I am writing from 33,000 feet above the desert’s crinkled earth, speeding towards Charlotte, then home, in a metal tube while the memories of my trip to Arizona are still fresh and the ground is being beautifully beaten by the sun. I left seventy degrees in a white cotton tank top with little blue flowers and sun-kissed shoulders to return to seventeen degrees, gray skies and a fresh blanket of snow. If I am lucky, in three months time the clouds will open to remind me that the sky is still blue. I had forgotten about high contrast light, sharp shadows and quick shutter speeds until Arizona, amazed to have made summer-like pictures in the middle of December. As I write this last line, our airplane is being swallowed into a ominous cloud.
We went to tour graduate schools, first ASU then U of A. With the exception of LasVegas, a fabricated city, I had never been to the American Southwest. Going was important. How can you move thirty hours away from home to a place you have never been? I set out with my roommate, fellow bee and Hive contributor, Tamrin Ingram. She has family in Phoenix, who lovingly opened their home to us, and we became the perfect excuse for her sister, soon to be brother-in-law and cousin to have a short, impromptu, vacation.
Her aunt and uncle arrived at the airport to pick us up in a white Mercedes van they had rented for the weekend. He swore that he tried to get something less showy and that the Benz was all the company had to offer. We rode around the desert, chauffeured like queens by two Arizona implants serving as our makeshift tour guides. They were wonderful, driving us to and waiting patiently through our tours and portfolio reviews. They gave us shots of Fireball and homemade apple pie, each morning supplying us with oversized blueberry muffins from Costco and cans of Coke.
ASU was Olympus, shining splendor atop a golden hill – paradise. Walkways lined with palm trees guided us between buildings and I felt as if I had been transported to a whole new world. It was nothing like the tiny private art school where I earned my BFA or the giant, albeit dirty, university I am currently pretending to belong to. This place was pristine and I found myself wondering if I stuck out like a giant blue-collared thumb. U of A, and Tucson as a whole, seemed much more my speed. Pink stucco houses with cactus-lined yards stood starkly in contrast to the big farmhouses and lush vegetable gardens of my youth. Still, oddly enough, I could see myself and my cat calling one of those little pink houses our temporary home.
Our first flight flew to O’Hare in Chicago. We walked through TSA in Columbus at the John Glenn Airport minutes after his death was publicized. I cried and in my stupor was stopped for attempting to bring mace through the gates. That first flight was brief and it was odd arriving to a destination in under an hour that in the month previous was a seven-hour drive. We flew at night, unfortunately, enveloped by darkness and thick cloudy skies. On the seat back just to the right of mine was a hint of light, the first of three good omens for the trip ahead (and hopefully grad school admittance). A happy little honeybee sticker stuck staring at us, my roommates scabbed over honeybee tattoo nearly healed.
Saturday afternoon, after U of A in Tucson, we went to an incredible little pizza shop where we sat outside soaking sun into the pores of our bare shoulders. Tamrin drank a Sprite as bees buzzed our table. One flew in, too deep and drown. She drug him out with the wrapper of her straw, placing him on the table to be dried up in the heat. A few minutes passed and I looked down just in time to see his butt wiggle. The seven of us sat surrounding this bee, cheering him on as he fought to survive. Always I am amazed by nature’s resilience. One leg stretched then the other and after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably less than three minutes, that little bee lived. We witnessed something so incredibly small beat death as the rest of the patrons chatted on, oblivious to the miracle that had just taken place.
On the way from Tucson to Phoenix, we drove the Mercedes to Saguaro National Park and I went from never having seen a saguaro cactus to having seen at least a million (imagine the Smokey Mountains with cacti instead of trees). It was breathtaking – mesmerizing. Cacti are incredible, resilient like that little bee. They have personalities, snowflakes of the desert, each one different from the rest. It is illegal to kill a saguaro cactus, though they can be transplanted. Filled almost entirely with water, they weigh upwards of ninety pounds per foot and at their full height (forty-five plus feet) can easily weigh over a ton. I learned a lot about these alien plants whilst in their presence, but my favorite saguaro fact is that they don’t grow their first arm until their ninety-fifth birthday.
The next day we woke up, dropped the sister and soon to be brother-in-law off at the airport and then climbed a very large rock before our own departure. It was halfway up that rock that omen number three was encountered, a sign that read ‘warning: active bee area’. I smiled to myself as I thought ‘yes this place most definitely is’. We ate at a McDonalds outside in the sun, relishing in a heat we won’t get to experience again for months.
That McDouble and fry has already worn off. I ate my complimentary pretzels and up in the sky it is dark once again, but before this overwhelming darkness, I experienced the most breathtaking sunset. The whole earth changed from orange to pink and then purple and I sat by the window in awe watching the red dirt vanish into oblivion – the heated haze of a desert horizon.