This is it. This is my last week in Arizona before I go north to taller mountains and deserts less well-known. Although I do it often, moving is always hard for me. Lately, I’ve been thinking about some of the reasons that leaving Arizona will be harder than usual.
It is no secret that I am fond of places. The geographic and social elements that differentiate one from another fascinate me. I am drawn in by that complexity; the intricacy of here and of what it means to be here. As you might imagine, then, saying goodbye to a place that has drawn me in, to a place that I have come to love, takes some time. It is not a simple or straightforward thing.
Sunday afternoon, as a part of that farewell process, a good friend of mine drove me out along the back roads that lay north and east of here. Those roads took us up the Mogollon Rim. Piñon-juniper woodland gave way to pockets of pine and Gambel’s oak. Oak gave way to pure Ponderosa; an upright forest of bark and needle overlaid by a second forest, that one made of shadow. Ours were the only headlights on the road. We crossed paths with a lone coyote, a dozen jack rabbits, and a herd of elk—bulls and cows and suckling calves, the lot of them calling out to one another in high, almost avian voices—but no people. Except for the brief stretch of highway that delivered us to that spiderweb of narrow thoroughfares, every mile we covered was new to me. The reminder that there is still so much of this state (even just this small bit of it) that I’ve yet to see makes it even harder to leave.
At the end of one of the roads was Sycamore Point, an overlook above a remote section of Sycamore Canyon. We arrived just minutes before nightfall and were careful not to stumble as we picked our way to the edge. The last light was enough. In fact, the dimness made the relief of the canyon, those deep accordion folds, more apparent. I looked across to the opposite rim as it disappeared into the night. I looked down (more than 1,500 feet down) into that stone cut, that ringing void, hollowed by time and water. It was the matter of time that captured my attention just then, as it oftentimes does while I am out on the land.
All landscapes are temporal. They have a geologic history and a human history. Even so, I have not visited any landscape whose temporal aspect is as obvious as that of the Southwest. Think of the Grand Canyon. The walls lined with fossils. The rock adorned with petroglyphs. Having entered at its southern mouth and walked along its bottom, I know the same is true of Sycamore Canyon.
Over the last six years, Arizona’s record of deep time has become an important part of what I know about this place. With so many relics of that record lying bare across the landscape, I often feel that I am living with time, as though it were a neighbor. Certainly, I feel more aware that my life is framed by something that began long ago and will continue a long time yet. This region’s past has, in a way, been imprinted on my psyche. It provides context for my everyday experience and contributes to my sense of place.
My sense of place is deepened by other temporal elements of the landscape, as well: knowing, for example, that it is one pine-forest hour from the door of my cottage to the top of Thumb Butte, or forty-five ridgeline minutes from the place where Aspen Creek approaches Copper Basin Road to the base of White Spar. In that case, time is biological; minutes accounted for by the pulse of my muscles and the rhythm of my breath. Then, there are the last six years themselves; a collection of memories layered one atop another, anchored to specific points on the ground. I go to where I have been before and return not only to that physical place, but also to those places in time. (X, Y): the coordinates of my life.
It is difficult knowing that, in just a few days, I will wander off the edge of the map, both spatial and temporal, that has become familiar. Nevertheless, it is also exciting. I will have an opportunity to fill in blank corners and to adjust the way I measure time and understand my place within it. Whether or not Idaho becomes “home” remains to be seen. Still loyal to Arizona, I am somewhat skeptical. But even as a skeptic, I am looking forward to getting intimate with a place whose shape can be unfamiliar only for a while.