The Bones of a Saguaro

An essay from the March 2017 issue of Arizona Highways. By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Michael Jennings

The Bones of a Saguaro

I don’t really know how I came to love it — sight frequency, maybe. She shaded a bramble of creosote and cholla along a favorite trail, the one I visit to clear my head and open up and run a little. 

The saguaro was a landmark of sorts. Each time I saw it, I knew I was almost finished. That my legs and lungs might rest. 

More than that, though, she was a postcard cactus, one whose beauty was in her symmetry. An arm on either side, reaching upward in graceful curves. That sweet, pale green of a rain-kissed desert. 

On the last day I saw the cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) whole, I had a late start. The air felt halfway. Caught between the dry husk of summer and the swell of an afternoon storm. 

The rain came. The lightning, too. And the next morning, my saguaro was in pieces. 

I wrote an elegy for it shortly after — something about how her arms must have been too heavy to make it when the electricity split her seams — but I can’t find the note. 

I’ve long looked for another one like her, but I wonder if saguaros might be like snowflakes that way. Only familial. Never the same. 

 Still, it made sense that Saguaro National Park would call to me. 

We went on a Wednesday — my parents, my children and I. We stopped for sandwiches at my favorite lunch spot in Tucson, everyone on edge because of the thing that happened two days before. 

It was this: At 4 a.m., two cars crashed outside my house. One hit a tree and burst into flame. I heard it all and ran outside. There was death there — something so violent and graceless, it’s hard to find words for it. 

Still, my head isn’t right. 

I think we were all trying to escape what I’d seen in Phoenix. None of us wanted to talk about it, anyway. 

So when it came to choosing Saguaro National Park West or East, I chose East, the farther outpost. We drove the broad interstate curve around Tucson, then ventured past neighborhoods to find that pretty pocket of public land.

It’s funny that so few people visit the park each year — just 750,000, compared with the 6 million who stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon — given its proximity to the second-most-populous city in Arizona. Maybe that’s why I liked it in those moments, though. Solitude in such space. Divinity. 

This was a drive-through park, one where we pulled to a spot and overlooked fields of the giant candles, many-armed and otherwise. You can, of course, hike a little to feel yourself surrounded, but on this day, we were the type of tourists I usually disdain. It was warm, and the air inside the car was cool, and our walk around a paved loop was enough to make us feel connected to the land.

A few minutes later, we climbed a grade in the road and parked again. The park felt wild there, and we made a few photographs and watched desert raptors drop and lift. When I turned back to the car, a cactus caught my eye. It was tall, with short arms all around it in a near-perfect circle. This was not my cactus from the trail, but it might have known her in another life. Only familial. Never the same. I smiled and sipped from my water and knew that things would realign.

And the Anne Lamott line — If you don’t die of thirst, there are blessings in the desert — knocked at the edges of my brain.

A few weeks later, the roadside memorial to the men who abandoned Earth in my front yard had grown, so I took to the mountain to try to avoid it all. The candles. The burned-up tree. The ghosts and debris. 

The air carried the chill of early autumn — no sign of rain — and I could feel the edge toward winter in my lungs. Hitting the top, I looked left toward the bones of my saguaro. 

Beneath her, the grass was green. The chain fruit cholla bore fruit. Two birds plucked things I couldn’t see from her hollows. Her heavy arms life to other living things.