Travel

essay

Southwest love — his, then ours, now mine

Photo by Jane Harrigan, photo illustration by Nancy Ford

Cowboy Dave was done with Florida. Too many old people, he said. Not enough adventure.

He put on a Stetson from his hat collection and settled into our New Hampshire living room with a map of the United States, running his finger along the 30th parallel. That’s the agreeable latitude of St. Augustine, the last of our three Florida rental spots. Over his shoulder, TV cowboys shot at TV Indians with the whiny pyew-pyew that was his favorite soundtrack.

Suck it up, pardner, I told myself; we’re headin’ West.

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“Call when you get to Tombstone.” So instructed the owner of the house we rented in Green Valley, Ariz. (31st parallel, 20 miles south of Tucson and 40 north of Mexico). Our airline miles had petered out in Albuquerque, and the long drive was reminding us – Dave for better, me for worse — of previous Southwest visits.

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“I’ll miss beach walks,” I whined as the treeless miles unspooled. A dumb statement, I knew. We could afford oceanfront rentals only out of season, when they’d proved too windy for my husband’s damaged lungs. Not a subject he liked to speak of, so instead he said, “Arizona has plenty of beach, just no water.”

Surrounded by sand, I had to laugh, and then we both laughed when we turned down the street where we’d live for a month. The houses marching downhill looked like identical connected white cubes; ours was plunk in the middle of the row. “Welsh miners’ shacks,” Dave said. We’d been together 36 years by then, so I caught the movie reference: “How Green Was My Valley.”

In this Green Valley, our miners’ shack launched an education in Southwest surprises. The rental house turned out to be beautiful, opening in back to a killer view of 9,400-foot Wrightson Peak and the rest of the Santa Rita Mountains. Outdoors or in, all chairs offered VIP seating for wildly colored sunsets, insanely starry nights, and the constant activity of the desert.

Most mornings, a family of Gambel’s quail, head-top plumes bobbing, walked across the patio wall in order from largest to smallest. Hummingbirds whirred around anything that bloomed low; cactus wrens perched atop anything that grew high. Bobcats sunned on neighbors’ patios. Rabbits and roadrunners scooted past outside the wall, and in the distance, a big, bumbling javelina (wild boar, sort of) occasionally crashed through the underbrush.

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Each day of March, we drove in a new direction to a new destination that looked nothing like home. Each day the sapphire sky spread cloud-free over long desert vistas. Each day the temperature was in the 70s, perfect for exploring. Each night it dropped to the 40s or 50s, perfect for sleeping.

By Day 3, my last complaint had shriveled in the crystalline air as we drove over Gate’s Pass toward Saguaro National Park. Could this landscape be real? Thousands of saguaro (SWAHR-oh) cacti, pointing their arms heavenward like David Ortiz, climbed mountainsides all around us, the way maples or pines would in New England.

Saguaro are shockingly huge. It takes them 20 years to grow 12 inches, yet the Sonoran Desert is full of behemoths 40 or 50 feet tall. It takes them 70 years to grow their first arm, but a lifespan close to 200 years allows time for crazy clusters to shoot out in all directions and total two dozen arms or more.

Instantly I was obsessed. Dave’s “Are you going to take a picture of every starfish?” from St. Augustine became “Are you going to take a picture of every saguaro?” Well, yes.

Rangers in both sections of the national park – it’s split between the east and west sides of Tucson – pointed us toward the trails with the least elevation gain. Hills, like wind, had been Dave’s enemies since his fourth heart surgery, which meant that in New England he rarely wanted to walk anymore.

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The desert energized him. If we’d spent too long indoors, he’d be the one to choose a new park, a new trail, and say, “Let’s go.” He’d forge ahead amid the cacti, and I’d take pictures; the sight of him leading, as in our old hiking days, made me so happy.

Wonderful friends and family arrived, and I showed them Dave’s desert, speaking words he’d spoken to me.

One day when we were out driving, Dave suddenly pulled over and walked into a random patch of desert. I watched him standing there, cowboy hat silhouetted against the Catalinas, already our favorite of the five mountain ranges that surround Tucson.

“This is it,” he said quietly when I joined him. “This is exactly the landscape I saw in those old Westerns I watched as a kid.” Fifty-seven years dropped from his face and he was 7 again, the boy the doctors sent to bed for a year to recover from rheumatic fever. Family and TV Westerns were that little boy’s comfort.

Then at age 60, Westerns saved him again, when he emerged from three months in the hospital minus most of his strength and a quarter of his body weight. Milkshakes and the whine of cowboy bullets formed the taste and sound of his recovery.

What better place for him than Tucson, where so many Western TV shows and movies were filmed? Old Tucson Studios was one of the first places Dave dragged me. From then on, all TV watching brought calls of “The mountain!” whenever he spotted in the background the particular peak that signifies a Tucson-filmed scene.

To sophisticated Dave with his three graduate degrees, that childhood landscape meant comfort and healing – onscreen at first, and then in real life. He’d always lived in the Northeast, but somehow the Southwest was home. For both of us that first winter, the empty desert spaces that had once felt desolate began to look like openings where anything might happen.

Things did. The next winter we stayed three months in Tucson. Like the desert, the city had first struck us as stark, but we quickly became fans. Tucson has great food and music, diverse cultures, lots of festivals, the beautiful University of Arizona campus with all its events, and shiny new streetcars connecting the sections of a reviving downtown. Any random parking lot or traffic light can knock you out with its mountain views. Any random dead-looking plant can burst into improbable huge blooms at any moment.

We spent way more time out doing stuff in Tucson than we ever did at home. I still missed the adventures that had taken us all over the world. Dave didn’t. This was our way of exploring now, in our 60s, and it was good.

All our lives together, we’d said that we loved sampling different places; we’d never buy a second home. When we returned to Tucson for Year 3 – winter 2015 – we bought one.

It’s a little connected white cube, of course, with a view of the Catalinas and easy access to hiking and food. During one happily frenzied month in which the man who hated home decor volunteered not only to buy furniture but to move it, we outfitted our little square of desert. “Think of it as a 10-year house,” Dave said when I fretted about money. “If I’m healthy enough to keep coming here 10 years, we’ll be happy every winter.”

Three months after we left Tucson, he landed back in the hospital. He soldiered his way out, but his constellation of conditions pushed him back in. Last November in Boston, at age 66, Dave died. Every day for 39 years, we’d been happy wherever we’d roamed, but he’d spent just one month in his desert home.

I dreaded returning to Tucson. How could I be there without him? Finally in February I went, thinking I’d sell the house. Wonderful friends and family arrived in a steady stream, and I showed them Dave’s desert, speaking words he’d spoken to me. We scattered some of his ashes around a majestic saguaro near a path he’d walked many times.

Sitting in the recliner that my happy husband had proudly found for my aching back, staring out at the Catalinas, I felt unbearably sad, but I also felt comforted. This was the place that my love had loved, and when I wasn’t looking, I’d started to love it, too. Healing waits there, I’m hoping, out in the desert with Cowboy Dave under the sapphire sky.

Jane Harrigan, a former professor of journalism at UNH, coaches writers working to turn their ideas into books. She can be reached at storycoachjane@gmail.com.