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A Yankee in the Desert

NH Tourist in Phoneix, AZ (continued)

Green Phoenix Arizona native / J. Dennis Robinson at

"I believe you will see quite a number of them, sir," the concierge said without even a smirk. He slipped me the phone number of his favorite cab driver. I should call the taxi on my cell phone, he said, whenever I wanted to return from the desert. The fare would certainly be less than thirty dollars each way. For a hundred bucks, some guy in a pink jeep would buzz me around the Camelback Mountains, he suggested, but I should be wary of getting mugged by delinquent teens along the trail. I don't carry a cell phone or a very large wallet. Better, it seemed, to strike out on my own.

"That's a buck-twenty-five, Sugar," the bus driver said pointing at the automated coin counter. I dropped in five quarters, gleefully calculating the cab fare I was saving, then sat near the center of the rattling bus. I was footloose in outlaw territory and up to no good.

The cowboy sitting to my left kept a tight rein on his canvas dufflebag, stuffed taut with either a human body or the motherlode of dirty laundry. He chatted amiably to a black man with shock white hair. Two Native American teens sat silently near a man with a shaved head, muscular tattoos sprouting from both sides of his T-shirt like arms. Eventually the cowboy pulled the wire signaling the driver to stop. As he dragged his bag from the bus, a young Mexican couple with two tiny girls in frilly pink and blue dresses took his place. They chattered in animated Spanish, something about Pokeyman. Two dark-skinned teenage girls in skimpy neon outfits followed. The New Hampshire winter I left behind seemed especially colorless.

"The desert!" the driver shouted back to nobody but me soon after the last of the buildings on the outskirts of Phoenix had disappeared. Ten seconds later I was looking at pretty much nothing, cut by a divided highway and ringed with sandstone mounds. My first thought, after taking in the flatness of it all, was how similar it seemed to the ocean. My second thought was how dumb I had been to bring only a half bottle of water and a single protein bar.

With its great green arms held high, the giant saguaro cactus, iconographically speaking, is to southwestern Arizona, what seagulls and lighthouses are to seacoast, New England. It is depicted everywhere, often silhouetted against an azure sunset, or wearing a hat and saying something in a cartoon balloon. Besides a few glimpses along the highway from the airport to the city, I had seen only a few saguaros, and none up close. None were in sight as the bus hissed its way off toward the zoo and the botanical gardens that lay somewhere hidden in the flatness to my right.

I had expected sand. Fifty years of watching cowboy movies shot in the Arizona desert should have taught me otherwise. But in my mind, having never crossed the Mason-Dixon line before, all deserts were made of low rolling dunes, similar to those at Plum Island, or Ogunquit, but without the ocean, populated only by cacti, tumbleweeds, prairie dogs, scorpions and diamond back rattlers. When you don't get out much, the world is a simple place.

Botanical garden in Phoenix/ photo

Yankee in the Desert, Part 1

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