By Caitlin Kelly
It was only after we saw this sign that we turned to one another — cool New York City journalists who are expected to know a lot about the world every day — that we asked each other: “What is it we’re supposed to do?”
We had started our hike through Sabino Canyon, on the edge of Tucson, before reading the warning signs. You do not run. You do not turn your back. You try to make yourself larger than before (eat a doughnut? Eat a dozen?) in order to scare it.
We did not, luckily, see a mountain lion.
We did see three white-tailed deer, a bunny (might have been a jackalope), doves and about five different sorts of lizard, one so tiny he was the width of my middle finger and would easily have fit into my palm. They would pause, virtually invisible against a small rock or a tree trunk, waving their frond of a tail back and forth. They were impossibly lovely, so perfectly designed for their environment. One was striped in rust, white and brown, reminding me of a chipmunk.
I love the desert. It is such an elemental place, filled with a beauty that is specific and subtle. Cactus have a cartoony presence when fleshy, green and alive — but their bones, as it were, are an astonishing interior architecture, when dried and brittle and gray, that looks like coral. Every student of art, design and architecture needs to spend hours, days, weeks, studying this landscape.
As we walked, flakes of mica winked up at us from the rocky path. I picked up three of them. If I found a really big one I could use it as a mirror and flash it at the sky for an SOS signal. (If I knew Morse code. Oooops.)
Aren’t they gorgeous?
We started our hike at 8:00 a.m., although the sun had been up since 6:00. I knew there are rattlesnakes and my friend asked me to make the sound they make but I am not very good at imitating it. I did know enough not to stick my hand beneath any rocks or to sit down without looking around very carefully.
One of the reasons I so love being out in the desert is the necessary reminder that, out there — as in our every urban day, deceptively cocooned by labels and technology and fast/fine food and taxis and buses and jobs — we are merely one more species on this fragile planet.
We are poorly adapted, too. Our skin is fragile, easily punctured or torn by the spines and thorns of the plants out there. We will quickly overheat and char if we do not drink a lot of water and wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen.
It is a deeply powerful, humbling reminder how silly and small we are in the greater scheme of things. As we walked through the landscape, I realized how much I don’t know about the natural world. What’s the name of that tree? Why are those rocks darker than the others? How can trees grow so high and healthy in so arid a place? (Snow melt and monsoons, a guide told us later.)
And the silence! Doves coo. Wind rustles leaves.
But ego and time melt away in a landscape clearly indifferent to our human presence. Is it 2013? 1813? 1513?
Who knows? Who cares?
Which landscape most moves or touches you?