January 16, 2020 – Elfrida, Arizona
Five days ago, for the first time in nearly a year, I woke up in a place I could finally call my own—an apartment with hot, running water, a toilet that flushed, heaters to keep us warm, and a real bed with a box spring. The prevailing feeling that surged through me that morning was one of nostalgia. Brent and I had made it—we’d survived snow, bitter cold, unfriendly park rangers, and countless adventures, but we’d come out relatively unscathed. My joints were achier, my diet had suffered, and my emotions been drained, but I’d made it! I felt calm and at peace knowing that we wouldn’t be uprooted, at least for a while.
We went to bed that night talking about tent life like friends reminiscing about their childhood. “Remember when my hair caught fire on the candle, and it burned a hole in the tent?” “Remember when the air mattress deflated, and we landed on top of each other on the floor?”
Though I was thankful for our small apartment, I missed some aspects of our vagabond life—the raw emotion, the constant contact with nature, the struggle for survival. Our days had been full of adventure, our senses stimulated. It was an ongoing natural high.
Now we were living like the average Joe Blow on the street—we’d become part of the status quo. Already, my relationship with Brent had become more distant, and I wondered to myself how much of it had been forged by our dependence on each other for survival. I loved him—how could I not love someone I’d shared so much with? But I knew, deep down inside, that I wasn’t “in love” with him and I knew he wasn’t with me. It’s hard to be romantic in a situation where you’re fighting to survive. There were times we’d moved in that direction, but we’d never quite arrived.
So, where does that leave us? Despite the distance between us, we’re pushing ahead with our plans. I’m still working on the trailer—scrubbing down walls and painting ceilings. Brent has been doing his carpentry for Dan, our landlord, and I’m thankful that he was able to provide us with this place. I love to watch Brent work. He’s totally immersed in the process, crafting each detail to perfection, and I can tell he’s happy.
Things have settled down with the neighbors, though when I visit Ed I try to make sure his daughter isn’t around. He’s teaching me the art of drumming on the djembe, a rope-tuned, skin-covered African drum that’s been around since 1200 AD. For me, drumming is cathartic and hypnotic. It puts me in a state similar to meditation. I’m not nearly as good as Ed, but I’m learning.
Yesterday I attended my third cross planting near Douglas. I wasn’t enthusiastic about going this time—lack of sleep had left me feeling tired and drained, but Ed needed a ride and I wanted to make sure he got there. He’s loved by so many people, and his drumming plays a vital role in the ceremony. Though he’s lost 85% of his vision, Ed has crafted over 400 crucifixes that he makes out of baling wire and brings to the ceremony. These crosses have traveled all over the world and made him countless friends. He’s not interested in making money from them, and I admire him all the more for that.
The cross planting was a special one. More than 40 people attended, including many students from a California college, and a freelance journalist had come to record the event. But, what made it truly moving for me was the presence of the Arizona border patrol agent, the one who had discovered the body. The ceremony was held on the exact spot where she had been found in 2003. Leticia Flores was 20 years old when she was discovered lying in the desert—she was only a year older than my daughter.
The border patrol agent had come across a set of footprints in the desert that day in July, 15 years ago, and followed them across the dry, sun-hardened dirt near Douglas, Arizona. The footprints led him to a pair of sneakers and legs that were curled up in a fetal position. “Wake up. This is the U.S. Border Patrol”, he told the young girl, thinking she had fallen asleep. She didn’t respond and, as his eyes moved up he saw the peaceful expression on her face and noticed a trickle of blood coming from her right nostril. She had reached the other side of the border only to die, deserted by the party of 12 that had accompanied her on the journey through Mexico.
I know that she was with us that day, as we formed a circle to honor her. When the sacred copal incense sent its smoke spirals into the air, a lone hawk hovered and circled up above. There were times during the ceremony when I felt a strong tingling course through my body, like the warming sensation of a cup of cocoa on a cold winter’s day. I knew that her spirit was with us and I hoped that she finally felt a sense of closure.
After the ceremony, as we gathered to share food, I spoke some words of Italian to Ed. He’s from Venezuela, but he speaks Italian like a native since he lived there for a few years. An elderly woman approached us and joined in the conversation. Her mom had been born in Puglia and taught her the language as a child. Before long, there were five of us yakking away in Italian—quite a coincidence since it’s not a language that is widely spoken anywhere, never mind in the wilds of Arizona.
I don’t know what lies in my future, but I’m hopeful that I’ll find a home here. I love Arizona, the open spaces, the wildness of it all, though I doubt I’ll ever spend 12 months a year here. In my heart I’m still a gypsy and, as long as I have kids and grandkids to visit, and as long as my health holds up, I will wander.