I went back to the desert for a few days last week. Not a metaphorical desert, as is my wont during Lent or other times of spiritual need, but to Phoenix, AZ. Back in the 1980s, I had lived there for five years as a newlywed, and had not been back since a trip there for a conference in 1992.
A few months ago, flying into Phoenix on a layover, I called my sister, who had lived there at the same time I did. “I miss this place,” I told her. “It’s just nostalgia,” was her reply. “Yeah, you’re right,” I said. She reminded me that the heat drove me crazy, as did the unrelenting sun: I lived for monsoon season. Then there was the proliferation of concrete; housing population density was fine with me in Manhattan, but it chaffed in the middle of the desert.
But here I was, landing back in town for a few days as the consequence of an unexpected wedding invitation and enough frequent flyer points to accept. Nostalgia be damned; I was excited.
My husband was with me, so together we visited some of our old haunts: the music publishing company where we started our careers; our first house; the parish we belonged to when we left; the hospital where our daughter was born. We saw a few friends from back then and spent time with the couple who had invited us out for their son’s wedding. They had not been close friends when we first lived in Phoenix, but we had kept in touch over the years and this trip opened up new avenues in the relationship.
And then there was the desert. It’s still hot in October, though not as hot as summer: 90 degrees vs. 120 degrees. The sun is still unrelenting; I really relished the evenings on this trip. There is still too much concrete for the landscape, in my opinion; in fact, there is exponentially more concrete than ever as the city has kept growing and spreading out ever wider, ever quicker. It took over an hour of driving to find a piece of relatively undeveloped land.
Despite that, my heart felt happy in the desert. It was a mini-vacation, and that may have been part of the appeal. But still, there was a joy in that barren place that I had not been aware of before. The landscape is arid, yes, but there are palo verde, juniper, ironwood, and mesquite trees, and cactii pushing buds out in preparation for winter blooms. The red rocks we hiked about in Papago Park seemed almost alive with their undulating lines; birds sang outside the window in the stillness of 3 a.m., oblivious of the dark; the wide, open spaces once you left the city were invigorating.
Lots has happened in my life during the twenty years since I had been back to Phoenix, both interiorly and exteriorly — as it does for many, if not most people. You won’t see me rushing to put a bid on a house at the still-ridiculously low prices for housing in Phoenix, despite the lure of hanging one’s clothes on the line in the middle of winter and not having them freeze.
But I hope to visit again sometime. And this Lent, when I take my usual spiritual journey through the desert, I will think back to this trip out to Phoenix, and experience my desert prayer with a new joy.