I felt something new as soon as I registered that it was the Catalina Mountains I could see to my right, obliquely through the smoky windshield, parallel through the passenger-side window. It’s the first time I’ve recognized them from so far out, even though it was the fifth or sixth time I’ve made the approach on I-10 W. They are distinctive enough that I assumed I’d recognize them right away every other time, but then I’d mistake them with another mountain chain or I just wouldn’t recognize them until a final northward bend in I-10 and suddenly Tucson sweeps into view from the edge of the city, the Catalinas towering from their distance even over the the tallest building, like an ancient Oak behind mere twigs presumptuously upright.
But what was that feeling I felt?!
I was finally seeing home after having had to pretend to have been home, within commuting distance of where I’d grown up, a place that had never been home to me.
A good friend asked me a few days after I got back whether I felt like I was in Tucson yet. I couldn’t answer, hesitant for the fact that I didn’t feel a sense of being torn from one place and plopped into a new place, nor the naggingly overriding need to acclimate myself. It was as if I were already acclimated.
I couldn’t answer her question, so simple-seeming in itself, an innocuous surfactant, for the accompanying recognition that I hadn’t ever been able to shake that sense of wrenched-ness or that acclimatory need for the last six months that I spent in Michigan. Every mile of the whole trip north last May, I felt a mix of dread and abject error: this mile, wrong. this mile, false step. this mile, wrong. this mile in error. this mile, this is wrong. this mile, wrong. Over 1,900 miles.
But each mile this time was a boon to recover, solid gold retrieved. I couldn’t wait to be back. When I finally crossed into Arizona from New Mexico the next afternoon the excitement coursed through my whole body, a radiant dance in my veins.
I awed over Texas Canyon (as it’s come to be called), as I always do. The tumult of boulders, how they give me the expectation of a Brontosaurus or some other long-necked herbivore gliding around the canyon bend over skyscraper legs punishing the earth’s surface underfoot. I was too excited to stop, a psychic momentum propelling me past the rest area right there that I’ve always stopped at to better appreciate that canyon’s magic for a moment or two. I had no moments to spare.
Amphetamines had a hold of the wheel; my mind reeled.
I felt… nothing special, which was itself special… a kind of everyday feeling of ‘home again’… but it wasn’t a resigned sigh of a thought… no neurons bespoke dread… It was just the opposite: I felt a radical contentment, a corporeal sigh like the taste of fresh spring water after a long hike through the haze of an August afternoon.
I’d had the windows half-open in the car since about ten that morning for my double-coated doggo trapped under the sun’s rays. I was just south of Albuquerque. When we hit Hatch, New Mexico, famed for its peppers and a shortcut from I-25 S to I-10 W in Deming, I stopped at the gas station and boldly left my jacket crumbled into the pile on the passenger seat. More than that, I took the legs off my cargo pants, freeing my legs with a few quick zips. I wanted to feel the sun on as much of me as possible. I had missed it every moment of the last six months, when even on the Summer Solstice my skin barely registered a solitary solar beam. A few locals smirked, a couple glared, all of them buttoned and zipped firmly within plush winter wear. I imagine they took a look at my Michigan plate and either rolled their eyes about snowbirds or pitied me my relief.
But the air only turned right in Arizona. I don’t envy New Mexico for much, least of all their dust. Just over a mountainous border into Arizona, the air clears and particles of thick dust are replaced by a pure Heliotic embrace. It is sunlight mere, a lush unmixed presence. After a half hour or so, somewhere before now-called Texas Canyon, I felt a distantly familiar radiance on my right forearm: it was heat, pure solar heat soaking into my arm’s every pore through the half-open window. I laughed electric joy.
A couple times between the border and the city, more than a few tears fell into my lap, a couple hit the steering wheel. I’d survived! I was home! The sun is shining! The cacti are standing! The Palo Verde and Mesquite are flourishing! I made it back! If only I could name the entity, I thanked them. Gods, all, Hermes, the Muses, Athena, even Zeus and Apollo and all them.
I stopped paying attention to the directions from my phone after I crossed into Arizona, only keeping the directions active for a countdown clock: 100 miles to go, 87 miles, 80…. 50… The arrival time was fairly steady around 3:30 after stops in New Mexico amounting to a 45-minute delay.
I hit traffic on I-10, but the exit sign overhead said “22nd Street, 1/2 mile.” Just like that, the one sign re-activated the cognitive map I’ve built up over time of this sprawling city. Like some seasoned I-10 commuter, like any other Tucsonan (but one who only this minute learned that it’s ‘Tucsonan’ no i), I zoomed for the exit, right into the neighborhood where I’d lived last time I was here.
You know that pride of getting somewhere with little or no navigational aid? It’s not award-winning or anything like that, but it is a small delight, a proof of belonging in its own small way.
I pulled right up to the curb along the building in which I’d rented a studio flat for eight months before having to pack up for Michigan, like I’d never broken the lease, as if I’d been on an extended trip, but here I was at last, home again. My doggo and I shot out of the car for a walk around the neighborhood. He could smell his old territory, the unbelievable hoard of cats supported by certain households around that intersection, the mix of lives human and otherwise that create the unique scent he’d known only six months prior. He was extra-eager to get out for a walk around to catch up on the canine news network, published at ever lamp post or tree trunk along the street.
When I took the exit into one of my old neighborhoods, I made up my mind to go for a stroll around the neighborhood first to see if I could see anything for rent. Before that I’d intended, basically since dawn that morning, as I zoomed through a treacherous stretch of mountain passes into New Mexico from Colorado (and saw for half of a second a massive Caribou on the side of the road!), that first thing we would do when we got into Tucson would be to go up Sentinel Peak, aka ‘A’-Mountain because it has a giant A on the side of it facing the University of Arizona campus. Instead I ended up at my old place wandering around the sidewalks that hadn’t changed, looking for anything that said FOR RENT. A good 20 minutes later, I’d seen exactly zero rental signs, and then I stubbed my recently sort-of-broken big toe on the edge of an upturned slab of sidewalk. Actually I stumbled into it and basically ended up drop-kicking the side of the sidewalk-slab. By then it was getting dark anyway and I wanted to get to a hotel since I’d been driving for the previous 34 hours. I put Sentinel Peak off until the morning.
But then, without even trying, I found my place the next morning, Thanksgiving morning. On my way to Sentinel Peak, there it was, right there, with one of those standard hardware-store FOR RENT signs and a handwritten description.
I hadn’t even begun the actual search for housing, which I’d intended to start as soon as I got back to the hotel after the hike up Sentinel Peak to pay the Catalinas with my awe, to shower reverence over every saguaro I passed, and to honor the altar that is Sentinel Peak by removing as much trash as I could pick up. It’s what I do when I get back, what I’ve done since I came back the first time in 2019.
Just right there, as soon as I turned onto the road, two houses past the entrance sign for Sentinel Peak Park, a FOR RENT sign shouted at me for attention. I backed up in the middle of the street to park at the curb. This was it. I knew it somehow. I could already feel it.
But what it was that I felt, I almost can’t understand. I was home. I’d never lived there or met the landlord or the neighbors. I hadn’t even stepped foot out of my car at the side of the curb, but I was home. I knew the back was going to be a barren plot of gravel, though I hadn’t seen it with my eyes. I speculated about the layout of the house—it seemed fairly straightforward from the curb, but I couldn’t be sure for the fact of the blinds covering the windows—but it was already familiar to me.
As I drove back down from Sentinel Peak, having awed, admired, and de-littered the place a bit, there was that FOR RENT sign again along the street.
“There’s our house, my guy!” I said to my Shepherd. His ears perked forward for a moment, but indifference dominated. “You’ll see, funny face!” I laughed, nervously hopeful but at ease. By noon I saw the place and secured the lease, on Thanksgiving no less.
Leave a Reply