Aug 23, 2012 0 Share

Dreams of the Desert


Pine-tree lined path with mountain ahead in Sedona, Arizona.
Photo by Peter Emch

On my daily walk around our town in northern Alabama, I pass a house I call, “The Arizona Dreams House.” It's a bungalow tucked between Victorian mansions, and I love it because it's so unabashedly unlike all the others, so very much itself. But the best part isn't the house itself; it's the yard. Instead of a plot of grass, the owners chose a pandemonium of plants. In the middle of it all is a smiling sun, and a tribal figurine. These details make me think of Arizona, but there's also a certain scent surrounding the house that reminds me of desert summers past. As I walked past the house today, I tried to isolate it. This was difficult given the variety of plants; at first, I couldn't pinpoint the scent that made me think of the desert. And then I had it: the smell of burnt-out pine. It wasn't a garden plant at all, but the dried-up pine needles and pinecones that littered the driveway, having fallen from the tree above. 

And those needles brought back my childhood summers. Each year, I'd travel with my parents and my brother Willie to visit our grandparents in Arizona. It was a long way to go from suburban New Jersey, so my parents would make the most of it; we'd stay for weeks on end. I always felt closer to Willie during these summers. We spent more time together; out there in rural Arizona, we were the only kids for miles. We didn't have other options for playmates, and so we found ways to connect. I learned a great deal about how to be a friend to my brother in those days.  

We found so many things to do. Digging in the garden with Grandma, building a house and riding on dirt bikes with Dad and Grandpa. Doing laundry with Mom; she'd let us turn the old-fashioned crank to wring out the clothes after they'd come out of the washing machine. Hanging the clothes to dry on the line with parched-wood clothespins and laughing as the wind smacked damp cloth into our faces. Swimming in the deep cattle-trough, flipping over and over the bar in the center. Chasing the chickens (Willie) and collecting their eggs (me). I didn't think much about autism or the fact that my brother was “different” when we were tearing around our grandparents' five acres. Now, I can see how leaving our normal and exploring that new normal together was a gift. 

On special days, we'd pile into the car and drive “to Canada.” (It wasn't really Canada, but I understood why the grownups called it that; it did seem like a foreign country.) We'd drive to Sedona, Arizona to picnic in the National Forest, and it would be strange to be surrounded by trees after having been in the desert for so many days. And that's the scent I remembered as I stood in front of the “Arizona Dreams” house in Alabama: the way the pine needles in Sedona would smell when they'd been baking in the sun. I could even call back the way they'd rustle under my feet when Willie and I would walk through the forest paths. And I remembered the day we had to leave Sedona in a hurry because of a fierce thunderstorm. Mom, Willie and I huddled in the back of Grandpa's pickup truck as it flew down the highway. We were shrieking with fear and exhilaration as the thunderclouds loomed above and lightening flashed. By the time we got close to home, we were soaked with rain and giddy with having survived

That night, when everything was quiet, we got out lawn chairs and looked up at the stars. On clear nights, the sky was the best entertainment around. Sometimes there would be a lightning storm; sometimes we'd see shooting stars. Always, there would be constellations. But all these years later, I know that my favorite thing about it wasn't what was going on in the sky. It was how safe I felt, sitting in that line of lawn chairs with my family. I loved being gathered together in the darkness, looking up at the lights.