Dreaming of the Sonoran Desert: Metaphors for Escape in the Time of COVID-19), Part 1

Waiting to be Seated at Tacos Giro, Tucson (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Thanks to the COVID-19 virus, I’m missing Mother Nature. And Arizona.

When I opened the July 2020 issue of Arizona Highways, I realized just how deep my discontent has become. Twenty-five writers and photographers tell stories of the places they yearned to see once quarantine ended, when they could clamber into a Jeep and hike the back country of Arizona, where Mother Nature pretty much sprawls everywhere just outside your door.

There’s something special about Arizona. It grows on you. Maybe it’s the wide open spaces. Or maybe it’s the lure of the mythology of the West. Or maybe it’s the sense that there’s something truly primeval about the landscape, that there’s something spiritual about standing on jagged rocks and gazing upward at the vast blueness of the skies, the hardy plant and animal life and all their adaptions for survival.

And there’s something truly special about the Sonoran Desert, the only place in the world where the Saguaro cactus thrives.

Landscape near Tucson, AZ (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The Saguaro cactus produces a fruit, which ripens in late June and early July. Knocked off the tall cacti, the fruit yields a number of dishes, including jams, jellies, beverages, syrup, and fruit jerky. Birds, coyotes, and javelinas thrive on the fruit, which also provides moisture. Members of the Tohono O’odham Nation harvest the fruit in a ritual that they’ve honored for as long as they’ve lived in the desert.

Fruit on Top of Saguaro Cactus (© Jay Pierstorff | Dreamstime.com)

Sabino Canyon is one place I’m dreaming of.

Sabino Canyon (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

And Sonoran hot dogs, too.

Sonoran Hot Dog (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

I’m hoping my dreams of returning to Arizona come true. Soon.

But it’s not just the food and Mother Nature that call me to Arizona.

I have deep familial roots in Arizona. I’ve seen my great-great-grandmother’s grave there, buried in a dusty barren cemetery plot next to her son, named after her husband, dead a year prior to her own demise. a true boot hill.

My father was born there. And my maternal grandmother’s family settled there, first in the Salt River Valley, then in Globe, after decades of movement west, originating in Jamestown, Virginia, and earlier in England.

In 1917, a drifter named Starr Daley murdered my grandmother’s brother James Roy. Enraged, a posse hung Daley from a telegraph pole. Then about a year later, tragedy struck her family again. Another brother died.

My grandmother is the little girl on the left, in the white dress. James Roy is in the center of the photo, back row.

My grandmother is not in the following photograph. The man in the back row holding the baby is her brother Charlie, who worked as a doctor at Madison General in Madison, WI – he died in 1918 of the flu. My great-grandparents are seated.

They settled in Arizona around 1892, before it became a state.

As I wait and hope – that COVID-19 diminishes if everyone does their duty and thinks of the common good, which is the only way we will get through this, barring a vaccine – I’ll be meditating on what Arizona means to me.

For Further Exploration:

Taste of Tucson: Sonoran-Style Recipes Inspired by the Rich Culture of Southern Arizona, by Jackie Alpers (West Margin Press, 2020)

Kokopelli’s Cookbook: Authentic Recipes of the Southwest, by James and Carol Cunkle (Golden West Cookbooks, 1997, 2019 printing)

Eat Mesquite and More: A Cookbook for Sonoran Desert Foods and Living, by Desert Harvesters (Rainsource Press, 2018)

Arizona Highways Heritage Cookbook, by Louise De Wald (Arizona Department of Transportation, 1998)

Arizona Cookbook, by Al and Mildred Fischer (Golden West Cookbooks, 1983, 2013 printing)

Sonoran Desert Food Plants: Edible Uses for the Desert’s Wild Bounty, by Charles W. Kane (Lincoln Town Press, 2011, 2017 second edition)

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, edited by Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos (University of Arizona Press, 2016)

Arizona Territory Cook Book, by Daphne Overstreet (Golden West Cookbooks, 2004, 2014 printing)

Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capiscums That Forever Changed Flavor, by Maricel Presilla (Lorena Jones Books, 2017)

El Charro Café Cookbook: Flavors of Tucson from America’s Oldest-Family-Operated Mexican Restaurant, by Jane and Michael Stern – with Recipes by Carlota Flores ( Rutledge Hill Press, 2002)

Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage Books, 2001)

Caterina figure in a Tucson shop (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

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