We drove by Sleeping Beauty mountain. You always tried to be
the first to spot her, just outside Superior, Arizona.
Every year, the radiator boiling, windows rolled-down
in the baking heat. Every year, slag heaps along the road grew taller,
more storefronts were boarded-up, more houses for sale.
The copper slid down from the slag hills, toward the miner’s houses.
In McNary, the old Apache women from the reservation shopped,
dressed in long skirts, skirts adorned with bright designs,
designs like the patterns on broken, ruined pottery, a tradition
given by the pioneers and changed, a design, an adapted history.
McNary’s General Store offered a genuine pickle-barrel, candy, cap guns, chalk,
fireworks and night crawlers for sale, everything a child longed for.
The hot summer air of the desert drifted into the cool
mountain smell of juniper & sage. The tumbleweeds stopped blowing across the road.
A storm picked up, lightning striking the same time as the sound, a tree caught fire, became a snag in a ragged forest.
Apache men sold firewood beside the road, glared at our car as we passed them.
You turned completely around to meet them with your eyes
from the backseat out the rear window of the car,
until the road curved toward the Salt River Canyon,
and vanished quietly into that moment, like the dark of night descending
first into a valley. We drove down toward the bodies of semi-trucks
decomposing along the sharp cliffs, a trail of wreckage behind them,
streamers of engine parts and bumpers spread across the canyon,
sparkling like silver and green still-life comets. Lying on it’s side, each semi carried
the image of the driver fighting to control his terrifying descent…the brakes out,
the passing lane that speeded unexpectedly to guardrail
broken in front of his groggy blue eyes.
At the top of the canyon the mountain ranges staggered
across the valleys from the tail of the Rockies into New Mexico.
Pine trees after that, starting out as a slight scattering
beside a little airport with its orange wind sleeve bouncing in the air,
whispering the promise of snow and water.
Trips grew fewer and several years you didn’t go,
your father failing as did his health, his job, his memory.
Coming back then, like walking into a party where you didn’t know anyone.
Coming back to one you love so long ago.
The mountains, the pines, the Apaches, the antelope frozen
over the rise forgetting us from year to year. The tree, struck by lightening, removed
an patch of grass marked the place.
Sleeping Beauty Mine closed, and the town emptied.
A tunnel dug by the miners marked the halfway point.
After a while, deep pine forests darkened on either side of the car,
patches of light in the clearings. Large boulders emerged from
the sides of the mountains you saw from the distance.
A miner’s tunnel blasted from the mountain, exciting as in childhood,
the lights out, dark, and then a new bright world.
The last trip, the McNary General store stolen from the road,
a black skeleton burned forever in our past.
You pull off at the highway sign, an overlook to the valley,
where you see the trout stream and the willows,
old Wiltbank’s cabin, horse stables.
You hear your brothers chasing you across the meadow,
all wrestling fishing poles, your hands
muddy from digging in the streambank and your pants rolled up at the knees
like Tom Sawyer. You can see the pine needles brushing toghether in the wind, cold air blowing down from snowy mountains across the swollen streams.
John wrote your names on an aspen, you were afraid your brothers would see…
Wild garlic and mountain geranium a purple smudge dangling from your fingers.
Like the secret hiding places of the rainbow trout
resting in the shadows under the roots of Ponderosas
In the Little Colorado River, you wish to hide there,
that memory not taken
by the littered soda cans and multi-unit condominiums
barbed-wire fences with the “No Tresspassing” signs dotting the stream,
a post-modern disease. Your father painted pictures
of bears and cowboys, with their white Stetson hats decorated the knotty pine,
lariats flying through the air… real cowboys
just down the road, and the stampede their cattle made
when they caught scent of water at Tunnel Lake.
You saw them often, in a cabin you once loved.
You were never afraid of their beards and boots,
the quick summation of your character and your gender.
Only wild things were frightening, bears only in town one summer,
but turned up in your path twice, about the time things
started changing. When you couldn’t cross
the stream that summer without dodging fences
and someone diverted the water
to make a private pond. Mountain lions were spotted,
your best friend’s dog found some kind of skull up the mountain. You told John to cross out your names,
never dreaming he would lose
his parents, or sell his property…
or grow old.
You did not know there existed people who wanted money
more than beauty, or hotels more than trees. People who wanted
to have a second home, not a cabin, and didn’t like to fish, or had forgotten how
genuinely time passes near the water under a clear sky.
You did not know people didn’t care
if they knew the names of flowers, or which plants they could eat.
They came to the valley and could not see it…
drove through Superior and did not order the chocolate malts from the drive-in,
or the tamales from the roadside stand. They did not see
the way the Indian boys looked with the icy pride of hatred
glowing in the beautiful embers of their eyes.
Graffiti flowers decorated the boarded-up windows
over the cracking sidewalks. The land developers looked through
and beyond, into a future with hot-tubs and martinis,
and the streets paved with dead memories displayed
like the stuffed pelt of a mountain lion over a flagstone fireplace
near the deep French windows of the new, million-dollar lodge.
Playing scrabble with Mrs. Wiltbank’s invalid son,
she told you stories of ghosts out near the riverbank,
picking potatoes in the meadow, as though time had broken a hole
through the blue sky…
Afton Wiltbank talked too about the peach tree in front of
her house, the post office she ran, the tree still bearing fruit after a hundred years.
Her grandmother planted that tree when she was just a girl.
How you listened carefully to her stories, knowing already
you would write them down because she was too old and time
was stealing it from her, and already from you
taking your memory, like the memory
of your father who could not recall your husband or your children
as he faded away, like the meadow, the cabin he built with his own hands,
the place that was once, but is no longer, although the trees
dance in the wind. The sound of thunder through the valley is the same.
You can hear that sound, the frightening crack
of lightning, thunder that waved and bounced from one
mountain to another…the wind rushing and the stream at the bottom of the hill,
holding it’s secret shadows, where trout will still wait for you to find them. Time
is gone and you walk past them, past the fences, looking for the wildflowers
you picked in your youth, when the sky was more turquoise and the clouds
whiter and the grass stained your jeans, and memory and place
traveled along the ridge of the mountains and the words didn’t disappear with distance.