Welcome to Arizona. Everything here will hurt you.
I wasn’t sure if it was a joke, a warning, or an inalienable fact. Maybe it was a little bit of all three. I’ve certainly seen my share of dangerous things here: deadly scorpions, poisonous spiders, quick striking snakes and prickly cacti; but I’ve also been stopped in my tracks by the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen: mesquite trees with tops an impossible green swaying in the gentle breeze under a clear blue sky, colorful sunsets behind mountains that frame the proud silhouettes of saguaros in the distance, the night sky rivaling the brightness of day with the unbelievably bright shine of a full moon surrounded by countless twinkling stars…. And herein lies the mystery of the desert.
It is place where nature successfully toes the line of being beautiful and deadly as masterfully as any tight rope walker. There are the Ocotillo plants that are majestic and tall with bright red buds that peer up at the sun, Agave plants that are a deep, full green with ends so pointed Native Americans used to use them as hypodermic needles and rainbow colored cacti with bright, lovely flowers that just beg to be touched… BUT! Just one finger in the wrong place will earn you a barbed prick in your finger and a serious soreness that you’ll remember next time you think about stepping too close.
And then there is the sun. Always watching from above, the sun shines unforgiving in humidity of a mere 3 percent, where even your sweat evaporates before your pores have time to realize it was there. Dehydration is the real enemy when electrolytes vanish faster than you can take them in and there is no shade in sight, when there is no place to relieve your body from the sun’s assault and you think your insides just might be boiling. It’s no question as to why your mind is starting to feel fuzzy, and your limbs weak.
I learned very recently that most bats can’t take off from the ground and once they’ve hit it, without help of any kind (or perhaps simple sheer luck), they are dead meat (literally). Without the ability to take flight, grounded bats soon succumb to starvation, death by natural predators, and death by scared and/or ignorant humans. A sad yet interesting fact, it got me truly thinking. I imagine the moment of that final fall. After a life of constant flight, one where I am too busy to stop, always moving in body and in mind, dashing from one place to the next with only sleep to keep me still, would I be afraid? After a life I thought to have lived to the fullest, all the while too scared to hit the ground, perhaps convinced that I am being held back by some unknown force… I think not! I can’t help but feel that there would be not fear, but a brave curiosity, and excitement at that final moment I plunge, head first, heart racing, eyes unseeing as I crash down into the unfamiliar.
Other desert life of note is the Palmer’s agave, or Century plant. Century plants (as well as other types of agave) grow even as they are approaching death. They produce a tall stalk that shoots up about 5 times taller than the plant itself. To do this the plant uses all of the energy it’s stored up throughout its life to create its first and final bloom. The plants feed nearby insects and bats as well. The beautiful stalks are an inspiring sight, up close and from afar. Gazing at their peaks, I find myself deep in thought once again. Should my goal in this life to reach out and create one lasting impression? Should I try to help as many others as I can before it is too late? I think of the Century plant and wonder if it’s something to aspire to, creating something that, for however long, will outlive yourself. I would like to sign my name across this landscape, as the agave do, leaving a unmistakable mark of life on the things that at first appear to have none. I will be saying goodbye to this inspirational yet fearsome place in just a few short weeks, yet I know the time I’ve spent here will last forever in my memories.
“Everything here will hurt you,” I was told. I soon discovered the truth of that statement. I later discovered the unsaid truths. Everything here is beautiful. Everything here is so full of life that they almost seem paradoxes of themselves. Everything here has taught me the true meaning of resilience and how to overcome situations I can’t control by changing what I can about myself. The truth is, we don’t belong here, among the Mesquite trees and the Javelinas, among the wild fires and the bats in their caves. These things are not bad, they are not hostile, this is their home and we are merely visitors. Welcome to Arizona. Everything here will fight to survive.