Snow on the Mountain Top

Steven Bergom

You would never think that it could snow in the middle of the desert, but here I am standing on my balcony in Tucson, smack dab in the center of the Sonoran desert, viewing the Rincon mountains with their caps of white.

I took a sip of my tea. When I first found that I would be moving out of Iowa and into Arizona I thought that I would never snow again except for visits home during the holiday season. Even when my coworkers told me that several months before I moved south that snow had fallen on downtown Tucson I had a hard time believing them. The photographs, though authentic, didn't go far in convincing me either. I guess there is a difference between knowing something because you have read it in a book, and knowing something because you have experienced it first-hand.

They looked so different with their hats of white and I couldn't help but wonder what they looked like up close. I had visited, with my friends, several of the peaks that the clouds had parted briefly to show. Off to the left was the valley that led us up to Window Loop, an arch of rock that, through one side you could see all of Tucson and the other looked out on desert broken only by BioSphere 2. To the northeast was Mt. Lemmon, the top of which sported a ski resort that had at last report been teeming with tourists trying out the feet of powder. A little closer was a peak called Rattlesnake.

Rattlesnake Peak. That hike brings back many memories. We started out early on a Sunday morning and returned back at our homes a week later.

We met at the Sabino Canyon Park before dawn and left just as the night sky began to fade away. We followed Esparero trail for about four miles before turning off and heading up the mountain to make our own path. There was no official way of getting to the peak other than our more experienced hiker looking at a contour map, sighting along a ridge and saying, "We go that way." We followed him -- a bit like sheep, I might add -- avoiding brush and cactus alike. Every so often we would stop to rub ankles, sore from the attentions of shindaggers, aptly named plants with a penchant for seeking out nerve clusters on your lower legs.

We had stopped at a rather scenic spot on the east side of the second ridge when we found it. There was a bowl-shaped valley in front of us and we were staring out at it admiring the view. Except for Eddie. Eddie was exploring along the rocky ridge by the window we had walked through to cross the ridge. He called us over to look at something that he had found and we, eager to be on our way again, grudgingly went over to him to look.

I don't know if you could call it a shrine. I'm not an anthropologist, and I don't pretend to be one, but the clay pots laid in the embrasure were placed with obvious care. The painting on the pots was barely noticeable indicating the many hundreds of years they must have lain there, waiting. What drew our attention, though, was the doll that Eddie held in his hands.

It was small, being just large enough to fit in two hands. The straw body was covered with a burlap clothing decorated with stylized coyote heads flecking off with the handling they were receiving after centuries of waiting. Instead of a human face, however, was the muzzle of a dog: a coyote.

Eddie wanted to take it with us, and we argued about that. It was a treasure, it was a piece of history. Whoever had put it there was long gone and wouldn't mind. The only things that you were supposed to take from the Saguaro National Forest were pictures and memories.

The arguments could have been endless but were stopped when, for one reason or another, we all had a finger touching the doll. We became silent when we started buzzing as with a mild electrical shock running through our bodies. I couldn't move but I could still see my companions and knew that I mirrored their wide-eyed looks of shock and fear. Between one thought and the next, I was mirroring a much different face.

My friends were now covered with a reddish-brown to grey fur going to white on their underbellies. Large ears topped a thin muzzle and a lithe body moved in and out as we breathed in startled disbelief. We stared at each other, and then ourselves hoping that someone would know what was going on.

I didn't. At least not for the first few minutes, but slowly what we needed to know made its way into our brains. I had thoughts of finding a burrow, hunting small rodents and creeping into the city to find an easy meal. The sounds of the mountains called to me and, with a quickly receding humanity, I found that call harder and harder to ignore.

We soon split up to find our own paths and to mark our own territories. I went north along the ridge we were following and a few of the others went back through the hole in the rock we had climbed through to get to this place. As I loped over brush and rock I could hear the wind whisper to me, "You are home, you are home."

The next week is nothing more than a hazy memory to me now, becoming clear only when I dream at night. I recall chasing jack rabbits through the cacti and serenading the stars at night. There was also that female that I saved from an angry javelina who became rather frisky later on. Oddly, that memory comes back with a startling clarity that makes me blush more often than I'd like.

Soon, however, it was over and I found myself sitting in front of the door to my apartment, staring out at the mountains with standing tears in my eyes. I was happy, much happier than I had ever been before in my life. I had the serenity that you get on a cool spring morning while you're kneeling in front of a cold mountain spring, cupping your hands and preparing for that first drink of water. It was a feeling so fleeting that you don't always know that it was there, but I tried to hang on to it for as long as I could.

We met at work the following day. Though we had been gone a week no one noticed that we were missing. Spouses knew that we had hiked up the peak, but thought we were gone only the thirteen hours we planned. Our coworkers acted as if nothing more than a weekend had passed since we last saw them. We talked little of our experience and, as the days passed, the members of our group denied that week we spent in the mountains. I tried bringing up the trip on several occasions but they would shrug it off and turn away.

But they remembered. Before they turned away, I would always see a little tightening of their eyes, a suppressing of memories that they are not ready to deal with. They knew what happened but they cannot put it into words, and that frightens them.

Maybe some day we can talk and share our experiences, but that is not what I truly want.

I want to go back there.

I want to run through the cacti.

I want to sit and sing to a full moon.

I want to find that frisky female again.

It has been a year but I am still drawn to the mountains that fill the view from my balcony. On the cold, star-filled nights I have to restrain myself from joining the echoing refrains of the coyote's howl. I cry myself to sleep those nights, alone.

The clouds have moved back in again, covering the whitened heads of those peaks. My tea has cooled and my shirt offers no more protection from the chill weather. Will I ever get a chance to go back? I don't know, but I pray to whatever agency that guides this universe that it will be so. Maybe some day it will, but for now I move back into my quiet apartment and close the door behind me.