MADERA CANYON

Gale force winds rocked the Scamp all night in this tiny campground high up in Madera Canyon. It was my third night here. I was so cozy wrapped up in two down comforters that I left the windows open wide. I slept deeply, dreamily aware now and then of the drama raging around me. I awoke refreshed and strangely excited.

The wind seemed to gather even further momentum with the rising sun. The canyon belonged to the wind, so after breakfast I drove down to the valley to look for adventure and maybe even a little mischief. It turned out that what I found was something quite else.

First stop: the library in Green Valley, the nearest town. Sitting at a table by a huge window looking out at the Santa Rita Mountains, I checked email and googled questions that had accumulated in my mind. I shared the table with a lively old man, and we had a delightful flirtatious exchange, full of wit and banter. Flirting at this age is so different from the past, perhaps even more playful because it’s enough in itself, it doesn’t propel towards more.

Green Valley didn’t lure me, it seems to be one huge suburban sprawl. I already resented it because from up in my campground it exudes so much light at night that it hides most of the stars, even before moonrise. I decided to head south.

People have been telling me for years what an interesting little artist community Tubac is. That sounded like the place for me. It was crowded but I found a parking spot. It took me twenty minutes to walk the entire place and discover that it was nothing but a high-end mall, with art galleries, craft shops, and lots of expensive tchotchkes. A short drive south I found the place where the people of Tubac live. Entering it I felt I was driving through a stage set: big bright-colored two-story houses, each one exactly alike except for the colors, with tiny very neat yards in front, the whole place looking as if it had been self-consciously designed by a goofy architect. There was no sign of life anywhere.

A few miles further down the road the scene changed radically when I got to a little place called Carmen. It could not have been more different from Tubac. The small, low adobe houses, battered by the years, the colors long ago sucked dry by the sun, all look as though they are being slowly absorbed back into the earth out of which many of them were made. I wanted to walk around in it, but felt too tall, too white. I found it a compelling little place, full of history, perhaps suffering. It pulled me just as strongly as Tubac had repulsed me. Maybe that says more about me than about those two places.

Still further down the road is an old mission, Tumacacori, built 200 years ago, now run and preserved as is by the National Park Service. My first thought was “Mission, schmission,” but this was the last place along this stretch of the road that I could explore and hope for a little mischief. I paid my $3. and went in.

I walked through the gift shop, out through a little courtyard, into another room showing a film about the building of the mission, and out into a huge bare plaza. A wide path led to the ruins of the church itself. As I walked towards it my attitude was slightly scornful, removed. I was laughing at myself for looking at an old ruined church.

A long high narrow room led to the remains of a stone altar under a dome. The ancient sun-baked bricks showed through the crumbling slurry made from the earth right outside. Faded ornamental designs way up at the top of the high walls could still be seen in places. The muted subtly varied colors of the earth and brick were deeply beautiful, honed as they were by neglect and erosion and weather and the passage of time. Alone there, in the silence, something within me shifted. I found myself almost in tears, I was so moved by the whole place. I stood in the middle for a long time, just feeling. I wanted to stay forever.

Past the altar a dark little side room led out the back to a vast valley, limned in the distance by the Santa Ritas. Everything looked dry and strawlike (this is winter after all), the sandy earth was hard packed under my feet. The green color of my shirt was jarring, everything around me, including the church, was a thousand soft shades of earth and sand.

The sun warmed me right through to my bones and a slight breeze kept my skin a perfect temperature. I walked slowly around the edges of fields, suffused with a profound feeling of relaxation and peace.

I came upon three weathered wooden crosses marking two adult-sized graves and one child’s. They brought to my mind the memory of my neighbor and her daughters preparing her husband’s body for burial. And then I thought about the New Yorker article by Michael Pollan that I had read just that morning, about a surprising new treatment to help terminal cancer patients achieve peace and acceptance before they die. And in my own state of peace I imagined my body lying deep in the earth below my feet. I pictured it vividly: my now sun-warmed bones being turned white and pure by little creatures, the earth itself being enriched, this body of mine being absorbed and made an integral part of this planet. I walked and walked, in a state of bliss.

I don’t know how long I would have wandered like this. The man to whom I had paid the $3. walked towards me across the field and his gentle voice called out to me, “I’m sorry, we have to close now.” I slowly made my way back through the fields, through the church, through the gift shop, out to my car. The feeling of bliss stayed with me, all the way back to the still wind-blasted campground, all the way through cooking and eating my supper inside the Scamp, all the way through the evening spent sitting quietly, feeling no need for entertainment. The wind continued to howl through the canyon all that night.