The first time I went to Tucson I was 16 years old. I went with High School Best Friend and her parents. We figured we were going to end up at the U of A for college, and our parents wanted us to go even more, because the in-state tuition was dirt cheap. Free, basically, for anybody that did even remotely well in high school. So her parents drove us to Tucson on the premise that we would snowboard on Mount Lemmon. [Which is sort of hilarious now that I’ve seen first-hand the fragile dusting of snow it gets in the winter.] Halfway up the mountain, Best Friend’s dad turned the van around, on the premise that it was snowing too hard to make it safely the rest of the way. [This is also sort of hilarious, now that I live in the Midwest and realize that you can brave quite a bit of snow without four wheel drive or tire chains.] We ended up at the San Xavier Mission, which is where I suspect Best Friend’s parents wanted to go all along. We were kind of sulky teenagers about the whole thing: we wandered into the Chapel and looked at the candles and then circled the square outside the building kicking dust until the rest of the family was ready to go.
The summer before I left Tucson was the first summer I really spent any time there. I did what you always do before you leave something for good; I let it move in and take over the empty corners of my soul. Now the cool warehouse air and the smell of fresh fish at the 17th street market are part of me, along with the crumbly texture of the scones at Raging Sage and the pace of the 3 p.m. monsoons you could set a clock to. I drove up and down the streets without complaining about the traffic stuck at 35 mph or the heat stuck at 110 degrees or the fading strip malls that make up so much of the Tucson scene.
One Friday in July, Husband was working his usual nine-hour banquets shift at the mid-level hotel that paid his way through college, and I hit the road alone. I went East on the I-10, past Gates Pass and A Mountain, and then headed South on the I-19, into Tohono O’odham territory. Past the discount cigarette store. Into the parts of the desert that still look like the desert: harsh, cruel, and alive. I hadn’t realized I was heading there until I saw the dome rise out of the dust: San Xavier Mission. At that time, I didn’t recall that I’d been there before. This time, I arrived just in time for mass, and I looked at the candles reverently with the penitent, instead of sullenly with my partner in crime. The tourists had been replaced with people like me, hungry and lost and joyful all at the same time. The sky was more brilliant and the mountains more severe and the Mission itself seemed to have tripled in size. I stayed too long that night, so I could get a photo of the thunderhead over the cemetery and I let a wild dog come too close and I drove home in the throes of a storm, the likes of which I didn’t see again until my wedding day. When I pulled into the driveway at home, I shook and felt like I’d survived something big.