WELCOME TO THE BAJADA!
The sign is crumbling in a few places but readable.
YOU HAVE DISCOVERED THE MEETING PLACE OF TWO BIOMES. THE HIGH AND SPARSE MOUNTAINOUS REGION AND THE BARREN DESERT. THE NAME BAJADA COMES FROM SPANISH MEANING SLOPE. IT IS THE COMBINATION OF SEVERAL ALLUVIAL FANS WHICH HAVE COALESCED OVER A LARGE AREA.
It’s 92 degrees in October and I have to squint against a brutally bright Arizona sun to read the rest.
AN ALLUVIAL FAN IS THE COLLECTION OF SEDIMENTS FROM A RIVER. IN THE CASE OF THE BAJADA, IT IS A DRY RIVERBED WHICH IS ACTIVE ONLY AT POINTS IN THE YEAR WHEN RAIN FALLS. THE RESULT OF THIS COALESCENCE IS A LUSH TERRAIN WHICH COMBINES A DRY MOUNTAINOUS REGION WITH AN OPEN DESERT.
There is movement above the sign as a hummingbird hovers over the flower of a spiny plant. It zooms and zips, bumping bees out of the way as it searches for nectar. Inspired by its energy I check my water, adjust the straps on my pack, and head off down the trail.
I feel so big as I walk here. Noises from the not so far away city are barely audible, yet the sounds of my own footsteps are magnified as they crunch one after the other. Everywhere in front of me life evacuates. Lizards scurry under rocks, insects hop or crawl for shelter, and birds take-off into their frontier where no human can follow. I imagine this is how a misunderstood Godzilla must feel stomping through Tokyo.
Roughly a mile into the hike my stomach emits one of those low and long growls like a jungle cat whose dinner has just escaped. This is probably about halfway, and I notice a stone circle a few feet off the path. Fortuitous. As I walk over and sit down, I hear footsteps, albeit no longer my own. It’s not long before a man emerges from the other direction. I ruffle through my bag and raise my head to smile at him as he passes. Then he stops, leaves the path, and comes over to where I sit.
“Howdy!” The voice is soft with rough edges; “Mind if I join?”
I squint upward to see black aviators and a big smile under a large straw hat looking down at me. “Sure,” I say. He sits on the rock adjacent, strips his sunglasses, and pulls out a copper canteen.
“Arthur,” he says, tossing a big hand in my direction.
“Jake.” I return his shake. Arthur has dark, leathery skin, and deep-set brown eyes. He could be in his early 50’s, though a youthful energy pervades around him. He wears a green button down, unbuttoned, with a white t-shirt underneath. Around his neck hangs a feather and a long black braid of hair runs out of the back of his hat.
He holds his canteen in my direction, “Water?”
“Thanks,” I say, “I’ve got some.”
“Good,” he says and takes a loud swig; “You local?”
“Just visiting,” I say, “Flying home tomorrow.”
“You picked a hot one today. Especially for second summer.”
“Second summer?” I have to ask.
“We’ve got two. First summer is drier and second summer rainier. We’re on the five-season schedule.” He grins but I can’t tell if he is joking or not.
“Two summers doesn’t sound too bad,” I say, thinking out loud.
“Thank all this for that,” says Arthur, gesturing with a sweep of his arm at the surrounding landscape. “So, Jake,” he begins to say and stops. The way he says my name I’ll never forget, crisp and clear, like the breeze sliding over the desert that day; “You’ve enjoyed your time here?”
“Hell yes,” I say, forgetting myself; “I can’t believe I’ve waited this long to visit.”
Arthur chuckles and adds, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. It was here before us and will be after us too. Even us locals forget it sometimes.”
“You come out here a lot?” I ask.
“Not as much as I should,” Arthur sighs. I can feel his energy changing. “Well,” he adds, “today’s my wife’s birthday. This is one of the places she liked to spend it.”
“Oh,” I say, wondering if I’ve heard him correctly.
“She’s been gone nine years,” he continues, “but I still come out on her birthday. It’s a promise and well, yeah.” He still wears his happy face, but his words are heavy and full.
“I’m sure she appreciates it,” I say, not sure what to say.
“She really loved Phoenix. The city, the people, what it stands for.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, this place,” he says, “Phoenix, like the bird. You know it burns up when it dies and comes back from the ashes.”
“I think I’ve heard that,” I say, “but what’s the connection?”
“The native people here way back when. Hohokam, I think they were called. One day they just up and left. Vanished. Left behind irrigation canals I think it was that were still usable hundreds of years later when new people came.”
“Building off the ashes,” I say.
“My wife loved the story,” says Arthur, “She was a big believer in being reborn every day.” Arthur leans into me; “At least that’s what she called it.”
“I like her perspective,” I say, and mean it.
“Me too,” says Arthur, “It’s funny she’d make us wipe our slates clean before bed every night.” Arthur’s eyes are watery but the memory, I can see, is crystal. It lingers for a moment before a smile breaks across his face.
“Your wife sounds like a smart lady.”
“That was just her way of talking. She was a painter.”
Then, as quickly as he arrived, Arthur slaps his hands on his thighs and stands.
“Well, Jake, enjoy your last day here. Make it to the end of the trail. It’s worth it.”
“You too, Arthur,” I say, “Really. Thanks for coming over.”
Arthur smirks, “What’s life after all without a little sharing?”
A few minutes later and I am almost at the end of the trail. My thoughts are still on Arthur as I see it, off the path, just a few yards away. It rises and rises. A solo stem going up and up and a single arm which protrudes out and upward as if to wave to the world. I head for the stem’s base to get a closer look. Once there, I can see the signs of a life much longer than mine. Holes every few inches riddle the vertical length and sections of bare rib peak out in many places. Vacant space which is not at all vacant. The living cactus is a mansion of life from top to bottom. I watch for a minute as its many tenants enter and exit.
I will later read that the first eight years of an average Saguaro’s life is spent growing 1-1.5 inches. It cannot grow an arm until it is between 50-70 years old and a mature adult Saguaro can be between forty and eighty feet tall and weigh up to eight tons. It is easily the biggest cactus I have ever seen, and I would venture to guess it’s over 50 feet tall.
As I turn, I take one more look as it sways in the breeze. Slow and steady by design. A few short minutes later I am back at the trail-head walking towards the Jeep. I crunch along trying to remember to wipe my slate clean that night before sleeping.
Other work by J.P. Hostetler can be found at Horla, Short Fiction Break, and www.jphostetler.com. Atmosphere Press released his first children’s book in 2019, and his first novel, part of a young adult fantasy series about preserving global mythology, is forthcoming in 2021 from Black Rose Writing.