Postcard from Tucson

I’m sitting in Reddy (our red Prius, which says “READY” on the control panel before you can start moving) in Steve Caldwell’s driveway, waiting for Ellen to complete the three hour bowel protocol she performs on him three mornings a week.

I’ve just spent two hours in the Starbucks around the corner drinking coffee, using their wireless to read the news, answer email from Nepal, Canada, Lund, San Luis Obispo and L.A., and upload a set of pictures of the hike with Ian’s school I led through the “Grand Canyon of San Luis Creek” just before leaving on this adventure.

My glimpse of him lying on the bed on his side naked below the waist reading a paperback while she carried a basin of foamy liquid with an unmistakeable whiff  toward the bathroom was all it took to make me say, “I’ll wait outside and let you finish your business.”  I don’t mind undressing under a towel at the beach or changing the baby’s diapers, but Steve has repeatedly exposed my true squeamishness.  His written descriptions of the miracle of sex and masturbation he experienced as a quadiplegic in his unpublished books pushed my head aside, and even though we’ve corresponded at length about the books, this is a theme I try to avoid.  He asked me to proofread his forthcoming review of “Private Dicks,” an HBO documentary about men talking about their sexuality.  It’s a terrific piece of writing, but I have trouble uttering its apt title, “Speaking of my Penis.”  This, despite the fact that the topic has been no less primary a concern in my life than in his, or than in the lives of the film’s many subjects.

Reddy has provided protection as well as freedom for three days and nights.  It carried me from San Luis after a half-day’s activity to Santa Barbara for dinner at the Pizza Kitchen, and through heavy L.A. traffic to the desert.  It allowed me to listen to Handel’s Ode to St. Cecilia’s Day on the radio and the first chapters of Sebastian Junger’s Fire, Billy Collins reciting his poems, and four hours of “Learning Spanish Like Crazy,” which I hope will begin to prepare me for my trip to Colombia to visit my high school buddy Jimmy Weiskopf in February. It carried me to a freeway turnoff and sideroad where I parked in the dark, finally out of reach of the endless urban sprawl that has extended a hundred miles east of L.A. There I looked at stars, drank my beer, and crawled into my sleeping bag, seven hours later awakened by a gorgeous sunrise and surrounded by trash.

Requiring precious little money at fifty miles per gallon with gas at less than two dollars, it conducted me to a trailhead by a dry lake where I found my first desert mesquite framed by breathtaking space and illuminated by November morning shadow-hurling light.

It drove me past the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant, the Arizona Water Project Canal, desert cotton fields, a huge landfill, a sinister cattle feedlot and a vast new private prison. And it delivered me to Steve’s driveway in a charming old Tucson neighborhood near the university, populated with small houses, some with handbuilt adobe walls and gates, some graced by cacti and creosote gardens, some by barking dogs and piles of junk.

I slept comfortably in Reddy in the quiet driveway that night and the next. Yesterday afternoon, after our thrilling three hour wheelchair ride and walk around the University and the town,

while Steve watched the football game at home, Reddy took me the fifteen mile winding road out of town over Gates pass to the Desert Museum. I had heard about it years ago and wasn’t disappointed: a botanical garden, natural history museum and zoo located in the midst of a spectacular section of the Sonoran desert, an ecology dominated by volcanic mountains, suguaro cactuses, and unreticent birds.

I was torn between enjoying its trails busy with multilingual tourists and seeking the solitude of the wilderness, but I ended up staying there till closing.  As the sun went down on the way back to Steve’s place, I parked beside the road and took a brief though rewarding saunter of my own.

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