The Century Tree

Century tree (n): A terminal flowering projection, characteristic of plants in the yucca genus, that was thought to be produced after a century of growth.

century-treeThey say that home isn’t a place—home is people. And perhaps they’re right, at that. Few places seem homey without the benediction of familiar faces and voices.

But then there are places with a special kind of resonance—places that just feel right, that answer back when you speak to them. Like the comforting ticking of an old miniature grandfather clock, pendulum undulating under oxidized brass hands and oddly shaped Roman numerals (generally ignored) that spoke through a beachside cottage. Where, for the space of a weekend, time mattered only for meals and lights-out. Even in the absence of aged Italian voices, that clock trundled on, a homely centrepiece of stained wood and yellowed paper.

But that was only a minor home, a brief vista of summer memories on sun—bleached sand.

*

It was the kind of day that favours any scenery. Vast, inexhaustible blue skies with dynamic puffs of prosaic cloud. A sweaty, velveteen layer of heat settled itself over the blacktop as the chunky red two-door, packed to the gunnels, pulled out of the Canyon de Chelly parking lot, heading south. The parched red rock of Navajo nation followed us for a time. Dusky crimson buttes rose over rusting barbed wire and tiny houses off long gravel roads that bled dust into the overgrazed desert. Shamanic symbols, some Blessing way prayer, were carved into the wooden sign of a small roadside gift store. The disused emblems of an old respect, and an old understanding, clenched uncomfortably above thousands of shards of broken glass from an uncountable number of tossed bottles, that gave the ground the aura of a field of matches. Lit matches, burning whatever connection there once had been.

But even the shattered fragments of nostalgia for a better era couldn’t dampen that day. The drive was long, but it felt momentary. The painted and wind-sculpted rock of the plateau dipped down into the grip of an ancient river-carved canyon. The road contoured itself to the edges—it was an invasive construction, but for what it was, it was perfect. The four a.m. morning exhaustion vanished from my brow as rolling wheels cut and spun over graded pavement. The deep valley of the Salt Creek was covered in the fading blooms of desert spoon agave that had sent up massive, seed-ridden stalks only a month before. Other unfamiliar plants, that I’d seen only in books before, or at some zoo, suddenly started appearing on the hillsides. Various prickly pears, each with its own idiosyncrasies, lanky cholla and a myriad of others. And along with them—wonders.

The road was not very busy. A few trucks carrying petrol or goods into Tucson, the scenic way, were our only passersby. We were close enough to dusk that the sun’s heat had faded to only a gentle reminder of its mid-day zenith. Roadrunners darted across, long patterned tails twitching under the shadow of a rare black hawk. Coyote danced his way over the blacktop—I’m not sure it was him, the old trickster. We were surrounded by reservations though, and the way he slipped in front of us, secure in his mythical immortality, forcing me to slam on the brakes while leaving himself plenty of time, was conclusive enough. I could’ve sworn he winked, staring back at us from the roadside with a joyful lack of concern for a split second, before he dove back down into the brush.

Gilded flickers and Gila woodpeckers, flashes of colour, winged their way between massive saguaros that arose like the pinnacles of a dream—green, wondrous and impossible. Their shapes, silhouetted in the fiery, churned gold that plated the sky wrote themselves into my memory. After that, well, then I guess I felt what they call identity, though they’ve probably never felt it, save viscerally.

The rest of that day’s just a torrent of individual yet interconnected impressions. The scintillating sky on the Tucson byway—choked with traffic, not that I noticed. Tiny pipistrelle bats, dark wings against the violaceous twilight. The brick-surrounded lights on either side of the ranch house driveway, illuminating the numbers—962, Kolb Canyon Road. Antelope jackrabbits, bounding big ears leaping away from my headlights.

The house was nothing special—but also nothing we could have afforded to stay at. A chance conversation with a rich friend with more money than time, who was spending the summer ‘somewhere tropical’ had yielded a set of keys and an address. Our bags entered the place on their own accord. They must’ve passed through my hands at some intermediary point, but I remember only the night, which was warm and hazy. I got no sleep until late the next morning. The house’s grounds were big and they backed onto a National Monument. They’d been manicured at some time in the past, but years of neglect had left them beautiful.

The desert had reclaimed most of the paths, and I walked them slowly, easing my way through the spikes of mesquite trees and cat-clawed acacia. The humidity and warmth of that night, along with some other forces, I’m sure, brought out dozens of night-time mammals—pocket mice with brushy trails, bouncing kangaroo rats, a stray hog-nosed skunk. A white-toothed wood rat, confused by my flashlight, ran into me before disappearing with a puzzled squeak. The jagged, grey-orange banding of a tiger rattlesnake, subtly powerful, even made a brief appearance before the beam of my torch. I stayed out well past the witching hour, until vaguely grey dawn whispered farewell to the living night.

I knew, after that, that I’d end up living there—not at that house, specifically, but in that area. The desert had spoken my name in all ways other than the verbal one. I traveled back first, a few more times. Then I left one big city for a smaller one that paid more in everything except money.

*

I drove the new car to the trailhead, the electric one with a host of features no one needs. All I wanted was the electric part—it seemed the least I could do to make up for owning such a monster. The doctors had told me to avoid driving and “any other stressful activities” as “increased heart rate due to fear could have lethal effects.” I just laughed and said, “What does a dead man on his last legs have to fear? ” They laughed too—and why not. She said as much when it was her time, I remember that, with what remained of her old friends.

“Most old people are funny,” she said to our niece indirectly, “We’re all waiting for the grim reaper, so what else can you do but laugh? ”

Then they told me I still had a long time left—I know a lie when I hear one. The words tripped so easily from their lips—they’d had enough training in triage to know a hopeless case can only use hope and a laugh. I didn’t argue though, I just thanked them. And ignored them. Not that I have anything against medicine—quite the opposite really. But I can read as well as they can, and they don’t know everything. I’d seen enough death to recognize the symptoms in myself.

The off-road tires tossed a few small pieces of gravel from the road bed. I’d found this little dirt access in early spring, one of the first times I’d been here. The desert had been flowering to the backdrop of the cloud-shaded Rincons, and the temperatures had just started reaching for the hundreds.

It was late August now—most of the spring and early summer blooms had long since decayed during the drought and extreme heat of the Sonoran summer. I turned off the car and paused to rest. Though the blazing days of July had burned away, this time of year was only fractionally cooler.

The ground had been wet—light rains from a small system had caressed the well—drained soil. The smell of the water—all the plants breathed with it—had flooded my senses, rinsing away all chaotic thoughts.

The only thing that smelled of rain this time was the creosote, but that was enough. The thin, brownish, and sparsely foliated bushes seemed ordinary, but they lived forever. Someone once told me the oldest one was found somewhere in the Great Basin—it was dated at twenty-two thousand years. I’d meant to go find it, sometime—that plant must have a hell of a lot of stories to tell. I shuffled over the mildly rocky ground, through plants that were literally older than God—the Abrahamic God, at least. Black—throated sparrows sang despite the heat, and undaunted lizards raced over their baked highways. Even with the intense sun, it was as if I’d opened a vault of calm within myself.

Graceful ocotillos looking like landed octopi had raised their arms in prayer around me, their green leaves resplendent with all the water as they were launched into the air. I’d said a devotion or two myself, though I can’t remember who they were to.

Darcy asked me once why I liked this—“hiking and everything,” as he put it. We were sitting by his computer in Manhattan, talking over congratulatory beer (his success). I didn’t know exactly how to answer, but the first words that came to mind, and the ones I said, were: “Because it makes me feel alive.” Darcy just shook his head, and laughed it off, but then he’s barely left that black box he programmed to make him millions. Ones and zeroes were his manifest, and the worlds he created with them. He paid for dozens of experiences most people scarcely dream of, but I can’t help wondering if he was missing something.

The century trees had just opened their flowers. The flowering spurs, several feet high, shot up from spiky, succulent yuccas. Hummingbirds, butterflies, warblers and a cloud of insects had surrounded each one, rainbows of colour over orange blossoms suspended like open fires in their tree-branch pods. I’d walked past them with reverent steps, through puddles of holy water, sacrosanct.

The fallen, light brown ‘trunks’ of the trees graced the ground, segmenting the desert, a miniature fence—like the border fence between us and Mexico. I’d visited the border lands too, and they were as sublime. But there was always a feeling of repressed fear, and that was a little depressing. Martinez had loved them—that was his region. One summer we went to have lunch at a spot he said he knew well—I can still hear him: “Come on, hombre, it’ll be the perfect break.” We were both working for the same lab, analyzing someone else’s field data, working ourselves up. I tired of it quickly, but Martinez ended up making it all the way to the top, so I guess I was wrong. But before that, we went down into a tiny park slapped right against the border. The pick-up truck ride was cheerful and the southern mountains were flushed with grasslands. The trail we took was little used and less known. Martinez carried the lunch, despite my protestations. After a few miles we reached a barbed wire fence. As we slipped through a gap in the wires, its significance gradually dawned on me.

“Marty,” I said, “Is this the international border fence? It’s a huge fine if they catch you . . . ”

He laughed and clapped me on the back. “Don’t worry, compadre,” he said, picking a stocky grass leaf. He stripped it of its seeds with his fingers, then tossed the green ovals into the air. As they fell he said, with that smile of his, “Grass seeds don’t care which side of a border fence they land on, and neither do I.”

The climb up to the top of the small mountain had been tough, but easily bearable with the cool weather. I had sensed that it’d be worth it—it had been a clear day, and even in the lower elevations, the views of the desert were fantastic.

The vivid sun raised instantaneous sweat droplets on my neck as soon as I started to climb. I knew it was crazy—this hike had been exhausting enough when I was younger. My heart beat hard and heavy in my chest, and I panted with forced enthusiasm. I had to stop to rest every few feet, and my mind seemed barely capable of a second’s focus.

The first sparks of sunlight had broken through the clouds, illuminating a hidden channel a few feet from a vista that stretched to Mexico.

At the crest of the peak, a small rock cut had been chiselled by persistent rain. I was gasping far before I’d reached it. I tried thinking about all my previous climbs, the ones that had been worse, but then all I thought of was her. They’re all gone now—her, Martinez, and even modern medicine in its most expensive forms couldn’t save Darcy. And now . . . they’d probably miss me, for the first few days, but they’re all so busy, I’ll soon be just a memory. After my umpteenth visit to the hospital, I knew I wasn’t needed. They never said anything, but I knew I must’ve been a burden to them. I frowned at the sky as massive dark clouds surged over the peak, and then I was there.

The rains rolled in, faster than I would’ve believed possible. They amazed me every time. The monsoon thunderstorms could blow up in an instant. Thick tendrils of rain crashed down, drenching my body in seconds. Lightning strikes touched down all around, and the thunder roared continuously. The little wash was already dripping with water, after only a minute. And it was there. The century tree, the largest I’d ever seen, so thick and tall, it really did look like a tree, not just a sapling. As the rain pooled, cool and quiet, the desert came alive again, for the first time, the last time. I fell to my knees before it, overwhelmed by both reasons. I heard two voices merge, hers and Sonora’s, singing a song that made no sense, yet I understood. And the lightning fell onto reborn desert.