My Lady of the Desert

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

My Lady of the Desert

All the saints were lost to me in parochial school. 

Except for St. Catherine of Alexandria. She was both a princess and a scholar. 

As the story goes. 

A fourth century lightning bolt of a girl, she denounced the cruelty of Emperor Maxentius’ persecution of Christians. But rather than execute Catherine — also noted for her beauty — and rid the region of her loose tongue, the emperor sent pagan scholars to debate her. She converted several of them right there. 

Eventually, though, she was beheaded, martyred. She was 18.

So there was something about her fire that made me want to study her. 

In the years since, I’ve forgotten much of what I learned. 

But it’s for her that the Santa Catalina Mountains are named. They are among the Madrean “sky islands,” those rare ecoregions that convert desert to pine-oak woodland. 

As the story goes. 

In 1697, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino baptized the mountains in honor of his sister’s patron saint. Catherine. Caterina. Catalina. In these pages, Charles Bowden writes more beautifully about the naming of the range than I ever could. And although I’m drawn to the Catalinas because of their namesake, part of me wishes they were still known by the name the Tohono O’odhams gave them. Babad Do’ag. Frog Mountain. Instead, one of the few places it’s used is at the first signed vista point along the Catalina Highway. 

Still, there must be something sacred about a sky island. 

I’ve ridden the curves of the Catalina Highway just once, 

I think, in search of sky. I went to research the campgrounds that line the road up Mount Lemmon, ate a cookie as big as a dinner plate in the village of Summerhaven and drove back down the mountain the same day.

Years earlier, I had taken a weekend trip to Tucson to visit my friend. We drove to Sabino Canyon and hiked a bit — the way women do when they’re not entirely sure they want to do it, but know that they might earn the beers they’ll drink in the bars afterward. I don’t remember the hike itself, but I remember the crowds. It must have been spring or fall, and the parking areas dripped with people. 

A longer, more deliberate hike into the canyon sits near the middle of my adventure list for this year, and maybe that friend will join me. She lives in Washington, D.C., now, but the call of the mountains might be enough to lure her back. 

I believe these to be my only experiences anywhere near Babad Do’ag. But, as with the stories of St. Catherine and the other saints, it’s possible I’ve lost older memories to age and the filling-up of experience.

Three times in the past three months, though, I’ve been to Tucson. On one trip, I drove into the foothills beneath the Catalinas as a full moon surfed the horizon. It seemed bigger there, somehow. As though the desert launched the moon into the darkness because it knew that its beauty would be highlighted beneath her silver light.

Much later, that moonglow woke a bird that nested in the curve of a paloverde branch outside. It was 2 o’clock — morning then to the two of us. Those insomniac hours are the times I think most of the saints, about the places I’ll travel and whether I’ll encounter any spirits there. About the places and people I wish I could shake, about the others I wish I could cling to.

And although I was at their base, I wouldn’t climb into the Catalinas that day, that night. Other responsibilities would carry me deep into the city. No moonlight. Only traffic and heat and the crush of people who had too many places to scuttle to in too little time. 

As I write this, I’ve taken another run through Saguaro National Park, hitting the western swath of it to swallow Gates Pass and the brittlebush and ocotillos that bloom inside the saguaro forest. I am looking at the Catalinas through the windshield as we wind our way back toward the interstate. It is just after midday, dusty. The too-loud buzz of coming summer.

I’ve traveled here with people who live a little more than 1,400 miles away, at a wide spot in the road outside Salem, Oregon. They are drawn to the desert because of all the rain and cold back home. In turn, I’ll go to Oregon in July, when the dryness here will push me toward waterfalls and cape and cool mountain places I’ve never been. I don’t believe there to be sky islands there. 

That’s the balance, I suppose. Finding ways into the desert, finding ways out. 

The Catalinas are bright against the backdrop of blue sky, and it’s funny how different they look when they’re not bathed in cool moonlight. But this trip has been long. The range will, once more, be out of the way. 

It’s likely that’s a gift in some way. I should study the mountains more before I go, trace a route along a map, find the places where water might be — this desert is a thirsty place. Plan for the moonlight and the rain.

And pray for lightning.