DAVID SAFIER: The desert seeps into your bones - Tucson Local Media: Editorials

DAVID SAFIER: The desert seeps into your bones

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Posted: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 12:00 am | Updated: 8:01 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

As I write this, the election is still a few days away. By the time this issue of The Explorer hits your doorstep, the election should be history, barring a repeat of Florida 2000. Please, no repeat of Florida 2000!

So, with no reason to write about politics and nothing else feeling especially pressing right now, I’ll use this momentary respite to sing the praises of our little piece of the Sonoran Desert. If you’ve had your fill of “Tucson is a beautiful place” stories, turn the page and move on.

I taught high school for 30 years in Portland, Ore. Portland is ridiculously green, lush and beautiful. A river runs through the city, the mighty Columbia rolls on between Portland and Vancouver, Wash. It has majestic waterfalls, rolling countryside, the always snow-capped Mount Hood, gardens overflowing with roses and gaudy displays of rhododendron blossoms. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

But Portland is also cool and wet, and I wanted warm and dry, so when I retired five years ago, I moved here. I’d visited Tucson before. I liked the environs and found enough big-city amenities to satisfy me.

During my first year as a resident, I appreciated the cactus, the wildlife and the untamed areas surrounding the city, but the Sonoran Desert seemed pale next to the opulent beauty of Portland. I was pleased but not especially impressed.

That summer I flew back to Portland for a visit. An old friend picked me up at the airport. As we drove down the familiar city streets, I began to feel strangely claustrophobic. The tall trees with their impenetrable foliage lining the streets seemed to be closing in on me. I needed space to breathe.

The first few days as I walked down the streets I’d known for 30 years, the gardens with their overgrown bushes filled with perfumed red, purple and orange blossoms set off by the emerald green lawns assaulted me. It felt excessive, like a beautiful woman wearing too much perfume and showy jewelry.

Then I got used to it, and Portland was its old beautiful self again.

When I returned to Tucson, I drove my car out of the airport and headed north. As I passed Grant, the Catalinas became a presence, looming larger the further I drove. Their subtle blend of green and brown, their folds and creases accentuated by the late afternoon sun, stirred up a mild electric tingle in my chest. “I’m home,” I muttered.

I’m home? I spent 30 years in Portland and one in Tucson, and I’m home?

I read a story in a book of Arizona history about a woman who followed her army officer husband from her home in Chicago to some lonesome Arizona outpost in the 19th century. She hated every minute of the two years she spent here and complained bitterly to her friends in letters home. But a year after she returned to Chicago, she moved back to Arizona, where she spent the rest of her life. “The desert seeps into your bones,” she wrote a friend.

Until I returned to Portland, I wasn’t aware that the desert had seeped into my bones.

Tucson is as brown and dry as Portland is wet and green, and both have their own form of beauty. Portland grabs you by the lapels and thrusts its beauty in your face. Look 50 feet in any direction, and there it is.

Our Sonoran Desert is more subtle. It’s about landscapes and vistas and horizons, and it changes as the day progresses – the long shadows from the morning sun shrinking until noon, then lengthening again and taking on yellow and red hues as sunset approaches.

It took a while for the Tucson aesthetic to seep into my bones, but it was worth the wait. Portland is still a wonderful place to visit, but now, Tucson is home.

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