(Jack Kerouac, in On the Road)
On the back of my left hand there is an unsightly scratch. Scabbed over now, it looks even worse than when fresh. I don’t mind. I don’t even mind if it leaves a scar.
A week ago we drove southwest from Tucson across the Tohono O’Odhom Indian Reservation, passing south of the Tucson Mountains and Ryan Field, built by the Army for flight training in 1942 in what was then open desert, though now suburban Tucson has crept round the public lands and flanked Highway 86, finally petering out just before the airstrip. We pass the domed observatory at Kitt Peak, blink and nearly miss Sells, and arrive at the crossroads of Why, Arizona, where the village coyote welcomes us.
At lunch the next day, my son says, “Where did you get that scratch?” But I tell him it's just a memory. Or maybe I just thought that.
After slowing for a sunny Border Control checkpoint, we crossed into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, created by FDR in 1937 to preserve the fulsome cactus of its name. One wonders how many people visited the area in 1937, given its remoteness. There is no hotel in Why, and the nearest town, Ajo, boasts only one hotel and a guest house. We were last here over 20 years ago, yet other than a ramped up Border Patrol, it doesn’t seem to have changed. The wind and sand sculpt the rocks; cacti inch toward the sun; and the more adventurous tourists blow through on their way to the Mexican Baja beaches of Puerto Penasco via Lukeville. We drove the hard packed gravel Ajo Mountain Drive, intending to leave it at that, and yet the loneliness and beauty of the terrain provoked us to declare that we would return the next morning for a two and one-half mile hike into Echo Canyon.
“Press this napkin over the cut,” my wife said, “and hold your hand over your head to help stop the bleeding.” I complied. Hands bleed freely.
We overnighted at the Sonoran Desert Inn which lay on the darkened residential skirt of the town of Ajo. The former elementary school in town, it was upstaged by a new school, fell into disrepair for over 20 years, and then was rescued by a local nonprofit, restored using local labor and on-job training, and now offers rooms in the former classrooms. The high-ceilinged, contemporary rooms are warm and inviting, with nearly floor to ceiling windows that overlook gardens. Not a bit like school.
Checking in, I ask the hostess, who looks like an aging flower child, if I may have the room that formerly served as detention for my daughter. She points to a small room behind her, an office.
“I think they used to put them in there,” she says.
“Good, “ I say, “in case she needs it.” My daughter smiles. She doesn’t need detention. I might, if I don’t eat. “Is there any place to eat?”
“Well,” says the flower child, “there’s Estrella’s, but it closes six months out of the year. Which is a shame in the summer, because we want to eat out just so we can get out of the house, as it’s so hot we don’t go out. We want to see somebody. Not a lot to do here. Burgers and beer. Might be open.” She thought a minute. “There’s a new place, Agave Grill, but two couples here last night said they went there and the place was full and the chef walked out. Left a room full of customers. So, I don’t know about that.”
“We’ll give it a try.”
She had a menu for the Agave Grill. Asian, in Ajo. Like traffic and weather, I thought.
“It’s over by the Shell station.”
Down the West breezeway, our classroom (that is, room) lay behind a large yellow door, with a transom atop it, like one to which a big kid might hoist a little kid to keep watch out for the teacher. I settled into a chair and pondered where the blackboard may have been located, the desks and chairs, the sinewy and tanned schoolmarm, and the Little Ajo-ians (or is that Ajohites?) at their desks, some fixed on the blackboard and the squeaking white chalk, some daydreaming about . . . well, I don’t know what you’d daydream about in Ajo, some sleeping from early pre-dawn morning chores and long bus rides. Had I trouble sleeping, I may have done my multiplication tables to lull me, but no need. It was dead quiet, and I was out with the light. I had some school dreams, but I forgot them.
At daylight, we loaded up and drove back to Organ Pipe. Back through Why, past Why Not (a convenience store), where we slowed in case the village coyote was crossing the road, back through the Border Control checkpoint, back down a lonely stretch of blacktop curtained by mesquite and creosote and prickly pear cactus. Back down Ajo Mountain Drive, this time with some speed and dust-cloud, intent on reaching the trailhead, and finally parking near Echo Canyon, where we began confidently, midday.
We wound our way through a rock-strewn wash with little shade. We saw no one. The sun was relentless. Not even an animal was out that we could see. When we began our ascent of the ridge, I realized that the heat and past week’s respiratory sickness had weakened me. I had to stop several times. We bent under the shade of a palo verde tree once, yet mostly there was no shade. My daughter was ahead of us, finding out why it was called Echo Canyon. One area we passed through was flanked by teddy bear cholla, the fuzzy cactus hemming us in. The sun. A slight breeze. We drank water. We went 20 feet. We stopped again. Near the ridge we finally reached an area that was in the shade, and it was a reward for our effort. That and the view down the canyon, one devoid of people, one full of Organ Pipe Cacti, anchored all over the mountainside.
I let down my guard and raked my hand against the gray stem of an ocotillo shrub, its thorns drawing blood.
“You don’t have to hold it up in the air,” said my wife. “Just higher than your heart. Until it stops bleeding.”
I put it over my heart, held it there, and walked on up and over the ridge, carrying a memory close, etched in blood, so glad to be alive to see sky and rock and cacti and the red-haired girl bobbing up ahead, happy to be here in a golden land.