WELCOME TO THE BAJADA!
The sign is crumbling apart in a few places but still readable.
YOU HAVE DISCOVERED THE MEETING PLACE OF TWO BIOMES. THE HIGH AND SPARSE MOUNTAINOUS REGION AND THE BARREN DESERT. THE NAME BAJADA COMES FROM SPANISH WORD MEANING SLOPE. IT IS THE COMBINATION OF SEVERAL ALLUVIAL FANS WHICH HAVE COALESCED OVER A LARGE AREA.
‘Interesting, now if I only knew what an alluvial fan was…’
Fast forward three feet and 15 seconds where I discover sign #2. It’s 92 degrees in October and I have to squint against a brutally bright but happy sun to read the sign.
AN ALLUVIAL FAN IS THE COLLECTION OF SEDIMENTS FROM A RIVER. IN THE CASE OF THE BAJADA, IT IS A DRY RIVER BED WHICH IS ONLY ACTIVE AT RARE POINTS IN THE YEAR WHEN RAIN ACTUALLY FALLS. NEVERTHELESS, THE RESULT OF THIS COALESCENCE IS A MORE LUSH TERRAIN WHICH COMBINES A DRY MOUNTAINOUS REGION WITH AN OPEN DESERT.
‘…funny, I feel like I’ve gone from mountain top to desert overnight. These last few days were a complete climb to the summit with emotional highs as I explored Sedona with close friends not seen in a long time. This high ended yesterday with us all departing back to reality. The result, an abrupt end that has thrown me face first into a desert of emotional withdrawal. Maybe a solo hike will help me find my Bajada…Alright, enough with the emotional self-help talk, this is my last day in Phoenix and I want to make the most of it before returning to an overcast and damp Europe.’
Movement above the sign catches my eye and I glance up to see a hummingbird hovering over a flower of a spiny plant, its tiny wings a blur. It might be the second hummingbird I have ever seen in the wild. It zooms and zips from flower to flower bumping bumblebees out of the way as it hunts for nectar. Inspired by the energy of the tiny bird I check my water and snack situation, adjust my backpack, and head off down the trail.
I feel so big as I walk here. Noises from the not so far away city are barely audible yet the sounds of my own footsteps feel magnified as they crunch one after the other. Everywhere in front of me lizards, birds, and insects evacuate. I imagine this is how a misunderstood Godzilla must have felt stomping through Tokyo.
About a mile into the hike my stomach becomes vocal and prompts my mind toward lunch. This is probably about halfway anyway and I happen to notice a perfect spot for a break just a few feet off the path. Fortuitous. It’s a natural semicircle of rocks and shrubberies with a clear spot in the middle and the Subway Melt in my bag is just begging to be eaten. As I walk over and sit down I hear footsteps crunching. But I’m already sitting? It doesn’t take long till I see a man walking directly towards me. I try to go about my business and pretend not to notice but within seconds he is only a few feet away. Trying to signal my disinterest, I ruffle through my bag and fiddle a little extra with my sub and water.
“Howdy! Mind if I join?” Comes a voice. It’s soft with rough edges. I squint upwards to see black aviators and a large brim straw hat beaming down at me.
“Sure,” I say a little thrown. A man plops down on a rock next to me stripping off his Oakley’s and pulling out a canteen.
“Arthur,” he says, tossing a dark, rough looking hand in my direction.
“Jake,” I answer, returning the shake. Arthur has dark, leathery skin, and deep-set brown eyes. He’s probably in his early 50’s but a youthful energy pervades around him. He’s wearing a green plaid button down, currently unbuttoned, with a white t-shirt underneath. Around his neck hangs a feather and a long black braid of hair runs out of the back of his hat. He’s like a cowboy professor of native-American descent.
“Nice to meet you, Jake. Have enough water with you?” He asks holding his canteen in my direction. “You can never be too careful out here.”
“I think so, well, I hope so. I picked up a few bottles before I got here.”
“Good,” he says taking a loud swig from his canteen, “so you from around here?”
“No, actually, just visiting. Today is my last day.”
“Oh nice, well you picked a hot one. Especially for second summer.”
“Second summer?” I have to ask.
“Yea, usually it’s a bit rainier this time of year. First summer is drier and second summer rainier. We’re on the five season schedule.” He grins. I am not sure whether he is joking.
“Hm, didn’t know that. Interesting, five seasons…”
“Yep, thank the topography for that! So, Jake, you enjoyed your vacation?”
“Completely, it is so beautiful out here. It’s a part of the country I hope to visit many more times.”
“You certainly should.” Arthur says excitedly.
“So, Arthur” I have to ask, “what brings you out hiking today?”
“Well, actually today is my wife’s birthday and this was one of her favorite hiking spots. She’s been gone nine years but I still come out here on her birthday every year. It’s a promise I made to her and I know she appreciates it.” He still wears his happy face but his words are heavy and full. We sit in silence for a few seconds.
“I’m sure she does appreciate it,” I say, not sure what to say. Arthur sighs contently and continues.
“She really loved Phoenix. The city, the people; even what the name stands for.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the city of Phoenix was named after the bird that dies and is reborn from the ashes.”
“Okay, makes sense. I assumed that was the case but is there a reason?”
“Yea, there was a sort of civilization here hundreds of years ago, the Hohokam I think they were called, and one day they just up and left. Vanished. Only, they left behind a basis of irrigation canals that were still perfectly usable hundreds of years later when new people came. So, building off the ashes of the old a new civilization was born. My wife loved the story and was herself a big believer in, what she called, being reborn everyday.”
“I like her perspective.”
“Yea, she would always make us figuratively wipe our slates clean before bed.” Arthur eyes are watery but the memory, I can see, is crystal. It lingers for a moment before a smile breaks across his face.
“Your wife sounds like a smart lady.”
“That was just her way of talking. She was a painter.”
Arthur and I speak for a few more minutes about lots of things…Then, he slaps his hands on his thighs and stands.
“Well, Jake, I better get going and let you enjoy your last day here while you still have it. Pleasure meeting you and be sure and make it to the end of the trail. It’s worth it.”
“You too, Arthur, really. Thanks for coming over and sitting down.”
Arthur smirks, “happy to have done it. What is life after all without a little sharing?”
He turns and trots down the trail.
I am almost at the end of the trail and can see the official end sign coming up in just a few feet. My thoughts are still on Arthur as I see it. Reborn every day…
Off the path just a few yards away it rises and rises. A solo stem going up and up and a single arm which protrudes out and upward as if to perpetually wave to the world. If I was Godzilla earlier then I am Honey, I Shrunk the Kids now. I head for the stem’s base needing to get a closer look. Once there, I can see the scars of a life much longer than mine. Holes every few inches riddle the vertical length and sections of bare rib are exposed in many places. Vacant space which is not at all vacant. The living cactus is a mansion of life from top to bottom. I watch for a minute as its many tenants enter and exit. I feel humbled just looking at it. It is so massive and so serene.
I will later read that the first 8 years of an average Saguaro’s life is spent growing 1–1.5 inches. It cannot grow an arm until it is between 50–70 years old and a mature adult Saguaro can be between 40–80 feet tall and weigh up to eight tons. It is easily the biggest cactus I have ever seen and I would venture to guess it’s over 50 feet tall.
As I turn I take one more look at it swaying in the breeze. Slow and steady by design.
We are all small giants. Should you ever feel small, fear not, you are bigger than you could ever imagine. Should you ever feel big, walk outside and look up, you are infinitesimally small. One’s true size is not constant but flexible. Always changing. It is defined by your actions in relation to yourself and to others. We are all the small giants of our time.
A few short minutes later I am back at the trail-head heading back to the Jeep. I crunch along trying to remember to wipe my slate clean tonight before sleeping.