Peak Wildflower Sunday — Romero Pools, Catalina State Park, Tucson
I do not expect to see a repeat performance of this particular spring.
I wake at 5:30 and tell myself sternly: Don’t just lie in bed. Get out on the trail. And so a Sunday breakfast of French toast and Raging Sage coffee and grapefruit just plucked from the tree in the yard and I’m on the road.
I reach the trailhead at 7:30, just as the sun is peeking over the jagged peaks of Pusch Ridge, the prow of the great mile-high desert ocean liner we call the Catalinas. Just below the parking lot I cross the creek, running at full flow — a very good sign, this far from the mountains. The trail follows an old gravel road for more than a mile through bonsai’d mesquite, just beginning to show its feathery spring green leaves, and deep grasses. After a half mile or so I begin to encounter masses of deep blue phacelia with scattered brodelia and virginally white desert chicory.
I pass a middle-aged and an older woman and after a few steps I recognize the older woman’s distinctive voice — she’s a lesbian colleague from the University. So I pause and wait for them to catch up, and we exchange pleasantries about no coincidence in the world, the flowers we hope to see, a poet she’d like to invite to campus. I step onward, thinking I’ll leave them in the dust — my colleague is surely in her mid-70s, probably older — but they keep pace with me until the trail begins to climb in earnest.
And now I am among the terrifically eroded and scattered boulders in the crepuscular light of dawn, and the floral display is stunning. In the week since I’ve been on the trail the white-lipped purple lupine has come out and competes with the phacelia for greatest saturation in its particular segment of the blue-violet spectrum. The yellow yellow sunbursts of brittlebush, which in past years I have seen spend themselves by mid-February, have in this cool spring finally decided it’s safe to come out and they have burst forth, clouds of sunburst yellow against the gray-green leaves.
The ocotillos have begun to flame at their tips — “burning brands,” I will think on encountering my first patch of them, with their thorns and tiny spring green leaves culminating in a blood-red lancet. Scattered throughout: Mariposa lilies, more than I’ve ever seen in one place, but instead of the creamy white of the Ventana Canyon trail these are the color of blood oranges, with a dark secret at the heart of their triune petals.
The trail climbs through tumbled rocks green with lichen and grasses, and on all sides and above and below the saguaro lift their arms in a collective shout of praise.
As I hike I hear in my head the repeating refrain of the Handel Te Deum that I rehearsed last night and that two weeks hence I will sing:
Heav’n and earth are full of the majesty
of thy glo-o-o-o-o-o-ry
of thy glo-o-ry
of the majesty of thy glory.
The winter rains have washed out this trail — surely built under the WPA in the 1930s — until it’s little more than a gully — no money to repair that from this penurious state. But where there is water there are flowers, and so I clamber amid the tumbled boulders as if walking through a flower-lined tunnel open to the cerulean morning sky. The trail rises until I hear below the rushing creek — rises and rises more until I am walking amid the friendly blue oaks, gnarled but bursting with life, with the broken rocks all about and new varieties of flowers, some members of the pea family I don’t recognize, and the delicate spike heels of deep purple larkspur (another competitor for maximum saturation in the blue-violet spectrum).
I crest the ridge and see the source of the waters: A great trident of drainages that merge to form the single chattering, tumbling creek that has played real-time counterpoint to the Handel in my head. A great cataract now drops down below, and where the creeks merge — pools, as promised. The pilgrim has reached his shrine, and he takes off his boots and soaks his grateful feet in the copper-stained stream.
I lay in the warm sand by the murmuring creek and put my leather cowboy hat over my face and fall immediately into a deep sleep of a half-hour and more. I wake to the voices of my mid-70s-plus colleague and her friend, chatting on the far bank. An inspiration.
Somewhere in here I discover that in fact I did bring along my cell phone, which explains why, as the very observant reader may have noticed, the narration is of early morning but the photos are of late morning. You must imagine the landscape graced by long shadows and pearled by morning light.
I spot a patch of coral pink Douglas penstemon, a cheerful cosmopolite who very happily propagates in my yard but that to my perception has been disappearing from the desert in the past drought years.
But now we are well into the day, 10 am, and the hordes begin arriving: the small children, shrieking and throwing themselves in the water, their parents with their dogs unleashed in this wilderness, big horn sheep preservation area where dogs on or off leash are clearly and strictly forbidden. If asked they would say, “Well, I’m sure my Lassie wouldn’t hurt a fly!” Down below teenage boys crawl across a massive boulder to drop one by one into the churning pool. The father of one boy sports a monster camera with a telephoto lens a foot long and he taunts his young son, who is hesitating — stepping forward, backing off — at the edge of a thirty-foot drop into a pool of uncertain depth. “Come on, I can’t wait forever. Am I going to have to come over there and push you off?” Finally the boy jumps, still wearing his tennis shoes (he’ll be sorry for that on the walk back). I’m relieved to see him bob to the surface and paddle to the edge, but I note that he does not look in the direction of his father’s camera.
As I am walking down the masses are walking up, up, complaining about the dust, complaining about the heat, complaining about their lives, complaining, complaining, complaining while they swig water flown in from Fiji in plastic bottles which they will not trouble to recycle, the sorority sisters in their spandex rhinestone-trimmed halter tops, the tattooed guys in their muscle-Ts, the paunchy guys and their huffing wives, and always and everywhere the most interesting-looking people, the people I’d want to have dinner with are those few who are walking alone, mostly elderly, the men bearded, the women walking with cross-country-ski poles-cum-canes. The couples think nothing of stopping to rest in the middle of the narrow trail, looking annoyed when I step between them. A lesbian couple is paused and engaged in Serious Relationship Talk — though I strain my ears the speaker audibly pauses while I am within earshot and as I walk past all I hear is, “You do these things with considerably more grace . . .”, the urgency in her voice betraying her words and her anger.
They come in groups, in masses, I am the pilgrim returning from St. Ives facing the crowd who has heard rumor of a miracle, they travel in twos and fours and tens and they are almost never alone, and they talk and they talk and they talk. I try to think: These people might vote for saving more parkland for the sheep, these people might maybe care about global warming, these people might learn to entertain themselves close to home . . . but it’s a sham performance. I begin to hate my species, until I think it’s not good to hate one’s species, I am a member of that species. Patience, patience. What a misanthrope I’m becoming, I think, until a calm voice speaks over the Handel in my head: You are privileged, and the extent to which you share less in humanity’s vices than its virtues is the measure of your privilege.
As I drop in elevation I realize that in these few hours’ heat the claret cup cactus, earliest of the major cactus bloom, has moved that much closer to busting out and I think: If I pay attention I’ll bet I can find the one who’s jumping the gun. And sure enough, just as I’m almost back to the car here s/he is:
What a curious species we are! Chattering like sparrows in the trees, mouth music declaring I’m here, I’m alive! Might we settle for less and so receive more? The challenge is not to turn the clock backwards to some imaginary golden age, when Jim Crow enforced itself through lynchings, same-gender love dared not mention its name, children labored long hours in factories, few received education except rich white men, women frequently died in childbirth, city streets were piled with horse droppings, milk was unsafe to drink, and trainloads of orphans were shipped out of cities to be adopted as slaves. No — our challenge lies in devising and bringing into being an unprecedented future, in which we loosen the bonds of fate as a way of achieving our destinies.
Poet Marianne Moore writes, “’The wise man understands that destiny exists and that it has need of him.” By way of emphasis Miss Moore adds, “Not fate – destiny.” What is this distinction she takes such care to point up, between fate and destiny?
Fate suggests submission to the forces of life; destiny suggests engagement. The former implies some all-powerful force or figure to whose will we must submit. The latter implies that each of us is one of the infinite aspects of Creation, whose fullest achievement depends in some small but necessary way on our day-to-day, moment-to-moment decisions. We are caught — trapped, some might say — in the web of fate; but just as surely we are among its spinners. In that spinning lies our hope; in that spinning lies our destinies.
What progress we have made from those good old days! and how it is where I place my hope and my faith.