I have been to the Southeast corner of Arizona once before. It was during the fall, November 2007, and it was a trip I never imagined I would actually take.
My partner at the time was a birder, the kind of birder they call crazy. Literally. He was insane, and I loved him for it.
We would be out looking for birds, and when he saw one of particular note, he would yell, “Holy shit! F*#@ me dead!”
He spoke of a magical place for birders called Southeast Arizona. He had traveled there with birder friends and fans many years before when he was a bird guide in Nebraska.
In birder speak, these kinds of magical places are called “hotspots.”
Apparently, Southeast Arizona is a hotspot. There are many different, diverse habitats in a relatively small, drivable region of the Southwest. You fly into Tucson, head toward New Mexico, and then make your way to the very tiny, hobbit like village of Portal. Then you head toward a canyon, drive up and around winding mountain roads until you get to a research station, south and west toward Bisbee, up to Ramsey Canyon, Sonoita, and Patagonia, and back to Tucson via Madeira Canyon.
At least, this is the route I learned when I suggested off-hand that we go to Arizona.
Insert expletive by way of response.
There are entire books dedicated to birding Southeast Arizona. We got one. I am fairly certain my partner memorized the book in its entirety. I was just along for the ride, although I had my own plans that I was scheming.
My intention was marriage, and I was going to do the asking. My partner was older and had mentioned marriage several times. In fact, “if we get married” had become a fairly ready phrase, issued in response to any spectrum of requests or suggestions I might make.
When I asked if we could get chickens.
If you marry me, we can get chickens.
We got chickens.
Can we get another kitten?
If you marry me.
We got another kitten.
Still no wedding band.
If memory serves, I was in my late 20s at this time. 27, maybe? My closest friend had just gotten engaged. My coworker and dear friend from graduate school were married. When I asked them why they got married, they either responded “because I loved x more than anyone else” or “because it felt like it was time.”
What did “feeling like it was time” feel like? I loved my partner. The thought of how happy he would be if I asked him to marry me made me feel happy. That surely meant it would make me happy, right? (I learned the hard way many years later than bringing someone you love joy is only part of the way toward bringing joy to your self.)
So, I decided to go for it. I found surreptitious ways to glean information without giving anything away.
“Hey, I wonder if my ring would fit on any of your fingers?” I asked at one point. You get the idea.
I had everything planned out. We would be birding in a beautiful canyon, birds flitting through the trees. I would set the ring on his binoculars where he was bound to see it. It was settled, and my plan was foolproof.
Or so I thought.
Our day in Portal involved a visit to a canyon. My plan was already working! I could hardly contain my excitement.
We walked down into a beautiful canyon with trees surrounding a rippling creek. We set our belongings on a cluster of rocks. The sunlight filtered in through the leaves in the canopy. I set the ring on my partner’s binoculars.
We chatted, looked around, and listened.
A few jays moved through the trees and called out in passing.
And then, silence.
Where were all of the birds in my plans?
It was totally dead (birder speak for no birds).
My partner picked up his binoculars and stood up. The ring fell onto a rock.
I guess we might as well move on, he said, and started to head back toward the car.
Ok, i said, scooping up the ring and placing it gently into my pocket.
Back in the car, I asked if we were going to visit any other canyons that day.
“Why do you need to go to another canyon?” he asked, perplexed.
I just like canyons, I replied in a cranky voice.
Several hours and no canyons later, we were back in Portal. We drove to a local hotspot, a homestead where a bird guide put out tons of feeders and allowed people to come and sit and watch the birds.
At this point, I was a little frantic. My plan had completely fallen apart, and I had chosen this day specifically because Portal was a sacred place to my partner and it was an even day of the month that we would be there (for OCD tendencies, read my earlier post, “All but the D”).
There was a clipboard holding a sign-in sheet inside a plastic container atop a wooden picnic table. It was the kind of container you could open and close, with room to spare. I took the ring out of my pocket and set it inside.
We sat and watched what seemed like hundreds of Gambel’s Quail scurrying about on the ground.
“Maybe, you should sign the sheet?” I suggested innocently to my partner.
“Ok.” But he made no motion to get up.
After several minutes, I suggested again.
The same response.
“Don’t forget to sign the sheet!”
He got up, went over to the clipboard case, and opened it up.
“Someone left their ring here,” he said.
“How do you know someone left it there?”
“Did you get a ring for me? That’s no nice, sweetie.”
Exasperated. “I thought we should get married.”
No time to respond because the bird guide was walking toward us in an old, white tank top and super short cut-off shorts.
“Seein’ anything good,” he asked.
So, that was my first Southeast Arizona narrative.
Now, I find myself traveling through Southeast Arizona a second time. Yesterday, my new partner and I headed by Tucson and south through Sonoita to Patagonia. We were headed to the Paton House in search of a violet-crowned hummingbird.
I thought I would be fine. No big deal. It is a different time in my life, I am a different person. Right?
But I found myself wondering and worrying.
Was I the same person who asked someone to marry me all those years ago?
I kept telling myself, “You’re fine. You can do this.” But my body was sending me different signs.
I could feel a tightness in my jaw and cheek bones. I pressed my fingers against my bones, first gently, and then with more intensity. Pain coursed through my entire head. I opened my mouth wide, trying to force the pain away.
Resigned, I followed my partner to the Paton’s yard, witnessed a breathtaking Broad-billed and Violet-crowned Hummingbird and then along a trail at Patagonia Lake in search of an elusive Elegant Trogon.
I traversed familiar terrain. And it was not as awful as I had imagined it would be.
Did I feel a little haunted by my past? Yes.
But I also felt somehow more free. My partner told me that I was rewriting my narrative and creating new memories. I did not have to be afraid of people and places from my past, including my own self. That person is a part of me, yes. But I am no longer that person. So much has happened since then, both within and without.
Alaska has happened and also Massachusetts.
Animal companions have been given away, hearts broken, and my own heart mended.
I am so many things, and I am learning to accept the good with everything else.
Today, I have begun writing a new chapter in my marieke story. I have journeyed south of the Arizona border for the first time and found my way to Kino Bay, a land at the edge of the water and possibility. Beauty and tragedy all mixed together with the lines of Heerman’s Gull amid piles of plastic and styrofoam.