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Under the Tucson Sun

1. Divine geometry. Whenever anyone in Tucson draws you a map, it's a cross. Four major mountain ranges mark off a strangely precise geometry 40 miles long and 40 miles wide. The small spiky range of the Tucson Mountains crenellates the west, the distant Rincon Mountains are to the east. At the north, the Catalinas house the spas and the resort hotels, and at the south the Santa Ritas screen off Mexico, and before them is the most beautiful mission church in the United States.

The cross, with healing on the north and Catholicism on the south, a dude ranch to the west and the Airplane Graveyard to the east, defines this town. Raytheon may make Tomahawk cruise missiles here, there may be 37,000 students at the U. of A., housing developments may nibble inexorably at the desert in quarter-acre lots, silting their way up the foothills, but the place is a strange combination of time warp, other planet, and second chance.

The American desert gives rise to the peculiarly American concept of the second chance. The immense skies create awe, promise hope, and suggest ambition for cleaner, loftier things. This includes a notion of rebirth without baptism or the baby Jesus, for the Southwest is where people start a new life after the career is over, or try a new life midstream, or simply go to vanish, like B. Traven, who wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. To a therapist friend, Dan Stone, it's "beautiful and scary. There are things that stick you, prick you, sting you, bite you. It's look, don't touch. But it's also a place that feels safe, that feels strong. You've got these mountains that are so big, but also so far. Instead of feeling hemmed in, you feel like you have a barrier against all the crap out there."

Arizona is the place to escape the scuffle of real life, restore the body, and hand the soul over to awe. Its true inhabitants, the Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O'odham tribes, know the desert. It was here, somewhere, that the Yaqui Indian Don Juan instructed Carlos Castañeda in the uses of peyote and the dangers of "inorganic beings." The Sonoran Desert is an unforgiving place, described by the Native American novelist Leslie Marmon Silko in one of her angry books as "stark, chalk plains that seem to glitter with the ashes of planets and worlds yet to come." We Anglos idealize it, and this particular part of Arizona is the healing nexus, where the basic remedy for malaise is a hike in the desert. Different kinds of spas offer a host of semi-mystical journeys devised by contemporary medicine men, doctors, therapists and healers, where we can be led to find our deeper self, or selves, effect mindful change, paint our spirit, coax out the inner child, surmount drug problems, clean up our act. In the fizzy first novel by Plum Sykes, Bergdorf Blondes, the heroine points out that "going to Arizona" is the euphemism for going to rehab.

The first time I went to Tucson it was to stay at Canyon Ranch, where I resentfully jumped around in aerobics class and disagreed with the yoga teacher about how to sit when I meditated. This time, I was allowed to roam the city, and came away reborn.

2. Shape-shifting green zombies. The Sonoran Desert leaches up through Tucson's metropolitan scatter. Roadrunners scramble alongside lone cars on Silverbell Road, the smelly wild pigs called javelinas gallop in stumpy, noisy herds through people's backyards. After the rain, the smell of desert creosote bushes pervades the city. Saguaros, the entertainingly humanoid cacti that are the universal symbol for the West, stand like greeting giants in front of the best hotels. Random legions of gray-green saguaros spike straight up along the foothills. They summon a complex response, tender and a little fearful. Edward Abbey described them as "planted people." Dan Stone is almost professionally entranced by their multiple personalities. "Sometimes they're flipping you the bird, sometimes they're imploring you for understanding, sometimes they're tall and proud, sometimes diseased. And sometimes you see their skeletons."

The saguaros live longer than we do: their old age begins at 200, and they can go on even beyond that. The arms that make them look like us don't appear until they are 100 years old, when the first one emerges seven feet up, on the south side. They bring forth flowers and fruit at their tips, which the desert people harvest, dry, and make into jam, and when they are dead their fibrous skeletons are used to make baskets. The original shape-shifters, they have different names according to their age and shape: fortune cookie, tuft, pincushion, blimp, torpedo, wine bottle, and crazy candelabrum. A census a few years ago counted about a million saguaros in the Tucson basin. Built to expand with the rain and contract in drought, they weigh up to 10 tons, most of it water. In a book about saguaros, a sentence stands out: "Miraculously they can hold enough water to bloom and set fruit after a year with absolutely no rain, or even after the main trunk is uprooted, making them literally the living dead."

At the Lazy K Bar, a dude ranch that belongs to two lawyers, Jim and Amy Shiner, the saguaros rise up in the hills like aliens. A short hike along dry slipping rocks, and Amy points out the young saguaros, each one growing under the protection of a paloverde tree, which is called its nurse. The smallest ones are round and hard to find, like truffles, and at 15 they are still only two feet high. At 35 they're still armless, but by then they have grown up through the nurse paloverde tree and smashed it apart. Amy has recently given up law to train as a therapist. When saguaros are about 60 years old they reach 12 feet, and then they keep growing because they have at least another 120 years in them. You understand why older people love Arizona.

Amy Shiner and the executive director of Tucson's Museum of Contemporary Art, Anne-Marie Russell, who had never met, each insisted that I have a session with Eddie. Eddie is a healer schooled in a Basque tradition called sudad that goes back in his family forever. He works privately and has been known to help his patients with plants when conventional medicine could not. He is 26 years old, tall and beautiful like an idealized Geronimo, with long hair and a little knot of things tied at his neck. He came to my hotel room and administered, in a sort of trance, a massage that was as painful as rolfing. In a soft voice, he explained how he normally worked: "You walk the last mile to the house of the person you're seeing, and the plants along the way tell you about them." We looked at the plants around me. Eddie said, "You're in a hotel, it's not your home, so it doesn't count." Thank God. Outside my door a tree was raining poisonous white oleander flowers onto the lawn.

3. Time travel. I was staying at the Arizona Inn. Here, just north of the university, 14 sublimely private and controlled acres deploy a succession of gardens crazed with flowers and trees, separated by little gates and laid out with the whimsy of an English estate. It is a feat to find your room, but on your way you bump into teams of gardeners busily planting pansies and stock, trimming hedges, cutting lawn. The outer walls of the Arizona Inn are a deep pink that conveys a WASP exuberance about pastels and promises an intimate nursery world where nothing can go wrong. The reception area is casually set up, as if guests were suddenly coming to the mansion and something had to be done to greet them.

The Arizona Inn was built in 1930, in what was then the desert, by the rich and compassionate Mrs. Isabella Greenway. Moved by the number of disabled World War I veterans in Arizona, she had started a company called the Arizona Hut to give them employment making furniture. With the Wall Street crash she ran out of orders, found herself with enough furniture to fill a hotel, and built the first part of the Arizona Inn in three months, neglecting, however, to install a public men's room. It was described as "a simple home-like cottage hotel," where the very rich would move in for months at a time, along with their servants, their lapdogs, and their little habits. The Arizona Inn has been the home of old-fashioned virtues ever since, and is today a kind of nature conservancy for consideration, respect, trust, and manners. Today, 50 years after Mrs. Greenway's death, staying there is like being the guest of a vastly wealthy great-aunt with centuries of Yankee tradition behind her, who is very happy that you are there but doesn't really want to see too much of you.

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