Three friends of mine recently went back to Tucson, to, as Lauren wrote, “stay in the Hotel Congress like tourists, hike all day, eat cheap Mexican food, and suck up the sun like lizards.” Each of them wrote an elegy to the city, to their past and future loves, to worn ideologies and to, of course, dirt. They are all immensely talented, and these are my favorite excerpts.
i won’t dwell on the city’s quirks, and those of us who feel a pang of nostalgia for its ubiquitous dust and not particularly attractive strip malls. desert rats have written for years about the certain type of person who is able to love the desert, and this is not the pink and orange desert of the colorado plateau, which anyone can fall in love with (jess told me a while ago about a cowboy on a wyoming cattle drive who told her last summer about his love of the prairie: “anyone can love the mountains. that’s easy and obvious. but loving the prairie takes time, and once you do, you’re in it for life”). and i don’t think i ever quite loved the lower sonora desert, not in its entirety. i loved the smell of creosote after rain, the sunsets, the ocotillo blossoms: the things any semi-observant visiting tourist would note and appreciate and buy a postcard. maybe it was because i lived there at a time when i wasn’t inclined to really love anything, and now i somewhat regret not being more open to it. each time i return, i uncover a new layer of understanding, and then leave again.
I grew to love my adopted home with a passion. I got a bicycle and began realizing how much friendlier the city was when you took the time to look at it, to travel through it and pay attention to the small details and to interact with it in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way. I made friends who were smarter than I was about such things and already recognized the beauty of the mountains and the bare branches of palo verde and ocotillo, and I realized that the creosote smell after a rainstorm was absolutely amazing and even almost made up for the fact that the city had apparently been built without functioning gutters and so flooded during every brief downpour. I learned that dirt is not always just dirty; it’s also sometimes necessary.
If my love for Tucson began because it was the city I found Jesse, it matured because it was the first city I had my own place, my own independent, “grown-up” life. With friends, a house, a job, a school, and streets and mountain ranges whose names I knew by heart. I rode my bike everywhere, hiked, went to concerts, and hung out with a family I was pretty sure would be my sort-of in-laws one day. My grad school friends and I started our first semester writing the obligatory, “Jesus fucking christ, it’s hot, and look at the Saguaro” poems. Once we got that out of our systems, we could move on to more subtle meditations on “place” by mentioning the ocotillo too. No landscape had ever inspired more poetry in me. I still wish the MFA program had been three years long instead of two. I’ve missed Tucson ever since leaving it.
We may never be able to “be true” to a place (or even ourselves), but that’s part of the wonder of it, and why we write poems and elegies and fall in love with dirt and transience. If loving Tucson means I am doomed to romanticize lizards and turquoise, then so be it. I am resigned to be both defined and defied by place. In fact, it gives me great joy to admit I am a plaything to the forces of memory and longing, whereas before I could only look upon them with anxiety.
I leave you with Abbey again, that clever bastard, who wishes you this legacy: “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”