by Scott Bradley Smith
After the rain, the desert smelled of sage and creosote. Mike Brazos pawed the scree, hauled himself onto a ledge. Hands on knees, he gasped and wheezed in the breaking mist. He knew he’d been capricious—a rattler could have gotten him anytime he reached overhead. At the very least, he could have ended up with a handful of cholla spines. But he had arrived at this promontory where, for one last time, he could survey Sabino Canyon as it curved like a fat leg up and into the Santa Catalina range.
Brazos pulled the bandanna off his head and patted his mouth. He had just left Julianne, the woman he’d been seeing for the past two years. At the bottom of the wash sat the orange and white rental van holding all his belongings, sunning itself beside a saguaro. It waited to dawdle him to a new foundry job at a sculpture atelier in Raleigh. Beyond that, Tucson lay spread out below like spilled tequila glistening on the desert floor.
In the four years he’d spent in the Desert Southwest, Brazos had never gotten used to the scalding heat, the sky so big and wide it made him feel as though he was drowning in thin air. You’d never know that his own grandfather had been raised here, that the genes for tolerating such phenomenon had missed Brazos entirely. He craved instead the lushness of the Piedmont back East, hiking in forests where sunlight barely reached the trail. He looked forward to being closer to his family and the friends he’d grown up with, though not so close that they’d be stopping over unannounced. The job he was taking promised a steadier income and better benefits than the little county museum offered here.
Yet, one thing was sure: he was going to miss this canyon. He was going to miss clambering over boulders big as two-car garages, the muscles of his thighs and calves burning, as he sweated out the anxiety—and any number of bad habits—lodged inside him. He was going to miss skinny dipping in the cold pools farther up the trail, lazing in the shade beneath a mesquite tree, watching the mountain goats navigate the steep slopes. He was going to miss prodding the mottled, thumbnail-sized frogs that gained warmth from the grainy rocks.
He tied the bandanna around his neck, took off his boots. Bits of sand and flecks of mica stuck to his toes, cooled by the late-afternoon breeze. As he watched a jackrabbit teethe on a poppy leaf nearby, he considered how this canyon had meant more to him than debating his former colleagues over the place of Georgia O’Keefe in the pantheon of American artists, or the value of Hopi kachinas within the realm of folk art. More than playing poker with his fire-jumper friends who spent their summers in the mountains watching the horizon for wisps of smoke, who came down at the end of the season, quiet and weather-beaten, primed for serious carousing.
Brazos shook his head and made a sound in his throat, startling the jackrabbit into stillness. He was probably going to miss this canyon even more than Julianne. Sure, they’d had a lot of fun together. They’d sipped cheap tequila and two-stepped at cowboy bars, eaten fish burritos at taquerias and ridden underfed nags in the Rincons. In the casita they rented in the barrio, they’d talked late into the night then had dervish sex on the lumpy futon, which reeked of sweat and insect spray, while the swamp cooler clanked away on the roof. But Julianne had never once hiked with him in the canyon. He had asked her to. Several times. And just as many times, she’d refused. She was a city girl, she said. She wouldn’t set foot on trails shared with scorpions and tarantulas. On the back of a horse was as close as she’d get. Even then, she wouldn’t dismount—unless she had to pee, or the horse balked and needed to be led—until they were safely back in the corral.
As the allure of the canyon had never drawn them together, neither had they ever talked about anything like love. It had seemed a forbidden subject, one that, once broached, would doom them to a sudden and tragic end. Julianne had certainly been constant with him, or so he believed. But she had never talked of the future they could have forged. Had they talked about it, perhaps they would be making this move together. But what they’d shared had been a temporary thing, it seemed. As easy to detach as the tail of a lizard you stepped on.
Still and all, Brazos had liked Julianne enough that leaving had been hard. He had planned to rise and go before dawn, get at least to Santa Fe, maybe even Amarillo, before stopping for the night. But they had slept late that morning, had lingered over coffee and bunuelos. Brazos had played tug-of-war with Julianne’s dog, an Akita named Samarja. It had seemed like almost any other day they spent together. Eventually they stood on the porch of the casita and hugged for a long time. They kissed and said they would miss each other. They said they would stay in touch. Brazos said goodbye and unglued himself from her. He went to the van, got in, waved, drove away. That was it.
But that was not it. Leaving Julianne’s, Brazos had an idea that he might need some authentic chiles to take with him. He drove all the way to the spice factory in Tubac, fifty miles in the opposite direction, where he picked up a rista of chiles and chile powder in bulk. On the way back, he stopped at his favorite taqueria, on Fourth Avenue, and afterwards he ambled up the street, browsed a ceramics shop and the pet store where Julianne had once bought Samarja a new chew toy. When it began to pour, he took refuge in a tiny taverna on Campbell Avenue where he used to shoot pool and smoke deliciously nasty cigars with the fire jumpers.
As he nursed a beer and listened to the rain fall on the tin roof, Brazos kept thinking of Sabino Canyon. It nagged at him like a splinter under his fingernail. He just had to get it out. He left his half-drunk beer and got in the van, drove up into the foothills. The rain tapered off. He parked. He climbed.
As he ascended, he remembered a particular Fourth of July when, on an impulse, he’d spurned picnic and party invitations and instead hiked miles into the canyon. He had gone beyond the pools, to a place where sheer walls of rock—ribboned in reds and oranges and grays—made climbing without a rope almost impossible. There, he had turned an ankle on a loose stone. At first he thought it might have been broken, that he might be stuck out there overnight, days even, before another hiker came along. He yelled, but the canyon seemed to turn a deaf ear, echoing his cries back at him. He thought of Julianne and then he didn’t think of her anymore. He pictured the fire jumpers, always working in pairs so they could help each other out when danger neared. Brazos had talked to the canyon then—cursed it, pleaded with it, asked it to lend him a hand. Nothing happened for a long time. Finally, he stood and willed himself to descend. He limped to the pools where he soaked his foot in the icy water that took away some of the pain. When he arrived back at his car it was well after dark. Fireworks boomed and sparkled all over the city. The sporadic bursts bathed the canyon behind him in a peculiar light, enchanting him once more. It had seemed to be inviting him back, into the secrets it held between the flanks of its rough thighs.
Now, as the sun dropped toward Wasson Peak and the shadows lengthened around him, the rabbit scuffled off and the poppies closed their petals. His feet grew cold. He felt the van keys digging into his thigh. He put his boots back on and wrapped the bandanna around his head. As he gazed back over the canyon, it seemed to tense and roll away from him into the night. He knew then that he was free to go.