me—fairly experienced hikers. A more compatible group I’ve not encountered. Many held high-powered jobs—chemist, financial planner, literary agent, psychologist, stockbroker—and they saw a week of trotting up mountain trails as a perfect antidote to regular life. As the week wore on, there were more than a few jocular references to the movie City Slickers , although I think the only real slicker may have been me.

The Sonoran Desert we were exploring, one of four major deserts in North America, contains no large stretches of sand. To the New Englander’s eye it may appear dry as dust, but because it gets as much as ten inches of rainfall a year in certain areas, it is, as Ted Levin described it, “the greenest, lushest, wettest desert on the planet.” At least two-thirds of the desert lies in Mexico, and some of the creatures we saw (like a warbler called a painted redstart) are native to the Mexican highlands and can be found nowhere else in the United States.

Even in early April the desert can heat up fast, so our walks usually started by 7:00 A.M. , with time out to find shade at midday. The first hike, nine miles in all, was billed as the most rigorous of the week. After driving fourteen miles from the city to Tucson Mountain Park, we would climb to Wasson Peak, a daunting sight at 4,687 feet, even if we were starting at 2,000.

It wasn’t sand but crushed rocks and pebbles that met our feet in the first stretch, as we followed the bed of an arroyo, a dried-up stream that can turn immensely dangerous in the instant of a flash flood. Fortunately this wasn’t the rainy season. Here we made our first acquaintance with the flora and fauna of a desert canyon, weirdly beautiful in all its adaptive variety. “Don’t bump into the jumping cholla cactus,” Ted warned us. These appealingly fuzzy plants are armed with thickets of needles that latch on to flesh at the merest contact. Only a comb will detach the painful prickles. Ted brought along twelve combs, one for each of us.

Scatterings of flowers, most in the desert’s spring shades of white and yellow, with occasional flashes of fuchsia and delicate purple, mantled the arroyo’s banks. As the path grew steeper, canyon walls rose. At one rocky outcrop we spotted faint stick-figure pictographs left hundreds of years ago by the long-extinct Hohokam Indians, and Ted pointed to several indentations on a ledge, reminders of the mortars the women of that tribe used to ground mesquite pods into flour.