The Grottoes: Two hours east of Tucson, in the Chiricahua Mountains near the New Mexico border, lies Chiricahua National Monument. Established by President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s (see, he did do something), it’s a landscape more lush than the desert scrub-land around it, a place that receives enough rainfall to support pine and birch trees, a forest island, really. But these trees are punctuated by giant boulders stacked precariously one atop another, as if God as an afterthought threw the remainders of the raw material of Creation out, where they landed in piles. It’s absolutely gorgeous. In one portion, called the Grottoes, reached by a quarter mile hike, the boulders are so arranged that they form a labyrinth of cave-like openings. My son and daughter scampered over them, like they were not teenagers but young children. So did I. My daughter proclaimed that she would live there and bedded down on a ledge under one ominous looking boulder. And she probably would if she could, at least until another thought entered her mind. I told her she’d have no internet access there. She said she didn’t care. And she really wouldn’t. It’s a hopeful thought.
Lil’ Abners Steakhouse: City slickers may turn their noses up at it and prefer the uppity steak houses, but I still like the roadhouse feel of this desert institution in Marana, on the outskirts of Tucson. Once, 26 years ago, we traveled out in the desert on a winding two-lane road through darkness to get here, way beyond the city. Now the suburb of Marana threatens to overtake it, a four-lane road, streetlights, and shopping centers all around. And yet, step on the property and you step back in time. Nothing has changed much except prices. We sat inside at picnic tables and ate steaks cooked outdoors on an open mesquite fire, served up with all you can eat ranch beans and salsa and buttered Texas toast. It’s one of those meals that’s so good that when you finish you wish you could eat it again. We ate at Lil’ Abners twice. Both times we saw the same couple there, a 40-something woman in a halter-top and tight jeans next to a man who was always sitting sideways on the bench --- intertwined in some fashion with each other, just a part of the wildlife here. From them I got an idea for an anniversary present: the man had a t-shirt on with a picture of the woman dressed in the very same outfit she had on that night. Now how cool is that? Only at Lil’ Abners.
About 8:00, the band kicked up with guitar, fiddle, steel guitar and mandolin, singing old time country and western music and bluegrass, like the "Orange Blossom Special," "Tonight I Started Loving You Again," "Folsom Prison Blues," and so on. Here’s the thing: Not a one of the band members is under 80. Dean Armstrong, the leader, who I have been seeing for 26 years, looks as if he’s over 100, dressed in a black suit and cowboy hat, looking and sounding no different than he did 26 years ago. Oh, how I hate to leave this place.
Church: I love going to Catalina Foothills Presbyterian Church (PCA) when in Tucson, and we were able to go on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Sunday. The music is riveting, even chilling, and drives me to worship. The pastor is from Mississippi, and so the voice reminds me of home. The theology is sound, the worship excellent, and the people friendly. After the service today, I turned to my wife and said, “Can we move here so we can go to church here?” Were I impulsive, I would do so. I love my home church and would not so lightly leave it, but it makes me wonder why I don’t ever leave worship feeling quite so blessed as I do in this church. It’s not a fair comparison, of course. This is a church over twice the size of ours, with abundant musical talent, a large staff, and a huge choir, but still it provokes me to think about how we can make our worship more excellent, not for performance or spectacle but to help create better worshipers. Of course the view is inspiring: the windows behind the choir look out on the peaks of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I can't bring those home.
No Clock, No Time: I could get used to waking up with the sun, without an alarm. For eight days, I woke up, went back to sleep, woke up, went back to sleep, laid around, and generally got up when I felt like it. That’s usually not a lot later than I normally do, but I can tell you that this is the civilized and decent way to sleep and exist. You can come up with a lot of profound thoughts in the early morning hours, when things once seemingly impossible seem possible. Listening to the sounds of others sleeping is also deeply reassuring. Of what? Well, maybe just a deep thankfulness that we individuals have been sovereignly thrown together for life as a family, for better or worse. That’s the kind of thing that can occur to you when you leave time outside and pretend you have all time in the universe at your disposal.
Clocks intrude and mechanistically shape our existence. If we aren’t careful (and many aren’t), we end up making time an idol. And scripture warns that when we worship what we make, we end up becoming like the thing we make: cold, mechanical, and prone to alarm, our hearts tick-ticking our life away. (Note to self: think about that some more. . . when I have time.) I was glad to be rid of the clock for a week. I was glad to be out of routine, acting on impulse at times, just sitting in one place sometimes and thinking a new thought, vacating one life for another once removed.
Can't Stop Dreaming: Maybe it was the climate, the extra sleep, the out of ordinary cuisine, or the rested mind, but I have never had such imaginative and memorable dreams. On occasion, I woke up, ready to return to sleep so the dream (like a novella) would continue. In one humorous episode (which seemed very serious to me in the dream), I was apparently the guest pastor at a church, asked to deliver the sermon. Before the service, a pastor or someone in church leadership asked what I would preach on. I said "Its Only Rock 'N Roll." I even gave him three points that I would make (wish I could recall those, don't you?). Then, just before I go on, I realize I haven't a single note to speak from. I woke up, thank God and, I assume, to the relief of the congregation (what kind of dream were they having, I wonder). Late in the week, as if my brain was running out of material, I began to dream about old girlfriends. No, that wasn't pleasant at all.
The Spa: No, you don't have to turn in your man-card if you partake of a spa, men. But you do have to be wary. I think the women on steroids who work in these places do not like men. The first time I had a massage, I came out and asked my wife if it was supposed to hurt, because it did. The woman masseuse had a vice grip on my neck, drove her elbow into my back, and beat on me for nearly an hour, all to the soothing sounds of Indian flutes and rippling water and wind, while every now and then, in a hushed tone (as if I might be asleep), she kept telling me what next form of abuse might be administered. This time I said "no elbows", please. I felt like saying "be nice." Maybe I'm exxagerating a little. So, it's relaxing. That's about it. The aromatherapy and all the talk about releasing toxins? I'm not a believer in any of that. When it was all said and done, I slid off the table floated back to my room, like jello, putty in their hands, man-card still in my pocket. Try it. My son says he will never, never, never, never, never, do any such thing.
So, that's it for another trip to Tucson, Arizona, home of the No-Tel Motel. (No, we didn't stay there but often passed it on the way downtown. We prefer the Westward Look Resort. But the No-Tel has a more interesting name, don't you think?) Now, it's time to plan another one.