Today I stumbled upon a letter I'd written to my mother shortly after I moved away from my family home in Delaware and settled in Tucson. My mother has been dead for many years and when we cleaned out her house, I reclaimed my letters. I put them in a sealed box and carried them wherever I moved. Today, more than thirty-five years later, I found the courage to look at them. And in the looking, I saw, more clearly than any photograph could have shown me, the person I was when I wrote them.
The letters are filled with news of my small children, our daily activities and then, every so often, something that surprised me. My mother was born and reared in the lush Virginia woods and never understood what I loved about the desert. In this passage, I was attempting to show her.
"Today as I hiked in the Saguaro-laden foothills west of Tucson, a rust colored bolder tumbled from the mountainside and halted against a gnarled Mesquite tree. Bits of granite dust thickened the air around me. I stopped to rest there and I can't really explain this, Mom, but I knew I would remain for a long while, contemplating the desert's contradictions in order to discover my own truths.
It's a wild landscape, secret and yet open at the same time. A place where wind circles the valley. It seems to come from every direction at once. In the spring, thorny scaled cholla, barrels, prickly pears and hedgehog cactus burst into transparent blossoms that seem fragile, yet eternal.
It's a place where pastel sunsets darken into shades of mauves, blues and fuchsia until the sun finally winks out behind the mountains and the night sky spreads its star-studded blanket above me. A place where I can sit and listen to the plaintive howl of a coyote and realize we are not the only animals who have feelings.
If you ever saw the desert during monsoon season I believe you would come to love it as I do. Huge thunderheads build up in the south and soon the entire horizon turns a blue black. When the rain comes, it splatters on the dry sand, carving moon craters that rapidly rush into white water washes that fill the summer-dried riverbeds. And all around, the creosote bushes spill their perfume into the air. If I were blind, I would know the desert after rain by the way that fragrance clings to everything.
I can tell you, Mom, the desert is an exhibitionist and she'll lift up her skirt and dance for you without provocation."
It has been more than twenty-five years since I moved away from Tucson. My mother never came to love the Sonoran Desert. But, because I wrote that letter, I clearly remember why I do.