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Saguaro

Created on Oct. 18, 2020, 10:38 p.m.

When I lost my job at the casino I thought it was about time to open that letter from the government that had been sitting on my kitchen counter for almost a month.

About my job - that wasn't a big deal. The work at the casino was seasonal - I would take a couple of months off now and by the time I came back they would probably be begging for extra hands.

The letter, on the other hand, was more interesting. It was about some land near San Miguel, Arizona I had inherited when my father had passed away several years ago. According to the letter, the extent of the land was larger than I had thought - going right up to the US-Mexico border. There was a small section where the current border fence and access road needed extending and they were interested in either purchasing the land or doing the extension and wanted my approval. Or perhaps approval is the wrong word - because it sounded like they were going to do it anyway.

I'd never actually visited by father's land out there and honestly I was curious. I had wanted to see it for as long as I could remember but it had never been the right time. Now I had nothing preventing me - so I packed some supplies and started the long drive from Las Vegas down to Tucson. From there I could head on to San Miguel and then to my father's land near the Buenos Aires mountains.

The drive was horrifically boring. I've always hated the stretch from Las Vegas down to Phoenix, and my mood simply got worse as we passed by depressing small town after depressing small town on the freeway.

I tried to remember the specifics of what my father had told me about this land when he was still alive. When I was a kid he had described it almost like a ranch, and I'd imagined this kind of smallholding, perhaps with some horses and cattle. But once I'd grown a little older it had changed, and he'd talked about it like this kind of getaway he would go to with his buddies to go hiking or whatever. Then, when I was older again, it had morphed into basically what sounded like a drinking lodge - a place for him and his brothers to go party.

As I arrived in Tucson the sun was setting. On the horizon I could see the violet Santa Catalina mountains slowly darkening. And above them pale chalky clouds, yellow like sand from a beach, turning burnt orange as the sun dropped lower and lower.

I stopped at the store in San Miguel and bought a crate of beer and some more supplies. I wondered if it might even be worth staying a couple of days when I arrived. Perhaps it would be a good place to unwind. I had food, water, and a sleeping bag in the trunk.

Outside of San Miguel it felt very dark. The surface of the country road was terrible, and I was very worried I would get lost. All I had to go on was a GPS coordinate and my phone kept losing signal. After what felt like hours of slow, careful driving, an inconspicuous right turn marked by a large stake in the ground indicated that I was almost there.

A few miles down the track out of the darkness appeared what looked like a simple wooden shack. I turned the wheel and pulled the car in next to the building, the milky yellow headlights twisting over the wooden planks, casting crooked black shadows as they passed over the undergrowth. I got out, found my torch in the trunk, and walked over to examine the building in a bit more detail.

It looked to be about four by eight meters across, with a pitched roof, and a couple of windows on each side. It could have been some kind of prefab if it wasn't for the scrap wood and half constructed junk that lay around beside it. Inside it was almost empty. There was a small gas stove, a couple of mattresses, and an old table with a few beat up chairs. The floor was littered with trash, and, as I swept my flashlight over it, I saw that among the beer bottles were needles, foil, and lots of little zip-lock bags.

I felt embarrassed. I couldn't stay here, yet the prospect of driving all the way back to Las Vegas through the night just to sell this piece of shit shack filled me with dread.

I went back out to the car, got the beer, blankets, and food from the trunk, and climbed into the cabin. It was cold now, and I covered myself in blankets and opened a beer. The fizz of carbon dioxide cut across the smell that had been gathering all day in the car: leather heated slowly in the sun. I found a crackly local station on the radio playing country music and listened for a few hours until my eyes were heavy. Finally, I cut the engine and fell asleep.

I woke up to the musty smell of the sun heating the cabin. I put on my shirt and opened the door to let in the fresh air from outside.

The shack looked the same in the daylight, but the desert around it was all new. I could finally see the undergrowth - hardy, spiny plants - cacti and small trees which spread out into the desert pretty much as far as you could see.

Although I'd seen the desert many times before, it was not often I'd seen it this early in the morning, and what surprised me was that there was a kind of meditative tension to it - the unusual coolness reminded me a bit of that feeling of cold just before it rains.

I decided I would go and at least see the border fence before I left. According to the GPS it looked like if I wanted to get to the border it might be almost as fast to walk from where I was, rather than drive back out onto the main road and try to do the big loop onto the access road, so I set out walking.

As I walked I thought about growing up in Phoenix and how I had perceived the desert then. Even in the suburbs there had always been this simplistic impression to the desert that surrounded us - a kind of conceptual clarity. And as I walked over the dust and wandered between the succulents and shrubbery that morning I started to see myself as if from a distance - passing through the desert abstractly. I felt like another element in a tapestry - a simple geometric shape woven into bright pattern.

It was not long before I could see the border fence. It appeared on the horizon - a grey line that slowly rose from the haze. And the access road – or two sets of worn out tire tracks in the dirt. For the first time I really wondered if what I was doing was sensible. I'd left my driving license back in the car - I had no idea what the guards would say if they found me.

Down the tracks, toward where the fence was meant to end, I could see the Buenos Aires mountains against the blue sky - raggedy triangles of dark green, speckled with white, yellow, and brown. After about a mile or so I noticed the ground getting steeper and rockier, and after another mile more I could make out the end of the supply road ahead.

The fence itself ended unceremoniously. There was at a rocky outcrop, that rose cliff-like into the hills beyond and the fence simply stopped there. The only thing to mark it was a small trail coming from Mexico, shamelessly weaving around the edge of the fence, and out into the mountains of Arizona.

I looked in the direction the fence would have continued. I could see that after a while the rocky outcrop reached a peak and dropped down again. Curious, I started clambering over rocks in that direction.

Down the other side there was something like a dried-up river valley. The soft sand of the riverbed formed a kind of imaginary path heading out into Mexico, and upon it, approximately in line with the imaginary border I was following, was a huge saguaro, dwarfing almost everything else in the canyon. It must have been almost 30 feet high, with ten or fifteen arms spreading out from it like branches, confidently pointed skyward.

I started climbing down the other side of the canyon but near the bottom I caught my toe in a small crevice and fell off balance, hitting the dirt hard and grazing my wrist on a small barrel cactus. As I fell on it, the needles bent and snapped off the plant, scattering to the ground and drawing out long red lines where they had pierced my skin. I was okay - shaken, so I went to sit down on a large rock near the saguaro to catch my breath.

I gazed up at it. It was no doubt an impressive thing – large, robust, old. Honestly, I'd never seen anything quite like it, but in a way, looking at it started to make me feel just a bit sad. Perhaps it was the fact that such an incredible, beautiful thing would go to such lengths to avoid anything touching it. Or, how laughable those little needles would be if people really did come to extend the border fence. Hundreds of years of growth could be cut down with less effort than it had taken to construct that old shack of my father's.

Unconsciously I looked toward the direction of the border fence as if at any moment armed border guards were going to suddenly appear at the top of the canyon. But over the ridge the only thing I could sense was a deep silence - no breeze - nothing.

That was the truth of it really, I thought – that I had inherited nothing - some worthless land in Arizona - a large cactus exactly like the thousands of others in these hills, and a shack that was falling down.

I looked down at my wrist. Most of the cuts had already started to scab up, a few were still looking quite tender and bleeding a little. I washed off the remaining blood from my wrist and started walking back to the car.

By the time I got to the car it was almost midday and beginning to get really hot. The shack itself look particularly pitiful in the bright light - lop-sided and barely fit for purpose - all alone in the desert. Next to it my car, an old Toyota Highlander, looked almost high-tech. To be fair it did have air-conditioning at least - and as I got inside and started the engine I felt immediate relief as the car was flooded by cool air. Suddenly the drive back didn't seem so bad.

I decided to drop in to see some old friends in Phoenix. It was great to catch up with them, and for a moment I considered what it would be like to move back to Phoenix to be close to everyone - back near my mother and sister. By the time I left and got back on the road to Las Vegas it was comparatively quiet. As I drifted along the freeway my thoughts returned to my father's land.

I wondered what my father would have done in my situation. Probably he would have sold the land if he could. I was certain he wouldn't have messed around with the authorities beyond trying to make a quick buck off them. I imagined him and his brothers, carting down there together for one final time – the last blow out before selling it all off.

Back in Las Vegas the letter sat heavily, quietly on the kitchen counter exactly where I had left it before leaving. I picked it up and read over it once again.

"While you have the right to receive just compensation for your property, in order to determine the amount of just compensation an appraisal of your property is required, and for this it is important to have your cooperation.

Be aware that while your cooperation is important, the State of Arizona holds authority of eminent domain over the area, and if it's impossible to negotiate amicable agreements for the required property, acquisition under eminent domain may be considered."

A large part of me simply wanted to pay a lawyer to take all this off my hands. Then I could forget about it until whatever dollar amount arrived in my bank account from the sale. I thought about my father's old lawyer who had managed the will and all that stuff in the first place. I wondered if somehow he might already be in the loop and scanned the letter again to see if his name was mentioned at all.

It wasn't – nor was there any mention of inheritance, or even the names of my uncles, mum, or sister.

I stood and looked out of the window. It was night now, and across the tops of the houses, out above the La Madre mountains little pin pricks of white pierced the sky. Legally, there were two undeniable facts about all this. One: that I had inherited this land from my father. And two: that it was mine now. As far as this letter, the state or Arizona, or just about everyone else was concerned, only the second of those two facts mattered. In the night, the stars shone with an undying, endless energy. The least I could do, I thought, was not cooperate.

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