At night from this distance, the twin rivers of car lights, red and white, barely seem to move along the I-10, even though I know from experience they’re traveling upwards of 80 mph. Most people see this stretch of empty desert between Phoenix and the California border as nothing worth slowing down to consider—the different personalities of the Saguaro, some with broken limbs or holes made by woodpeckers, or the colored bands of rock created by volcanic uplift or erosion from some previous era when there was measurable rainfall here — it all looks the same from blurred car windows.
People are fine talking about sobriety if you turn it into a dad joke: I came to the desert to dry out. But that’s not why I came here. Not initially.
Two years ago I found myself completely untethered. Divorce, job loss, foreclosure, bankruptcy, career change, new city, another relationship ended, another job lost. To quote Fitzgerald, “I had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess…I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” But I kept telling myself that I was in control, to just keep moving. I had daily panic attacks and high blood pressure. And I drank.
When people speak of my city’s river, they say: declined. What they mean is: dry. Only modern cities can survive on the promise of water. Early people settled just east of the river, on the then-fertile floodplain that offered easy access to water, mud, fish, grasses, all the necessary components to forge a life in the desert. In the summer, I imagine cool breezes.
Tucson lies in a valley between four mountain ranges, so each range becomes a landmark. A trained eye can decipher a way through the desert using these mountains alone, though this eye will also see the lines of cottonwood trees, will find where water runs silently underground—the Santa Cruz River (translation: “Holy Cross”) long buried under a bed of pummeled stone, sand, bits of mica.
We both come from famous places. He’s from Nashville, I’m from Sedona. We one-up each other: He saw Porter Waggoner pushing a mower and Chet Atkins at the golf course. I served Bruce Springsteen a chocolate ice cream; Ted Danson’s folks banked with my mom.