Musings & Meditations


Posted in Travel by Pam Keesey on May 27, 2008

Day 4: Photostream
By the time 5:15 Tuesday morning arrived, I was awake, but just wasn’t quite ready to get up. “I’ll just rest for a few more minutes,” I thought. Next thing I knew, it was 7 a.m. I quickly got ready and left the hotel only to find myself stuck going the wrong direction due to construction that closed all the exits for 10 miles out. Frustrated that I got to such a late start, I was hoping I’d be able to make up for lost time at some point throughout the day.

I finally arrived at my first destination, San Xavier del Bac Mission south of Tucson. There are times when the obstacles of the day turn into a gift, and this was one of those days. As I entered the mission, mass was just starting, and I realized I was meant to be there in that moment. I quietly took a seat in one of the pews.

The service was simple, and quite beautiful. The mission itself is a gorgeous example of mission-style architecture and Mexican American folk art, and the people of the community played various roles in the service. When it came time for communion, I hesitated momentarily, knowing that I wasn’t confirmed (hell, I’m not even Catholic), and my atheist father and agnostic family might have a thing or two to say on the occasion. Still, it seemed the thing to do, and I joined the line and took communion with the rest of the tourists and parishioners.

There were moments throughout the service, sitting there and thinking of Jenny and Gus, and the tears would start to flow. I couldn’t help but feel them with me in those moments.

After the service, I walked around the church, finding myself in complete and utter awe at the beauty surrounding me. Built in honor of San Francisco Xavier, the founder of the Society of Jesus, the mission has close ties to the Franciscans. A figure of St. Francis lay in rest, with traditional milagros, photographs of loved ones, and handwritten messages pinned to his cloth. I took a photograph of Jenny and Gus and placed it on the cloth alongside the others, and prayed for them, for me, and for all of us who loved them both while I lit the candle in their name.

I found myself wandering the grounds, including walking up the hill to the grotto, and around the mission grounds. There was a small tank of holy water, and I remembered a spiritualist telling me some time ago that I needed to get some holy water for myself. While I thought from time to time that I should go to the nearest cathedral and get myself some, somehow I knew that this was the holy water I needed. I went into the gift shop and bought myself a plastic bottle and filled it to the rim with holy water. I crossed my fingers and said a little prayer that they’d let me through airport security with this 6 – 8 ounce bottle of liquid, however holy.

As I started toward the car, much later than I had intended to leave, I saw a small stand in the parking lot where a woman and her two sons were standing. Walking near, I saw a sign that listed the different types of fry bread, including plain, with cinnamon sugar, and Indian tacos. I ordered the cinnamon sugar fry bread and watched as she took the dough, flatten it in her hand, and drop it into a cast iron pot of oil on a wood fire. It was, without question, the best fry bread I have ever had, and I’ve had more than a few opportunities to enjoy fry bread.

I’d started later and spend much longer than I had intended in San Xavier, but it was worth every minute. With the last of my fry bread and the now lukewarm coffee, I headed off toward Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the next stop on my journey, and nearly a three-hour drive.

The low desert is so much different than the high desert, and no less beautiful. Driving through the Tohono O’odham reservation, south and west toward Mexico, watching the landscape and flora change…. It was a beautiful drive through seemingly desolate country. As I continued down Highway 86 toward my destination, I caught a glimpse of color just over the hill, and realized I had stumbled upon yet another cemetery, this one a splash of color against the monochromatic scheme of the desert. Of course, I had to stop.

Cemeteries tell so many stories, and this one had stories in abundance. Situated right in the middle of the reservation, the graves themselves, through names and decorations, told of the mixed Native American and Mexican ancestry (the Tohono O’odham reservation extends beyond the border into Mexico). The bright plastic flowers told of traditions of remembrance — laying flowers at a grave — that are less suitable in such a harsh environment. Bright pinks and blues and shiny plastic petals survived in the arid desert heat in a way that a cut bouquet — or even a potted plant — just never could.

But if the remembrances you leave for a now deceased loved one never go away, what then? Just toss the old plastic flowers aside, and make room for the new. So far from everything, and with no maintenance to speak of, the debris, old and new, collected in the corners of the cemetery — plastic flowers, tin cans that might once have held fresh flowers, bottles of water left for the dead who might find water to come by in the desert sun, broken crosses from graves no longer marked — a cacophony of color, memories, histories, and decay.

From the cemetery, it was back on the road toward Organ Pipe, with a brief stop at the Hickiwan roadside casino for an old Native American favorite, cheddarwurst. Along with the chili lime potato chips, Coca-Cola, and a bottle of water, it was quite the multicultural treat.

I finally arrived at Organ Pipe by way of a left turn at Why, Arizona, and thought of my coworker who had told me of a years ago visit to a now defunct Arizona town called Nothing: those lovely, old West towns and their charming — and very descriptive — names.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was beautiful, a vast landscape teeming with life adapted to the environs in which it found itself. Gorgeous saguaro and organ pipe cactus, rock formations, mountain ranges, and the occasional lizard spread out before me as I drove the marked trail and identified the various signed sites along the way. And not for the first time in this trip, I was glad that they don’t check the undercarriage of the vehicle when you return a rental car.

As I headed toward the road and back toward Why, I knew that I’d have to make a journey directly to the airport, skipping a planned visit to the Sonoran Desert National Monument, but pleased that I had taken the time to visit and take photographs in the cemetery. Driving through the southern Arizona landscape, I was taken with the beauty, not just of this drive, but of the last four days.

I had already been thinking about a return trip to the Grand Canyon, and this trip just reinforced my desire — and, I think, my need — to return in the not too distant future. As I approached the rental car return, a plan was already unfolding in my head.

Having been present, awake, alert for the last four days of my journey, I was surprised to find myself completely and utterly exhausted once I finally got through airport security. The journey was a good one, and although I wasn’t quite ready to go home, I was feeling a peace of mind, however temporary, that had been eluding me this past year. A new chapter is beginning, and I’m ready to get back on the road again.

Music of the Day: Ranchera music on Mexican Radio in the U.S.

Highways & Byways
Day 1: Friends, Family, and the Open Road (Photostream)
Day 2: Getting My Kicks
Day 3: Yesterday’s Gone

My Route 66 @

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