Late for the Sky

An essay from the February 2018 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Laurence Parent

Late for the Sky

Twenty-seven years ago this month, Bruce Itule wrote about the Superstition Mountains for Arizona Highways.

He rode on horseback through the wilderness for a few days and later mused, “It is a peaceful place, a haven for deer hunters, Boy Scouts, treasure seekers, and others searching for adventure in the Superstition Wilderness, a 250-square-mile slice of Sonoran Desert and mountains (in the Tonto National Forest) that begins about 35 miles east of Phoenix at Apache Junction and stretches east and north beyond Canyon Lake.”

The description is accurate. I know for two reasons.

First, because I’ve spent so many days in the Superstitions, I feel sometimes that I could map their trails as I could my daughter’s face when she is about to laugh or cry or explode with some line she knows already to be funny. Or vicious. Or somewhere on the cusp of the two.

Second, because years after Itule’s story was published in the magazine, he was my reporting professor at Arizona State University. And if Itule reported it, it is so.

For me, though, the Superstitions are a place of firsts and lasts and things in between. I will leave the hunting, scouting and treasure seeking to others.

I saw my first rattlesnake in those mountains. Heard it. Jumped backward and ran toward my parents, who were hiking behind me. There may have been a squeal-scream. The snake was coiled and ready, but I was not. I was sweating, and I cursed and wondered how I’d gone so long without seeing one. As we passed it again, I had a chill. I knew it was watching us, feeling us. Waiting.

Once, there were coatis in the reeds and brush along the Second Water Trail. I saw them as I neared Boulder Canyon, their tails like those of monkeys. I’ve looked for them every time I’ve visited the trail since, but they’ve disappeared somewhere. Into imagination or deeper into the reeds, I’m not so sure.

Another time, I backpacked far into the wilderness, turned left at the rock that looks like a giant gorilla. The mosquitoes were so thick, they attacked my forehead — the only place I’d left uncovered. That night, as the sun went down, I sat on a boulder and watched the sky unfold. I remember the moment now through a photograph. In it, I am small and the world is big, and we are both wrapped up in that many-colored blanket of near-night.

Most other times in the Supes, though, I was late for the sky. Dozed through too many sunrises — how long have I been sleeping — or darted off the trail before sunset dyed the atmosphere the colors of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Red Canna, 1924. Too many times, my eyelids grew heavy before the stars shot the ink.

Missed moments can turn a person inside out sometimes.

But others make up for it.

In a very cold December more than two years ago now, I led a group of hikers into the Superstition Wilderness. Fog rolled through its canyons as clouds loaded their bellies with rain, unleashing finally in a deluge so cold, it took me hours after to make my bones warm again.

Even after so many years here, a cold desert seems a foreign desert.

Then, the world was so many shades of gray, I wondered if it would ever go blue again. But the mountains were the color of Northwest moss, drinking the sky. They were the most beautiful things I’d seen in a while, and I think maybe they moved into me that day. But not the same way bronchitis did a week later. That sick lasted too long.

Still, as I write this, I’m waiting for the seasons’ change to run a little deeper. Waiting for the rain to come again, and more so for the gilded heads of Mexican goldpoppies to break the earth and unfurl, for the lupines and penstemons to paint another wild O’Keeffe.

Because somehow, when the desert wakes to spring, it becomes even more of that peaceful place Itule wrote about. Where scouts and hunters and snakes and coatis roam.

And where I try to make it in time for the sky.